My Little Corner of Black History Month

In celebration of Black History Month, this space would like to share a couple of personal encounters with the Arts and Literary history of African Americana. Just because.

Benny Andrews
Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Art first. Soon after I arrived in San Francisco, there was a gallery show of the work of Benny Andrews. Benny Andrews was just my #1 all-time favorite African American artist, thanks to having first encountered his work in my undergraduate days (R-MWC 1953, BA, Art.) As we entered the gallery my new husband Bud grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, I want to introduce you to Benny.” Well, I knew Bud knew everybody, especially every artist alive, but personally? He had gotten hooked on art in one class during his own senior undergraduate year (Albion, 1951, BA Economics & Political Science) and since then had spent every spare moment hanging out at galleries and museums. But Benny Andrews? Could he really know Benny Andrews? And more to the point, could I possibly do anything but gush embarrassingly in front of a famous person who happened to be my #1 all-time African American artist hero? I went into panic mode. There were a LOT of people milling around looking at beautiful paintings; bunches of them were gathered around the artist. I tried to think of something intelligent I might say, but it wasn’t happening.

Benny Andrews drawing
“The Guitar Picker” (With apologies for photographer’s ghost)

Meanwhile, my good husband, all 6’4” of him, was plowing ahead, aiming straight toward Benny Andrews, with me in tow. There was no escape, and my brain was on freeze. In a matter of moments we were standing face to face. Briefly acknowledging Bud, Benny reached out and gave me a giant hug. And said, “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures!”

Sometime later we were able to buy his utterly beautiful pencil drawing “The Guitar Picker.” It’s now at the National Gallery in D.C. But just thinking about it makes me smile, and remember that gentle, kind, incredibly gifted man saying “Aren’t you darlin’ to come see my pictures.”

My other famous artist story has to do with my #1 all-time favorite living African American artist, Radcliffe Bailey. Met him in real time, after admiring his work at Atlanta’s High Museum (and elsewhere) for years, when he turned up at a milestone birthday party in California for my friend Liz Campbell Moskowitz (no slouch of an artist herself.) She introduced us offhandedly, and I said, with something less than socially acceptable composure, “OMG! You’re Radcliffe Bailey!?! I love your work! That room of your paintings is the first place I go when I’m at the High!” He was polite about my effusion, though.

Fran w Radcliffe Bailey 2.16.19
Radcliffe Bailey & me

This was a couple of years before he married Leslie, daughter of Liz and the renowned photographer Gordon Parks. I think I’m unlikely to top those two encounters any time soon.

As for the Literature area.

In the late 1960s, Bud (whom I would marry in 1992 but with whom I was not then in contact) owned a house at 2777 Pine Street in San Francisco. A graceful Victorian built in the 1870s, it sold a few years ago for three or four million – but in 1968 the neighborhood was not one you’d wander around without risking bodily harm. Bud lived in the ground-floor apartment, and rented the main house to Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver. At the time, Black Panther leader Eldridge was out on bail following an attempted murder charge. He would eventually skip the country and later return, find religion, design provocative menswear, become a Mormon, struggle with cocaine addiction and die at age 62 in 1998. That was 30 years after he’d been Bud’s tenant. “I had no problems with the neighborhood,” my husband used to say of that time; “either the cops or the Black Panthers were there at any given time; usually both.”

Kathleen Cleaver (who had answered the For Rent ad and signed the lease) would go on to earn a J.D. from Yale Law School and eventually become a distinguished lecturer at Yale and at Emory University. But between her tenancy on Pine Street and her later career she joined Eldridge in exile in Algeria, and became the mother of two. On Pine Street, she handled the family finances. Because they were chancy at best, the rent seldom arrived on time. (When the Cleavers skipped town they were two months in arrears. So my husband went to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland and said he’d like to have his rent. You did what? he was asked. “I said I wanted two months rent. They paid.”)

Cleaver letter
(More apologies for another photographer-ghost)

When cleaning out our safe deposit box recently I found the letter at right. The letterhead is that of Ramparts, a radical publication for which Kathleen Cleaver wrote. I’d known of the letter’s existence; my husband included it in a story he once wrote, and had offered it to several museums but gotten no response. So I mentioned finding it to my daughter and said I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. “Frame it, Mom,” she said. Thus the document shown here. It reads:

Mr. Johns:

Please excuse the delay but I have been so god damned busy with these pigs and courts and chaos that I completely forgot to pay the rent. You are so very sweet to be so unobtrusive and gentle with me. I think you are the perfect landlord and I would just like to warn you that you should prepare yourself for any day now some kind of assault on this house. I think it is beautiful, I love it, I won’t go away, but the local, federal, international, secret and off duty pigs as well as reagon (sic,) rafferty, shelton, wallace, alioto, et al want to do us in, Eldridge first, then me.

