Thursday, December 28, 2017

I've been hesitant to include a link for ordering my book ...

... from my blog.  It's sometimes difficult to discern when I'm being a park ranger, and when my identity is that of Betty, Private Citizen.  In the first case it feels less than comfortable to do so because I'm a federal employee in my other life where it's not permissible.  When I'm at home and out of uniform, that Betty seems other worldly, and not quite real.  Here, surrounded by family photographs, artifacts, and memories, I'm still living the life described in Sign my name to freedom, and -- from this place -- those rules don't apply.

It is here that -- when I remind myself of those Reids Records days -- that little record and book store that Mel and I established in June of 1945, where our eldest child, Rick, learned to spin records at the turntable, but had to stand on an orange crate to do it, where I ran the shop while Mel worked at San Pablo Park then to the Kaiser shipyards for duties on the swing shift.  Where we promised ourselves that, as soon as the war was over we would never work for white folks again.   Where we stocked our albums and 45s in orange crates, made change in the wooden cigar box.  Where we cut out a window in the wall of the garage of our little duplex on Sacramento Street in Berkeley through which we sold the latest blues and jazz to the recently-arrived black migrant workers looking for culture they'd left behind in the southern states from whence they'd come seeking work in the defense plants -- sometimes successfully -- sometimes not.

Then in the exciting year of 1964 we were successful enough to acquire the lot next door to our little duplex and erect a two-story building to house our enterprise, a true sign of success -- well, almost... .

We'd both been introduced to formal bigotry and segregation that arrived in the Bay Area in 1942, our Bay Area where we'd both grown up as second generation Californians.  Though, of course, those practices had existed as gentlemen's agreements and inserted in property deeds that limited our access to many advantages enjoyed by others.  But all that was encoded, informal, unstated ... .

We were relatively successful in business, though we crashed and burned some years later and nearly lost everything when we simply lacked the business savvy -- without enough generations in the marketplace, or the sense to know that we didn't know.

It was only a matter of years before the discount houses caught on that there was a neglected market for black music, and we were shoved unceremoniously out of the field because we simply could not compete.  But we proved too stubborn to close shop, and we still are.

It was during that period that -- white musicians were discovering that, by expropriating the talent and skills of black entertainers, they could make millions, while black artists were being required to use the back door at the places that hired them, while they were not allowed access to the clubs they worked in except when they were "on"!  The Britishers were robbing black musicians blind and sending the music back across the Atlantic to huge and enthusiastic audiences throughout our country.  This, while the white record shops were doing the same in the industry, and Reid's simply could nor purchase with enough volume to begin to hold our own as retailers.  Banks would not provide Lines of Credit to black entrepreneurs, a practice widely used by whites in the industry to get over the rough places that invariably arise in every small business.  Not unlike the time when Louis Charbonnet, my grandfather, could not get a patent on his inventions as a black man, nor could he work except under the license of a white contractor.

We still had a long way to go as a nation, did we not?

Mel with 16-year-old Aretha Franklin
That little store is still standing.  Our patrons over all the years were 99% African American.  We gradually began to change our inventory from jazz and blues to black gospel music, church supplies, and choir and pulpit robes, since this was a developing market not yet  discovered by white retailers.  Mel began to promote gospel concerts featuring national stars, Reverend James Cleveland, Rev. C.L. Franklin and his daughter Aretha, Shirley Caesar and the Caravans, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Soul Stirrers, etc.  Their concerts would play to up to 5,000 black churchgoers on any given Sunday.  They filled the huge Oakland Auditorium to the rafters with the most moving music imaginable this side of Heaven!

My husband, Mel, and his uncle, Paul Reid were the giants in the newly emerging industry -- an industry they were actually creating -- and they were relatively successful.  It wouldn't last, however, but long enough for us to know that we'd accomplished our goal of being independent and productive.

That was then.

Now:  Mel is gone, as is Paul.  Mel died in 1987, but our youngest son, David, and his daughter, Kokee, have been operating the shop for many years, against all odds.  The industry has seen great change.  It has unalterably moved into cyberspace and the old practices have become outmoded.  Fast-changing technology has decimated old forms of trade.  Few choirs are uniformed in robes anymore, and tapes, cd's, record albums, are all things of the past.  Music is streamed online and purchased one song at a time, with few complete albums any longer being sold.  Vinyl may return at some point, but only as artifacts, antiques, souvenirs of a time long past.  David has raised his family while making a real effort to continue in his parent's footsteps, if only for the historic value and that inherited fierce family pride.  The neighborhood has gentrified.  The surrounding black community has vanished almost completely -- slowly priced out of the City of Berkeley -- moving ever deeper into the valleys and miles from the old haunts where there was a center in which black culture could survive, and maybe be built upon with our family's help; to establish new roots in the West.  The dream is contagious, and it has long since invaded David's DNA!

