“No Way!” This was the overwhelming response whites gave in a national poll taken last year when asked would you want to be a black person.
As blacks, they said, they feel they would be under greater financial distress and would suffer from stigma attached to being black in this country. Recently, a contrary question was put to a small number of local African Americans. They agreed to describe their lives and then to imagine how their lives might have been different if they had been white. Their responses tell us who they are as individual men and women and offer a clue to understanding the dilemma of contemporary American race relations.
Sidney Cooper is my first interviewee and he is late. His first two customers have come and gone, and his third thumbs through a magazine while he waits in the barber's chair. A number of men, most of them elderly, sit around the dimly lit poolroom that adjoins the barbershop. No one knows when Cooper will arrive, but all agree it is sure to be soon. You just wait, they say. When he appears a half hour later, a dark-skinned man, tail and lean, with a pencil-thin mustache, he goes right to the chair, slips on a white nylon smock, and begins cutting. He does not explain or apologize for his tardiness. Here, CPT (Colored People's Time) means that an hour and a half late is, in fact, right on time.
Cooper's barbershop, located at 29th and Imperial, is an ancient, narrow room with a couple of barber's chairs, mirrors, and a wide, grimy window that looks out onto the avenue. A board set against the wall is plastered with head shots of neatly coifed men illustrating the "Natural Cut," the "Box Fade," the "Louisville," the "Taper-Afro." Cooper does not refer to the board as he sends his clippers humming up the back of his customer's head. A gray figure appears at the door. He is hawking a car stereo. Nobody is interested, says Cooper, and the man slips away. The telephone rings. Cooper takes a message. A man stomps in wearing work clothes and covered head to foot in fine white powder. He asks to use Cooper's phone.
While he makes his call, a woman, once beautiful but now scarred and bleary-eyed from street life, sidles through the pool parlor to stand beside Cooper. She explains that she has a debt that needs immediate payment but for which she has not the full sum. Cooper, now snipping with scissors around his customer's ear, eyeing his work, talks over his shoulder. He suggests that she stagger her payments and use money orders from the post office. This will allow her to maintain a record of her balance. He tells her how much she should pay, how much each money order will cost, and how she should write them out. She thanks him and leaves her smile of gratitude broken at the place where her lip has been split and a tooth knocked out. And so it goes, half an hour into his day for the Mayor of Imperial Avenue.
Sidney Cooper's rise to unofficial mayoralty began in 1956. That is when he arrived in San Diego from Chicago. His first job was peddling fresh fruit and vegetables from the back of a truck. Before sunrise he'd head out to Chula Vista and Otay to buy greens, sweet potatoes, okra, peas, watermelons, whatever was in season and by midmorning he'd be on the street. His produce was fresh and his prices competitive. "I was always on the lookout to catch a good deal." He say, but it was not easy. Two white men were already selling to the black community, and officials in the health department did not want to give Cooper a license. They suggested he get a real job. According to Cooper who describes himself at the time as a big, healthy, strapping man, the license people in the health department thought he'd look better handling a pick and shovel.
"I told them to kiss my ass."
He whips off the barber's bib and brushes off his customer's neck and collar. Once he is gone, Cooper takes the vacated chair, leans back a little, and describes how he was a kind of Safeway on wheels, offering fresh produce for black folks who waited for him to show up. "They were good to me," he recalls. As for peddling itself, for Cooper" being out in the air and sunshine made it the best job I had in my entire natural-born life." And it was profitable. "All I had to do was look after the pennies." He says "The dollar always take care of themselves."
In 1961 he bought the building in which we sit. He put in a pool table and a couple of barber's chairs. Four years later he set up a fruit and vegetable stand in quarters at the rear of the building later came a beauty parlor. For a while, all three flourished. But today the barber shop caters to only a few customers, the beauty parlor stands empty and the fruit stand is gone. Today only the pool table continues to see the most action. With time on their hands and little to do the men (most of them elderly) pass the day chatting, playing checkers, and racking the balls for a game. The light is dim and the unheated room is cool. Here, over the soft clack of the balls, there is a grave silence.
