by Wanda Sabir
Ms. Betty Reid Soskin’s “Sign My Name to Freedom“ (2018) memoir follow-up is a collection of stories tied with a ribbon called, what else? “A Lifetime of Being Betty,” to be released Aug. 17. There is a special party arranged for Ms. Betty and others at the Little Village Foundation fundraiser that evening at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, beginning at 8 p.m. (Doors open at 7 p.m.) Tickets are $20 in advance, $24 at the door. Visit www.thefreight.org/event/1858290-little-village-foundation-berkeley/.
Founded by Jim Pugh, Little Village Foundation is a non-profit cultural producer and record label that searches out, discovers, records and produces American roots artists who might never be revealed to the masses. The artists highlighted along with Betty Reid Soskin are Anai Adina, Mariachi Mestizo, Enriching Lives Through Music, Mary Flower, Saida Dahir, Skip the Needle.
The wonderful selection of stories – the CD release on the eve of Ms. Betty’s 98th birthday next month covers territory many have not trod given the storyteller’s longevity. It is not everyone who lives in future perfect. Perhaps best known as the nation’s oldest park ranger, Ms. Betty holds court at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Museum.
What I love about the stories captured on Ms. Betty’s latest project is her voice and the quality of the narrative: There is suspense when she shares the story of a home invasion and humor when she talks about recruiting drug dealers to register people to vote. Such tales can be savored over a couple of weeks like a rich confection box too pretty to discard – the reflections, laughter and smiles still present after the 11 stories have concluded.
“A Lifetime of Being Betty” begins with a migration story, one that takes place decades before Hurricane Katrina, breached levees and finger pointing blame. Ms. Betty’s mother travels with her three girls to Oakland to stay with Papa George Allen, her father, after the levees are bombed in the 7th and 9th wards to save the white occupied Garden District from flooding. The blueprint for Katrina was lit in neon. Ms. Betty’s tone is matter of fact, yet it is a practiced levity.
Ms. Betty and I have a brief phone interview the week “A Lifetime of Being Betty” is scheduled for release.
Wanda Sabir: When I was listening to the various tracks on the recording “A Lifetime of Being Betty,” I wondered if you could tell me more about the three generations of women. I am a NOLA native and when you talk about the flooding and what happened to African American people and your family’s migration to Oakland, I am reminded of another great migration after a flood – Katrina.
Ms. Betty Reid Soskin: I didn’t realize until my 80s how unusual it was for me to have that connection back to my great-grandmother. She was born in 1836 into slavery, enslaved until she was 19 and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She married George Allen, who was enlisted in the Colored Troops fighting on the side of the North. She lived to be 102, which meant she didn’t die until 1948. That was three years after the Second World War.
My mother was born in 1894 and lived to be 101. My great grandmother lived to be 102. My mother was raised by my great grandmother, because her mother died when she was seven months old. My great grandmother became my mother’s mother.
I was born in 1921, so the three of us were all adults at the same time. I was 27 years old, married and a mother when my formerly enslaved great grandmother died. I knew her as the matriarch of my family. She raised all the adults who were significant in my life. She was very important throughout my young life – all of the stories came out of those grownups. I actually got to meet her several times before she died.
Those three lives, because we were all adults at the time, bridged everything in the American narrative – from the Dred Scott Decision to Black Lives Matter. (She laughs). Can you imagine that? And I didn’t realize how unique that was until I began putting those pieces together.
Wanda Sabir: I was thinking about St. James Parish, which you tell us about in this section, and I was thinking about Jamestown, Virginia, Fort Comfort and the 400 year anniversary of Africans’ arrival there. In one of the sections, you talk about the end of African imports, yet this did not stop the trade in human beings. You state the Southerners started breeding slaves and this is how your great grandmother was born.
Ms. Betty: [Though they had male slaves whose job it was to impregnate enslaved women,] the slave masters were [also] producing their own stock and that history has been pushed under the rug. We’ve never processed the Civil War [let alone the sordid history of slavery.] Until we do, we are doomed to live through it again. I think it is so sad. I think that is what we are seeing in the white supremacy movement.
WS: It is amazing that you have access to this rich history in the first person.
Ms. Betty: I think the internet has allowed us to make those connections in ways that former generations couldn’t. Those stories are available to more people than realize it. Everyone needs to be tracing their [histories] as far back as they can go. I know it’s hard to get past the slave trade, but it’s possible.
