Saturday, August 19, 2017

Six degrees of separation ... ?

During the Nineties -- shortly after acquiring my first MAC -- I caught the genealogy bug and dived into creating my family history.  It was all-consuming, and gratifying, and there was so much to learn through that process.  (See the Charbonnet Pages in the links in the Archives on the left, for paternal line and California Black Pioneers for maternal records.)

Started with my maternal line, with my great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen.  She had been the mainstay of my family since it was in her little house beside the levee of the great Mississippi that my mother, her siblings, most of her aunts and uncles for several generations had their beginnings.  My mother's mother, Julia LaRose, died there when my mother was but 7 months old.  She was raised by my great-grandmother, as were her three half-brothers and a sister.  Mamma figured heavily in my childhood and adolescence.  She died when I was 27 years-old, married with children of my own.

One learns early in the search that names can be problematic.  Not only is this complicated by the fact that slaves generally took on the surnames of their owners, or the plantations upon which they'd spent  much of their lives before freedom came, but because of a lesser-known reason:  During the 1800s through the early 1900s most ordinary folks were pre-literate.  This means that schooling was not widely attainable, and less so for non-whites.  For enslaved black folks, to learn to read had to be a deeply-held secret punishable by the lash if discovered.

Therefore Leontine, born into slavery in 1846, and enslaved until freed by the Emancipation Proclamation at 19, spoke only a patois of French, and (as far as I can tell) never learned to read or write.

Public records such as the Census were conducted by scribes who had to be literate, but who were strongly dependent upon oral data in order to fulfill their requirements.  Many of those records were kept through the Catholic Diocese, and I'm grateful for that since in Louisiana, those church records go further back into American history than the public records of some States.  The Church was central to the lives of all, and those diocesan records at Baton Rouge are filled with history.  They held the dates and places of most of the people's rites and celebrations, and could be the most powerful sources for opening into hidden family histories otherwise unattainable.
Marriage certificate of slave-owner, Eduoard Breaux
to Leontine's mother, Celestine "of no last name",
dated  1963, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation

Since the people of the times were pre-literate, those records reflect the countries of origin of the scribes, and Louisiana had seen a successions of rulers from other nations over its colorful history.  It was settled by the French under Napoleon, taken over by the Spanish for a time, became the reflection of "the known World," long before this became a country.  New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Augustine, Florida, were established cities long before we became a country, long before the Revolutionary War of 1776.

For instance, my maternal line started out in Loudon, France, when Vincent Brault departed for the new world and landed in Nova Scotia for a few generations,  when his first descendants traveled to Maryland, then -- with the consent of the Spanish governor of Louisiana -- landed in St. James Parish, Louisiana, where the Breaux settled for all time.  These were the Acadians, now called "Cajuns."

Those scribes -- collecting their census data each decade from pre-literate villagers -- entered those names as they could, phonetically.  One is warned that Breaux, for instance, might appear in census records as Bro, Braud, Brau, Breau, Brault, Breaux, etc., depending upon the native language of the scribe. (Bro, Spanish; Braud, German; Brau, German; Breaux, French, etc.).  This turns out to have been an important thing to know in building my family history, since -- depending upon which years I was tracing, our family surnames varied accordingly.
Imagine how surreal it became as I peered through the looking glass of my life down this rabbit hole when valiant star-crossed young Heather Heyer met her death fighting for her cause in Charlottesville last weekend, and I found myself staring into the face of her mother, Susan Bro, on the small screen of the television set in my Richmond, California, bedroom!

I know ... .

Full circle?


... surreal, but mostly because -- after hearing Susan's brief, uncompromising but prideful response to the tragic loss of Heather -- lovely and so dedicated to her cause of supporting "liberty and justice for all" -- it was clear that the two of us could easily sit down over a cup 'o tea and start our conversation somewhere in the middle of the 14th paragraph, probably the number of generations twixt Heather's and mine!

Were this another time, I might just glide over this coincidence muttering under my breath about "small worlds," but at 96 I've no time to waste, and with the last item now completed on my old bucket list, connecting with Susan Bro tops the new one.  I want to touch lives, somehow, with this amazing, courageous, and wonderfully giving woman on the chance that we are cousins but 6 degrees of separation apart, if that would serve the purpose of providing some comfort in this time of great sorrow.

