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.

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