David, Mom, Bob, Tamaya, Alyana Reid at the WWII Museum, New Orleans
Now:  Never imagining such a thing would be possible, at 96 I've entered the final phase of a long life by becoming an author of a first book, "Sign my name to freedom," a memoir, that will be launched on February 6, 2018 by my publisher, Hay House of New York.  That places me in direct competition with the behemoth of the industry, Jeff Bezos of Amazon!  History repeats and somewhat ironically.  This is the old and dreaded discount house of the present -- the kind that dominated the gradual demise of a small business started by two daring young people of color at a time when such a thing was unthinkable but still possible, and a local black community that faithfully supported them in their effort at trail-blazing.

It would be absolutely happily-ever-after if that little memoir somehow provided the stimulus to keep Reids Records in business until we're ready to give it up after 70 years.

This is only to say that you can put in an advance order for my book online, but it would be really great if you did so through this link


The Reid Family would be most grateful, and I don't think Amazon would miss much by your doing so.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Such twists and turns to life ...

... and some are not only unexpected, but equally unwelcome and disturbing.

Just as I'm caught up in the wonder of watching the counter (now at 9.6 million!) that accompanies that 'lil ole lady park ranger good news video on the Al Jazeera web page, a call comes announcing that -- among the males caught up in the sexual misconduct controversy is Tavis Smiley, national public television host.  Tavis also brought Betty the Author into public view, and served to introduce me to a national audience through 2 evenings of interviews that are still resonating out there somewhere.

Tavis also graciously wrote the foreword for my upcoming memoir, "Sign my name to freedom."

Before the questions could rise in my mind (what are the implications for the February book launch?), a call came from my publisher saying that within 24 hours of the release of the awful news Tavis Smiley turned up at their New York headquarters to request that his foreword be cut from the book, and that anything that carried his name be eliminated from the pages.   "I don't want my problems to effect Betty's book."

Since the printing was in the final stages, but still open for minor changes, his request was granted, and, sadly, that beautiful foreword will now be replaced by a blank page... but it will remain in this blog as a legitimate event in my history.

I have no idea whether or not the charges made against him are fair or just, but I can surely attest to the fact that I've not witnessed anything but respect, support, and admiration from this man.  That his readiness to protect whatever potential success may come to this first book author, is a testament to his generosity of spirit and deep sense of integrity.

The long overdue dialogue between men and women around the issue of sexual assault and harassment  in this country is finally in progress.  That fact is clearly indicated by recent headlines.  Maybe we're at the beginning of a process that will bring an end to the abuses women have endured for centuries, but we must create a fair and just judicial process so that we can establish a system that will move us all toward a more caring future, together.   It appears that Rep. Jackie Spear is on the way to achieving that, and by the look of things, the women and the feminists among the men of Congress are positioning themselves to support her efforts toward that end.

Maybe Tavis Smiley will be able to face his accusers and be vindicated,  meanwhile ... I'm waiting for answers to this disturbing development in social dilemmas along with everyone else, and will continue to wish my friend, Tavis, success in reclaiming his good name and career when the dust has settled and the Earth is back on its axis.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Just another day of surprises ... learning to rise to the unexpected with grace ...

Up until this morning -- The Makers Conference had merely been words of a listing on my calendar among other items with which I was mostly unfamiliar. Between the postings for "Of lost conversations," which is the title of my theater talks -- and are typed in green on each Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Wednesdays and Fridays are usually when unusual assignments are scheduled -- those off site, or that will be before larger audiences than our little 48-seat theater can accommodate, as with the Coast Guard on their Base in Alameda last week.

I sometimes have been contacted directly by an organization, agent, program provider, etc., and the request is forwarded to my superintendent or supervisor, and the listing doesn't usually come "alive," until the "day of."  Fortunately, those two colleagues provide a screen for me so that I'm not overwhelmed by requests that are not appropriate, or that can be passed along to other rangers.

It is at times an interview by phone for some content provider, a SKYPE interview with some faraway conference room or class of young people, or, any number of public situations that would have been impossible to manage not so long ago.  For instance, last Friday evening -- by prearrangement -- I met a young African American woman who was representing an environmental organization.  We did it on SKYPE.  She was sitting at her laptop somewhere in Seattle while I'm sitting at my I-MAC fully and fittingly dressed in my little black cocktail dress while -- below the waist I'm in denims and bunny slippers!  She was delightful, curious, asked great questions, and there was an immediate connection that spanned the miles magically, and I could feel myself smiling when we cut the connection and returned to our separate universes.