"You want to know what happened here?" Cooper swivels around his chair to look out onto an Imperial Avenue that is all but deserted. Pedestrians can be counted on one hand passing cars on the other. He says when we see out there is the same thing that happened on 47th Street in Chicago, on Auburn Street in Atlanta, on Greenwood in Tulsa, and Central in Los Angeles "Integration did us in." he says, shaking his head.
A year ago Cooper himself was almost done in. What happened has changed his life.
"I was sitting on the bed when all of a sudden something hit me and wouldn't turn loose. It knocked me across the bed and took my breath away. It was like an elephant sitting on my chest." Cooper was taken to Veterans Hospital where, in an emergency move, three clogged arteries were blown clean. The operation, an angioplasty, saved his life. Heart disease runs in his family (his father and brother both died of heart attacks) so Cooper is today a grateful man. And since October and the Million-Man March in Washington, he is also a man with a mission. Before he dies, he says, he wants to teach young blacks the advantages of going into business for themselves, of being entrepreneurs.
He has a story to support his belief. According to Cooper, Malcolm X was said to have told Martin Luther King that while King was fighting so black folks could sit at a counter and drink the white man's coffee, he, Malcolm, was fighting to sell the man's coffee. "This being a capitalist country," Cooper says, "things would have been much different if Malcolm had been allowed to set an economic agenda first, rather than King's social reform. There would have never been a bullet fired. If we'd learned to keep the money in our community, the white man would have learned quick and made certain accommodations. I don't take anything from Martin Luther King, but his direction was the wrong way. He should have let Malcolm take the lead."
For 15 years, Cooper has worked to help create and maintain the Professional Barbers Association, a credit organization into which each man pays dues and may borrow; they pay the interest back to themselves. "If you need money, borrow it from yourself and pay the interest to yourself. If we're going to survive economically, this is the way to go." Cooper's four children have become interested in negotiating through the association.
At our second meeting, a pool tournament is in progress, and we adjourn to the office next to the beauty parlor. Today Cooper wears a buttercup-yellow nylon smock and dark slacks. He unlocks the beauty parlor. Heading toward the office in back, we pass among hair dryers and mirrored stands, ghostly reminders of a better time. The office is large and as dimly lit and as cool as the pool room. The walls are a chilly, dark indigo blue. Cooper takes the seat that lies just outside the rim of light offered by the desk lamp. Sitting against the wall in his buttercup smock, his head lost in shadow, he is a bit of bright yellow set against a deep-blue sky.
"I've been thinking about that question, about how things would be if I was born white," he says, and pauses. When he speaks again, his disembodied voice is thoughtful. "The playing field has always been uneven as far as blacks are concerned. Take me, for instance. I've had my business since 1961, and I make a decent living; but if I put myself in a white man's place, I figure I'd have more to speak of.
"If I was a white man at my same age, instead of a barbershop with pool room, beauty shop, and a place in the back for selling vegetables, I'd have gone for a bigger dream, maybe a country club with golf and a swimming pool. See what I'm saying? If I think of myself as white, I figure the playing field would have been wide open. Instead of a small pool tournament with a few old neighborhood men," says Cooper. "I'd have set up something much bigger. A PGA gold tournament, maybe.
"And if I'm thinking I'm white, I'm thinking that I'm a nice white guy. For example, if I was a white man and I had my country club and my golf tournament, I'd turn around and give some of that money to charity. You know I would! My favorite charity would be United Way, because it reaches out to large groups. If I was a white man I wouldn't be interested in one particular group. I'd want to spread it around."
Cooper's imagination flames "I'd have a six-chair barbershop right at the golf course. This way a man could come to the club. He gets his hair cut, sits in the steam room, maybe has a drink, and every month we send him a bill. The women would have a beauty spa with a masseuse and whatnot. We'd have a nice place for eating and serve only health foods."
