I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has supported me on my journey to completing my first novel. To those of you who don't know me or my work and are visiting this page for the first time, welcome.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to share with you a little of my progress as I begin research on my new book -- a yet-to-be titled historical novel, set in the 1920s and involving the founding and establishment of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the predominently African-American labor union, led by A. Philip Randolph. Sleeping car porters worked on the railroads, cleaning and preparing sleeping cars and acting as valets and waiters for passengers. The union struggled for more than a decade before they received recognition and equity from the Pullman Company.

As part of my research, I'll be traveling by train from Oakland to New York City, following the path of those porters from years ago. This trip will include a visit to the A. Philip Randolph Museum in Chicago. Along the way, I'll be sharing with you what I learn and experience. Thank you for coming along.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chicago Blues Shuffle

Well, the story of my visit to Chicago is like a classic blues tune, full of high hopes, disappointment and eventual redemption. Since I had filled my iPod with music by Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, (for reasons I’ll explain later) I decided that it would be fitting if this particular entry had a soundtrack. So, ladies and gentlemen, the Chicago Blues Shuffle.

(Note: I tend towards hyperbole when I’m frustrated and impatient. These might not have been the actual songs that I was listening to, at the exact moment that these events took place but they should have been. Press the play button on the sidebar for the appropriate track to accompany the narrative.)

It started off like any other great romance, with promise and excitement. We crossed the Mississippi around noon.(I got the Feeling I’m Fallin – Dinah Washington)I didn’t eat lunch on the train because I wanted to be ready to sample the fare of Chicago – deep dish pizza, caramel-cheese popcorn, hoagies. I had a few contacts and hoped that I’d be able to jump right into the city life. I had my bags packed and was waiting for the train to finally pull into Union Station.

Already the scenes outside my window had begun to change as we began to get closer and closer to Chicago. After miles of natural beauty from California, rugged mountaintops and canyons in Colorado, we had been riding past fields and fields of corn in Nebraska and Iowa. Tiny little train depots that had consisted of a single story shingled or brick buildings were pretty indistiughable from one another. As Chicago grew closer, the depots we passed still held that small town charm but instead aging farmhouses, shops and single family houses filled out the background. More and more people began to fill the shrinking spaces between buildings and sidewalks grew beneath their feet. Blue signs with the names, like Westmont, La Grange and Berwyn began to dot our tracks and underneath these names, Chicago in white letters accompanied by an arrow pointing straight ahead. Because of the position of my room on the last car of the train, I didn’t see the city until we turned east into downtown and then it slipped from my view as the train went underground.

When the train stopped, it didn’t matter to me that the air smelled like diesel fuel or that this platform looked like the set from the type of movie that I’m scared to watch by myself or that the old yellowing lights overhead made it difficult to make out much more than the other passengers disembarking from the train and the various freight and passenger cars lined along the platform. I was finally in Chicago. I had no idea how to get to the surface. I just followed the people in front of me, trusting that they weren’t leading me into some subway train hijacked by bio-terrorists or a rodent mutated by the chemicals dumped in sewer. The underground station is confusing but I keep dragging my suitcase towards the daylight.

When I finally emerged, I was met by sunlight and the skyline of Chicago. (This is Heaven to Me – Billie Holiday) Even from the sidewalk I could see the Sears Tower. The evening was cool and the breeze slightly passive. The cabbie told that I had missed the heatwave of the previous few days. Though my hotel was only six blocks away, I was impressed by the originality and variety of the architecture that I saw. My hotel was across the street from Grant Park, which I couldn’t wait to explore.

After I checked in, I called all the various contacts I had been given and no one answered, so I decided to go out on my own. I left with no specific destination in mind since I still didn’t quite know where I was relative to the sights of the city. (Its Magic – Carmen McCray) I head west, away from the Park and run right into the Chicago Public Library named after former Mayor Harold Washington – a building I think is magnificent – the perfect balance of traditional and modern. Staring at the gigantic copper gargoyles with their outstretched wings perch above the more traditional red brick facade of the building, I almost walked into on-coming traffic.
I found I was only blocks away from DuPaul University’s downtown campus and their theater, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago. There is lot of construction going and I can hear music coming from the Park and I smelled food so I head in that direction.

After asking around I find out that the city hosts an event called Chicago SummerDance , which offers live music, dancing and dancing lessons in the park. Each week, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, a different dance is featured. This week, it was the samba. The area cleared for dance had a nice size crowd but the band was taking a break so I decided to take advantage of the sunlight before it disappeared to take pictures. I decide to keep walking straight ahead because I can begin to make out boat ahead of me and as I do, I cross over railroad tracks and I wonder if these are the ones I had just ridden. As I head toward Buckingham Fountain, I looked back at the skyline, which rivals New York and San Francisco’s. I thought I’m going to like it here.(Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald)
The park is magical, reminding me more of Paris than New York, particularly the crushed granite, flower beds, iron benches and whimsical sculptures. As I approached the water, I realized that I missed California a little; although, the lake looks a lot more appealing than the Bay, at least on this day.The water was azure. (I know. I don’t use that word but it wasn’t blue; it was azure). Boats were bobbing quietly and a group of tourists rolled by on Sedways. (What’s up with that?) I walked along the shore and enjoy the day coming to a close and looking forward to the next day.

(To be continued...)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Colorado and the Black West

I am now leaving the state of Colorado and it was far more beautiful than I thought it would be. I hope to come back and take this ride again in the winter when the snow covers the canyon walls. My photography might even be improving. (Maybe not…) The train pulls in, just behind Coors Stadium so close you could catch foul balls, to downtown Denver, which is active and attractive with restaurants and lofts, popping up like pimples.

(Non-sequitar: We rode by building with a sign that read Coorstech. I just want to know -- are these the people that invented the can that tells you when the beer is cold because, seriously, if you can’t tell that the beer is cold, you don’t need to be drinking).

I think I can say that about the little I’ve seen of the Denver/Boulder area. It appears to have remained close to its roots. I visited a couple of cities, Boulder, Denver and a little town called Niwot. I appreciate the character of these cities that don’t seem to be interested in imitating the west or east coast.

I don’t know how you feel but I miss the distinct geographic character that distinguished the various regions of this country. I mean that architecture of the past was defined by necessity and convenience. Builders used the natural resources that were available and built homes to accommodate both the climate and the culture of those areas, so you get houses of stone and mortar with vast fireplaces and mudrooms in one area and frame and wood houses with wrought iron railings, high ceiling with woven reed fans in the center in others. You could tell where you were just by looking at the buildings.

Today, easy access to resources and shipping plus capitalism means replication, so the homes in Arizona aren’t that much different than homes in California or Missouri, which I guess is a good thing (though I can’t think why). Around every corner is the same set of stores (large affordable retail store – insert, Kohl’s, Target, Wal-Mart, next to a multiplex – insert sequel or remake of mediocre television show here, next to bank, next to chain restaurant, insert Claim Jumper, Mimi’s Café, Olive Garden, etc. here) I ain’t gonna lie; I like shopping. I contribute to the gross national product as much as the next person (seriously, maybe more) but wouldn’t it be nice to actually go somewhere that felt different, looked different, that reflected its roots. Isn’t part of the attractiveness of a place like New Orleans is the beautiful Spanish colonial homes or the row houses in Boston? I know, I know -- the plumbing and the closet space leaves a lot to be desired but can’t we update without turning every block into McDevelopment? My point is that they seem to be aware of that here. The homes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and passing are new and still maintain the character that I think defines this west – the cragginess and solidity of the Rockies that surround it and it was a pleasure to see.

The people are probably some of the nicest I have ever encountered as a traveller. I don’t mean friends of friends, ( who were also nice and generous in spirit, as well) I mean complete strangers who went out of their way to be helpful and friendly, like the gentlemen who had just disembarked the train and saw me struggling up the ramp with my streamer trunk sized suitcase and offered his help. He walked with my suitcase all the way back to the platform and presented me to the attendent. I have no idea where he needed to go but he went out of his way for me. Several people at a convenience store outside of Denver assisted my friend and me when we lost our way. When the clerk couldn’t interpret the Yahoo directions we had gotten any better than we could, she got the manager to call the museum to get the directions. People just don’t do that.

Speaking of museums, I visited the Colorado Black West Museum. (Tip: Don’t trust Yahoo directions. It’s not hard to find but the directions are unnecessarily complicated. Call for directions or take the light rail which stops across the street). It’s housed in a small house in the Five Points area of Denver, well maintained, containing photographs, and memorabilia of black settlers, cowboys and prominent black citizens of Colorado’s past. Exhibits also highlight the Buffalo Soldiers, Tuskegee Airmen and the Bill Pickett Rodeo which still tours the country. Shay, the curator, provides a history of the building itself and the museum’s founders. (I won’t spoil it by telling you.) He is friendly and man with locks twisted around the top of his head and several piercings. Growing up in a predominantly white nieghborhood, when he played cowboys-and-Indians, he was always the Indian because cowboys were white. Coming to Colorado was a revelation for him and he shares his enthusiastic discovery with the public. (Ask him about his dogs, Biggie, Bebe, Baby and Lil’ Kim.)

