FamilyHistory

Questions I never asked my father about London

The last week of May through the first week of June is an emotional Everest for our family. My wife lost her father, our beloved Nanu, six years ago June 5. My father passed away on the 31st of May thirty four years ago. June 5 is also my brother’s birthday, May 26th is my youngest son’s, and May 29th is mine. The day my father died feels like one continuous day encompassing my college graduation, my birthday and his passing.

We try to keep our fathers in memory my wife and I. It is difficult, but to lose those essential connections is unthinkable.

My father would sometimes recount to my siblings and I — in bits and pieces and partial stories — his memories of the second world war. Any given thing could bring out Daddy’s stories — a question we would ask, a documentary, a book one of us was reading, music on the radio, a rainy day at home.

The media obsession with the “D-Day” event and the particular narrative promoted, which persists in being white Anglo middle/upper class, brings his stories back to mind. The photo in this post is from a page from one of his journals, sometime in 1942/43.

My father was 18 when the event now known as “D-Day” occurred. He was a sailor aboard LST-400, a ship that transported soldiers and tanks and other material to some Normandy beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.

He was a Black man-child from Atlanta, one of nine children. He had enlisted in the Navy as a 15 year old. I always liked to think that it was partially just as a way out of the extreme racism and poverty that he found himself situated in. The Great Depression had barely subsided — or at least that is the history book mythology that I have accepted — I really doubt that he or my uncles and aunts experienced any dramatic improvement in their standard of living in the 1930s an 40s. Their father, also a veteran, had died in 1938 from the deep psychic wounds of the First World War.

My mother recounts that my father and a friend had hopped a freight train to Detroit and enlisted there. The Navy had sent my grandmother papers to verify that Daddy was a few years older than he really was (15). It seems that the U.S. had no problem taking child soldiers. I remember him talking about having to jump 100 feet into a tank of water. How was the basic training, what obstacles did he face? Who were his friends? How were Black sailors treated? Was it any better or worse than every day life in 1940s Atlanta?

What did he think as the ship sailed from Virginia across the Atlantic? He would talk about a battle off of the North African coast. How they had to pull badly burned sailors off of a sinking ship. I think that this was a landing in Tunisia called Operation Torch.

I know now from the ship muster rolls that there were Filipino sailors on LST-400 as well. What were there names? How did they spend the hours from one engagement to the next. How did they keep their mind away from the madness. Were they equally as young, conflicted in having to fight for one imperial power against another? Did they will themselves to see hope? Did they come with a dream of U.S. citizenship for their service, or was it simply enough for them to envision a Philippines free of Japanese or U.S. control?

He loved Billie Holiday. Did they allow him to play Billie and Duke aboard the ship? In his journal was an entry listing London clubs to visit — a place called the West Indian Club in London caught my eye. Was jazz played there? Did he spend evenings listening to local musicians playing a melange of jazz and Caribbean rhythms? What was Black London like in 1943?

He would talk about a landing, an invasion I suppose, that they made in Sicily. I looked at the ships logs from that operation recently. It was a small town named Gela, Sicily. According to the logs, other ships in their group had been badly damaged. They were strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt aircraft and by the Italian air force. Their home port was Bizerte, Tunisia. Many of the Tunisians would I meet since his passing had the same toffee brown skin. Did he ever consider just slipping into the crowds headed to Tunis?

After the invasion, did they go ashore to Gela? Who did he meet in Italy, what did they say? He mentioned being involved in providing food and other basics to the people of that town. Were there conversations, encounters that made an impression, made him think differently, informed the compassionate person I knew?

He would tell us about how thick the sky was on June 6, 1944 with aircraft. About soldiers falling in the surf. I remember his stories of attending to starved German soldiers, most younger than him. Were those among his thoughts when he would look off into the distance at something I could not see?

He passed away 34 years ago. I lament that the images that we see as D-Day is “celebrated” (it is a strange word for a period in which 27,000 people were being murdered each day) do not capture what he experienced. Celebration is a strange word for a tragedy that was enabled and abetted by the inability of all countries involved to confront injustice head on. Like the Billie Holiday song, it was bitter fruit.

There are so many questions that remain with me:

What was it like to be a Black teenager thrust into adulthood on a ship, thousands of miles from home?

What did you do after those days after the landing? What did you fear, what did you hope for?

What were the things that gave you hope? What were the soul wounds that you had still to heal from?

My wife, children and I were in Paris during the “Victory in Europe” anniversary this year. I believe that is the day that when most of the savagery came to an end — but how does one ever leave the images and pain. I remember hearing bells ringing. I wonder if it occurred to him to stay, to just find a quiet, humble town in France to just be free.

What difficulties did you face getting the benefits to which you were entitled? The book “When Affirmative Action was White” details the discrimination that Black veterans faced in getting the home and business loans, healthcare, and other benefits provided to white sailors. Was the G.I. Bill just one of the many half-truths you faced? Who heard your frustrations, how did you reconcile them?