An experienced businessman Cooper recognizes the importance of location even in a dream venture. Where would he set up his urban resort? La Jolla, he says because "money, you know, draws money."
He stretches his long legs forward. His head is still lost in shadow. He laughs. Our talk, he says, is the closest he is ever going to get to being rich.
"As a white person, my interests would be the same, except I'd like to create a national scholarship. It would be to help young people learn how to be successful in business. It would be a national minority scholarship — with say, ten marked for blacks — to send young people from different places in the country to college. Summers would be used for internships. Those kids would go to Washington, maybe down South. They'd see how the country worked."
"Hey, Coop!" comes the call from the front. "You got somebody wants a trim."
We stand and leave the office. Outside, Cooper turns to lock up. Keys jangle in his search for the right one. According to him, he says, speaking over his shoulder, the deficit is the most pressing issue the country faces.
"You see, somewhere down the line, you can't keep operating and not pay up. And if the country goes in the hole, who's hurting? Rich people are hurting as much as the poor people. But you can't balance the budget on poor people's blacks "'cause they don't have nothing. It's the big people that got all the money, so what you gonna do? Let the country go down the tubes, and they keep their money. If the country goes down the tubes, that means everybody," Cooper wonders why the rich don't loan the government money at a reasonable interest.
He has locked up, and we stand in front of his shop. It is late afternoon. A car rolls down the street. A man ducks into the corner market. Once thriving (and not so very long ago) Imperial Avenue has the lonely melancholy of a Hopper landscape. "It's a shame to let all this go to waste," he says, lifting an arm to take in the avenue and all the rest.
- Can't you see it? Can't you feel it?
- It's all in the air.
- I can't stand the pressure
- much longer.
- Somebody say a prayer.
Words from Nina Simone's "Mississippi — Goddam!" come to mind. Simone sings in a voice that is harsh and lusty. I think of the song when I speak with Alice Marshall, who seems to embody the song's message. Certainly, at 46, she is tired and ready for freedom.
"I tell my children that after spending so many years doing for them, now it's my turn to have a life." While Nina Simone is hotly political, Marshall expresses no political position. On the contrary, she seems to be almost shamelessly self involved. There is a reason for this.
She has had six children. One died, and two remain at home. She has three grand children and baby-sits them when needed. She comes from a family of 11 brothers and sisters, but it was she who has accepted responsibility for her mother, a diabetic consigned to a wheelchair. "None of them wanted to step in," she says, "so what can you do?"
Marshall is a dark bronze-skinned woman with sleek good looks. She grew up working in the Louisiana fields, where they picked cotton by hand, tomatoes, bedded potatoes, pulled grass. "Your name it," she says, "we did it."
She came to San Diego in 1970. Three years later she went on Aid for Dependent Children and has been on ever since. Her home in Southeast San Diego is small and from the outside looks well lived-in. She lives in a multiracial neighborhood where for years the young black boys have gathered in her front yard, talking in adolescent huddles. Now no grass grows here. The ground is packed solid, like cement. Today there are a half-dozen boys outside now. One is her son. They stare at the stranger who passes inside, on the couch three girls turn away from the TV and gape.
Beside the TV and the couch on which the girls sit are a dining room table and chairs, a bookcase with a Bible and some photographs, and not much else. The place is devoid of excess, like a rec center. Alice Marshall's mother sits in her wheelchair in the middle of the uncarpeted floor. Age and illness have stripped her of flesh. Her forehead and cheekbones are signs of her Native American grandparents.
With a mixed bouquet of baby roses, pink carnations, and daisies, I stand like a kid on prom night. The girls stare, rustling with anticipation. The old woman, minus her teeth, asks if I am married just as her daughter Alice Marshall appears. She wears a soft burgundy velour top and gray skirt. "Did she ask if you were married? She asks everybody the same thing." I hand over the flowers. Marshall accepts them but makes no move for a vase.
