Monday, August 31, 2009

Memory Monday- Chasing Memory

Memory Monday- Chasing Memory

There is so much in regards to memory I want to write----memoir, family history, childhood stories, that I cannot seem to grasp it all. It gets all jumbled up and sometimes overwhelming. I sometimes question writing about my memories growing up in Oakland. I wonder if people will say I lived a black Leave it to Beaver existence. I wonder about what I did not see, or at least do not remember, of the bad things growing up black. Like being called names and being discriminated against or a teacher or counselor discouraging me and trying to put me in a box. The light-skin, dark-skinned intra-racial discrimination in the black community. The wanting of long, straight hair, the self-hatred, I missed all of that. Was that really going on all around me? I remember my sister, Flo, and I playing with our black dolls. We pressed their hair, burned it out and everything. Did I live a real black childhood or was I living a fantasy?

But memory is present and I know that my life was what it was. It was my memories of growing up whole, not jaded or scarred. I did live a black life, but it was my life. The things of my memory are my story. This is my life.

Here’s to memories.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Memory Monday- Race and Identity

I always said I grew up without much racism. My childhood was relatively free of the name calling and put downs other African American kids seemed to have gone through. I don’t know if it was the hand of God, time and chance , or by design, but although I knew I was Colored or Negro (we’re talking the 1950s and 60s), I never had reason to feel inferior or less than or that my blackness was bad. That was until I was about nine years old and an incident happened in my neighborhood.

One of my playmates was Lisa Millet. She lived down the street and I knew her through our parents. Lisa’s father had died but her stepfather and my dad were in real estate together and had an office on 23rd Avenue in Oakland in the late 50s. Lisa lived with her mother, stepfather, brother and grandmother and I spent many days over her house eating her grandmother’s gumbo. Their roots were in New Orleans, where her parents and grandparents were born. As I have written before, our neighborhood was quite diverse. There were Negroes, White, Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans. What I knew about Lisa’s family was they were Negroes but her grandmother talked funny talk--- and they were very fair-skinned. Lisa had long, light brown hair that hung to her waist and her ponytail swayed when she walked. Didn’t mean much to me. My mother is very fair and some of her family members looked like Lisa’s family.

A new family moved in the neighborhood and they had a daughter around our age—I think I was about nine and Lisa was eleven. Somehow, soon after she moved in, we were in this new family’s front yard. At some point, the suggestion was made about going into her house. The girl, which I have forgotten her name, then turned to me and said,
“Lisa can come in but you can’t because colored people steal.”
I stood there with my mouth open. I had never heard such a thing in my life. I gathered myself together and said confidently.
“Lisa is Negro too.” I looked over at Lisa, knowing I had an ally. We would show this stupid girl.
But was I in for a surprise. “I’m not Negro, I’m Creole.”
What???? Creole? “What is that? All of these questions were in my head but all I could do is stare, turn around and run home. I was in tears by the time I got in the house. I immediately told my mother what happened and then I asked, “Momma, isn’t Lisa Negro?” I remember my mother speaking in her soft voice, full of wisdom.”
“Yes, she is, but you have to let people be what they want to be.” She then went on to explain what Creole was. That funny talk Lisa’s grandmother spoke was Creole, a derivative of French and the food they ate was indicative of that culture. I do not know if I understood but though I was hurt and felt betrayed, those word my mother spoke has always stayed with me.

Race, identity, culture of the African Diaspora has always fascinated me. The many ways of being black is the basis of much of my reading, research and some of my writings. As a genealogist, I respect that most of us are an amalgam of many ethnicities and nationalities but my identity is and always will be black, first, foremost and forever.
Lisa and I made up. Her grandmother called and said that Lisa was upset that she had upset me and my mother told her to send her over. She came over bearing gifts. We never spoke of the incident or of that girl. She ceased to exist as she was not in our play circle. I thought about Lisa, the Creole girl recently when a blogger wrote an essay for a book I wrote a review for two years ago. One Drop by Bliss Broyard is the author’s memoir of discovering her ancestry and the rich Creole background that was denied by her father, writer Anatole Broyard’s passing for white and fear of being labeled a black writer.
This book did a great job on discussing the issue of identity and culture and is destined to be a classic.

