Monday, September 28, 2009

Memory Monday- Remembering Janie

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is my all-time favorite book because it made me believe in the possibilities. I read TEWWG at a time when I was finding my way as a writer. TEWWG showed me the complexity of both language and art. The dialect titillated my sensibilities and brought me back to a place where Blacks governed their own lives, albeit hard times. Janie, the lead character is a character that came into her own and was finding herself. I, too, was at a place in my life of finding myself. Janie’s journey of discovery was my discovery of language and how it speaks to one’s life. TEWWG gave me license to believe that I could write. I saw in myself the pioneer. This book brought out the womanist, yet feminine as Janie was a pioneer in black womanist movement.

I read the book for the first time almost 20 years ago for an English class after I had returned to college for a liberal arts degree. This was also around the time I began to take my writing seriously. My daughter was about ten years old and while she still required my attention, she was growing up and becoming more independent. Up until that time my writings consisted of journaling and an occasional short story. But now I felt I was ready to write longer fiction and made my first attempt at novel writing. Writing in the first person, my work-in-progress was called simply “My Mother’s Homeland” set in either Haiti or Martinique, I changed back and forth, oh boy. But I knocked out some pages that had people asking me, “Is this a true story?”

It was then I began to believe in the power of my writing and the possibilities. My desire and need for writing grew immeasurably and I was knocking out pages and overwhelmed with possible topics. Like Janie, I was coming into my own, becoming my own woman as a writer. This also was around the time my father was dying of cancer. His impeding death and the turmoil in the last few years of his life, his moving back to Little Rock, and my awakening was overwhelming at times. But through it all I knew my dad had faith in my writing abilities. He believed I could. Janie had to conquer her fears of navigating the 130s south as a poor, black woman without a man. Her burgeoning independence made me realize that I had the fortitude to step out and begin to pursue my dreams. Janie became my shero.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Memory Monday- Montgomery Wards Charm School

Among my memories of 1960s Oakland is the old Montgomery Wards store. My first job was in the toy store at Christmastime 1967, my senior year of high school. The Chatty Cathy doll was all the rage, along with electric trains and bikes.

One memory stands out and that is when my friends and I attended the Wendy Ward Charm School at Wards. We must have been in the 10th grade and boy, did we think we were cute. We attended classes after school one day a week. We learned how to walk, balance a book on our heads, fashion, charm and Miss Manners. This was back in the day when those things were important. Learning to be a lady was considered IN, as in style, an OK thing to do.

Later on I would continue my “charm school” lessons by enrolling in one of the premier Black-owned charm schools taught by Louise Skinner, who was an icon in Negro society in the Bay Area. Her fashion shows and hosting of debutante parties was legend. She is still a classy lady today. I remember being in a fashion show with the first Miss Black Oakland, Stephanie Jo Swanigan.

Montgomery Wards was more than a store to buy things; it was a part of the community, a place to see your neighbors, get that special sweater and learn to be a lady.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Memory Monday...Late-Why Write about Childhood

Jose, a co-worker at the District Office used to send tidbits and anecdotes about growing up in Oakland. Going to Montgomery Wards, going to the movies for a quarter, the old haunts, things like that. I got to thinking about how I grew up and started jotting down memories. Before I knew it I had the meat for some real stories and a list of topics of which to write. Something keeps coming up and the list keeps growing. Growing up in Oakland is a mine for all kinds of memories and thus, stories. As a genealogist, I know that writing one’s stories is a gift to future generations, so I will add my contribution by sharing such topics as:

Going to DeLauer’s Newsstand
My times at Garfield and Manzanita schools
Dancing around the Maypole
Being bullied
Playing tetherball
Walking to Dimond Park and swimming lessons
My favorite television programs- see last week’s blog from 9/7/09.

These and other topics I am writing or will write about.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Memory Monday- Amos n' Andy- My Reality TV

As twilight set in on a cool autumn night, with the dinner dishes cleared and baths on the horizon, I plotted with my brother to watch one of our favorite television programs, Amos N’ Andy. This had to be about 1958, 59. The program held a certain fascination that Leave It to Beaver, Sky King, and Lassie just did not. While the inhabitants of these shows were pasty, pale-skinned and mostly fair-haired people, the people on Amos N’ Andy looked like me. It was fascinating sitting in front of our black and white TV set that had a broken antennae courtesy of my little brother and sister (whole other story). But the picture was very clear of Negro people living in New York City living, laughing, and loving on a nightly basis through my TV screen. There was con man Kingfish, Big guy Andy, loud- mouth Sapphire, attorney Houlihan and peace-maker family man Amos. It seemed Kingfish was always talking Andy into some kind of scheme that inevitably got him into trouble with his wife Sapphire, and his mother-in-law. Amos would come to the rescue with his wise sayings and advice. They were hilarious and for me a joy to watch. But what did I know? I was a little girl who loved watching television.

