Thursday, February 23, 2012

To BE a Pan Am Blackbird! (We should all be so lucky!)

Pan American Black Birds
discussion panel @ Maysles Cinema


So, I'm officially (and, to be frank) jealously inspired by the fabulous life-changing experiences that the Pan Am Blackbirds shared last night of their time as flight attendants (Stewardesses!) with Pan American Airlines in the early 1970's through the 1980's. I've always had a hankering to see the world by means of globe trotting and even tried to become a flight attendant with a few airlines about eight or nine years ago. Now I realize, however, that I probably would not have had the same level of glamor and sophistication that these ladies experienced during the glory years of working for an airline like Pan Am!


I won't attempt to re-tell all of the stories they shared last night, because I would be doing their anecdotes a disservice. I will, however, revel on the highlights of what they shared, and gush over why I am SO INSPIRED!


I am ever-intrigued that these women, many of whom were college students or graduates, decided to take a chance on an unlikely career choice that catapulted them into the most fascinating of uncharted territories with Pan Am in the year of 1969. There weren't many African Americans being hired at the time, so these women were most certainly trailblazers in the truest since. Decisions were made to postpone college in order to take flight, and it was in this choice that they gained the most valuable experiences that they eventually took back to university and moved on to second careers (and family life) along the way.


The sistas were definitely fierce and as classy as they come last night during the panel! They spoke of favorite shopping and eating in Rome, dating in Tehran, favorite beaches in Sao Paulo, days off in Tokyo, Morocco, and Kinshasa... They spouted off international routes and airline flights as if explaining transit bus and train schedules! They remarked on the commonality of appearance with people of color all over the world ("We are NOT minorities!"), and how nobody talks about the darker complexioned folks in places that are not known for darker skin like Iran where one of the Blackbirds had to try to convince military that she was in fact Black American and not Iranian. They were candid about how White Americans received them at the time in the early 70's, many of whom WANTED them to be something OTHER than Black American, making them Latina or Jamaican or from Martinique or somewhere more exotic than the US east coast or south. One said that a woman asked how she came to speak English so well, and she replied that it was a result of her parents and the Philadelphia school system! But, in all regards, they represented their culture as Black women to the fullest extent and advocated many rights for the women, black American and African, being hired into PanAm after them.


I think my FAVORITE stories were of how many of them came to meet husbands from THE Continent along the journey!! As one woman put it, "I decided there were no Black men for me in America, so IMPORTED my husband from Senegal!" Another spoke of researching her roots all over Africa which led to meeting a husband who is Ethiopian, while another spoke of her late husband who was a part  of the Liberian government, I believe it was. I heard stories of being in other parts of the world and coming across a brotha and deciding that it would be worth the evening's adventure to meet up for dinner and drinks! And yet another Blackbird told the story of how she developed a friendship with one of the Black pilots who was also on the panel which blossomed into a love affair many years later, and now they are husband and wife! To hear of the their courtship alone is enough to make anyone swoon with envy!  (Well, certainly me, anyway!)


And even though I am awe-inspired by their whimsical tales of jet-setting through a charmed life in the 70s and 80s, what I take to heart and what has really increased my own confidence are their subsequent chapters upon leaving Pan American Airlines. What I LOVE about these women were that ALL of them, the ones on the panel, went on to complete their bachelors degrees, obtain professional degrees, and had/have outstanding careers in nursing, law, education, banking, and international social services. One, a fellow Howard University graduate,completed her MBA and was appointed by President Clinton to an Ambassador ranked position as US Executive Director of the African Development Bank. One completed her Doctorate of Education and is currently the Director of Educational Outreach at the Harvard Medical School. One mentioned that she got not one but TWO law degrees and is now retired from practicing International Law. Another is retired from the nursing profession where she got her Masters in an OB-GYN related specialty. And yet another is the director of a non-profit that assists the elderly. THESE WOMEN have taken ambition and life experience to the ultimate maximum, and are still making room for new chapters in their lives.

I left there so full of inspiration that I was near tears (happy tears!) at the possibility of what else there is to encounter in my own life! THEY have crafted a masterful blueprint of what it means to be a trailblazer and create a path just by following instinct and opportunity. They had no idea when they took that stewardess job back in 1970 (and the years to follow) that they'd be creating a life that would inspire wide-eyed dreamers like myself! It wasn't in the cards for me to be a flight attendant (I called my mom and told her I wish I had been born in 1947 so that I could be graduating from college in '69 and become a stewardess for Pan Am!), but I will continue to live the adventure that has MY name on it, adding more stamps to my passport with each passing season!

The evening ended on a brilliant note, and each of the women said that they are currently collaborating to write an anthology memoir of their experiences. I would hope that this panel discussion could turn into a major motion picture documentary characterizing their stories. We have seen so many films and tv series told from various perspectives about moments in mainstream history, and yet sometimes the stories told (and re-told) about Black Americans are SO LIMITED in scope. If more young, and quite frankly older people heard the true life accounts that these Pan Am Blackbirds were sharing, I really believe it would underscore and enlighten the view that there is no one way to achieve success in this life! CHASE the adventure, and it will create THE PATH you are meant to lead!

I dedicate this favorite song of mine "Blackbird" to the FIERCE and classy Pan American Blackbirds! I REALLY am thankful to have met them and can't wait to hear more about their journeys in the skies and beyond!