The living room is occupied, the dining room offers no privacy, so she suggest we talk in her bedroom. I feel four pairs of unblinking eyes on my back as we make our way down the hall. Piles of washed and folded laundry cover her queen sized bed. Still holding her flowers, she shifts a mountain of whites so we can sit.
"Oh yes," she says and smiles when I mention how many young people are around. "And I've been blessed," she says. "There has always been enough food. I never had to turn anyone away who was hungry."
Even here, privacy is hard to come by. Youngsters suddenly appear at the door. They move in and out of her bedroom, curious about our conversation. One of the girls on the couch peeks in. "Miss Jean," she whispers, using the name by which Marshall is known in the neighborhood, "some of the boys outside are up to no good." Marshall says, "Is that so?" and orders her to tell them she's coming right out.
The door closes. All around us, the house is a humming hive with Marshall the queen bee.
She is at one corner of her bed. I am at the other. I ask about her childhood. "It was hard work, and I paid my dues," she says. And there has been tragedy. Her 10-year old brother accidentally shot and killed a younger brother. Without counseling, with no one to help him talk about his grief and guilt, according to Marshall, "he kept it all bottled up and eventually went wrong." Later, as a mother, her oldest son drowned. "It just about killed me." She says "if it hadn't been for the Lord, I'd have gone crazy." Her first ex-husband died in a fire. Another died of a heart attack. Exactly, I ask, how many times has she been married? "Oh, not so very many," she says and smiles. This is when I first think of the Nina Simone song because of Marshall's smile, that mysterious Mona Lisa mix of sensuality and grief. It serves as a plumb line dropped into the sea. I take measure. Alice Marshall is, as they say, deep water. Much of her life's pleasure as well as pain have come from men. She knows about men. They are, she laughingly says, big babies. "Their mothers spoil them and then they go looking for another mother to spoil them. And, "she admits, "˜if I get one, I spoil him too. It's women," she adds, "we are the strong ones."
She shrugs when I pose the question of how her life might have been had she been born white. "To tell you the truth," she says, "I never thought about being white, and I wouldn't want to be." This is a sentiment I am to hear from many I talk with, but if she'd been white, she says, things would likely have been easier.
"I wanted to be a model," she says lifting her chin, exposing in silhouette, cheekbones Paris runaway models might die for. A handsome woman, when she was younger she must have been a knockout. "If I was white, I'm sure, what with the connections white folks have, things would have gone easier, and they would have introduced me to people and helped me on my way." She says that when she can get some time free, she is going to look into modeling. She still has her dream, and now that they use women of all ages, maybe she still has a chance.
"Miss Jean!" It is a cry from the front. "Miss Jean! You'd better come out here!"
"What is it now?" Marshall stands. She moves slowly around the bed, out the door, and down the hall. Outside the boys have ranged themselves over the front yard. The girls have left the TV and are there too. "Now what's up?" she says, looking around "Miss lean," someone says, "where'd you get those?" She is still holding her bouquet of flowers.
There is tugging on the other side. A voice made hollow by the wood, calls out loudly, "Who's at my door?" It suddenly comes unstuck, and there stands an old lady holding a mean-looking butcher knife.
"What is it you want?" she demands, pointing the knife at me. I am about to remind her that we have an appointment for a story I am writing about race when she says, "Well, you might as well come in." Josie Moore talks loudly, a sign of hearing loss. "You caught me in the kitchen cooking. Come in, come in."
Motioning with her knife, she leads the way through a house that was once one of the showpieces of Valencia Park. Two-storied, a Spanish Tudor style, it dominates the corner on which it sits. Long ago, neighborhood kids dubbed it the Castle; now, however, they are more likely to call it the Haunted Castle. From the outside — if it were not for the lawn regularly mowed by a neighbor — the place might be deserted. Windows are broken and shingles missing. The door's wood veneer has cracked, the knocker is rusted. Shrubs are overgrown, and paint is peeling. But none of this prepares the visitor for what lies inside.