Why was I sneaking and plotting to watch one of my favorite shows? Because I wasn’t supposed to be watching this program, the reason being that my parents considered this program to be ignorant and an insult to Negroes. In their escalating middle-class existence having grown up in the south, both from humble beginnings, obtained college educations and negotiating Negro geography, the stereotypes were just too blaring. Kingfish would rather con somebody than work, was shiftless and lazy. Sapphire was loud and emasculating as well as her mama. Andy spoke poor English and was easily led. Houlihan was a joke as an attorney. Buffoons they were, laughing, joking, always happy-go-lucky. This is what they portrayed. But of course, this went over my head. It was just fun entertainment but I also saw more.

Even at that young age, I saw the good points about Amos N’ Andy. I can remember this was a show where there were black business owners, doctors, attorneys, cab drivers and families that I could relate to. I remember one of my favorite shows was a Christmas segment where Amos’s daughter was sick and all she wanted was this most beautiful doll in the store window of a department store. There was a black Santa Claus, I vividly remember. And yes, the doll was black. She had a white dress on, I think. In the late fifties, how often did we see these images? Almost never.

Unfortunately the negative aspects of the show outweighed the good and the NAACP succeeded in having the show taken off of the hair by 1960. I understand my parent’s stance. As a parent now, I fully understand the impact of the images that our children are exposed to. As an adult I cringe at some of the antics that Kingfish and Amos participated in and understand why my folks had their reservations about the program. But many of these same people, my mother included, now admit they appreciate Amos N’ Andy. It is amazing to find out that the actor who played Ebonics-talking Andy was in fact a well-educated man who spoke six or seven languages. But as a black man trying to work as an actor, this is what was offered to him. The original Amos n’ Andy was a radio show played by white men in black face. What was worse, white men imitating what they thought black people were like or actual black people playing themselves as white folks saw them?

The Amos n’ Andy series have become a legacy of black memorabilia. We have most of the tapes and I feel some pride when I see Andy talking to his little boy and girl dispensing his wisdom while walking strong and tall as a man with dignity.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

White After Labor Day? Oh My!

I was at church last Sunday in the social hall wearing my white linen dress, and one of the ladies said to me. “I see you have on your white, trying to get it out of your system before Labor Day. I laughed because, she like me, has heard this practically our entire lives. Particularly, do not wear white shoes before Easter and after Labor Day. In fact when I got up and looked in my closet to see what I was wearing that morning, my eyes landed on the white dress. I said to myself, I better hurry up and wear this because there is only one more Sunday to wear white. In fact, I started mentally calculating the other summer white clothing items I have; three pairs of white pants, dressy and casual, a white summer jacket, a white skirt and of course, white shoes and sandals. I planned my wardrobe for the next few days based on the “Do not wear white after Labor Day” mandate. I know what people are saying. Who follows those antiquated dictates anymore? Where did that come from? I live in California, we don’t follow those archaic rules.

Where did I get it from? My mother. It was not so much said but practiced. Every Easter my sister and I got white Mary Jane shoes and we wore them throughout the summer and they were retired at the end of the season. In researching the topic, it seems that this mandate originated on the east coast where there are definite seasons. White clothing reflects light and makes you feel cooler so therefore you would not wear in the winter. It was also intimated that class issues came into play and the middle class in late 19th century set themselves apart by observing this practice.

Now, evidently, the color, Winter White does not apply to this dictum. Winter White or off white is worn all year round, including the winter. I have a Winter White skirt, dress pants and coat jacket. I wear those all through the fall and winter. It is stark white that the rule applies. Of course white tennis shoes do not count. And of course, white blouses and shirts are worn all year, every day. Evidently, the only people “allowed” to wear all-white consistently are nurses or medical professionals, and of course, church sisters on First Sunday. LOL

Of course, with times being the way they are, people make their own rules and poo poo the idea of anyone suggesting what they can or cannot wear. Here in California, folks make their own attire-wearing rules. Shorts and sandals and sleeveless summer dresses if the sun comes out in January. Some people get downright insulted if someone teasingly chides them for wearing white shoes after Labor Day, and dare suggest they are not fashionably in tune. Relax people, it’s just a saying. Why do I follow this mandate? Mainly, because I always have and as a creature of habit, I’m not going to change this late in the game. I am getting it out my system. Friday, I wore white pants to work, today I am wearing white capris, for church tomorrow I am wearing what I call my Scarlett O’Hara skirt, white of course with white shoes, and Labor Day, my white shorts…….. and then these items will be washed or dry cleaned and then retired until next spring.

Happy Labor Day!