My review of: One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets

Monday, August 17, 2009

Memory Monday- Oakland Then, Oakland Now

Sunday was a beautiful day, a perfect day for an outing such as the Art and Soul Festival in downtown Oakland. This has been the one event that has remained consistently organized, safe and fun for all. There is always great entertainment, an array of diverse vendors, and fantastic food. The big draw entertainment was Will Downing on the main stage, and I love me some Will. I had just purchased his latest CD, Classique this weekend. I got my garlic fries, strawberry lemonade, bought another Chinese umbrella—perfect for sunny days and I was happy. I sat down and clapped to the Blues and walked around seeing folks I knew from years ago; it’s like an Oakland reunion.

Much has changed in downtown Oakland since I was a kid. The festival brings a diverse crowd from all over to the downtown area which, while it remains an employment mainstay—there are a number of national and local businesses, the shopping life is little to none. There is no longer a major department store and the dress shops of the 1960s and 70s in my heyday are nonexistent. Only one, J. Malnick, remains with an assortment of small retail shops.

There was a time downtown was bustling. There were Sears, Capwells, and Rhodes department stores. Joseph Magnin and I. Magnin and Goldman’s were the high end dress shops with their furs and chic dress and shoe styles. That’s where you went to dress for a special event. I got my senior ball dress at Goldman’s, bought my shoes at Capwell’s and had them died yellow to match the trimming and sash at Leed’s Shoes. And of course, there was the Paramount, the Roxie, and The Fox theaters, where we went to the movies. With urban renewal or the more current term, um uhn, GENTRIFICATION, things changed.

Now, as then, Oakland is diverse but more ethnic with African Americans, Latinos, and Asians predominate. Whites moved out in droves all through the 60s and 70s. Now their children and grandchildren and transplants from the East Coast have come back to downtown Oakland and West Oakland. With them are gourmet restaurants and new-fangled boutiques, generated to jump start Oakland’s regeneration. The Paramount is now an upscale concert hall, home of the Oakland Symphony and Oakland Ballet and I am a patron of both. Change is good but there is an underlying battle between the haves and the have-nots. But all and all, I’m lovin’ Oakland despite the blight, the crime and the bad rep we have nationally. After all, it is home.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It Is Still the South

I have a love/hate relationship with the South, that is the southern states of this nation. Everyone knows that I have a special relationship with the South. I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I still visit there and rural Union County for family, reunions. I love the literature, the food, history and the culture. I go back and forth in my mind with the decision of if I want to retire to Arkansas or another southern city.

While I was at my cousin Angie’s house in a suburb in Little Rock, we had a conversation about the mindset of southerners. The topic came up about what we had discussed on the first night of the reunion down in Strong at my cousin Cynthia’s house. The towns of Huttig and Strong have combined their school districts because of decreasing enrollment. They got a new superintendant of schools, a white woman from Mississippi; they said a racist. Why did they call her that? Because she “reportedly” said in reply to why she did not move into the house the school board provides the superintendant, “It still has a nigger smell in it.” You see, the former superintendant was black and had lived in the house. When they finished telling us this, I kept waiting for the punch line. You know, the rest of the story. I finally said, “Okay, and she’s still there?”
“Yeah, she’s there.” “Uhmm, well if that was California, she would have been gone, quick and in a hurry.” My sister gave me a look that said, cool it. It would be no use in discussing it further or asking too many questions. They would have said, “Well, our kids have to go to that school and answer to that woman” or “ We can’t afford to send our kids to private school like you did.”

Okayeee, that’s when I said to myself, It’s still the South. Despite integration, and in some cases they are more integrated in their school system than in Oakland, California, my residence, and other northern urban cities. Despite integration and great strides made by African Americans, it is still the south and therefore a southern mentality. Let me explain. There is a certain mindset in mostly rural towns in the south that still plays out as if it were still the old south, pre integration, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

There is open, blatant segregation in terms of economic and social issues. A government official was traveling through rural Florida a few years ago and stopped to have a bite to eat and beer at a local tavern. He sat down and ordered the beer and was told by the bartender that he might be happier on the other side. The other side was the bar for blacks. This official was outraged. Separate facilities in the new millennium? Gasp! But the people in that ass backward town, both black and white did not see what the problem was. Blacks were equally complicit in upholding the separate but equal. “They like Country & Western and we like the Blues and R& B”. “That’s just the way it is” is what I heard from a friend who grew up in one of those ass backward towns in Florida. That’s what I mean when I say, it is still the south.

Oh, and there is the case of separate proms in those little ass backward southern towns. Every spring you read about it. There was an article in the New York Times recently chronicling this in a little town in Georgia. No, you aren’t going to find this in Atlanta or any city of significant size in the south; it is those ass backward, still living in the 1950s, narrow-minded, provincial towns where black and white agree to do this. “It’s tradition” or “It’s always been this way.” But what do you expect, it is still the south?

Oh, yes, things have changed. The schools are integrated and blacks like my uncle are supervisors on their factory or mill jobs. There are even interracial romantic liaisons; the townspeople in that little Georgia town admitted the kids date interracially, which makes the whole idea of separate proms even more ludicrous, but they are all complicit, again citing tradition. I was told that they just stopped having black and white homecoming queens down in Huttig-Strong. These little ass backward towns usually have a high school population of less than 100 students, some far less and they want to keep Jim Crow alive?. And remember the madness in 2008 in Jenna, Louisiana with the nooses and all? I’m told by folks who attended the march that the town is so blatantly delineated by economics. My church member said the whites have nice homes all through town and then you cross the railroad tracks and the black people live in dilapidated homes that should have long been condemned. But that is the south.

In 2006, I visited Savannah, Georgia on a literary retreat. One morning a group of us took a walk downtown to a tea shop for breakfast. I was walking along taking pictures of the moss wood trees and beautiful scenery of this magnificent, historical city, soaking it all in, window shopping on a beautiful spring morning. Suddenly, we came upon a big window front and I stopped dead in my tracks. I could not believe it, it was a real live Confederate store. I mean, there was everything, flags, clothing, memorabilia, war materials, everything Confederate. I was standing there speechless. The other three women stopped and looked at me taking it all in. One was from Georgia, the other from Florida and the other from Texas. Clearly, this was nothing new to them but this was an eye-opener for me and a reminder that no matter how nice the people appeared, or how beautiful the city of Savannah is, it’s still the south. And lest those in Union County, Arkansas where I just came from thought they lived in a “we are the world” existence, there was a Confederate flag hanging high and proud on the road down in Felsenthal where we had our fish fry that Friday, reminding me of where we were. Well, I’ll be damn, it is still the south.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Memory Monday- Uncle Jerry

Memory Monday- Uncle Jerry

You all know I went to Arkansas last month. In going through some photo albums of my aunt’s, there was a picture of my mother’s oldest brother, Jerry. He was one of the four children grandfather Samuel Rowland had before he married my mother’s mother, Otelia Gilliam. The last time I saw him was in 2005 when we went to El Dorado, the county seat of Union County, to visit him in a convalescent home. He was suffering from several ailments, among them dementia. He didn’t really know us, my mother, sister and Aunt Bera Faye but there may have been a recognition or two.

My memories of Uncle Jerry were of him visiting us in Oakland when I was younger and visiting him in Chicago, where he went in the 1940s and made his home. When he came to Oakland we would meet him at the train station. That was back in the day before Amtrak when everyone rode the Southern Pacific. In Chicago, he was the consummate host in a home that was quite appointed. He enjoined entertaining and the night life of Chicago. In the picture here, he is shown with three unknown women, evidently at some night club or social event.

Jerry Rowland died in 2006. He left to mourn his longtime partner and several siblings.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Memory Monday- Arkansas

Memory Monday- Arkansas

You’ve heard the song by Ray Charles. “Tell yo mama, tell you pa, I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas.” Arkansas. All kind of perceptions come up but it is the place I was born. It is the place my parents met at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. It is a place of great memories.

Eating barbeque, spaghetti, and watermelon that my Uncle Raymond, a cook at a hotel, on the 4th of July in Little Rock in 1963 when I was 12. Running around with his children, my cousins. Coming back in 1968 when I was 17 and really thought I was grown.

Going down to the country where my mother was born in Huttig. In 1960, we used a slop jar for going to the bathroom; for real, there was no bathroom. Now that was real country living. Sweet tea, biscuits, smothered chicken and gravy, fresh born and greens from the garden.

Well, I was down in Arkansas for a week and I will be posting blogs and pictures about going back to my hometown in Little Rock and the family reunion in Union County.

Stay tuned.