Here’s the rent.

Peace, Mrs. Cleaver  

Can Planet Earth Be Saved? Maybe. Still.

Wildfires 11.18One thing we absolutely know: the recent, tragic California wildfires were NOT due to “poor forest management.” Perhaps someone clued our president in on a few facts – since he did ease off the “It’s all their fault, stupid Californians” rhetoric. The facts: essentially all of the state’s publicly owned forests (including Plumas National Forest where the deadliest fire began) are controlled by the federal government. Mr. Trump recently reduced funds for cleaning up fire-prone vegetation. Meanwhile, though, who knows how many of those who simply accept Mr. Trump’s lies now have one more lie to confirm their belief that the globe isn’t warming and climate isn’t changing, and who needs to worry about the planet?Planet earth

It is our children’s and grandchildren’s planet we are playing with. Every regulations rollback that puts more pollution into the air and water, every “economy-boosting” measure that sends more CO2 into the atmosphere, every additional acre released from federal control so a few billionaires can get richer by mining, drilling, logging is lopping off health and life for future generations. That is, assuming the planet survives beyond the generations already born.

Planetary survival was at the heart of a recent Commonwealth Club program titled “A Four-Zero Climate Solution.” Climate One founder/director Greg Dalton brought together three leaders in the field to talk about the growing problem and discuss potential solutions. (Just to hear the words ‘climate’ and ‘solution’ in the same phrase is somehow heartening.) Panelists included Kate Gordon, a Partner in the Sustainability Practice of Ridge-Lane LP and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of clean energy and economic development; author Hal Harvey (Designing Climate Solutions😉 and Stanford professor Arun Majumdar, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Climate One 11.13.18
l to r: Arun Majumdar, KatenGordon, Hal Harvey, Greg Dalton

The panelists were talking about answers to the critical state of our plant’s climate being a four-pronged solution: getting the carbon grid to zero, switching to zero-emission vehicles, replacing (eventually – but all of this is long-term thinking) existing buildings with zero net-energy buildings, and moving toward zero-waste manufacturing. It’s complicated, politically fraught, and no easy task. But there IS a solution.

Now – if only we could start working toward it, our grandchildren might still have a planet. Most estimates – by people with working brains, that is – are that we have another 10, maybe 12 years max to tackle the problem; after that we can start looking for a way to move to Mars. But Mr. Trump just shrugs off the report issued by his own White House detailing what is clearly happening, saying, “I don’t believe it.”

We are in deep trouble.

No Birthright Citizenship? EEEeeek!

This birthright-citizenship-ending business is getting personal. Surely Mr. Trump has nothing against me exactly – although one can never be sure. I don’t follow his tweets (until they are reported on real news,) but he may have access to my emails. Still, how does he feel about us birthright outliers? And where will we wind up? Stateless?

Birth Certificate - Portugese
They don’t write ’em like this any more. I mean, who even learns cursive?

Here’s the whole story. When I arrived on the planet my mother (along with my father and three older sisters) happened to be in Porto Alegre, Brazil. They’d actually been there for a little more than a decade, my dad helping start a school and my mother teaching music to preschoolers. A dozen or so of the latter were her bridesmaids in tiny matching dresses she made and oh, how I wish I could put my hands on that photo. But back to the birthright.

Since my mother (a legal, if temporary, immigrant) happened to be in Porto Alegre, I was born in the German hospital there. Brazil, being a friendly sort of country, immediately granted me citizenship.

Birth Certificate - US Parents
Will this do, if we axe the birthright citizenship?

 

Not to be outdone, the USA simultaneously granted me citizenship, under the “American Parents Abroad” act. And that, for a number of years, was that. (But is the APA still OK? Should we trust those babies born in shit-hole countries not to be inherently terrorist?)  My family came back to the States when I was too young to have started learning Portugese – more’s the pity; it is a beautiful language. I grew up hardly even noticing my dual citizenship.

Then I reached voting age. When I registered to vote there appeared a mildly ominous-seeming document stating I must renounce my Brazilian citizenship (no dual citizenship allowed in the scary 1950s.) So with hardly a passing thought to my birthright country I renounced it. This might make me okay with President Trump, I guess, though in hindsight it makes me a little sad. And conflicted. Dual citizenship is now possible, and I might want to relocate if things keep going south (or alt-right) in my chosen country.

Fast forward about a half-century. My irreplaceable Final Husband, learning I had never revisited the country of my birth, suggested we should go back. Five minutes later I was on the phone (this was the 1990s, but pre-email) making arrangements and reservations. My favorite exchange was with a hotel reservations clerk in Rio who said, “Oh, you cannot stay one night in Rio. You must stay two, three nights in Rio.” (Which we did.) The primary plan, though, was to visit Porto Alegre, and the Instituto Porto Alegre where my father had famously served.

Passports
My two 1990s passports

 

Initial plans made, we set out for the Brazilian Consulate to obtain visas. “Oh, you cannot travel on a visa,” the nice lady said to me – after granting my husband a visa. “You were born in Brazil; you will need a Brazilian passport.” Which was a little startling, but as it turns out the passport is cheaper than the visa. Small victories. In time, my new passport arrived – in my birthright name, which is not exactly the name on my US passport or airline tickets, but who’s worrying about details?

Me, actually. I figured I might get into Brazil and never get out. But all was well. We visited Iguacu Falls, surely one of the most beautiful spots on the planet (after spending the requisite few nights in Rio and taking photos ostensibly of me but really of the gorgeous girl(s) from Ipanema in the background.) Mostly, I went around smiling at everyone, displaying my passport to sales clerks and waiters and saying muito obrigada – essentially the full extent of my Portugese. Nobody didn’t smile back.

Brazil - Ipanema
Girl from CA; girls from Ipanema

Safely home, things rested for another decade or two. But now our president is saying – constitution be damned – that he might just delete that birthright citizenship. Does he mean just all those murderers and rapists storming the border, or since every immigrant except Melania is a potential terrorist, is he going for retroactive non-birthers? I.e., yours truly?

A quick call to the Brazilian consulate yesterday informed me I am welcome to reinstate my Brazilian citizenship, even if my passport has expired. But now with Mr. Bolsonaro down there wanting to chop down the rain forest – not to mention his political opponents – my alt-birthright country isn’t looking so great either. Still, hedging my bets, I’m hanging onto all these documents. And praying a lot for the whole planet.

Art can still save us. Believe.

Ward show 2018 BrennanWard Schumaker is an artist who creates striking paintings, makes beautiful books and speaks truth to power. His show TRUMP PAPERS (Hoisted by his own petard) recently opened at the Jack Fischer Gallery, 1275 Minnesota Street in San Francisco. It consists of works recently done that immortalize the immortal words of our president — words we try to ignore but should never forget. And a few words about him, including the ones spoken by former CIA Director John Brennan that I’m leading off with (left) because they express the beliefs of the majority of Americans, those of us who did not vote for Mr. Trump.

The paintings speak for themselves. So I’m pasting a few of them in here:

Ward show 2018 Feminism

Ward show 2018 McCain

Ward show 2018 EPA RulesWard show 2018 Russia

Words matter. Policies also matter. It’s very hard for some of us who are grandparents to see the planet our grandchildren will inherit being destroyed while the denier-in-chief looks only at profit margins.Ward show 2018 Charlottesvl And his adoring base. It’s also hard to watch what’s happening to other people’s grandchildren at our borders. Or the disappearance of decency and civility that we wish for our grandchildren’s world.

Fran & Ward 10.20.18
Artist & Writer

 

 

 

 

 

But back to the words. In TRUMP PAPERS, Ward Schumaker emblazons them into our psyches, just in case we might forget. His earlier show of paintings memorializing Mr. Trump’s sayings, Hate Is What We Need, led to an eponymous book now in its second printing (also available at Jack Fischer Gallery, Minnesota St or 311 Potrero Ave.) I gave copies to several friends, precipitating some interesting conversations. Do I want this book on my coffee table? Could we give it another title? Do we need to immortalize these stupidities? Questions worth pondering. But if it’s true that those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as Santayana reminded us, Schumaker’s paintings will definitely help guard against repetition in years to come.

Ward show 2018 Kinds-CagesThere was, also, a note of very good news at the opening of the TRUMP PAPERS show. A soft-spoken young girl, about 10, was quietly creating her own art work on a ledge at the back of the gallery. A note lying among her drawings informed the curious that they were for sale for $1 (four or five digits less than most of the works available at the Jack Fischer Galleries) and that all proceeds were for immigrant children. Her name was Mila. I paid double the asking price for my selection, which is shown below. Maybe her words will eventually drown out all these others. Go see the show if you can.

ward-show-2018-kid.jpg

 

 

 

 

John McCain & Death with Dignity

McCain, John-012309-18421- 0004
Official portrait (Wikipedia)

John McCain did it right. Not just carefully constructing the last word in his acrimonious exchange with Mr. Trump, or in the countless ways he demonstrated patriotism, dignity & courage and pointed out how democracy is now being threatened. I disagreed with his political positions more than I agreed with them, but in the last few years I’ve sent him more than one thank-you letter. The thumbs-down elicited my most enthusiastic note. But here’s what else he did right:

John McCain kept control of his dying – which is to say, the last piece of his living. In so doing, he left one more gift to America: some suggestions about how to die.