This morning Sara, a media person who produces for the Makers Conference arrived to drive me to the destination where our interview would be filmed.  I've known this event simply as a listing on my calendar for months now. Sara, a beautiful young woman, abandoned her status as a mere email contact and materialized in our parking lot.  I am being honored at their 2018 annual conference at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.  This is the beginning of that process.  She'd flown up to direct an interview for promotional purposes.  I'd been through media interviews before, but THIS was something far beyond whatever I'd experienced to date.

First of all, former honorees for this important annual were Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton.  (While you're trying to absorb that) it may not surprise you (though it did me) that I would be driven to a great site that apparently had been rented for the day for this shoot.  Waiting was a team of about a half dozen men (a photographer, a sound techie, cameramen, a couple I can't label). They were in a room where more equipment of all sorts was standing ready for this interview -- baffles, lights, more equipment than I'd ever seen in one place, I think, though I've been working with two filmmakers for several years now, so shouldn't have been surprised.

We started at ten o'clock and I was returned home at just after one o'clock.  I have no idea where the time went. It went by so swiftly that it was unreal.  The questions were good.  Sara had done a lot of research of my blog and oral histories in preparation for the interview, and it seemed to go smoothly. The team seemed satisfied with the work that was done.

Sandra Day O'Connor
I'd mentioned my music in the interview, and on the drive home, offered to share that young Betty of 40 years ago with  Sara from my cell phone.  There was time for about 3 songs over the 6-mile drive.  It felt right.  I'm only beginning to be comfortable with bringing my whole self into these interviews.  The artist, Betty, is finally coming home.

For the first time I went to the Makers Conference website to see just what it is that I'll be doing come February.  I had no idea how vital is this feminist organization, or how important it will be to women everywhere.  To the extent that my life may be providing an alternative for aging to women seeking guidance, maybe that's a good thing.  We've been trapped in the adoration of youth model for far too long.  Having outlived my peer group and aged into a place where I'm no longer guided by models for the end times, this crazy undisciplined and unplanned life I've lived may yet provide a kind of road map for those seeking a way forward in these chaotic times, even if it's only a prescription for what to avoid, and what not to do!

It felt fitting, like something of meaning that can still be given at a time when the guidelines seem blurred, and the way forward unclear for us all.  Those of us out here -- where there is so little remaining future -- may have the ability to hold the lamp high enough to help to light the way for those behind us in this dimension before moving on into the everlasting ... .

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Photo by E.F. Joseph
How on earth does one process the totally outrageous?

Yes, this is how it feels ... .

This photo was taken in summer of 1942, and Mel and I were guests at a Ball at the International House on the UC Berkeley campus.  I'm wearing my (cotton) wedding dress, and feeling absolutely beautiful!  Dress was designed and handmade by my older sister, Marjorie. We're the couple in the middle of this trio.  We'd been married in May.

Two days ago while waiting for my ride to work, I sat at my computer to bide the time.  Clicked into Facebook, a site I don't often visit, to find a message of congratulations for something I'd not yet seen. Up popped a video announced by a gnarly wrinkled face that I recognized as my own (noticing that my wrinkles now had wrinkles of their own!), with that little "click" button which opened into a remarkable 3-minute piece on "96 year-old park ranger ... not ready for retirement."  It carried the Al Jazeera logo.

I immediately recognized the footage, but had no idea how it had gotten onto Facebook, or, into this amazing little piece.

To add to the drama, though it had only been posted for a mere 4 hours, 241,000 hits had been recorded!

This morning, as I sit here at my computer that counter is approaching 4.9 million, with 77,000 shares!

What could possibly explain this?

Can it be that the nation is so filled with despair that a tiny good news story about a lil' ole lady park ranger should hit a nerve bringing this much attention?

I cannot imagine 4.9 million of anything ... much less people ... .

Maybe this says more about the State of the Union than it does about me.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Lunch with our Congressmen in D.C.
The second of the two may be charged to petulance on my part, maybe ... but ...

... I learned, as a casual mention by our lead ranger, Elizabeth, when she stopped by to pick me up for work on Saturday morning -- as we were going over that day's doings.  I was reminded that a group of 50 students from Los Medanos and Diablo Valley community colleges would be present for an eleven o'clock extra program today.  But, in addition, and what had not been mentioned before that very moment at a stoplight on the Richmond Parkway -- Rep. Mark DeSaulnier and his staff would be coming for my two o'clock talk, in addition to a Boy Scout Troop of ten plus members of the general public who would be in the Visitor Center at that time.

I'm not sure anyone should be surprised that I might have wished to be informed that a member of the House of Representatives and his 12-person staff would be coming to have lunch in our classroom and would attend my two o'clock program.  How could something so important have escaped notice?  ("Didn't Kelli tell you?")

I was asked if I'd like to have lunch with them, and found myself saying no, not because I wouldn't have loved to do so, but the entire announcement had come at me so fast that I couldn't imagine what it would be like if I gave it too much consideration at this point.  Best to tamp it down into insignificance and tuck it into some unoccupied corner of my mind for now.   If I were going to retain the necessary calm needed to do my program (2 programs!), I'd need to keep this at arm's length. To have lunch with them and then immediately try to regain enough composure to gather my thoughts together would simply be too much to expect of myself.  Maybe this is what separates the amateurs from the pros, right?  Since I don't work from a script or notes, but am bringing up memories from deep places each time I sit on that kitchen stool, it truly matters what happens during that hour from one 'til two when I try to enter and command that small theater space.

I did it.

But when I glanced at the clock on the back wall it was clear that my talk ended ten minutes earlier than usual, and I could not imagine what had been left out ... .

Perhaps it didn't matter.  But what does that say?

And I did feel that our Congressman got short-changed, though we'll probably never know how and why.

Rep. Mark DeSaulnier and his staff had been so gracious when we were in Washington last year, and I'd so love to have had the pleasure of anticipating his visit to our park site in Richmond.

Anticipation is such an important feature in extending pleasurable experiences, isn't it?

I'll send a message, but, since he can't possibly know what I'm regretting, just how does one do that?

So much gets trapped in the nuances of life, doesn't it?
Two things happened this week that stopped me in my tracks ...

... the first may have been simply a warning, but one that may need to be heeded.

(Fatigue setting in?)

On Tuesday afternoon there was a long-scheduled filming of my two o'clock program in the theater.  The team was one that I've grown accustomed to being in my shadow on occasion, but this day they were augmented by two others, plus a relatively well-known host of a local PBS program.  I understood that Doug McConnell would be here to briefly interview members of my audience as the presentation ended -- that would be across the hall in our classroom.  I'd been well prepared for the event, and fairly comfortable as we all arrived at around nine in the morning and as I went about my normal day picking up accumulated email on my computer -- they went directly to the theater to set up the complicated lighting so that, not only would I be lit, but the audience as well.  I wouldn't see them until just before my program was scheduled to begin at two.

At about 1:40 I entered the little theater to find tall portable bright lights, and camera gear stacked in the  rear of the room taking up the limited spaces usually set aside for extra chairs to be brought in from the classroom to deal with the overflow of our usual 48 seat capacity.

The intimacy had disappeared.

I normally come into an empty space, move my kitchen stool from its place behind the lectern to the center in front of the screen to wait for folks to arrive in ones and twos until the room is filled.  I've always avoided being formally introduced, and usually begin the interaction with folks who have normally just seen a screening of Blossoms & Thorns, the story of the internment of local Japanese and Japanese/Americans during WWII.  I begin a casual Q&A having to do with any questions or comments they may have about the film.  That lasts for about ten minutes during which I'm sizing up my audience and claiming my space.  They've entered a space that I command, and that command is slowly arrived at within those ten minutes.  I'm not sure that I could do it any other way.  But I now realize that what is being established is the intimacy that fills the room, and my very personal story can be shared honestly and without blame or shame.  That intimacy is a critical piece of the experience.  I'm sure that this is the element that sets the stage for the magic that invariably happens as if baked into the event by design.

On Tuesday, under those bright lights, cameramen, and film gear, that important factor had vanished!

I drew my stool from its hiding place, centered it in place just before the screen, but nothing seemed right.

The members of the audience (each of whom had signed releases) entered in twos and threes, sat in designated places (leaving a wide swath measured out by 2 rows of tape down the middle -- in order for the cameras to film me as object).  This meant that the audience was bisected into two distinct parts with a long space between. (Could this have caused the disconnection with a part of myself?)

As my talk began a strange thing happened.  It felt as though I were shouting!  For the entire time I was tense and edgy, and when it all ended about an hour later, I took off for home feeling embarrassed that I'd not performed well, and that all that effort by that team of fine filmmakers, that everyone on the assignment had been let down, and precious funds had been wasted ... .

Upon arrival home I sat down at my computer and wrote a brief note to Carl, the director/producer, explaining ... and was surprised when he reassured me almost immediately that nothing was amiss.  That I'd lived fully up to expectations, and that I shouldn't worry at all that I'd disappointed anyone.

I went to bed not at all convinced.

Received an electronic file the next day from Carl.  It held not only the transcript of all proceedings, but a video-file of my talk.  In addition, he included that of the audience responses that followed after I'd left for home.  They were all positive, some unbelievably so, or, if not, he'd omitted all those that weren't.  My voice was surely no louder than normal.  I was definitely not shouting.  I appeared absolutely confident with nary a sign of discomfort.

What is my body trying to tell me?

