Friday, April 15, 2016

A few weeks ago -- from an unexpected source -- I felt my veracity challenged ...

It was disturbing... disappointing.

Maybe this is the reason that I was catapulted back in time to the Betty in the previous post, at the nadir of life.

It was on a Facebook post that my friend stated publicly that,  "... though Betty states that during WWII black women were not hired as welders until late in 1944, I know that they were hired in 1942  because ...".

She was referring to a strong activist African American woman, Frances Albrier, I'd known in adolescence, and another who was one of the early and effective lobbyists for the establishing of Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, Ludie Mitchell.  I was aware of both these women as having been early shipyard workers -- but far from the norm -- both were feisty women of courage, but hardly strong enough against the prevailing social forces to bring substantive change.  They simply led the move toward greater equality in the workplace -- something that would be several years away for ordinary black women.

My word forms the basis for my work, and I felt threatened by her denial of my truth.  Partly, it was because she is a professional, an academician in the field of history; an historian.   I think I'd expected more, and found disappointment in the naiveté her denial suggested. I am working from my memory of the times -- not dependent upon research -- but purely on what comes up for me during my presentations.  I've never claimed otherwise, and it has always been enough, at least until now. Her denial caused me to doubt my value as a carrier of this history, and knowing that the work of our park has come to rely heavily on my word, this was devastating.

I had always known that some black women had worked as laborers earlier, and that there were always exceptions, there always are prior to policy being established.  I'd been one of those forerunners all my life.  It is my belief that black women began to be trained as welders as policy late in the war.  Before that time they mostly swept the decks and picked up trash while other people worked.  This photo -- taken at the time -- would support that assumption.

To have claimed that because we built a home in the suburbs in 1953, therefore people of color integrated the Diablo Valley at that time would be folly.  Our moving in was just the start of a twenty year process that would carry much pain and anguish.

By invitation, I would return some years ago to that community to give the Martin Luther King Day keynote address.  Upon acceptance I looked up the demographics of the City of Walnut Creek in preparation for my talk, and noted that, a half-century later, the black population was at 1%, still.  That figure may now be suppressed for economic rather than racial reasons (I suspect), but is nonetheless not the norm.  Maybe that's a kind of progress, but I noted that figure in my speech.

I'd eventually grow to recognize the years we spent in that otherwise white and upscale community as a period of being culturally-deprived.  I'd moved back into the urban areas and my kids, now all out of high school, were dispersed to a variety of places because suburban living was less than I'd hoped for them, and the nation was sorting itself out in ways that seemed more promising in the Seventies, than ever before.

It was in 1972 that my marriage ended, and re-marriage to Bill Soskin occurred, starting a completely new life as a faculty wife on the University of California campus in Berkeley -- and eventually -- a merchant and political activist in Berkeley. 

The price of trying to stay sane in an irrational world had taken its toll, and -- as you can see by the gaunt figure I became while struggling against insurmountable odds -- I was at high risk for suicide, but was rescued in time by Dr. Jean Neighbor, a perceptive and caring Jungian psychiatrist, and Betty the Artist who lives behind my eyes.  He teased her out and gave her substance that is with me still and guides my work.

I imagine that the black woman in the photo above is by now a grandmother who may have visited her husband in prison over the years, and may have by now seen at least two of her grandsons lose their lives to violence.

I'm  hoping that my talks may bring some  understanding to the continuing plight of people of color in this evolving nation, and if so, I will go on speaking to my own truth and not be dissuaded by anyone or anything that might derail my efforts.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Every now and then -- in rummaging through old papers something of worth reappears ... 

This is a song written when we were living in the (white) suburbs.  It was some time in the Sixties, at a time before acceptance of our presence in the community had arrived.  Within weeks of this photo I suffered a mental break that would bring a 3-year period of recovery and the beginnings of the life of discovery that would ensue.   From the accumulated trauma of trying to adapt to an irrational world, my weight had dropped to 89 pounds at this point, as I remember.  (click on photo)

One of the boys had been stoned by teenagers driving by as he rode his bike from Slo Sams, the little grocery store just down the road and across the creek.  He was quite young, and too strong to cry, but too young to understand the venom the act expressed, or, how to deal with the hurt it caused.

There was no way to explain to that questioning little face, except to take him into my arms and hold  him close enough to sooth us both.

After he was calmed and ready to move on, I wrote this:

Singing this song at Asilomar

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
Where will I find my song?
Why must my mind be just for worry?
To whom does my dream belong?

What are my hands to hold this morning?
Where is my place in the sun?
With what shall I fill this time of yearning?
Whose will shall be done?

The fruit of my labor will tumble in soon
in search of my love and my lead
gave all I had when they left this morning.
Why don't they know that little souls bleed?

Where is my brown-skinned heart to hurry?
To whom does my dream belong?
Why must my mind be just for worry?
Who will hear ...  my ... song ... ?
This is the Betty who still lives inside, and who views current successes with a jaundiced eye at times; never quite completely trusting it.

But it's clear that my song was eventually heard, all the way to Washington, D.C., and wouldn't it be great if all of our songs could be?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Some months ago I received an invitation to be a panelist at the MountainFilm Festival 2016 at Telluride in Colorado over the Memorial Day weekend ...

... and a few days after that initial contact learned that I was to be participating in a symposium with New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, and noted historian, Douglas Brinkley.  You can imagine  how surreal this struck me, but not having ever been involved in such an unbelievably significant event -- what did I have to lose?  At my age (having outlived all the naysayers in my life) why not?  By the time they realized their error I would have had my say and moved on, right?

So I accepted but filed it away for re-thinking when common sense might return and life assumed its ordinariness, and there would be enough time to reconnect with my new reality at some less spirited time.

Meanwhile, there were a number of occasions that Douglas Brinkley appeared on the screen of my television on panels of some sort -- mostly related to punditry, and nagging at the back of my mind would come the words, "...whatever was I thinking?"  What form of insanity had overtaken my usual ability to sort out the real from the unimaginable, and what were the expectations of others that I'm supposed to fulfill?

Then it happened:  Being a faithful CSPAN junkie, I just happened to flip into BookNotes last week when this eminent author was being interviewed about his newly-published book about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his years of expanding and developing the National Park Service through the acquisition of new park lands, protections of wildlife,  developing and maintaining properties and roadways through the use of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); a program designed to provide employment and teach skills to young men of the country at a time when jobs were scarce and resources for youth at an all time low (not unlike our current state of the nation).

Over the course of the hour I became fascinated by NPS history -- some of which I had been exposed to over the past 15 years -- but that had never come alive for me; not really.  The park system Professor Brinkley was referring to was that which has been inspired by environmentalist John Muir, President Teddy Roosevelt, Albright, Mathers, etc., and through his research he was presenting a National Park Service that was clearly male-dominated -- a federal agency closely resembling the model of the Armed Forces.  This was not the park system that I recognized, except as an agency worthy of giving the rest of my life to (I'd figure out the whys later).  In the beginning it was pure intuition and little more.

I'd learned over past years that -- about 1981-- there began to grow in the Department of Interior the slow realization that -- though all American taxpayers paid for the creation, development, and maintenance of this incredible system of a growing number of units, it was only those with the financial resources and the leisure time who could afford to visit them.  It was during the early 80's that the concept of urban parks began to gain traction; the need to bring the parks to the people.  Our park is one of those.  There were no models for these so there had to be thinkers looking at the problem in new ways.  How, for instance do you create national parks without federal lands?  How do you create parks without borders -- parks based on stories alone?  How do you create parks that only exist under the hats of the interpreting rangers?  How do we create parks when the legislated scattered sites were owned commercially, by city or state, by private individuals, by non-profits?  We were to own nothing, and would need to create partnerships with those who did.  How do we do that?  Each of these urban parks had to be created from whole cloth, with no models to guide those original planners.

As an original source, this is where I entered the park system because this is where women and "the feminine factor" began to augment what had been a purely male-dominated agency.  "Rosie" gave us the possibility of equating the building of those Henry Kaiser-built 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months with the human stories -- the why, and why not?, the female-oriented questions like, ... how on earth could we have fought a war to save democracy (a war which cost 54.8 million lives worldwide), with a racially-segregated armed forces?  That is delusional, but that's a question men would probably never have asked themselves, and never did, as far as I can tell. It is just such questions that we had the audacity to boldly ask.

Men have always been more concerned with how many bullets were used, and how many miles did we march, and how many ships did we build -- while women -- who were sending husbands and sons off to be killed, would have been asking very different questions, but rarely having their voices heard or warnings heeded lest they be seen as soft and unrealistic; womanly

We are asking those questions now, in a system of urban parks now scattered at strategic sites that relate to the heroic places, the scenic wonders, the contemplative sites, the shameful places, and the painful ones.  The feminine embraces the human stories -- there is a visitor center that sits at the bottom of the south end of Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; another at Manzanar on the eastern ridge of the Sierras; at the graves of Dr. Martin Luther King and his Coretta, at Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad; at Port Chicago in Concord, California.  We can re-visit almost any era in our history in order to own it, to process it, in order to begin to forgive ourselves so that we might move toward a more compassionate future, together.

The raising of the feminine consciousness to match that which those far-seeing NPS icons brought into being may yet provide the balance so necessary to face the challenges to climate change, rising sea levels, global warming.  Those illustrious environmentalists of long ago may have provided us with the incentives to save ourselves by instilling in us -- not only the respect for the beauty of our natural wildlands and the will to survive, but the valuing of all of life in all of its forms,

... because Life matters.

After living with such thoughts over the past few hours, I'm thinking that Prof. Brinkley and I might provide a respectable range of perspectives for audiences -- he, with his proud male-oriented view, balanced by my more recently-lived nuanced experience that is so strongly shaped by the female-orientation provided by the complexity of our interpretations at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.