We spend untold energies, and untold billions of dollars, on the national obsession with avoiding death. In exremis we go to the Emergency Room – where tests and procedures are undergone, suffering is often prolonged and increased, and costs skyrocket.

Kathryn group1
Talking about dignified death with Kathryn Tucker

Here is some food for thought from a recent Arcadia Healthcare study: Just looking at the costs (forget the pain & suffering) of the final months of care according to where that final month took place – for the 42% who died at home, $4,760. Another 40% died in the hospital: $32,379. Dying in a nursing facility came in second from the top at $21,221.

I have no idea where John McCain was when he died, but I’d be willing to bet he was at home. Home is where 99% of us say we want to die – but we don’t work very hard at making that happen. Instead, we put off making plans, writing advance directives, talking to friends and family about what we want, planning our funerals. Seriously now, do you have anything written down about what you’d like for your memorial service? Senator McCain reportedly spent eight months at the end of his life lining up eulogizers, specifying music, contacting speakers, saving his family that often burdensome task.

Kathryn Tucker 9.20.18
Kathryn Tucker

But it’s the business of dying – living as one chooses right up until the time of death – that McCain seemed to do so well. Not many of us pay such attention. He apparently didn’t need to hasten his dying, but we would all do well to know about hastening, whether we choose it or not. Even in states where medical aid in dying is legal, dying patients put off making their own decisions, or find out too late that their physician will not participate. Fortunately for us all, there are people like Kathryn Tucker, Executive Director of the End of Life Liberty Project, fighting to protect and build the movement toward death with dignity. (I was privileged to host an event for the distinguished Ms. Tucker recently, hence the photos.)

So maybe you’re not as strong-willed as John McCain. Maybe you don’t have access to the Navy Band for your memorial service. But you can acknowledge that dying is something we humans do and write down what you want (or don’t want, like painful, expensive last-minute heroic measures) for yourself as you’re doing it. You can TALK to family and friends. You can send a contribution to ELLP. Or Death with Dignity or any on the other organizations working to make death with dignity possible.

 

Journey to Justice: 1300 Miles by Bicycle

DreamRider group
Jung Woo Kim and some of his fellow Dream Riders

Their stories are about growing up in immigrant families, with parents working long hours six and seven days a week and very young siblings resolutely looking after each other. But their focus is on the future – a better future for people everywhere. Humankind.

A dozen young immigrants – Dream Riders – are sharing their stories, and their hopes for the future, as they bike from Seattle to San Diego on a Journey to Justice, part of the Citizenship for All campaign. The support van traveling with them carries the usual – First Aid supplies, water, energy bars – and one not so usual essential: a lawyer. That’s because eight of the riders do not currently have legal status and their route is filled with pitfalls like immigration checkpoints. If they’re stopped they follow this protocol: Keep calm and quiet. Don’t consent to being searched. Call the lawyer.

DreamRider Bo Thai
Dream Rider “Bo Thai” talks of hazards & inspiration

The group stopped by Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco recently for breakfast and a brief press conference. Hearing their stories, and the stories of some supporters, was a reminder of how lucky America is to be a nation of immigrants – especially with immigrants like these still wanting to become citizens despite the hurdles and hostility they face.

Mi Jin Park, currently protected by DACA, spoke eloquently of being at school with her brother when they were 5 and 7, in a crowd of children waiting for permission to leave with their parents. Park would tell the teacher in charge that she and her brother had to meet their mother on the corner – and then the two would run all the way home, to their tiny apartment in a sometimes scary neighborhood. They would lock the door and look after each other. Her brother would constantly call the nail salon where their mother worked long hours six days a week, just to hear her voice and ask when she would be home. “When I think of those immigrant children now being separated from their parents at the border . . .” Park began . . . but she couldn’t finish the sentence.

DreamRiders-Joann
Calvary Pastor Joann Lee welcomes the Dream Riders

Some of the Dream Riders and their supporters entered the U.S. via harrowing journeys through deserts or wading across the Rio Grande river in the middle of the night. Some came long ago on tourist visas and simply stayed. It was very hard to meet these bright, funny, energetic young people and go home to PBS NewsHour’s report of the latest characterization of “illegal aliens” by some leaders of our country.

The Dream Riders are being sponsored by NAKASEC (the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium,) HANA Center, nd the Korean Resource Center. Any of them would welcome your support.

What do they want? Just a chance to live freely and to contribute to their community. (NAKASEC works for, among other things, Youth Empowerment, Education Access and Adoptee Rights.) What precepts do they follow? Live Right, Know Your Roots, Live Strong, Live Together.

The framers of the Constitution couldn’t have put it better,

On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2
by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18
With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.