Friday, September 2, 2016

Doing the Right Thing

There is no pleasure for me in turning the calendar to September.

Oh, I did it today, rearranging my perpetual calendar to reflect the change, but it's pulling out the four-month block - September, October, November, December - knowing that that's what I have to look forward to that signals the beginning of the end for summer fans like me.

And just as the month changes, so does the tone of local culture. We're more serious, more earnest, it seems, immediately.

I don't have to look any further than the opening of "Stump," the new photography show at Candela Gallery, for proof. I recently mentioned to a friend that never in all my years as a registered voter have I felt as appalled as at this election cycle.

Apparently on the exact same page as me is Candela Gallery's owner, who deals with it creatively by mounting a show of work addressing big issues, the scarred political landscape and what a general mess we now have on our hands.

Women's concerns, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Presidential election, consumerism, Guantanamo Bay, immigration, environmentalism, it's all laid out in an array of photographic processes for Richmond to consider.

Best of all, they also have voter registration (and changes to your status) going on every single day the gallery is open. It's a brilliant way of starting a dialog and engaging the community in a bigger conversation after being motivated by the artistic reminders on the wall of all that still needs addressing.

It is most definitely not a show you'd see during the lazy days of a goof-off summer. Nope, it's serious September all right.

The same could be said for the Virginia Historical Society's Created Equal Film series, which started tonight with a crowd that pulled from their noontime Banner lectures as well as attracting those specifically interested in the film "Rosenwald" about the Jewish Sears & Roebuck exec who'd established challenge grants to build 5,000 schools for black children across the south (you know, just a little hobby of a white man during the Jim Crow era).

That diversity meant there were maxi dresses, hearing aids, hippie types, grand dames and everyone in between. So much to see and eavesdrop on.

Sit anywhere. This is one place where anywhere you sit, the sound is great.

I can't help but notice a woman in her thirties passing the time reading a magazine, not a device.

Susan! How's retirement treating you?

A 20-something reads a hardback book, at least until her man arrives and then they both take out phones and address their attention to the outer world, not each other.

Do you have a good sight line?
Doesn't matter. Cataracts.
Are you any closer to addressing that?
I have to wait for Charlie to get better first.

Amazingly, the auditorium is filling completely up for a documentary about a rich Jewish man who gave away his fortune in the form of building YMCAs and schools for blacks, and then issuing grants and fellowships.

She's so busy with herself, she probably didn't even notice her husband wasn't there. That's my catty comment for the night.

The seats next to me were taken by a couple of history buffs who'd driven down from Stafford because of the subject matter.

Talking about race, his wife nudged him to share some of his memories, things like not being able to try on clothes at J.C. Penney, or always having to sit upstairs at movie theaters and not being allowed to eat at lunch counters.

She recalled being shocked at the difference in how history was taught when she moved from Ohio to Virginia in 1968. "In Ohio, the history books said the Civil War ended, but here..." she shrugged.

Let's just say it was the kind of audience who got excited and started murmuring when it was announced that at the next film in the series, Mary Sue Terry would be speaking.

Actually, when the speaker said that the Rosenwald schools were still in use all the way up until the Brown decision in 1960, many of them were just as vocal and a chorus of knowing "mmm-hmms" ran through the room.

My meager knowledge of Julius Rosenwald came from a book talk in this very same room a few years back, so about all I was sure of was that he'd been a terrific businessman and an early Civil Rights activist.

What came across loud and clear in the film was how much his Jewish faith shaped how he used his Sears fortune for good, mainly due to the Jewish commitment to philanthropy and charity as well as his fascination with Booker T. Washington's "Up from Slavery" and his revulsion over the pogroms going on in Russia at the time.

Early on in his success, his goal was to have $15,000: $5K to save, $5K to spend and $5K to give away. But he didn't just hand over cash; instead he expected the black community to come up with a third of the cost of a school, the white populace another third and he'd do the final third.

Fair is fair.

Needless to say, the communities raised the money and helped build the modern, light-filled schools, always built to be south-facing with high windows, probably familiar to the dozens of Rosenwald Schools graduates in the room tonight

Since most of the audience was of an age, they got a big laugh out of the film explaining the cultural significance of the Sears catalog with its endless, exotic and myriad choices.

"It was like what Amazon is today," some obviously millennial writer had penned. Thanks for the clarification, kid.

We learned that the Sears catalog was made specifically to be smaller than the Montgomery Ward catalog so it would always rest on top in a stack. How's that for marketing genius?

One woman summed up her allegiance to the catalog by saying, "You wished on it, then you could recycle it." Um, sure could.

But it was even more than YMCAs, schools and grants, though everyone from the "busboy poet" Langston Hughes to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin to Gordon Parks benefited from those grants.

He'd also built an enormous apartment complex in Chicago, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Building so middle class blacks had a safe and handsome place to raise a family. People in the film spoke glowingly of the "village" that covered an entire city block, offering stores, apartments and a huge enclosed garden where children spent entire days and summers safely.

The film made a case for Rosenwald's philanthropy being based on a shared sense with blacks of being part of a "despised race." Someone called him a man of righteous action, a label I think he'd have been fine with.

No man of righteous action would be able to accept our current state of racial progress, meaning if old Julius were still here, he'd be trying to do something about it. Seriously.

Especially now that it's September.

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