Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It was a most memorable moment in all of the proceedings of those 3 magical days ...  a moment that threatened to compete with even the widely photographed presidential hug on that stage ... .

... and it had little to do with the historic tree-lighting ceremony, but of family, and requires some review, but it's worth that, I think.

It unfolded just moments before the girls and I were scheduled to meet Martha in the hotel lobby to leave for the National tree-lighting ceremony where we would meet the First Family.

Just as we were moving toward the door of our hotel room, one of the girls looked at the other, and saying ...  "oh, we almost forgot."  So saying Alyana turned back and dove into her luggage and came up with the exquisite little silk beaded evening bag that I'd given to their elder sister some time ago.  Along with the gift I'd included a letter explaining that this was given to Aunt Emily, eldest daughter of my great-grandmother Leontine, by her husband, Dr. Raleigh Coker, on the occasion of their 35th wedding anniversary.  It carries a Paris label, so was a treasured artifact.  It was later given by Aunt Emily to my mother's younger sister, Vivian,  upon her graduation.  Vivian had lived with the childless couple through her years at Xavier.  It was Aunt Emily who provided a home for a number of Mamma's grandchildren as they moved out of St. James Parish to pursue educations and to start lives in New Orleans. 

Years later Aunt Vivian would present the little treasure to me along with the story of its beginnings.

When my son, David's, eldest daughter grew into (what I'd hoped was) enough maturity to understand its value, I wrote a letter explaining its origin, wrapped it carefully in tissue, and passed the beautiful little gift along to my granddaughter, Kokee Amanda Reid.  By now, though never spoken of, it had evolved into a woman's ritual of love that we were all a part of.

On another track; in Freedom Summer of 1964,  we were living in the suburbs about 12 miles out of the city -- where I was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church.  It was at Fellowship status, with about 25 young families daring to form the beginnings toward full church status.

Among my friends (white) was a father, Don Sanford, who'd lost his wife, the mother of two young daughters when the girls were quite young.  Over the years, Susan, his eldest daughter, and a university student then about 18 --  having been raised by a wise father in a politically liberal environment -- was now ready to try her wings as a volunteer teacher in a Freedom School in Canton, Mississippi, as a member of SNCC.  Susan was a student at the University  and -- along with others was giving up her education for awhile in order to become a part of the struggle for civil and human rights -- the challenge of her generation.

I believe I may have had Susan as a student in my religious education class at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian church.  Connections with the Sanford family were only casual, but it's interesting to note that my deepest involvement in the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties was largely in concert with the white social activist members of my church and their children.  That congregation went through the Civil Rights Revolution right along with me, and facilitated my participation in the struggle at the national level.  

This was happening at a moment in my own history when my marriage was slowly disintegrating, and the pearls that you see were the symbol of the need for re-consecration.  The little necklace had been the gift from my young husband on our wedding day, May 24, 1942.

The evening before Susan was to leave for the hostile deep South, I was invited by Don to join the family for a farewell dinner.  It was then that I gave the pearls to Susan with the words, "... I'd love for you to wear this under your tee shirts as you work -- to keep you safe, and to give me a presence in this important undertaking."  There was no possibility of my joining that struggle since I had four young children needing care.  This struggle was far beyond my reach.  At the end of summer Sue returned home and the pearls were returned to me, having completed their work successfully.

When Alyana graduated from high school, I wrote a letter explaining the story of the little necklace without a feeling that anyone could possibly understand fully what they meant to me.  How could one so young and uninformed possibly know?  Summer of '64 was hardly a footnote by now, but at least I was passing what I believed to be a connection that one day -- maybe -- the significance would reveal itself to her.

The three girls, Alyana, Tamaya, and Kokee, had apparently gotten together just before leaving home and determined that the little bag and the pearls needed to be included in some way in this momentous occasion we would be engaged in, together, on this historic night in Washington.

If you're wondering why my face was so colorless in those photos of the event, I'd cried away my makeup hours before -- and my appearance was simply of no concern.