How could I have ever gotten so out of sync with myself?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet,
as a young man
I believe I've found the missing piece to the puzzle ... .

... the links between my grandfather, my father, and myself.

It took the long look back through these historic photographs and musing about connections; common denominators; genetic underpinnings ... and ... what holds together this entire saga of Charbonnet is that we were -- and had to be -- self-affirming.

Affirmation was withheld from both these men throughout their lives, despite their great accomplishments and years of public service.  It was true for their generation, but also for all those who preceded them.

I must have -- over a lifetime -- drawn together from family stories, an understanding of what was mis-named Creole pride, but there is something in the word that hints of over-confidence, of ego-centrism.  There is something far more powerful at work here, and I believe it has by now become a part of who we are as a family,  as Creoles, but also as African American people.   I'm not certain that our survival as a people didn't rest upon our having developed the capacity to see beyond the unmitigated brutality of slavery, Jim Crow,  and, subsequently, continuing societal rejection, to a place deep inside ourselves that sang its own songs of freedom and justice.

Self-affirmation is clearly evident in my writings.  Upon maturing, I've rarely needed validation from outside myself.  I do not believe that my proud grandfather could have accomplished the greatness that he achieved had he waited for that to be bestowed from beyond himself.  It mattered not whose names were painted on the signs under which he built his projects.  That he built them was apparently all that mattered.   He knew!

Is it really that simple?

Probably not, but for tonight, I'll take it.

I suppose this blog is not the place for exhibiting these old photos ...

... but last night while waiting for sleep to descend and the "letting go" of the day to kick in, it dawned on me that having my grandfather's achievements finally recognized and celebrated was a possibility.  That this treasure trove of family history should rise to consciousness at this moment in time may not be accidental.  I suspect that somewhere deep inside is the awareness that this unexpected celebrity status that I'm experiencing may be useful in unanticipated ways.

Now that I have uncounted numbers of folks listening, what is it that I would want to say?

Not certain what this building would become ...
I think I'd like to retroactively honor my grandfather, and all those artisans, tradesmen and crafts-persons who built this nation without proper recognition.  To cast light on his contributions and those of others who, like him, were skipped over by history.

Interior of rice mill construction.  Millwright,  L.Charbonnet
My grandfather is in the foreground

There were so very many men of color in his day, who were the teachers and leaders of the times, but who went unrecognized and unknown.

I'm hoping that this explains just why it is that so few families of color have amassed great fortunes, or even accumulated personal wealth over the past century.  This should provide at least one explanation.  Perhaps readers of color will find this a way of understanding how this has happened, and give up blaming themselves as having failed in some way.  The system was simply stacked against that happening.  And by now there are few who are even aware of the story behind what appears to be deficits we've never overcome, or a lack of training, ambition, or ability.

Louis Charbonnet was a genius, and here is the evidence in plain view, and he was only one of many who've gone unsung.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Here's my grandfather's Crescent Star baseball stadium in New Orleans, photo taken by the noted black photographer, A. Bedou, in 1921 ... .

It was built with a dance hall under the bleachers with a separate street entrance on the other side.  It took up an entire city block in the Treme´.

Of course, this was a blacks-only sports stadium.  This facility would have existed before racial integration was allowed or tolerated.

Makes one wonder -- when you see those crowds of fans attracted by the sport -- whether Branch Rickey did us any favors by signing Jackie Robinson et al into the Big Leagues.  It was then that we lost our own colorful players to the general pool of athletes -- which continues to this day.  Just maybe ... had we known the cost ... .
click to enlarge, it's impressive.
They've been stashed in an old canvas travel bag in the back of closets for nearly a century ...

... more than 2 dozen of these fading photographs of various inventions and constructions of my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet.  As I've moved from one house to another over 9 decades, they found new stash sites in each, but rarely were they brought into the light to be viewed and appreciated. Instead, they'd been consigned to history.  So it had been with my father, Dorson, who had served as apprentice to his father, as did his 6 brothers. Dad had moved them from place-to-place over as many decades in his time before they came to me,  there being no one else standing by to receive them.  They're mine by default rather than intent.

A few weeks ago, I turned them over to a friend, John Nutt,  a fine film editor, for enhancement and transference to a more contemporary format to be shared with other members of the Charbonnet family.  Upon completion, he and Ann put them on a thumb drive, and in the process, I've held the originals in hand for remembering and wondering ... and you would not believe how many memories have been recaptured and reclaimed.

I can almost feel his presence ...

Over recent days I've been posting some of them on Facebook to share with family and friends, and realized for perhaps the first time, how important his contributions were to the African American narrative, and to the life and technology of this nation.  The fact that his great works were never attributed to his talent and skills, but had to be done under the licenses and permits of white contractors or not be done at all, must be shared.  In his time a black man could not apply for nor be assigned a patent for his creations. Because this is not the story of my grandfather, alone, but was/is the fate of many who lived through those dark times.

