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.
Just to remind you such things actually do happen. Doc picked up some property out yonder.
My niece on the right is a student at one of our better private schools here in Southern California. Pops sent me something from their brochure - this scanned photo. We are naturally all very proud of our kids, and I would take this moment to remind ourselves that there are a lot of extraordinarily good things in our society that we have been getting right for a long time. I am reminded of the very fact that I too attended private school in Southern California. That was over 30 years ago.
My family could never afford orthodontics for us kids when we were growing up. I can recall knowing from the time I was in the sixth grade that the cost of braces were as much as 5 months of mortgage payments on the house I grew up in. It seemed to me an extraordinarily rich thing to do. Today it seems that everybody uses seven dollar toothbrushes, whiteners and cetera. I think I'll always think of advanced dentistry as a luxury and the mark of affluence and I suppose now that I've written about it, I'll take that as one more sign that we've made progress as a family.
Next week is Thanksgiving. I'm grateful already.
From Los Angeles, I bring you this collection of over 250 pictures of folks in and around the King Day Parade on Crenshaw Blvd through Leimert Park. Enjoy.
Truth be told, I've always wanted to be my grandfather. That's Raymond on the left in cool repose. He was an orphan of my great grandfather Charles Sparrow Bowen. He taught himself Latin and could quote from Ovid. He was the hardest happy man I ever knew and the only one who could shut up my father with a stare. In that he was enormously powerful, yet and still he remained inexplicably humble, especially in the presence of my grandmother whose nickname was Miss Madam. Miss Madam had the kind of presence that made you check your fingernails for dirt and otherwise stand at attention. I can still do a perfect imitation of his gruff voice, very New England he was.
On the right is Uncle Phil. He froze his ass off in Korea and partied his ass of back on the home front. I used to bounce on his belly and had nothing but love for him my whole life. He was the man whose presence let me know my father was not a completely square tight ass. He once whispered conspiratorially to me as I drove him to the liquor store as we ran short of beer one night that 'Your father is so full of shit, he's done worse than me but he doesn't want you all to know'. I responded 'I know', but I didn't and Phil knew I didn't.
These two are Old School for sure, had little tolerance for BS that they didn't initiate themselves. They lived for their families, which for Uncle Fat Phil was us. He didn't play the role and didn't play like he would. These were men who never complained about their lives. They are part of my strength.
...people took it for granted that Black people in this country couldn't swim. It wasn't really the case. They’ve were just never exposed to the ocean or they weren't attracted to the ocean but everyone knows Black people have rhythm. If you look at surfing, surfing is a rhythm, timing combined with a bit of physical ability and once they realize they can actually do it, they pick it up so much faster than a lot of the other kids...
Yes of course. What boy didn't love big fat steel Tonka trucks? Do you remember the commercial where the elephant stood on it? This has to be about 1967 or or 68. Deet looks like he's 3 or 4, that's about right. We moved to this house in 66 and that looks like Ditty peaking out the bedroom door. That was actually a battery powered bulldozer I was playing with, a big hunking yellow thing with rubber tire treads. Gotta give props to pops. He got me a bulldozer and a grader. The thing was, Deet's big plastic dumptruck was bright red. I liked it better than the one I got.
This would most likely be 73 but it could be 72. It was the big year for plastic boards. My green one is a custom, my brothers have GTs which were Makaha knockoffs. My board might have been a Bahne, I'm not certain. The others came with Cadillac wheels but they didn't say 'Cadillac' on them. They might have come out perhaps a year earlier. Not long after, I got better set of trucks and whistling Stokers and rainbow tape. We got all our parts for customization at the Schwinn shop on Santa Barbara. That's where I got my new trucks and Stokers. I got the biggest fattest Stokers they made. It looks like these old vintage boards are coming back into fashion. I also remember that my blank came with the holes pre-drilled so I could get the custom trucks. Do you remember the Black Knight?
My green board was totally tricked out - we were into street luge - when Deet let KK borrow it and he kicked it down the sewer. The summer of 74 I went to Paul Revere and was working on a new board that never got built. In the fall I went to private school and that was pretty much the end of my boarding career. Ahh but for a year or so.. I was right in the thick of it.