On Saturday, June 18, author Tina Jones Williams will lead a discussion about her new novel “Sara’s Song” at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center in Richmond. The book is inspired in part by her family’s move from Chicago to Berkeley during World War II, and follows her first novella in the Julia Street Series, “Some Things I Want You to Know.” Both Williams’ mother and Sara, the novel’s protagonist, worked briefly as welders at the Richmond Shipyards. Berkeleyside spoke with Williams, a Berkeley native who grew up on Julia Street, about writing a book of fiction that captures an era when two Berkeleys, a Black one and a White one, existed parallel to each other, rarely intersecting on the corners of openness and acceptance.
Was your mother the inspiration for the novel?
The two main characters, Sara and Ben, are very loosely based on my mother and father. They did in fact leave Chicago in 1943, moving their small family (I wasn’t born yet) to Berkeley. Some of the parts, and some of the events, and some of the people did, in fact, happen. The other thing that I will say: the very best parts of Sara are my mother, for sure.
Is the book then a fictionalized account of your mother’s life?
There are parts of it that are factually true. My mother did move to Berkeley from the south side of Chicago. She loved jazz, loved people, loved words. Did work at the shipyard, did work at the post office, did work at the Oakland Army Base, and did attend UC Berkeley. Got her undergrad at 50, and her Master’s at 52. All those things are true. The things that are made up are other people, other circumstances, parts of the relationship between her and my father. Just to make a more interesting and rounded out story without telling too much of her personal life.
Are the Julia Street memories filtered through your experiences?
They’re very much filtered through my memory. We grew up on Julia Street. My parents and my older siblings did move there from the boarding house in 1943, and stayed there until my mother died in 1994. All those things that I wrote about are colored by memories, stories that people told me, and things that I made up. It’s just combination of those three facets.
What was the catalyst that made you say, “I want to tell this story”?
I actually wrote two books. The other one is called “Some Things I Want You to Know”. It’s probably 40 pages. I wrote it because both sets of my children’s grandparents are deceased. There was just some things that they said, in ways that they were in the world, and some things that I think are important that I just wrote.
I started writing that, and then I thought, you know what, it’s bigger than that. I published it at the same time as “Sara’s Song”. “Sara’s Song” is probably nothing more or nothing less than a love story. It’s a love of a time, and a place, and some people. It was at a time in my life when I wanted to make sure that when I’m gone, that my children will be able to read that book and hear not only my voice, but the voice of people before me on every single page. When I started the process, probably two years ago, the timing just felt like it was right. There were so many things going on that I wanted to make sure I had a chance to counter them.
There are so many ways that women are depicted in the world that are just so different than the women that I grew up watching, emulating and imitating. I wanted to make sure that I put that out there. Television series like Housewives of Atlanta and Basketball Wives, and all of these terrible shows are presenting — particularly Black women — in this light that is just so offensive to me. I wanted to make sure that at least my children (I started out writing this book for my children) had a chance to see that there were different women in the world. We come from different place than that. You can decide how you want to be, but here’s an alternative for you.
You write about the idea of “Two Berkeleys”, one White and one Black. Can you talk about the dangers of traveling between them?
In the book, and it was very true, Sara says, “My sons will, no matter how they’re treated outside of my home, they will always be treated with love and respect in my home.” There’s always this, and my daughter laughingly accuses me of doing the same thing, there’s this desire on the part of the mom, for sure, to help balance the scales for their sons.
They go out into the world, and they’re treated almost like a public enemy everywhere they go. Then, the mother overcompensates once they get safely back home. I was thinking about this as I was driving home from Richmond today. Nobody is really prepared to be a parent. You sort of just make it up every day. You read things, and you say okay, if you can get your son safely through high school, he’ll be fine. Then I read something after that said okay, if you get your son to the point where he’s 25, he has a chance of living into his 90s because he’s passed the dangers.
Every day you pick up the paper, you pick up your cellphone, and the headline is in Oakland, three Black men were killed Saturday night. Then Sunday two more were killed. It’s almost as though there’s this systematic elimination of young Black men. It does feel like if I can just get him back home by 8 o’clock tonight, he’ll be safe another day.
It’s almost debilitating if you spend too much time thinking about it. My children are grown up, and they live on their own. My daughter’s 29 and my son is 33. If I don’t talk to them on the phone, or a text, or I look to see if they have a Facebook post, just to make sure that they made it back home for the day. They both are college educated. They have responsible jobs, but it doesn’t matter. They’re just never completely safe in your head.
How do you cope with that, psychologically, from day to day?
I’m very, very prayerful. I pray for them all the time, all day, every day. I can’t even tell you the last time I went to church, and I’m not putting church down, so that’s not my point. It’s just a relationship that I have with a higher being that says, “I have to put them in your hands.”
I’ve given them all I can. When they call, I can hear immediately in their voice how their day was, or what they’re calling for. I just am in this really strong partnership with God that says okay, we got to get them through every single day. It’s all day, every day. That’s psychologically how I deal with it.
How was growing up in Berkeley different for you than for your children?
It’s 180 degrees different. I am one of six children, three girls and three boys. My mother characterized it like this: it was the first four, then Tina, then Tony. She either said it like that, or we were the half dozen long-stemmed roses. My mother and father were not in a traditional marriage for many years. My husband and I have known each other since we were 16, and have been married for 39 years, and have co-parented our children, continue to even now that they’re well into their adulthood. I grew up in a neighborhood that was largely Black. Our children grew up in a neighborhood that is largely non-Black, mostly White. Their friends are very eclectic. My friends were mostly Black. It’s just a whole different time and place, and upbringing.
You also write about Black social clubs in the Oakland Hills. What did living in Oakland mean then?
My only recollection of Oakland is through the lens of that timeframe where my mother and father would dress up to the nines, going to these monthly social events. That’s my only visibility into what was happening in Oakland. Now I’ll say this: a number of the people who left the neighborhood moved to the Oakland Hills, so I think that was perceived as being an upward place to go. You had made it when you moved to the Oakland Hills.
Sara shares a certain attitude of resignation about racism with the Japanese neighbors during and after World War II. For the Japanese it was, “It cannot be helped.” For Sara, it’s “That’s the way it was.” But she also defies it by pursuing a career and her education.
I think it was that whole notion of hope. My mother used to say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” She never really accepted that idea of being put in a box. If she were put in a box, that was their thing, versus hers. She may have been in a situation, and she understood that you can’t change other people, but you can change yourself. You can also change your perception of the situation by continuing to try to do your best, be your best, put your best effort forward. She understood that all the cues around her were telling her that this is how people want things to be. That doesn’t mean that she had to want it to be that way. She wanted it to be that way for herself.
She also didn’t want to put her children at risk by teaching them to be combative, or belligerent, or fight against. For example, that scene where my brother was walking the young white friend home for a visit. There would have been no purpose for him continuing to bring her to the neighborhood, because it could only end badly. It was like okay, this is how it really is. We may not like it, we may not agree with it, but we can’t fix it. We can’t change it, so you can’t continue to bring her here.
The novel contains references to things that are lost from that era like the Key System or the Kress Candy Counter. Does the area feel different to you now?
It feels like we wrote all this really great stuff on this slate, and then somebody lifted it and it went away.
Do you think that’s for the worse?
In some ways, yes. I’ll give you an example. I was talking to somebody about this today. That whole idea of the neighborhood being responsible for all the children — could give input, and say oh boy, you did great doing this. Or you really shouldn’t be doing that, and I’m going to tell your parents. Well, nobody dares do that anymore, for a whole host of reasons. That’s too bad. Then this idea of everybody taking care of a street, a neighborhood because we’re proud of it. We feel fortunate to have it. A lot of that has gone away, too. Just that whole time and place. It’s sad for me that it no longer is.
Hear Williams speak Saturday, June 18, from 11 a.m. to noon: “Sara’s Song: Taking the bridge between War and Opportunity” takes place at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center at 1414 Harbour Way South in Richmond. Have questions? Call 510-232-5050.
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