I’ve been able to do it. I’ve got my mother’s history, my maternal line back to 1631, and my father’s line back to the 1400s. My father’s family came into the United States before the Revolutionary War and before the Louisiana Purchase. The French Charbonnets became my mixed family in the 1830s.
WS: When did the African side of the family come in?
Ms. Betty: I really don’t know. My mother’s background is Cajun. My great grandmother was Cajun and Black. The Cajun people were agrarian; They worked their fields with their slaves. The “brown” Charbonnets [she says with a chuckle] were the result of a French Charbonnet taking up with a Black woman, perhaps a free woman of color in New Orleans, when he returned from Haiti. [Ms. Betty says it was an unhappy marriage.]
Those would be the parents of my great grandfather. I have been able to back up all that history and, because we live in a time where those racial barriers are breaking down, there are a couple neighbors of the Allen brothers, a couple of neighbors of the Charbonnets who are white, in tracing their families, found me.
Ms. Betty: And we began to exchange information. At this point we have Charles Charbonnet, who is a member of the white Charbonnets. We met at the grave of our ancestor in common [another laugh]. I feel so grounded in those stories because they come from a wide range of family members.
WS: Tell me about the Little Village Foundation that published your work and is having a benefit this weekend at Freight and Salvage, Saturday, Aug. 17, 8 p.m., Marcus Garvey’s birthday.
Ms. Betty: Oh really, she says with a smile. I didn’t know that. [She then shares a story of a family member who was a member of the UNIA.] The Little Village Foundation is presenting five new albums at 8 p.m. at the Freight and Salvage. I think they do this annually. There are three that are musical albums, mine and a spoken word album. We will all do something from our albums in an impromptu concert and the albums will be for sale on that day.
WS: In the first track, “From Lincoln to Obama,” you cover a huge territory. How does it feel to embody all this history? And you are articulate. There are other people who have lived as long or longer than you, but we don’t hear from them – we don’t know them like we do you.
You are a public person sharing this narrative with us in multiple mediums. When you talk about Rosie the Riveter not being representative of the Black women you know who worked outside their homes long before WWII and Kaiser opened a shipyard, we get a story absent the nostalgic reflections of whites.
You talk about your first job as a domestic, because that’s what Black women did. Your mother told you about the job and how much it paid – 50 cents an hour – and you worked Friday-Sunday, cleaning and cooking and taking care of the children and then on payday, the woman handed you a 50 cent piece. Crazy.
And you talk about the Black Panther Party and your entree through the Unitarian Church in the story called “Bag Lady” – she carried monetary donations to Kathleen Cleaver and Eldridge Cleaver in paper bags. Ms. Betty also advocated with the City of Berkeley to clean up the drug trafficking on Sacramento Street (1970s) and build affordable housing in South Berkeley – what became known as Byron Rumford Plaza, after the assemblyman who authored the California’s first and most important fair housing law. There is a stature of the assemblyman across from Reid’s Records.
Ms. Betty and then husband Mel Reid opened Reid’s Records, 3101 Sacramento, in June 1945 – to close October 2019 – for economic independence. They were tired of working for white people and the philosophical sharecropping that characterized Black employment. With the success of the record store which sold “race records” as well as gospel records, the couple had the kind of economic independence that demands respect despite structural racist mores.
You tell the story of taking your great grandmother and granddaughters to the White House, a building built by people of African descent, to meet President Obama.
Ms. Betty: You just put one foot in front of the other as you live your life. You do not know you are making history. I have been so fortunate, because I have been allowed by life to be able to not only chronicle my story, but the context that story came in. Being able to share that is a real privilege. I don’t think my life is different from anyone else’s. I think that what’s different is that I’ve simply stayed on stage. I haven’t retired. I’ve gone on being Betty.
WS: It’s so beautiful how you tell the story of being the “Bag Lady” for the Black Panther Party and now given the kind of official permissions given to white racists to kill those they do not like, you have the kind of expansive view to reflect on similar times in our nation’s past.
Ms. Betty: That’s who we were as a nation. It does not mean that that’s who we are now.
Stay tuned for two films, one in December produced by the National Park Service, the other in early 2020 with a soundtrack featuring Ms. Betty’s original music (smile).
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.