There is no secret about the fact that I grew up as a Black Nationalist. I think most Cobb readers are aware that I was present at the invention of Kwanzaa and participated in the very first celebrations, some of which were done at my family's house in Los Angeles. I have characterized my father as a scholarly flavor of cultural Nationalist. But I have always noted his unwillingness to talk about those days other than the broad descriptions of the fact that we were preparing to abandon the US back around 1968 and that the FBI had tapped our phone. Robert Bowen founded the Institute for Black Studies and the Redwood Theater Group. Both entities had offices on West Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles for a time. I've spoken of this from time to time. As well I have mentioned that I spoke French and Swahili at home as a child and that my father was in touch with many Movement individuals.
The few pages I read in the Nationhood binder were full of names to whom Mr. Bowen sent letters. These were the names of men and women of significance in the US public affairs. We spoke about this obliquely. I read the names listed on two pages of the binder out loud and listened to his grunting reactions. We children all know our father's grunts, do we not? The correspondance between my father and these individuals was a striking revelation. I do not know the extent to which those letters exist or their original content. There are a few notable individuals with whom I am certain a lengthy correspondance did take place. For example, I do know you can find one at the King Center's online archive. One thing I can say for certain is that there can be little doubt of my father's attitude towards the fate of black Americans in this country, and his saying out loud was certainly heard. He was a radical in no uncertain terms. If I ever doubted that the FBI had been following us, reading a few pages in Nationhood cleared that right up. I am now obligated to find out how much.
What is only mildly interesting is that my father never taught or expected any of us to hate or dislike whitefolks, so much as to take pride in our own accomplishments. But what is fascinating to me now is the relief into which it puts his life and its influence on my own. Here is a man who has the equivalent of Nazi war medals in his closet, and he must live life in the world which has defeated Nazism. Every thinking man faces the exuberence of his own youth, but he has had to mentally re-integrate himself into the society from which he had exiled himself, and us. Talk about reversal of fortune. He is a man of bold sophistication who has had to turn it all into an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life. I can only see it in the parallels of the lives of ex-Nazi war criminals and fathers of the nuclear age - men in their 70s genuinely interested in talking about everything but the past whose details are the object of our fascination. Here is Edward Teller sipping tea in the garden speaking about what a lovely day it is. Here is my father sitting in his library of Black Nationalist secrets complaining about how fat his dog has become.
To know anything about Pops today is to know his absolute devotion to the operation of the woman's shelter downtown where he never fails to volunteer, and to doting over us and his 10 grandchildren. His intriguing relationship with his Episcopalian faith, his dogs, his photography, his disgust for Wynton Marsalis and Satchmo, his love for jazz, the city and architecture and his irredeemable puns and goofy alliterations. His inability to keep any public prayer short, his Obama trance (which the two of us have learned to keep out of our conversations). All of these which make him interesting in the present lie in sharp contrast to the man he used to be.
Pops has over the past 3 years, come into what is now clearly a very comfortable grasp on his mortality. He is slowing down ever so slightly and much more open to talking about his end times, his satisfaction with his time on the planet. Today however, it is clear that his intentions with the Library are to leave them with the family.
I mentioned to him the fact that our old friend Dr. Ligon was singly unable to place his collection anywhere. As far as I know, the proprietor of California's first black bookstore, has a legacy in cardboard boxes that survived the LA Riots that burned down his place of business, but only just. Pops has insisted that the Getty have no parts of his photography and so I have taken the past 12 hours to transfer about 20% of his digital collection into my possession. What is to become of the rest of the Library? Well, we have a very solid connection to the African American Studies Department at Brown. So perhaps I may convince him at length to hand it over to them. Otherwise the secrets will remain in the family as is his current desire.
My father does not have any hunger, nor in fact is he properly constituted with the ego required for the spotlight his past would shine on him. And I cannot think but that I might exaggerate the importance of his writing and correspondance. He wasn't an attorney, nor a politician. He was in fact a genuine thoughtful man for others, a man of the people - a people whose best interests he believed lied only in their total independence from the United States. And when that possibility was aborted, he immediately turned to the cause of public health and became instrumental in the establishment of MLK Hospital in Watts, a legacy now more brilliant in intent than in realization.
I think .. no, I know that my father's legacy will be best illuminated through his photography. Some of it should be here at Wellington House. More will be soon.