Archive for the history Category

July 4th 2017

Posted in civil rights, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It with tags , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by Louise Steinman

Today seems a good date to start a new document, a new journal. A date that is supposed to be patriotic. In which we might feel the weight of our national experiment, now verging towards national calamity. In which we try to keep our chins up and our hearts strong. In which we feel the sickness churning in our stomach as our malevolent buffoon-in-chief insults twists lies trammels all the values we hold dear. As he creates suffering for the vulnerable. As he loosens restrictions on pollution. As he pulls out of the Paris Climate accords. The list is long and growing. Hold back the tears and bring out the magic markers. Make our signs. Make our phone calls. Steel our wills.

A second visit to the Kerry James Marshall show at MOCA, the last weekend before it closes, is a stirring reminder of what an artist can do to deepen our understanding of our country’s tortured race history and as well, its resilience. He does so by including those who have been excluded from the shared narrative, by painting them back into the national story,putting them center-stage into the American storybook, into small towns, into the backyard barbeques in Culver City,CA in the 50’s of my childhood, barbecues in parks to which no African-Americans were invited. To the neat streets-on-a-grid post-war stucco one-story houses in the city where I grew up– where African-American families were not allowed to buy a home, not allowed to live. It was called a covenant. it was silent. And for what was absent– I then had no questions.

The galleries at MOCA are more crowded than I’ve ever seen them. Everyone in this diverse crowd is absorbed in these astonishing paintings. I watch a man pushing his diminutive fine-boned grey-haired mother’s wheelchair through the exhibit. They pause in front of each painting to examine it closely. He is tall; so he kneels down beside her in the chair, pointing out the images– the yellow birds, the couple in the grass. The two of them enter the painting, smiling, occasionally frowning. Taking it in. As does the little girl whose sequined shirt glitters in gold synchrony with the drapes of rope—– a sinister signifier– on a painting of the blue sea. The angel in them middle of the living room adjusts a vase of flowers, bends before a wall-banner of mourning—JFK, RFK, MLK, reminds of the Watts living room of David Ornette Cherry’s aunt Barbara, Ulysses Cherry– who wanted his grandchildren to see all of Los Angeles, to see the Los Angeles beyond Watts. Who’d pile them into the station wagon on Sundays to drive west from Watts to the west, through Culver City, through Beverly Hills. But, David told me, “We always had to be back before sundown.” And why was that? I asked in all innocent ignorance. Because Culver City was a Sundown town, he said. And what, I asked in all innocent ignorance, was a sundown town? A town where African-Americans were not wanted. A town where you’d best leave before sundown. This the unofficial policy until the 1960’s in the town where I grew up. I didn’t know. I am ashamed I didn’t know. Until now.

Ceremony of Forgiveness/ Night before the Electoral College

Posted in history, Human Rights, reconciliation, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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Reeling from the latest barrage of globally catastrophic images—my mind gravitates to that startling and necessary image—beamed to us from Standing Rock.

It is the image of a U.S. veteran named Wesley Clark, Jr kneeling down, with veterans of various American combat units standing behind him—offering his formal apology to Lakota Medicine Man Leonard Crow Dog.

Who ever thought we would see this in our life time?

In his fine L.A.Times front page feature, reporter Sandy Tolan describes the veterans’ forgiveness ceremony: “Clark, organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock, noted that some of the veterans had served in the same military units that had fought during the Indian Wars. He wore the blue jacket and hat of the 19th century 7th Cavalry, evoking the 140 year old memory of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. As it happened, he spoke on Custer’s birthday, Dec 5.

‘We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our president onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land, and then we took your children and we tried to eliminate your language.. We didn’t respect you. We polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways.’

He removed his hat, dark blue with a gold braid, and lowered himself to one knee, as did the veterans behind him. ‘We’ve come to say that we are sorry,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘We are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.’”

You can’t smell the smoke from the sacred bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass while watching this scene on YouTube. But you can intuit the gentle weight of Leonard Crow Dog’s large hand placed on Clark’s head.

Tolan writes, “Someone let out a ululating cry, and fellow Sioux spiritual leaders offered prayers and songs of cleansing and forgiveness. Hardened veterans wept openly…. Then Clark and the other veterans, their faces twisted with emotion, began to embrace their Native American hosts. It was apparent that the former service members received far more in the forgiveness than they gave in supplies and the goodwill they brought with them.”

The veterans’ assembly at Standing Rock is a ‘gesture in the world’ in an age of symbolic gestures. A counter-image to the Morton County sheriffs in riot gear, wielding the infamous water cannons they used against peaceful demonstrators.

In her book, A Human Being Died Last Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela—the only psychologist on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission- lays out what an apology must contain in order for its words to “perform.” The one who apologizes must name the deed, acknowledge wrongdoing and recognize the pain of the victims. The apology must be unconditional. She points out how the victims hold a particular power in this dynamic: they can give or deny forgiveness. “They hold the key to what the perpetrator so desires — to rejoin the realm of moral humanity.”

These are veterans brave enough to bend on one knee, willing to ask forgiveness of the Sioux, on behalf of our government, on behalf of all U.S. citizens– for all the ways we have harmed them. Those veterans participated in this Ceremony of Forgiveness to rejoin a human realm from which they felt excluded. They did it for themselves. And they did it for all of us.

………..

I write this on the somber eve before tomorrow’s meeting of the Electoral College. Regardless of the petitions we’ve signed, the phone calls we’ve made, the emails we’ve sent, the outrage about the election that we’ve expressed— we’re not likely to stop the juggernaut. We’ll likely see the outcome we’re dreading come to pass.

In the late 19th century, philosopher William James called for “the moral equivalent of war.” He was asking, “How can we get the United States to have a great moral cause, that can unite us to do marvelous things?” As we gird ourselves for the weeks and months ahead, well need these symbolic gestures to guide us as we embark on our own “moral equivalent to war,” as citizen-activists. It may not be exactly what William James had in mind, but in opposition to the ransacking of democratic values by the Trump administration, oh yes, we will be united.

I’ll keep the images from Standing Rock close at hand, deep in my heart: the soldier bending his knee; the old man placing his hand on the young man’s bowed head, the undeniable presence of a terrible history, the unearthly yet human sound of those joyous ululations.

A Return (Chatham Cemetery, August 2016)

Posted in history, Pacific War, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, Travel on August 22, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Beth lives across the street from the rural cemetery in the town of Chatham, in New York’s lush Hudson Valley. On summer visits from bone-dry L.A., it’s a balm to walk between the pair of centuries-old sentinel maples into the cemetery’s vast silent greenspace; to stroll the rows of mossy granite headstones, shaded by ancient hawthorns and oaks.

I calibrate lifespans– the gravestones of women whose lives ended in their twenties in childbirth or flu pandemic. I ponder those who lived across the cusp of centuries and savor the musicality of their names: TenBroek and Van Tassell, DeMoranville. I always visit the graves of the three veterans of the Union Army’s “Colored Infantry,” their names erased by wind and rain on stone. Small headstones mark births and deaths of children who succumbed perhaps to whooping cough, diphtheria—- sending my thoughts veering to front page photos: young children dying now in besieged Aleppo.

Usually when we walk, we’re the only ones there.

A few days ago, we encountered a rare invasion: pick-ups parked along the gravel drive; young men with weed whackers cleaning around graves. What had summoned so many volunteers on a hot afternoon? A friendly matron collecting litter filled us in: a WW2 soldier was soon to return home. She pointed to a grave bedecked with small American flags where the remains of PFC George Traver, a Marine born in Chatham in 1918, will soon be re-interred from a mass grass on Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Pacific. Travers died there in November 1943, along with a thousand other Marines and some 4500 Japanese (most of whom fought to their death rather than surrender)– in one of the most hideous battles of the Pacific War. Exposed to the heat, the bodies decomposed quickly and the Marines buried their dead in one large grave. A Florida-based group called History Flight discovered Traver’s remains along with 35 other fallen Marines in May 2015.New radar penetrating technology revealed the decades-old mass grave on Tarawa, and George’s remains were sent—with those of the other Marines—to an Army facility in Hawaii. They identified him by dental records and the Boy Scout knife in his pocket. He’d written to his mother requesting it, wanting to carry into battle a souvenir from home.

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George Traver will be buried next to his Gold Star mother, Nellie V. Cramer, who received a Western Union telegram on December 23, 1943: “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”

Our now-tearful informant added that George’s mother waited thirty-five years for him, “until she couldn’t wait anymore.” For the ceremony coming up on August 29th, she added, there would be “full military honors—a firing squad and all…” I knew she meant a twelve-gun salute.

On our way back, we paused in front of the grave of another younger Chatham veteran, Joseph J, Wright. he was born in 1987, fought in Iraq, came home in 2012 and died two years later, in 2014. By mistake, the metal plaque from the government with his birth/death dates was delivered by FED EX to Beth’s doorstep on Cemetery Road. She searched out the young man’s obit, noting requested donations to the Wounded Warrior Project. The photo attached to this still-shiny headstone shows a handsome young man in uniform, “a beloved husband and father.”

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At dinner that night, we were joined by a mutual friend who grew up in Germany. When we told her about Private Traver’s impending return, and the mother who waited 35 years, she recalled an image from her own childhood right after the war: her young aunt sitting by the radio each night, listening intently to Deutsches Roteskreuz, the German Red Cross broadcast, hope fading that her lost soldier husband had been found somewhere. No matter the war, someone is waiting at home. I learned this when I made the trip to Japan in 1995 to return the flag my own father acquired in combat to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, who was twenty-one when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” one cousin told me. “The government just sent sand in a box.”

On today’s early morning walk, I followed the path by the cemetery pond, surprising a great blue heron who took wing towards the cemetery’s new Jewish section. There are only a few graves so far, all recent. On the headstone of Saul Cohen, someone’s “beloved father and grandfather”—his kindred have left copious small stones—as is the custom. The summer sky is blue with voluminous moving clouds. Crows chant sporadically from the high branches of the elms, the dead sleep their sleep and soon—after long delay, and in this long summer of our national discomfort. Private First Class George Traver, a native of this town, will join them.
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Art and Labor in the Pacific NW

Posted in Art and Culture, history, Human Rights with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2013 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Buster Simpson is an artist/activist who thinks globally and acts locally. His eye-opening career retrospective at the Frye Museum in Seattle opens with a grainy super-8 film of Buster from a few decades earlier. He’s a naked young David with a slingshot, symbolically launching his anti-acid rain purge stones at the Goliaths in the World Trade Towers. Buster is a art and environmental provocateur, a surveyor of lost places, a man who occupied the upper branches of a 100 year-old cherry tree to save it from Seattle condo developers then made a ladder out of the remains of the cherry tree so that he could climb into the next tree and try to save it from developers. Buster was my neighbor in funky downtown Seattle in the early 1980’s; we called him the mayor of Belltown. His intrepid dumpster diving kept our artists’ tenement well-supplied with day-old pastries from the Pike Place Market.

On this trip in August, as we waved goodbye to Buster, heading south from Seattle for Portland, he admonished us not to miss “the Wobbly murals in Centralia.” So we veered off the highway into that modest Lewis County town, its only claim to fame, as far as I knew, as the birthplace of avant-garde choreographer Merce Cunningham.

What I didn’t know was that Centralia was the site of an anti-labor massacre, where an innocent man was lynched, castrated and hung from the bridge on the Chehalis River. The man’s name was Wesley Everest. He was a veteran and a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World). He was pulled out of jail, handed over to his persecutors and murdered in the dark of night. The next morning, when Centralia schoolchildren crossed the bridge to go to school, his mutilated body still dangled over the river.

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A sleepy teenager in front of a liquor store drew a blank when we asked the location of the Wesley Everest mural but the fireman polishing his hook and ladder gestured toward City Park. There, on the façade of the old Elks Lodge (now an antique mall), is the magnificent 1997 mural by artist Mike Alewitz: “The Resurrection of Wesley Everest.” The mural commemorates the disastrous events of Nov 11, 1919, when members of the town’s business elite enlisted the American Legion, then a new veterans group, to attack the hall of the I.W.W. and lynch its secretary. In Alewitz’ visual narrative, the spirit of Wesley Everest rises out of his pauper’s grave, half-clothed in his veteran’s uniform, half in his logger’s overalls, both hands clenched and arms raised upwards to the sky.

From a well-informed man who worked inside the building, we learned that City Park was the very place where the crowd assembled before the raid on the labor hall. Our informant told us how the Armistice Day Tragedy had been “Centralia’s secret” for over eighty years.

“Anyone who wanted to talk about it would be rudely interrupted, shouted down or ignored. If you wrote a paper about it in school, it meant an immediate ‘F.’” People remembered whose family was with the business interests, whose were aligned with labor. Wesley Everest’s murderers were never brought to trial. But the young I.W.W.loggers who defended their own lives at the union hall (four American Legionnaires were killed) were framed and sent to prison for eleven plus years (one of them served 18 years) by a “special prosecutor” appointed to the task, a local attorney named C.D. Cunningham. “No relation to Merce..?” I asked half in jest. The reply startled me: “he was his father.”

Further study in the Los Angeles Public Library stacks (The Centralia Conspiracy,by Ralph Chapin, 1919) and the viewing today, on Labor Day, of a superb film documentary (“Lewis County Hope and Struggle: A Community Remembers the Wobbly War) by Olympia, WA-based filmmaker Anne Fischel tells labor’s side of the story. Fischel’s film corroborates the conspiracy on the part of the lumber interests to commit murder and violence to drive organized labor out of their domain. The lumber barons had no intention of limiting their profits on virgin timber by providing health care for their workers, by limiting their dangerous long work days, by ameliorating their miserable working conditions in the soggy NW lumber camps.

In a scene in her film, at the mural’s dedication in Centralia, in 1997, Fischel pans the assembled crowd. Lewis County was then in the grip of a terrible economic recession. These are working men and women, their faces creased and worn; the worry shows. Several of these witnesses are descendants of those I.W.W. loggers who went to prison for ten + years for their beliefs that there should be a more just society.

Alewitz reminds them all how the I.W.W. threatened business interests at the time because they dared to ask, “in whose interest should society be run?” It’s a question that Buster Simpson asks in his work, and on this Labor Day, with the spirit of Wesley Everest watching, it is a question we must all continue to ask.

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[photo by Joe Mabel, used under a Creative Commons license]

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