The kitchen looks like it was hit by a bomb. Pots and pans spill from the cupboards. Counters are heaped with kitchenware. There are two ancient refrigerators. One is dead and used to store what cannot fit on the counters. The one still alive makes pitiful groaning sounds. Stove burners are aflame; a thick layer of spilled grease covers the stove top; water runs unheeded in the stained sink; the floor is black and sticky. Absolutely everything needs a good scouring. And the rest of the house is just as bad.
It is a huge place, bought 40 years ago as a home for Josie Moore, her husband, and five children. Now it is a place of watermarked walls and dank, moldy rooms. A year ago, while she was visiting a daughter in Los Angeles, thieves battered down Miss Moore's locked bedroom door and stole her TV. Upstairs the shattered door still hangs off its hinges. The bedroom is ice cold. The old woman sleeps in her clothes on a bed littered with office supplies, telephone books, newspapers. Safeway coupons, old mail, clothes and a grimy down comforter. Josie Moore lives here alone in rotting splendor, like Mrs. Havesham of Great Expectations. But it is not love that has betrayed Josie Moore, it is time.
In the kitchen, she hacks at chicken parts that will become a meal of fried chicken with barbecue sauce, corn bread, greens, and lemonade. Miss More knows a good supper helps to keep up your strength.
The meal comes together slowly. As she prepares it, Miss Moore leans on the counter, talking about her childhood in Mississippi. She came to San Diego in 1951, and got a job cooking in a restaurant. Forty-five years later she is a short woman, plumpish, her complexion, the color of old ivory, her raven hair coming from a bottle. She wears a Woolworth pearl clip in her hair (with some of the pearls missing), a bright scarf around her neck, a man's cotton shirt, men's tie-up dress shoes several sizes too large, and a pair of men's baggy slacks cinched with a black belt. It is a rumpled put together affair but, at 85, Josie Moore enjoys the rights of the aged. She can look any way she likes and she can demand what she wants.
"You're going to help me eat some of this, aren't you". A powerful woman handling that butcher knife life a pro, she cocks an eye at me, daring me to say no. Just then a neighborhood youngster knocks once and enters the kitchen through the back door. His hair is braided close to his head in cornrows. His pants hand low from his hips in the style called saggin’. He is rail-thin, with a reddish complexion.
"That's Freckles," she says, using her knife as a pointer. He is, she says a friend of her grandson's. "Freckles, you want to eat?"
"Sure, Honey," he replies (Honey is the name by which Miss Morre is known in the neighborhood.) I feel let off the hook about lunch.
Freckles lights the oven pilot for her. While it heats, she takes me outside and shows the damage she'd sustained in a recent fire.
Miss Moore's property included a small room built behind the garage. A nearby church often referred homeless men to her, and she allowed them to stay there rent free. The last referral was a man just out of jail. He did some work around the house and expected to be paid. "˜I told him I didn't have any money,' she explains, "but seeing he was a steady worker. I'd look around for something for him and give a good recommendation. But he didn't like that." The man torched the place and fled. The sleeping quarters were destroyed, the garage and back yard badly damaged. Weeks later, the harsh stench still bangs over the charred timbers, blackened walls, the inky puddles of water.
"It's a pretty sad sigh, isn't it". She looks around and shakes her head. A pregnant cat, it's belly swollen, steps daintily over the debris to rub against her cuff Josie Moore has arthritis and an artificial hip. Using my arm as a brace, she bends down as the cat rises, meeting her hand. Something about the moment breaks my heart. Speaking loudly, I suggest that I come back to talk another time. I apologize about not being able to eat.
"Next time, honey," she says.
And so I do, she meets me at the door zipped plumply into a pair of dark blue oversized coveralls rolled at the sleeve and cuff. The front of the house shows little change, but inside has been reclaimed each room tidy. The kitchen is clean, the pots and pans and foodstuff placed in cupboards, the floor no longer black or sticky. And the back yard has been cleared. It is in unbelievable transformation.