Find myself wondering if we haven't lived into a time when the national deficits are less attributable to the poor education of blacks than to the mis-education of whites? We've lived into a time when we've produced a generation, many of whom truly believe that it was they, alone, who created the nation, and all that it contains or has achieved, (except maybe for jazz and gumbo).  At a time when the talents and contributions of all others remain hidden because credit was withheld through racism and bigotry.

The man in the window lends scale to this structure
My grandfather was educated through correspondence courses from Tuskegee University in Alabama.  Among my most treasured possessions are the dozen or so textbooks that he studied from.  They sit on a small bookshelf in the hallway of my condo,  just below the portrait seen above ... collecting dust... .

He was a millwright and architect with many constructions and inventions in New Orleans and elsewhere.  A millwright takes a function and creates a machine with which to perform it.  Among his would be this banana conveyor that was created on the dock at Mobile, Alabama, to move the fruit from ships to the dock.  That would have been in the teens of the 20th Century.

Fortunately, Elise Mattison's research turned up this photo of a  successor conveyor.  It is credited to the US Army Corps of Engineers.   The year of this photo is 1938,  and was taken on the same Mobile, Alabama, wharf.  The date of my grandfather's construction was 1906. That it is an updated version of my grandfather's work is clearly evident.

I once owned the blueprints to this invention, but over the years they were lost in the confusion of moving from one place to another.  Wish I had them still, though I'm not certain it would be possible to establish a claim to their origin in my grandfather's name at this point.  A white man named Edelson held the patent under which the conveyor was registered, and the contractor under which the work was done was another named Woodward.  These photographs are the only remaining record of his major contribution to the industry.

There are many photos of other constructions, which includes a rice mill; a huge baseball stadium for games played by the traveling Black leagues, Corpus Christi High School, St. John deBertrand's Convent for the Holy Family Sisters -- the first Order of black nuns in this country; Corpus Christi Catholic Church in the Treme; bridges and barges, and various buildings; the decorative iron works on the mansions throughout the Garden District and Upper St. Charles Avenue, etc., in old New Orleans.

I'm scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C. in spring, and am planning to deliver this collection to the new and wondrous National Museum of African American History and Culture, after giving family members enough time to download it into their own collections.  We now number in the hundreds, I'm sure, and our young members deserve to own it.

I feel strangely relieved after posting this, maybe because I feel connected to true greatness, for a man for whom recognition was not a part of his bargain with life.  He saw service to his nation as an obligatory requirement of citizenship; which, by now, is deeply embedded in our family's DNA.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

After my Tuesday program this week, Kaiser Permanente's archivist, Lincoln Cushing ...

and his team of 3 (himself, a cameraman, and 2 journalists) came to the Visitor Center to create the second in his planned series of PodCasts on the Kaiser WWII Home Front story.  We met in our classroom where they were already set up and ready for the shoot as I ended my talk in our little theater just across the hall.

About a month ago I'd received a short list of questions that would be asked, and as usual, I'd totally forgotten I've ever seen them, and would just respond in the moment.  That seems to be the only way I can handle such interviews.  It's truly beyond my power to do otherwise.

Lincoln is doing great work in documenting the history of Henry J. Kaiser, and has been so helpful to me over years when sources for my work were, contrarily, deeply hidden in time yet far too recent to have been recorded by today's historians in most cases.  I've relied on my own memory, plus access to the work of the University of California's Bancroft Library, the repository of much that has yet to be processed into written material for those entrusted with the passing along of those stories to a succession of current and future educators.   I've unwittingly become one of those educators, though not by the traditional route.  I'm an outlier in the system, but my work is now included in that body of study, to my continuing surprise.

One of his questions had to do with an historic appearance by the late great and highly controversial baritone, Paul Robeson, at a noon hour singing of the National Anthem at Moore Dry Dock in Oakland.  I'm familiar with a photo of that event, having run across it some years ago among the many photographs in the E.F. Joseph collection.  He was appearing before thousands of workers, though I had no personal memory of the historic event at the time, nor was I aware of any newspaper accounts of it having happened at all.

I do, however, have memories of that great man who was a known Communist, of course, and more importantly, a friend of a family friend, Berkeley's Matt Crawford.  This would have been at a time when Communism meant little more than any other political party (Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Marxist, Libertarian, Green, Tea Party, etc.) and -- at a time when I'm a mere teenager -- and a fairly unsophisticated one at that.  To say that I was politically naive would have been an understatement.

Robeson was in town for a concert appearance somewhere in the Bay Area, and was taking the time to gather together friends and supporters to meet under the marquee of Oakland's Paramount theater to picket Walt Disney's animated racist film, "Song of the South."  And, of course, I was among the recruits, and spent the afternoon marching in my very first picket line in a procession of other young friends and elders, led by Robeson and Crawford.

I'm somewhere in this picket line, but can't locate me ...
Afterwards the young people in the group were invited to Matt's home for a lemonade party and a game of "Spin the Bottle," an innocent kissing game played in a circle on the living room floor while the elders gathered around the kitchen table for more serious talk. It was during the game that the spinning bottle stopped in front of me at one point -- which meant a light kiss on the cheek by Mr. Robeson who was in the circle for a few moments.

Wish I  could say that it was thrilling, but I can only recall that -- this would have been at a time before his fame would have been established, or, that his reputation for stands against the Democracy as practiced at that time would have been so sullied.  At a later time, he would be brought up on charges; he would appear before the United Nations with Attorney Bill Patterson, and charge "Genocide!" in the name of African Americans; at a time before his passport would be confiscated by the State Department; or his travels abroad as an artist disallowed.

I don't remember the year, but it was well before WWII, so had no relevance in the PodCast, but I found myself wishing that it did, for Lincoln's sake ... it would have made that history far more compelling, would it not?

I do remember Robeson as a powerful and articulate man who provided me with my first experience of political activism, and that probably set the pattern for later times in my own history when I fully expected myself to be held accountable for always working toward forming that "more perfect Union." That accountability was not only an obligation in living a meaningful life, but was the genesis of an ever-deepening sense that I had a moral responsibility to be just that as an American citizen.

When I think about him at all, I suspect that Robeson's objective was closer to my own innocent moral code than anything else.  History may yet exonerate this great leader, and raise him to be the deserving icon for our young that have been so starved for heroes at a time when to dare was/is life-threatening.  To risk stepping out (or kneeling for just cause) is to cause permanent discrediting of the darer.

I'm not certain what the PodCast will show, but Lincoln seemed satisfied with the results, despite the lack of connecting to a more dramatic Robeson story.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Another splash of cold reality kicks in ...

... when by pre-arrangement I met with Attorney Peter Lippett yesterday -- with my Durable Power of Attorney tucked neatly into a large re-cyced manila envelope for this morning's going over of the instructions for those End of Life issues that  are so difficult to think about ... whether and if I wanted to be resuscitated, and under what conditions?  Who would be in charge of those decisions so that my instructions would be followed precisely (which Peter assured me of)?

Whatever remained in the air of strangeness was dissipated when Peter asked if I wanted to donate any organs, and I became aware of a giggle forming somewhere at the bottom of my throat as I tried to imagined why anyone would queue up to receive 96 year-old body parts or organs, anyway?  I realized in that exchange that this would not be your typical set of instructions, right? I stifled the giggle and silently reminded myself that this was serious stuff that required at least a modest amount of dignity. Besides, if these final years continue to be as productive as the first 96, there won't be anything left to bury or burn. My plan is to be all used up with no leftovers!

Peter is an estate planner, and my Will and Trust had not been emended for over ten years, and there were changes to be made now that Rick was gone, and then there were three ... .

I'm living with such contradictions these days, into a time when such planning is required in order to assure that my end may be more auspicious than (perhaps) my beginnings had been, which might indicate some generational progress.  In a way I'm so pleased that I've arrived at 96 with my independence fairly intact.  I've somehow managed to remain at the head of my family without becoming dependent upon them.  If for no other reason, that has become a point of pride at a time when my life continues to be propelled by circumstances into an unknown future where I'm still having first-time experiences, and continuing to live a contemporary life in an exciting present.

Ceremony at Mills College last spring
Peter Lippett comes highly recommended by a friend of long-standing, so -- despite the fact that we've only met socially, and fairly recently -- it was possible to transfer enough of that "Roger" friendship and trust to Peter so that there was no ice to break, or, strangeness to overcome.  From the first moments in his office I was at home with a sense of continuity.  Peter and JoEllen will now become family, as are Roger and Jean; friends of many years.

We spent a couple of hours together, ending with lunch in a seafood restaurant near his office in Lafayette, after which he drove me back along the scenic San Pablo Dam road to Richmond.  I'm almost all legally "estate-planned" and ready to go -- leaving behind no loose ends to be disputed.  I'm not at all sure I enjoyed the experience, though.  These are difficult things to contemplate.  I find myself wondering if it would be easier if I were a believer?  I suspect not, especially in these times when believing has become suspect by virtue of how far the nation and the world have strayed from the values embedded in religious orthodoxy. The somewhat formal lawyer/client conversation yesterday with Peter -- hinted at the fact that I've met another benevolent cynic -- and that is somehow comforting.