Friday, August 18, 2017

"Every time these cyclical periods of chaos arise, the opportunity to re-define Democracy rises with it ... ."  
It is then that we gain access to the re-set buttons, and the time comes when the platform is re-created upon which the next generation of newly-minted Americans will stand as they assume the responsibility of forming that "more perfect Union."  

We're now at another such time; a time of generational change.  They've been occurring rhythmically since 1776, and each such period has led to a higher rung on the upward spiral of this ladder of the great American Experiment.

I'm awed by the newly-emerging young people now surfacing courageously and defiantly.  They're turning up everywhere and in some of the most unlikely places.  Some of them have found their places where it counts -- in the media, in government, in the legal professions, as educators, and they're eloquent and daring.

And, it is We who are the Leaders we've been waiting for; those who have lived long enough to be able to bear witness to a past of earlier victories in the long struggle against injustices and inequities. Look around you.  We're here.  We may not look like the image in our heads of what leadership should look like; we're old and infirm in some cases, but were still kickin’, still viable.  

There’s nothing new here, guys.  

We're wearing whatever the skins we're in proudly, and without apology.  We're scruffy and denim-clad (but that's now been usurped by the invaders who've come out from under their sheets), and so varied in racial identity by now that our race is fast-becoming little more than a political choice, but that's less important with each day that dawns.  Some of us even find ourselves among the unlikely class of the "privileged," and who'd have ever believed that?  It would not surprise me to run into those I met at Telluride at the MountainFilms Festival last year, those with the time and the financial resources to bring to the great changes now needed by the rest of us.  Everything's up for grabs.  The Democracy is on the move, again, and this time we're taking giant leaps toward a more ethical and moral future made possible through advanced technology.

The animated debates are being conducted -- not on Public Television -- but on the cable news channels, in the unlikely voices of folks like James Murdock, owner of the Fox News Channel -- arguing against the presidential outrages, and for the taking down of statues of the defenders of the Confederacy!  Those unscripted panels responding to the outrageous pronouncements emanating from the White House are unprecedented in their candor.  The masks are off.  The painful and formerly ill-formed festering boil of centuries-old White Supremacy was finally lanced indelicately in full public view and now we have only to wait to see if the poisons can be contained before their destructive diseases have the power to destroys us all. 

I say, there's little that's new here, except for social media.  Those of us who have been marginalized for centuries, whose stories have been muted, expropriated, or silenced altogether, have lived into a time when the masks have been pulled down and the awfulness has become visible to all.  There's no place left to hide.   And we've lived into a time when the price paid for those omissions in our history books have produced a generation of Americans who truly believe that this nation was formed by and for them -- the White Christian -- and there has been little evidence to tote out to refute their claims.  They've been allowed to believe that "Humankind" is generically white, and that the rest of us are exotic,  "sumthin' else", to be related to custodially.  

This defines the fundamental failure of our system of public education.

There is still denial from high places such as that displayed in the voices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in all their uniformed and be-medaled glory expressing outrage with the words, "... our values were firmly established in the year 1775, and ..." without including the fact that those Armed forces resisted racial integration until the year 1948!   Or any recognition that among those defiantly and proudly marching in that Tiki-torch parade chanting"Jews will not replace us!," were many returned veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!  Until we've begun to exhibit a willingness to share our complete history, there will be lingering skirmishes to get through, ... but one day at a time ... .  

Every sign that I've seen over the past several days would suggest that we far outnumber the Neo Nazis, and that their desperation -- so clearly evidenced by their armed presence in our midst -- is going to be defeated.  Their obvious motivation is based in fear and hatred, the last dying gasps of the Confederacy are being heard in angry shouts, but also in tragic and petulant whining ... "so sad." Is there a more perfect way to describe His Orange-ness?

