Monday, September 21, 2015

With Amber Butts and Wanda Johnson
Served as a panelist for the Women's Center at St. Marys College in Moraga on Wedneday evening ... .

... and was reacquainted with a lovely young poet, Amber Butts, and Wanda Johnson, the mother of the late Oscar Grant who was one of the many unarmed African American young men slain by police in the  nightmarish recent past.

I'd been hesitant to accept the invitation since the theme of the evening was a local response to the Black Life Matters movement, and -- though I'm passionately supportive of this freshening of the Civil Rights struggles of the past -- the fact that I'm approaching my 94th birthday suggested to my aging mind that nothing that I had to say could possibly be relevant to a new generation facing into the winds of a change that has now moved past my own.  What on earth could I say that anyone would want to hear?

After running it past my supervisors, I was finally convinced that there might still be some juice in the system, and that Sharon Sobotta, director of the Women's Center and a respected journalist, was certainly aware of the issues that I'm still struggling with.  Perhaps there is still some relevance in the sharing of that earlier history with these students.  At least -- since they'd invited me to join their discussion -- they were open to exploring the connections.

After all, I was being asked as Betty Soskin, private citizen, and with none of the weight of representation of a federal agency.  We retain those rights, even as we stand as federal employees with Hatch Act limitations.  This would be one of those times.  I would be introduced and would participate in this panel as my private self.

I felt out of place and out of context for just the first half-hour, but after hearing Oscar Grant's mother, Wanda Johnson, share her story with its tie-ins to the tragic Trayvon Martin's, Freddy Gray's, Michael Brown's and the other's untimely deaths -- and of her selfless dedication to taking the time out of her life to travel coast-to-coast in support of those bereaved parents and dedicated attorneys -- the human-to-human, woman-to-woman compassion kicked in, and I was at home in that room among those vibrant young faces.  The distance between generations simply quietly evaporated without leaving a trace.

Except that I wondered after the fact if -- in our Afrocentric orientation we may be sacrificing our larger American interests?  I know.  That sounds like a cop-out in a way, but I can't help but feel that the larger issues of the militarization of our police needs to be addressed even as we struggle to make Black Lives Matter.  The powerful control being wielded by the NRA over those who legislate our laws. The proliferation of guns without legal restraints and regulations were equally causal in the Newtown kindergarten classroom as it was in Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

If anything stood out that evening it was the fact that the young college students are still at the place where they're working on personal reactions to often clumsily encoded disrespectful racist statements at a time when so much more direct and in-your-face responses are called for.  Perhaps it is Black Lives Matter that adds the exclamation point to an otherwise bland and relatively futile process.   I sense that in the new voices and poetry of black artists like Amber who now practice their craft with a bolder new edge that holds more promise and less fear than before.

... but maybe that would best be described as the impatient attitude of one approaching the end times with a sense of urgency that won't come for this generation until long after the time when we might have saved ourselves ...  .