Now that those End of Life issues have been faced squarely; looked at without flinching; I'm now ready to re-start the Resuming of Life issues, and to begin still another chapter in the ongoing life of Being Betty.

This afternoon at two o'clock I will meet another inquiring group of friendly strangers in our little theater at the Visitor Center, and experience still another hour of magical Truth-Telling, and I will feel useful and worthy again -- as if this is my calling -- as well it might be ...  should there be such a thing.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

And ... our editor at Hay House emailed the Foreword by Tavis Smiley ...

... and I am now beyond speechless ...

Maybe now I'll muster enough courage to read the book, too, which is something I've not yet done -- at least not more than in fits and starts -- since none of it is new to me, and boredom sets in after a few paragraphs.

Sign my name to freedom is the combined words of many hours of oral history done years ago by the University of California's Bancroft Library, those interviews added to with selected short essays taken from this blog by Editor Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor.   The oral histories were conducted over many hours at differing times, about 12 hours in all.

Were I to attempt to try to pull a book out of those combined writings, I'm not certain that the book would be quite this one, but, since these posts have been accumulating since the year 2003, it's quite possible that there are several books embedded among them.  This, then, is one such.  But for me it would be like trying to turn long-cooled ashes into live embers again, and the aliveness in the words died long ago for me, and trying to re-read for corrections and edits wasn't as easily done as might be expected.  The temptation to just scrap the whole thing and start over would be almost irresistible.  This is probably why my songs were never published nor released for public scrutiny.  I was always into the next "Now!", and living into the next round of changes.  Problem is that were I to write from the same subject base today, it might be quite different since I've lived more of life now, and arrived at a different place in some instances ... . Crazy!

Does the book freeze me into a particular point in Time?  I truly don't know the answer to that, but Tavis Smiley's Foreword written after reviewing the book appears to skirt that possibility.  Even if one accepts the fact that what he captured in that 2-segment video interview is in any way what I most consistently am ... I'll take it, thank you, even if only as aspirational:

I had heard all about Betty Reid Soskin before we actually met on the set of my television show.
And, yet, all that I had read and heard about her prior to, still did not adequately prepare me for the conversation I was about to have with this phenomenal woman. 
It’s rare that I sit for a conversation I find so enchanting that we end up taping two shows instead of one. But it didn’t take long into night one to realize that I would need a second night to have any chance at doing justice to the remarkable life this woman has lived.
I love talking to guests who are chronologically gifted, shall we say, because they have the best stories, courtesy of lives well-lived.  I could talk to Carl Reiner, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Norman Lear, Sidney Poitier, and Dick Van Dyke, night in and night out.
Betty Soskin reminds me of another Betty ... Betty White, who's also been alive well into her 90s.  With this group, it's not just their groundbreaking past, but indeed their dynamic present that I find so arresting.  I'm intrigued by the ways in which they  have gone about leading lives of meaning and purpose even at an advanced age.                                                       
In particular, Betty’s life and legacy astounds me, given where she started. I don’t want to get ahead of the story you’re about to read, but there’s something about people who turn little into much that resonates with me. Especially folk of Betty’s generation. It says something about their constitution even when the Constitution counted them out, didn’t consider their humanity, hopes, and dreams.
After two nights of talking to Betty on national television, I set out to learn more about her. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. The more I discovered, the more questions I had. I even traveled to Northern California to sit and listen to the standing-room-only lecture Betty gives as a park ranger about her story of growing up in America.
As I listened to her powerful presentation, it occurred to me that, in a very real way, folk like Betty have learned to love America in spite of, not because of. Especially when you consider what they did to her father. (But I won’t get ahead of the story . . . ) Staring at her, I wondered, given the way America maltreated and maligned generations of black fellow citizens, how it is that people like Betty could live lives of such dedicated service to an, at times, ungrateful nation?
After her talk that day, I went to lunch with her and peppered her with more questions. And, again, the more she shared, the more curious I became. I eventually said to her, “Betty, you have to write a book.”
Well, after much coaxing, she took my suggestion seriously, and here I am writing the foreword for Sign My Name to Freedom. Go figure.
I couldn’t be more honored, but the real gift is yours, for on the pages that follow, you are going to read the arresting story of why and how Betty came to sign her name to freedom.
Freedom, by any other definition, is truth. One isn’t truly free if one cannot speak the truth and stand on it. Betty’s life has been, and remains, a search for truth.
Truth is in rare supply these days, and when the truth gets scarce, our freedoms and civil liberties are in jeopardy.
Freedom ain’t free, it has a cost. A high cost. Betty has paid her toll, and she’s lived long enough to tell the story.
We would do well to listen, and heed her wise counsel. In so doing, we might one day achieve an America that is as good as its promise.

                                                                             Tavis Smiley