We cannot hate them out of it.  That's a loss cause.  We can only make them irrelevant by refusing to allow ourselves to waste energy fighting against bad ideas.  We must replace what they're expressing with better ideas.  Meet across town in huge numbers in Unity Festivals!  Have our artists, poets, musicians, orators, come together and raise their voices in Love and Hope.  We've done it before.  We brought down a failed presidency and ended an unpopular War in another surge of change.  We can do it again.    

We must not be cowed nor discouraged by this last gasp of what history will someday define as the feckless Age of White Supremacy.  Humanity cannot be sustained under such an erroneous assumption, because that will take us all into the planetary realities that can no longer be denied, but that must be faced now for the sake of human survival.

I will join with others (in civvies, of course) over this coming weekend in Berkeley, San Francisco, Richmond, and wherever else another voice is needed against this most recent threat to our country.

See you at the Festival! 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Living life in italics ... once again ... .

Perhaps it's this dreadful cold that I've been host to for the past several days.  Maybe the doubts have been creeping up over past weeks ... and I've failed to notice 'til the wrestling with these painful coughing spasms that are not yet subsiding.  But whatever the reason, I've rarely felt more confused and bereft than over the past few hours when I'm struggling with the need to hold the world off until the coughing ceases, and the need to respond to two calls for my participation in both MoveOn's local vigil in support of Charlottesville's protestors, and, another received earlier in the day for me to "say a few words at Indivisible Berkeley's Vigil and March from Finnish Hall to Civil Center Park in Berkeley.  Both demand answers, and these are my compadres, right?

I'm facing the fact that -- even if my physical condition allowed it -- I'm not certain just what I would say because throughout the day confusion has been building as I watch transfixed by footage coming out of Charlottesville, and pundits spouting their usual bilge that tends to want to assume that they're on the side of the angels, and that there is a (majority) constituency for their view.  But is there?

One statement -- repeated by many -- stood out this day, and that is -- "This is not who we are!"  Oh?  Is that what we really believe?  I'm not so sure ... . and maybe I should be.

You see, I believe that we're Morris Dees and Fanny Lou Hamer, Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, but that we are also George Wallace and David Duke, and, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. The trick is to find room on the planet and the nation for us all to find ways to live together in peace.

Maybe the beginning place would be to stop being in denial as to just who we are, and to begin to deal honestly with how we process our national history for succeeding generations so that the legacy is carried over with integrity.  There must be an acceptance of our mistakes and a sharing of lessons learned, generationally, so that our democracy will continue to serve as intended by those imperfect white men who conceived it for those "like them."  That's a tall order, right?

It was with a jaundiced ear that I heard the eminent Senator Orrin Hatch indignantly come down hard on the thugs in Charlottesville with the statement that his brother, who was lost in WWII fighting Hitler and the Nazi, in a war to save the democracy that was fought with a segregated Armed Forces!  It was a war that cost 54.8 million lives, worldwide, and the contradictions have never been included in our history books, nor in the national narrative.  

In watching those young thugs -- they were expressing the worst of us -- true, but they were also exhibiting what happens when we've denied our essential truth in favor of an unsustainable myth that serves no one:  The Myth of White Supremacy.  Their expression of entitlement is now being exhibited with the symbols born of those with whom we fought 70 years ago.  What we've allowed ourselves to believe is that we are the saviors of the world, and that this justifies whatever we do that serves this self-deluding image. And that image is undeniably "white".

What in the world are those of us who deviate from that mistaken national image to do with that?  I've never been able nor allowed to be a part of that "We."  As our diversity is embraced and grows, the generational changes will shift, and become more true, I believe that.  It is this belief that sustains me in my work.

Many generations of living with slavery, Jim Crow, inequality in most areas of civic life, has ingrained in us the idea that White means power, and that in order to gain that power we must learn to emulate the behaviors, ethos, attitudes of those who have established themselves at the top of the food chain, but deep down we know that we bring with us differences needed for balance in a nation still forming in this grand experiment.

To the extent that we are successful at retaining that which is buried deep in our DNA; our basic humanity-- and can combine that with the gifts brought in by other world cultures, we can refresh and revive the American Dream so that it retains its vibrancy for generations to come.

Meanwhile, in the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King:

"Either we will learn to live together as brothers, or we will surely perish together as fools."