I didn’t find out much about the porters there. I didn’t expect to and I didn’t mind. I see that some of what I learned might be useful and I imagine it being incorporated into the novel somehow. I might use some of this as inspiration for another novel. Several novels have already been written about blacks who came to settle the West and created all-black townships – Paradise by Toni Morrison,, as well as, Black Wallstreet, but there’s always room for one more.

(Non-sequitar – I wonder why “Deadwood Dick,” who I believe visited Rev. Al Sharpton’s hairdresser, was never featured in the series, now canceled by HBO. Hmmmm…)

The night ride was filled with storms. There was little thunder I could hear over the noise of the rails, but I could see the lightning over the fields and rain crisscrossed my window. I fell asleep, glad that I was inside.

Monday, July 16, 2007

What am I Hoping to Learn?

I don’t know what I need to know yet. Well, that’s not exactly true. I want to learn what I can’t learn from a book. Researching a time you never lived in and then trying to recreate it in fiction is an imprecise endeavor because you can know all the facts and still not understand the time. A reader will know that you don’t know. It’s not about slathering a lot of historic details into the narrative just to show off; it’s the re-creation, to the best of your imagination, of a time.

What I can learn from books is the facts, the tasks, the expectations, and the problems of their daily work life. From the oral histories and the documentaries, I can learn their voice, cadences, jargon, as well as what made them laugh. But what about the bonds they formed? What about the feel of the rails beneath their feet? What about seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time or the Rockies from the foot of Glenwood Canyon as I am right now? What about being just one generation out of slavery?

So far, I’ve read a few oral accounts of these men and all but one enjoyed his life as a porter, in spite of the racism; it was more than the money. There had to be something else that kept them out here and sustained them while they were miles away from their families. What was that?

I want to understand this character. I know a few things about him. (What I do know, I’m keeping to myself for now). I don’t know yet where he was born or how he became a porter or where he lives, Chicago or New York. Research has always helped me to answer these questions and lead to other more interesting questions. Research on the BSCP leads me to labor movements and other political movements, like the anti-lynching campaigns, desegregation of the military. What about jazz and art? How can I approach anything happening with black folks in the 1920s without looking at the Harlem Renaissance?

I have read Zora Neal Hurston’s Colored Me and Alain Locke’s The New Negro and other Harlem Renaissance writers and they are so optimistic, it seems naïve to me. But what do I know? I am one generation after the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, assassinations and political scandals. I am cynical. How do I recreate that hope and confidence? Where the hell did it come from? They didn’t know; they had no idea the battle it would take and the whole time, they knew that they had right on their side.

I don’t have their faith, so a part of me doesn’t understand it. I want to. Maybe I really need to. How will this all of this come together? I have no idea. I'm not sure how I did it before, but that I did once allows me to believe that I will again.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I left for Oakland’s Jack London Station at about 5:30 in the morning. As I rode to the station, I surprised to see that one or two more new condominium developments had been completed. I ride by this area on the freeway probably daily and yet the developments keep popping up before I realize – a sign of economic development or gentrification, depending upon how much money one has in one’s savings account or even if one has a saving account. The area which had once housed warehouses and storage facilities is now home to upscale lofts and soon-to-be upscale restaurants and stores. (When I ride through Alameda County, I will see that this is a theme, but more on that later.)

I arrived at the station about 30 minutes before departure and the evidence of early morning was still apparent. It was quiet and the fog still clung to the hills of Oakland and Berkeley behind me. In front of me, beyond the street and the newly developed luxury apartments was the estuary. Already a few boats were headed to the bay. The estuary shimmered and I felt cool enough in a sweater which was proof that it was going to be a beautiful day. I took pictures of the exterior and interior of the station, a building of glass and brick with graceful arches and a bronze statue of C.L. Dellums in front. Dellums was a regional vice-president of the BSCP and uncle of the city’s mayor, former Congressman Ron Dellums.

When I purchased my ticket from this station a few weeks ago, I knew that it was right that I start here. I knew when I saw the statue. It gave my trip a sense of symmetry and history.

The platform held only a few passengers, one couple and three of four people riding solo like me. No one spoke which is just as well. I hate people who like to talk in the morning and I was slowly and sadly acknowledging that I am a rotten photographer.

Freight trains rolled by tattooed with graffiti and I wonder if one day an archeologist will be able to identify where these cars traveled by the signs on their sides. I decided I need to take notes to keep track of my thoughts and so I’m scribbling random thoughts which I am now trying to decipher. I have no idea what I meant by boats sweating or colorful solitude but I am sure that when I thought it, it was brilliant.

Anyway, once on the train, I found riding through Oakland, Emeryville, and et al. to be full of contrasts. Everything I see is familiar but I see it from a different angle. I realize that the passenger cars and freight cars ride the same rails so it seems that I am riding through the city’s seams. On the right, we pass trucks, freight cars, abandoned buildings that look like punch-drunk fighters with broken windows and collapsing rooftops. On the left is the Bay, and because the sun is still rising, it has that strange iridescence that only water has. It is blue, silver, pink and orange. Near Richmond, the shoreline is peppered with old tires. Beyond that, we pass the various islands – Treasure, Alcatraz and bridges -- the Bay and Golden Gate in the distance and others so much closer I can see the rivets.

I realize that over here are the nice office buildings with landscaped lawns and beautiful facades and on the other side of rusting fences are factories, parking lots, and men and women bringing to us the stuff that creates our life – what we eat, use to build, use to live. This is the backstage of a play, watching all the machinery and mechanisms that help to create the drama that we see and where the technicians, stage hands, costumers and make-up artists do all the work that we don’t see. This is how our stuff gets to us and it’s not pretty; it’s chaotic and messy.

The garbage that we discarded accumulates at the foot of those fences, out of sight. People live in and around it. I see their tents, tarps and shopping carts and beyond it, over the fence another condominium being built, with marigold and terracotta trim. Here you can see what cities aspire to be and what they seek to hide.

(Non-sequitar – I see an analogy being drawn between what I see and the work of the porters, who, I suppose like all people in the service sector, must never shown you how hard the work actually is or in the case of the porters, the indignities they were forced to endure.)

I am now having a private and unofficial graffiti contest and I am the sole judge. Berkeley is in the lead so far with its moving image of a DJ spinning on two turntables and Reno is in second with its imaginative use of color in tagging.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Train Travel Musings

Only a few more days before I leave and I find myself reflecting on the varied responses I've received from people when I tell them about the trip. Responses range from the plaintive (Why would you do that? It will take sooo long) to concerned (You better watch yourself) to the envious ( a slight sigh and ohhh really) and it occurs to me that the responses themselves are anthropological artifacts, telling me a little about train travel that I hadn't realized. (It’s almost an anachronism, isn't it? Travelling by train, at least, in this country and so we've formed these opinions about what it is based upon what?)

I was thinking that to a certain section of people train travel represents a luxury and it isn't the luxury of comfort that George Pullman promoted in his day. Maybe train travel represents the luxury of time, which of all the luxuries available to us is the only one that is accessible to all of us regardless of class. In fact, it might seem that it is a luxury only the very young have.

A friend of mine jokingly suggested that I begin my research by watching movies: Strangers on a Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Silver Streak, North by Northwest (known for the scene at Mt. Rushmore but the romance begins and ends on the train) and so on. All movies I've seen before and I wonder if I hadn't seen them, would I even be interested. What people's responses remind me of is the romance of train travel and I wonder why it seems so romantic and holds some of us in thrall even now, when air travel can be cheaper and faster.

I have never traveled by train before but I am as excited as the first time I took the plane, when I was ten and a half and airlines still served real meals, with silverware, even in coach. There was a wonder that I still have when I glance out of the window and see the ground retreat beneath me. But this somehow feels different. Even before 9/11, I had grown less enamored with the air travel. I don't imagine that my ardor for train travel will die. But maybe I'm guilty of romanticizing again.

Iconically, trains, like all symbols of transportation, represent travel, freedom, an opportunity to leave everything you have known and travel into the unknown. Space ships are inaccessible to most of us; cars are common and individual, personal (Thelma and Louise didn't take anybody out with them); boats also, depending on the size, and planes. Planes don't hold the same mystique. Why is that?

Train travel provides (or seems to) that perfect balance of personal and public space, of freedom and restriction and control and submission. In a plane, the pilot is in control -- of when you take off and land. Not that, the train engineer isn't in control because he is but because the engineer only manages the train, when it comes and goes; the passenger has control over when he will come and when he will go. On a plane, even your physical space is limited to thin-thin boundaries between you and the person sitting next to you. The flight attendant tells you when to sit, when to stand, when it is okay to go to the restroom, when you will eat (or more likely, not eat these days) While on a train, you have choice (and leg room). You chose where you will depart. You're free to move. You're free to socialize or sit silently.

That's another thing. You are grounded, physically. I'm not afraid of heights but the weightlessness of flying seems unnatural myabe that’s why it is in some part appealing. On a train, I am of the earth, a part of my surroundings.

All of this musing has made me wonder what those passengers felt back when their choices were limited and air travel was an extravagance. What did they think?

DailyLit: What I'm Reading Now


© 2008 L. Rebecca Harris