A few hours later, I would stand at that lectern with my great-grandmother's picture in my breast pocket, holding my notes in one hand and Aunt Emily's lovely gift in the other.  Inside it would be the blessed-by-history little pearls and the presidential seal that had been quietly slipped into my palm by the acknowledged Leader of the Free World!

Somehow the kids knew.

I needn't have doubted that.

Somehow the importance of legacy had been transmitted, and from this day forward it will go on with Leontine's descendants, despite the distractions of whatever the future holds ... .

I've returned both the items to their proper owners, but have kept the commemorative Seal for just a little longer ... .

Monday, December 14, 2015

Still processing the Washington adventure ..

                   "Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.  They want rain without thunder and lightning.  They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters ...Power concedes nothng without demand.  It never did and it never will."
                    Frederick Douglass - Letter to an Abolitionist Friend - 1857              


... and, now that I've been home for a few days, those fresh memories are becoming a jumble of impressions -- out of sequence, and disorderly -- when I sit down and try to organize them into words that march together in a parade of new understandings -- and logic.  But, no, they persist in moving into my consciousness in full rebellion, refusing to line up as they should, but instead just schmush their way to my frontal cortex like some bawdy vaudeville act!

There's the continuing unfolding of thoughts born at the end of that second floor alcove window overlooking the Capitol -- when I first became aware of the great Frederick Douglass, the man, whose mansion has been preserved so beautifully, while we have less awareness of his ideas as he lived them, and -- through them -- influenced the Abolitionist Movement, and the Lincoln presidency as well.  And how today's continuing struggle for human and civil rights appears to have lost its ties to those which came before by a succession of iconic black leaders.  Oh, they're remembered because they're deeply embedded in black history, and still memorized diligently by black school children to this day, but not by mainstream American history as they should be.

Then it dawned:  Much of that history was limited to a handful of black publications -- The Pittsburgh Courier,  the Chicago Defender, the Amsterdam News, the Crisis, etc., but that means that only African Americans learned of historic events like the Double V Campaign started by James Thompson's letter to the Pittsburgh Courier; the Port Chicago Explosion that cost 320 lives, 202 being black naval  personnel; the mutiny trials for those 50 sailors who refused to return to reloading ammunition; the exploits of Bessie Coleman who went to France as a young woman where she had to learn the language in order to be trained in aviation because she couldn't do that here at home; and Fannie Lou Hamer's valiant but hopeless attempt to seat the Mississippi Freedom Party in the Democratic Convention.  So many stories that only came to light because black Pullman porters traveling across country on the rail lines, took on the responsibility of dropping off bundles of black newspapers at depots along their routes -- to be picked up locally -- and distributed by and sold in barber shops, and beauty salons, and newsstands in black communities, throughout the nation.

Such stories were simply not seen as relevant to the American Narrative; 'tis the pity!  How different it might have been had there been a recorded blended history so that we could now find ways to more accurately restore and preserve our nation's story as it was lived by all of its people. 

Our national park is dealing with a more recent history that is more easily captured because that history occurred at the dawn of a more enlightened era.  It will be more difficult to go back and try to trace the connections between the ideas of Douglass and those African American icons who followed his lead down through the last century.   But I'm sure those links are still traceable, and that America would be the greater for knowing our true and more complete history.
Brilliant Ta Nehisi Coates - activist and writer for the Atlantic

I suspect that it is those of us now living -- those of us who were readers of the black press -- who can help our National Park System to do that work, starting with the Frederick Douglass site. Today's generation of emerging black leaders need these truths in order to find the footprints left by those who've gone before.

Small wonder that we evolved as two nations, one black and one white,  "separate but not equal", without the benefit of being able to build a history in common because the lives of black people remained invisible to the rest of the population, except weakly, and often through unknowing well-meaning white voices.

We should be seeing today's Black Lives Matter as but another pulsation in the long struggle for equality -- one that extends from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to the present.  Instead, from a white perspective, this most recent iteration of the Civil Rights Movement is simply seen as one more illogical spasm of unreasoning, disconnected,  inexplicable attack of madness, rising from an ignorant people hopelessly locked into a level of poverty and criminality that defies the country's greatest efforts to bring change to lost lives.

I was reminded of all this upon seeing, once again, the Capitol building and surrounding magnificent structures built long ago by black slave laborers.  

Being so overcome with good feelings about this great adventure that it was impossible to mention this painful truth to my unknowing granddaughters.

... maybe next time... when the glow begins to fade ... .

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Clever grandmother outfoxed by technology ... .

Still on Pacific Coast time, I'd climbed into bed early after our first day in Washington.  I was tired, but wide awake; though pretending to be asleep.

Tamaya stayed up to await her sister's arrival sometime after eleven, and was in a constant state of "texting" Alyana, her Dad, and friends back home on the West Coast.  Such is the state of technology these days; either connecting us to those we love, or, helping us to avoid those in the foreground.

This seemed neither, however, but simply provided cover for the obvious gap between my age and hers, so that feigning sleep was not only convenient, but allowed enough time and space for me to process the experience of having entered this historic first day on our great adventure.  I suppose that we were both vibrating with anticipation, and fully appreciating the self-imposed silence at the end of a most exciting day.

Life, for me, was moving far too fast at this point.   Fortunately, Martha was wise enough to control how much to prepare me for coming events, so it never became overwhelming.  We just came together each night and shared briefings as they emanated from NPS staff.

We were sharing a room with two Queen-sized beds, one shared by the two girls.  Great accommodations provided by your tax dollars and great planning by our hosts, the National Park Service.

Alyana would arrive late on Wednesday night and would take a taxi from Ronald Reagan airport since she was in the middle of finals back at the University of California at Irvine, and couldn't travel on Tuesday with her sister, grandmother, and Martha Lee.

The fact is that we were traveling on Tuesday, December 1st; on Tamaya's 18th birthday!  We will celebrate Alyana's birthday on December 23rd.  They will vote for the first time in the upcoming election cycle.

You'll want to know that Tamaya is two years younger than her precocious elder sister, and has lived in that shadow all of her young life.  Alyana is in her sophomore year on a full scholarship, having entered with a 4.12 GPA and who can follow that?  Grandma was sensitive to the implications of her status having spent an entire childhood and adolescence as a middle child between two very pretty and talented sisters.

As we waited for Alyana's arrival, I feigned sleep while being aware that Tamaya had spent a mind-boggling day of touring the memorials; visiting the Capitol and our congressman's offices, and -- by being careful to not be too obvious, I was in a position to hear her reactions voiced to her elder sister -- and wouldn't that be interesting?

Tamaya is naturally quiet and not in any way demonstrative so this might be my only chance to know how she was really feeling about how this very special birthday had been spent.

Unfortunately, at around 11:30 the desk called to announce Alyana's arrival and I had to "waken" long enough to confirm that we were expecting her to join us.  I did so as "sleepily" as I could so that I could continue eavesdropping -- a grandmother's privilege under these circumstances, right?

A few minutes later came a gentle knock at the door; then silence.  I knew that she'd entered the room but there was not a sound.  No welcoming giggles.  Nothing.  Nada.  Since the two of them are separated by 500 miles with Alyana in southern California and Tamaya living at home and in a community college in the Bay Area, there should have been an explosion of sisterly greetings.  The two are very close and intimately connected.

Waited while not doing any giveaway stirring out of my "sleep," ... until I could bear it no longer.

Then,  carefully drawing the blankets down enough to peer over at the other bed in the darkness, I could see the two girls lying side-by-side -- each huddled silently over their laptops -- busily typing away in a conversation that would not be penetrated even by a loving though scheming grandmother!

They were just being considerate of their weary elder ... but she'd outsmarted herself.  Should have simply chatted with them about the incredible day we'd just spent together -- and of whatever was to come on our exciting tomorrow when we would meet the president and his family at the National tree-lighting ceremony!

Damn, damn, damn!