"Maybe eight years ago," she explains, "Mr. Leroy came though here with his family. I gave them a place to stay. Well, some weeks later, here he is at my door again asking could he stay for a while. He offered to help clean up. I told him I couldn't pay anything but that didn't seem to stop him."
Outside, she has planted butter beans and mustard greens. A sheet is laid over the seedlings to protect them from the sun bright, deep-orange fruit hang from a persimmon tree. There are as well a plum tree, a pomegranate, lemon, date, grape, and pineapple, guava trees. The rosebushes look thirsty. She stands in the middle of her rose garden, looking at the red and yellow roses. Overhead a plane rips the sky open, roaring into its landing at the airport.
"I pondered the question you gave me," she says, unmindful of the commotion overhead," and I said, now, had I been white, how would my life be different? The way I figure it, "she says, "I'd have been in the lower echelon of people — so far as the white people are concerned. But being me — and husband — being born and doing what we did in life, we were in the upper echelons among the colored. What I'm saying is, I can't see where it would have profited me to be white.
"I was the third in a family of 13 children, and so I've always had a whole lot of responsibility. I lived in a community where my father was "Mr. Crockett.' In the family we called him Man John, but everybody else called him Mr. Crockett. Cotton was king then, and we had a lot of it. He had an awful lot of land." She pauses. "Anyway, I don't think I would have wanted to be poor trash."
I am embarrassed by the phrase. Why, I ask, would you imagine that you'd be poor trash if you'd been born white?
"Because that's the way white folks are. When I moved in here and bought this house, they all moved out."
I do not follow the logic but recognize that even in imagination, as a white woman, she fancies herself touched by the discrimination that has molded her life over the eight decades she has lived. Her dilemma is one each interviewee faces - how to imagine a fictive life without bringing to it the experiences of the actual one.
Miss Moore bought this house so her children would have a nice place to live. None of these were her "born babies," however.
"No, I never gave birth to one of my own. These were my sister's children," she says. "I was 15 years old when she was born and at this stage of the game, my mother wasn't interested in the babies very much. So she became my child. I took care of her. Her name was Everree Crockett, and she was my baby all of her life.
"She lived in Pascagoula, and I lived in Chicago at the time Poppa died. It looked like the world just folded up on me. I went to be with Everree and my brother-in-law. They had this three-month old baby; he said how me and the baby got along so well together. "You seem to have a way with children. I've never seen that baby so talkative and happy since you been here with her. Why don't we just give her that baby, Everree? He says. And Everree said, "You mean to tell me! Could her my baby, and you wouldn't say nothing about it? He says, "˜No, I wouldn't say nothing about it. Why would I say anything about it? We got three other children, and she'll have one, and we'll have three. The baby ain' goin' nowhere. It's still here in the family. What's the difference?'
"So I agreed to take the child," Moore said, "and they had the papers drawn up. And I took this baby and went on back to Chicago. But I didn't do anything about turning the papers in. I waited six months, and they kept asking me, "Did you put up the papers in? Did you adopt the baby? And I said, "˜No, I am waiting till you come get their baby. And Everree, who had a very hard time with two of her children, wasn't supposed to have any more, but she came up pregnant again.
"This baby that I had was about three years old when we went to see her. The little girl said to her mother, "˜When that baby comes, can I have that baby?' Funny, a mother and her baby talking like that, isn't it? But they were good friends And Everree told her, "Yes you can have the baby.' And sure enough, when she died, her daddy gave us the baby."
"Yes, she died in childbirth. How else you think I got all those children?" Miss Moore stares hard, like I've not got good sense. "I raised those kids because their mother died. I got on United Airlines with five children and brought them here. The oldest was eight."
"You worked full-time and raised them as your own?"
"They were mine," says Miss Moore in the middle of her rose garden. "After all, Everree was mine, I raised her."
A pair of furry white balls, kittens with yellow tabby markings, scamper from the back. The kittens roll about, playing at the cuff of her coveralls. