Fire next time

Beach fire Santa Cruz. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Beach fire Santa Cruz. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Darkness appeared in the corner of my eye. The sun dawdled splashing yellow and orange in her wake. Stars like motion detectors tracked the sun’s journey. And then suddenly, almost without warning, it was night. In the beauty of the evening it was easy to neglect the rotation and forward motion of time. Ebb tide, the waves teased the shoreline, waiting, where families danced the crescendo. On the beach friends gathered sharing stories and laughter. Beach fires, first flickering, grew stronger against the night sky, a shield against the darkness, a memory of color and warmth. In this context, fire is friend, a restorative. Staring into the magical flames, I reflect and imagine, a ritual connecting humankind across the millennia. But miles from here, on this summer night of the fourth year of our drought, fire crews are on the line, feverishly working to contain an inferno, capable of erasing entire communities. Difficult to believe on this calm, still night, but scientists say this pacific ocean nurtures El Nino; the infant, powerful, bringing rain and flood to wash away our sins. We live in a fundamental time; a time of powerful extremes. It is feast or famine, flood or fire; forces are in motion changing lives forever in a matter of seconds. A minor traffic violation, becomes a struggle for power; a match is lit resulting in a conflagration of unimagined consequences. Lives are ended, families devastated, and communities entrenched. And for what? How do we heal the rift and bridge the chasm?

The renowned African American writer James Baldwin published two essays as a book The Fire Next Time, taking it’s title from a line in a Negro Spiritual, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.” In the first essay titled The Fire Next Time:  My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, Baldwin discusses the history of race in the United States. Baldwin argues that Americans, black and white, must step outside themselves and re-examine what they believe, understand and fear.  Counseling his young nephew, Baldwin writes know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go…please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear…and if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it…you came from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.

Blackbird, bye, bye

Raven on a misty morning. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Raven on a misty morning. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Last Wednesday was a beautiful misty morning; perfect weather for a bike ride through the great meadow. Everywhere the fragrance of sweet wet grass, and fog covered my Santa Cruz campus like a blanket. Damp air kissed my face making rivulets of sweat and rain. Up ahead a great black raven perched on a young Douglas Fir calling out percussively toc toc toc; I responded with a smile singing “packed up all my care and woe, here I go singing low, bye, bye, blackbird.” Written in 1926, Bye, Bye Blackbird became a popular standard covered over the decades by jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Nina Simone. I climb the hill, my crank spinning deliberately, a revolution at a time, while I riff on John Coltrane’s cover of Bye, Bye, Blackbird. The great jazz saxophonist believed deeply in music’s power. In a 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky, published in Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Coltrane said “music is an expression of higher ideals…brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty…and there would be no war…I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.” It gives me great pleasure to write that the UC Santa Cruz Library Special Collections & Archives preserves and makes accessible the Frank Kofsky Audio and Photo Collection of the Jazz and Rock Movement 1966-1968. Selected photographs from the collection are available online including an image of John Coltrane and his wife Alice (on piano) in performance.

Field of Rainbows. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

Field of Rainbows. Robin L. Chandler Copyright 2015.

It is no small irony that segregationists opposed to the Civil Rights Movement played Bye, Bye Blackbird to taunt the Selma to Montgomery freedom marchers in 1965. In just another few days, 2500 cyclists, including me, will start our own kind of freedom ride, cycling 545 miles in the AIDS Lifecycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles to help make AIDS and HIV a thing of the past. We ride for many reasons: because we’ve lost a loved one or a dear friend to the virus; because we hope to honor persons living with AIDS by meeting the challenge of the ride; and because we just want to try and help people in need. Please support my cause by donating to the AIDS Lifecycle helping me meet my personal fundraising goal of $ 10,000. http://www.tofighthiv.org/goto/robchandlerJune2015 This week I completed my last long-distance training ride for this year’s AIDS Lifecycle, a ninety-five mile round trip distance between Santa Cruz and Monterey. On the training ride, I travelled San Andreas Road, where calla lilies and strawberries planted nearby Monterey Bay created a quilt of rainbow colors. Serendipity. As if to honor we AIDS Lifecycle riders traveling this road next week on the way to King City. I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.

Austin

Moore-Hancock Farmstead log cabin Austin, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

Moore-Hancock Farmstead log cabin Austin, Texas. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

In just under thirty-three days, the AIDS LifeCycle begins and we ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Cranking up the training, I’ve been riding some classic climbs in the Bay Area: Pinehurst to Skyline, the Three Bears and the Hicks Valley Wilson Hill Road. But recently I took a break to visit Austin, Texas the home of former Governor Ann Richards[1]. Austin hosted the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) annual meeting. It doesn’t take much arm twisting to visit the queen city of Central Texas. Because in Austin you can easily find great music (we saw Squeeze Box Mania at Threadgills which featured the great conjunto tejano accordianist Joel Guzman and songwriter / vocalist Sarah Fox), local brews (Thirsty Planet’s Yellow Armadillo Wheat) and Southern comfort food (fried pickles)! And April is a beautiful time to visit Texas. Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush nonchalantly grace street corners and boulevard median strips. And a quick drive outside the city limits brings sights of mother Longhorns doting on their calves frolicking in pastures among the spring wildflowers. A meeting like SAH provides the opportunity to dig deeper into the urban landscape and we participated in the post-conference tour Transition, Gentrification and Hidden History in Austin’s Black Neighborhoods. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many freed slaves migrated to the nearest town where they settled and established neighborhoods such as Austin’s Clarksville and Wheatville. Some freedman like Orange Hancock settled on land formerly

Longhorns, Bluebonnets, and Indian Paintbrush. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2013.

Longhorns, Bluebonnets, and Indian Paintbrush. Copyright Robin L. Chandler 2014.

owned by their masters such as the Moore-Hancock Farmstead. Built in 1849, the Moore- Hancock home is the oldest Austin log cabin on it’s original site and a tangible link to 19th century African-American history in north-central Austin. The Freedmen communities thrived until 1928 when the Austin City Master Plan achieved segregation by zoning East Austin as a district where services and amenities such as plumbing and paved roads would be provided to African-Americans. With this zoning plan, Austin sought to draw African-Americans to the East side of town and extinguish black neighborhoods encroaching on expanding white Austin. Some eighty-years later, East Austin is gentrifying as popular food venues such as Franklin Barbecue have opened (just down the street from the historic Chitlin’ Circuit nightclub the Victory Grill where one of my favorite blues players W.C. Clark got his professional start) and the Rosewood Courts Housing Authority seeks a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more about these neighborhoods, read Michelle Mears book And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedman Communities of Austin, Texas 1865-1928.

 

[1] HBO documentary films just released the film All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State and it is recommended viewing!

Bang the drum slowly

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square facing the Mississippi River. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

St. Louis Cathedral, Jackson Square facing the Mississippi River. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

The night was a feast for the senses. We walked into hot, steamy and packed Vaughns, everybody dancin’, greeted by Kermit Ruffin’s wailing St. James Infirmary. Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans came to mind: “what lit Wil up inside was the music – a ship on the river sounding it’s horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine…the music was all around him and inside him.”

New Orleans, Dan Baum writes, finds itself “perpetually whistling past the graveyard.” It is somehow fitting that St. James Infirmary, a blues single was first recorded by the New Orlean’s trumpeter Louis Armstrong in December 1928.  St. James Infirmary is a death lament, rooted in a 18th century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. This same ballad inspired the birth of the cowboy dirge the Street’s of Laredo, which in turn inspired Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark to write in memory of Emmylou’s father the poignant Bang the Drum Slowly.  New Orleans jazz funeral bands accompanying a procession to the cemetery typically play dirges and hymns, slow sober songs like Nearer My God to Thee, Old Rugged Cross or St. James Infirmary. The lyrics of the three songs mashup well, a testament to their origin…went down to St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, sat down on a long white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair…get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin, get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall, put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall…bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly, to dust be returning, from dust we begin.”

In August 2005, just days before hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, I attended the Society of American Archivist’s  (SAA) annual meeting in The Big Easy. Eight years later the archivists returned to honor and engage with the life of this unique American city. The Quarter, six feet above sea level, experienced Katrina as just another hurricane, water rose, and it drained away. But the Lower Ninth Ward on the south side of the canal and below Lake Pontchartrain, was devastated when the levee broke, and an African-American community lay on it’s death bed and nearly passed away. Dan Baum described life across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-20th century as “heaven for newcomers from the country…the lots…big enough for chickens, pigs and even horses…neighbors understood each other…you took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church…a quiet country life right there by good waterfront jobs.” Change is the essence of life, and we must accept this truth. The Lower Ninth Ward will never regain it’s former self, but rebuilding is underway. Organizations like lowernine.org and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation are putting volunteer energy and funding into creating new homes for the Lower Ninth’s community members. Many archivists participated in SAA’s service day serving as volunteers with lowernine.org during the annual meeting; Bill Ross, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches a class New Orleans: past, present and future, organized this opportunity working with Lowernine.

Oaks in the Texas State Cemetery.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Oaks in the Texas State Cemetery. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

The last week of August 2013 my stepsister Linda died after a five-year battle with cancer. Linda was a wonderful person:  devoted to her family and friends, fun, and smart…so smart. I know life is about impermanence, but the pain feels so permanent for those that loved her. And so many loved her; she was a much beloved daughter, friend, mother, and wife. Attending her funeral at the graveside in Texas, I remixed (again) and riffed on the lyrics of St. James Infirmary, Streets of Laredo, and Bang the Drum Slowly: let her go, let her go, god bless her…we beat the drum slowly and played the fifth lowly, and bitterly we wept as we bore her along, take her to the valley and lay the sod o’er her, for she’s a young cowgirl and she did no wrong.

Freedom, justice, and rights: blockbusters and sequels

Freedom, justice and rights.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Freedom, justice and rights. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Summer is typically the time for blockbuster movies and their sequels: Iron Man, Star Trek, X-Men; the list goes on.  But this summer, you don’t need to go to the movies to participate in blockbusters and their sequels. History it seems is a series of blockbuster events with sequels, taking the form of declarations, laws, court-decisions, executive-orders, opinion-pages, blogs, marches, rallies, and the unfortunate loss of dialogue manifesting itself as gridlock, filibuster or most regretfully as violence and battlegrounds on the streets where we work and live.

Several anniversaries of blockbuster events concerning freedom, justice, and rights in our nation’s history occur this summer; some are annual rituals, others are commemorations of significant anniversaries.  Juneteenth celebrated annually on June 19 commemorates the day slavery was abolished in Texas in 1865 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.  The Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 were a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent demonstrations by members of the gay community (many of whom were angry and fed-up drag queens) protesting a police raid on gay bars. As a result gay rights organizations and newspapers were formed in New York and nationwide seeking civil rights for gay Americans. As a result, the first gay pride march was established in 1970, an event celebrated annually in cities throughout the United States and the world.  July 1 – July 3, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg considered by many historians to be the turning point in the Civil War, whose origins lay in contentions over the abolition or extension of slavery in the United States. July 4th is of course our annual commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming all men are created equal, a statement universally adopted as human rights. On August 28th, our country will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where in 1963 more than 300,000 Americans rallied at the Lincoln Memorial calling for civil and economic rights for African Americans; this march is credited for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

This summer has brought several poignant sequels to these litany of History blockbusters.  On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson aimed at eliminating various legal strategies to prevent African Americans and other minorities from voting by preventing racial gerrymandering among other actions. The Court’s decision freed nine states mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting from the bench declared “the nation’s commitment to justice had been dis-served” Shortly after the decision, the State of Texas announced the voter identification law would be in effect immediately and that redistricting maps would no longer need approval.

On June 26, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court supported gay rights with two decisions favoring same-sex marriage ruling the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and the permitting a lower court ruling to stand that struck down the state of California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Practically, the decisions mean that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits and by declining to decide a California case, effectively permitted same-sex marriages to occur there, increasing to thirteen the number of states permitting same-sex marriage. The Court did not say there is a constitutional right to these unions, and the ruling left in place laws banning same-sex marriage around the country. In expressing the majority opinion on DOMA, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared the law’s basic flaw was the “deprivation of liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”

Although unrelated to the dilution of the Voting Rights Act, additional sequel events happened this summer raising concerns about the erosion of freedom, justice, and rights for individuals in the African American community. On July 12, 2013 the movie Fruitvale Station, opened in Oakland, CA at the Grand Lake Theater. Not a blockbuster by Hollywood’s box office standards, the movie is a passionate, powerful, and important film for the local community and the world. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man tragically killed by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale Station in the early morning hours of New Year’s day 2009.  Ironically, the next day, July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Travyon Martin, another young black man. Like the Grant experience, reaction to the Martin verdict included marches and demonstrations (some sadly degenerating to unnecessary violence and destruction) and sit-ins such as the Dream Defenders occupying the area outside Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office demanding the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law and the end of racial profiling. On July 16, 2013 Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that criticized “stand your ground laws” in the wake of the Florida jury’s verdict  acquiting George Zimmerman ; in the speech Holder stated stand your ground laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.” [1] Accepting the jury verdict, President Obama on July 19, addressed the frustration of the African American community saying “it’s young men are too often painted with a broad brush as potential criminals….black men in the United States, himself included, commonly suffer racial profiling.” He also said that “thirty-five years ago Trayvon Martin could have been me”

The blockbuster historical events and their sequels continue. Will we take part?  To be measured, History must be made, and each of us has a role in History making.  History can be made by forming our opinions through reading, thinking, and by voicing our opinions through word and deed. August 28th, 2013, Washington, D.C. will host the the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Conferences and a rally will be held and a grassroots civil rights movement will be launched at 3PM that day called “63 Minutes of Peace.” 3PM was chosen, because that was the time Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream.”  The idea is to take 63 minutes of your day to volunteer to help change someone’s world, be it mentoring a young person, aiding a homeless person, or participating in voter registration.” So, in some cases we have made progress, and in others, there is much work remaining to be done. In the end, we must progress forward; we must voice our opinions and take action to achieve freedom, justice, and rights for all persons.

Poinciana on Central Avenue

Circuit M.T.G.: Yumiko Koshima, Adrian Turner and Darrell Morgan.  Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

Circuit M.T.G.: Yumiko Koshima, Adrian Turner and Darrell Morgan. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

“Check this out.” I listened closely as Adrian Turner queued up Poinciana by the Ahmad Jamal Trio.  “It’s highly structured and orchestrated…the spaces deliberate, equal to the sounds.”  In his book The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia wrote “Jamal was a harbinger of the future of jazz…his studied use of space influenced Miles Davis and anticipated the later work of Bill Evans…the charm of Jamal’s music came rather from his ability to maintain the swing, emotional conviction, and mood of his music even when playing the fewest notes.” Moments later, Adrian and his friends Darrell Morgan and Yumiko Koshima took up the bass, drums and piano, respectively, and the trio began the hard work of crafting their original compositions into a performance, inspired by the sparse, cool sounds of Ahmad’s piano and his colleagues Vernal Fournier on drums and Israel Crosby on bass (archival film footage of the Ahmad Jamal Trio in 1959 is available on YouTube). Three months later in June 2013 the trio  – Adrian, Darrell and Yumi –  now calling themselves Circuit M.T.G  – are joined by saxaphonist Dereck Mclyn and vocalist Annabel Lee for an evening of jazz and dance called Prime Spirit at ArtShare L.A. (a sanctuary for the arts in downtown Los Angeles providing live/work lofts and spaces for performance and exhibition). Their music is sublime; inspired, I sketch while they perform. It is a perfect evening, and I hope the music never ends; it brings me such joy to experience my good friend Adrian’s art, and although I’ve only briefly spent time with Darrell and Yumi I feel connected to them by experiencing their love for and commitment to jazz.

ArtShare L.A. is near the Fashion District and a couple of blocks from South Central; the steamy hot day is coming to closure as the sun sets behind the high rises of Bunker Hill. There is historical context for jazz performance in this place. In his forward to Central Avenue Sounds, Steven Isoardi, a cultural history writer and oral historian states “from the 1920s through the early 1950s…Central Avenue, extending from downtown Los Angeles south through Watts, was the economic and social center of the black population of a segregated Los Angeles…at night it became a social and cultural mecca, attracting thousands of people from throughout southern California to its eateries, theaters, nightclubs and music venues…this nonstop, vibrant club scene produced some of the major voices in jazz and rhythm and blues and it was the only integrated setting in Los Angeles.”  The book is based on excerpts from the UCLA Oral History Program’s interviews with musicians such as female trumpeter Clora Bryant (who played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington) and Buddy Collette (well known as a member of Chico Hamilton’s quintet).  Looking West at the sunset for a moment I imagine the community, so vibrant in the years just before I was born, documented pictorially in Carolyn Kozo Cole’s Shades of L.A.: Pictures from Ethnic Family Albums and captured by Walter Mosley’s hero Easy Rawlins in a series of novels starting with Devil in a Blue Dress.  Paraphrasing the historian Mina Yang, many factors played a role in the demise of Central Avenue: a downsizing post-WWII economy deprived many African-Americans of jobs; upwardly mobile black families were able to move out of South Central with the U.S. Supreme Court 1948 ruling making housing covenants illegal; and the merger of formerly segregated musician’s unions permitted black musicians to play in venues in other parts of Los Angeles.  But for insight into the role police played in the destruction of the neighborhood read Yang’s article A Thin Blue Line down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub.

green fire

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright Robin L. Chandler

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and I have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”

Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac.  Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.

This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine.  It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.

Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation).  Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side.  “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations.  Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery.  Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.

There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated.  But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”