You never had a peaceful sleep all the days that I had with you. What were the visions that would not leave? Did anyone delve deeply into them and unlock and free you from the demons of having seen what you did? How does it feel to be free now?

So much of why I try to remember, to keep the questions in mind is simply that he not be erased.

I have over the last thirty years spoken to people who survived this period in forced labor camps, who were child soldiers in the German army, people whose parents lived in India, China, Russia. For many “war” was not a place you went, but a condition that knocked upon the door daily. None of their stories of this time seem to fit into the neat script. They all testify to loss and living with both hope, brokenness, kindness and acknowledgement that some wounds do not heal.

I just hope that the stories live and guide us so that the pain will not be repeated.

inclusionPoliticsSocial JusticeTravel

Cuba as a prayer to inclusion

As the current administration of the U.S. continues to place restrictions on travel to Cuba, my heart aches, and my mind goes to back to amazing days that we spent in Havana and Trinidad last summer.

A year later, impressions remain with me. Walking the streets of Habana and Trinidad, one is left optimistic on what inclusion could be. As we traveled across half the island, and from one end of Habana to the other, I was struct by the absence of the “Black ghettos” — the all too familiar racial segregation that is imprinted on each and every U.S. city that I have ever visited.

I was struct by the fact that the resources, though humble, were shared by all across gender and color. People of different hues and ages did Tai Chi in the park. Occasional people on the street made sarcastic comments on the Castros or Trump, the bureaucratic inefficiencies, the resources constrained by the embargo.

But the generosities were unparalleled. The warmth is still in my heart.

Along the roads, I was struct by the absence of police. Or rather it was the absence of omnipresent force — of the signals that lethal violence is around the corner, trained on Black bodies. The occasional officer, there to mitigate traffic issues, no military grade automatic weapons, that’s what I needed for a vacation.

Seeing people with access to a basic burial, children able to attend a dance class without their parents having to defer due to money, people with access to a simple loaf of bread regardless of the meager cash on hand.

We saw families coming together to say their goodbyes.

I cannot unsee inclusion, I cannot unsee the basic respect for basic human dignity. I cannot unsee humanity in practice.

I hope that you visit soon.

HistorySocial Justice

Do we need prisons?

Should we end prisons? I have been thinking through this question since reading a recent New York Times article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s efforts to dismantle, if not slow the role of, the prison industrial complex. Her focus has been the California prison system and has a book you should check out called The Golden Gulag.

Whatever your views on the criminal justice system, you owe it to yourself and your community to read the article. Angela Davis has been talking about this for decades.

My current thinking is that the prison abolition movement is really about getting a dialog going to question our assumptions about prison. Even getting the prison population down to 1980 levels would be a positive step.

For example, the definition of what constitutes a crime itself is constantly in flux. A good deal of Nobel Prize winners were imprisoned, from Martin Luther King to Andrei Sakharov. People in Georgia serve prison sentences for selling marijuana, in Colorado and California marijuana sellers get venture capital. Missouri wants to imprison doctors for performing safe abortions. So even in the “nation of laws”, the laws are arbitrary, are not equally applied across race, gender, and class, and can change in an election. But the sentences are still extreme and rip apart families and communities.

I struggle with the issue of violent crime. I don’t think the people who stole my bike or car radio need to have their voting rights suspended or their families jacked up. I don’t feel that serial murderers need to be on the street. But most of the countries with low murder rates don’t lock up murderers indefinitely. Those countries seem to take rehabilitation seriously.

Let’s put it this way. Somehow, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, South Africa, and Liberia found a way to reintegrate people who’d committed unspeakable crimes. Surely if broken child soldiers can be put back together in poor countries, then there has to be a way to put back together the people that we now lock up and put away indefinitely in the “nation of laws”.

A dialog needs to happen.

As usual I’m on the hunt for data, particularly in Georgia.

What do you think?

AIAlgorithmsSocial Justice

San Francisco passes facial recognition ordinance

San Francisco recently passed an ordinance controlling the use of facial recognition in the city. The ordinance was in large part thanks to the pioneering research of Joy Buolamwini.

The argument against the technology is twofold: first, the technology is highly invasive in public spaces and may constitute a direct threat to basic (US) constitutional rights of freedom of assembly; secondly the feature extraction and training set construction methodologies (for newer deep learning based models) have been shown to have racial and gender biases “baked in”. For example, the systems analyzed in Buolamwini’s work are less accurate for Black people and women — either because the data sets used for training include mostly white male faces, or the image processing algorithms focus on image components and make assumptions more common to European faces.

Consider uses in policing, where an inaccurate system mis-identifies a Black or LatinX person as a felon. Especially when there is no transparency into the use or internals of such systems, the chances for abuse and injustice are in incredible. Despite these concerns, Amazon shareholders think it is ok to release the technology on the public.

Do you know if such a system is deployed in your city? If so, are there measures to control its use, or make audits available to your community? If not, have you considered contacting your elected representatives to support or discuss appropriate safeguards?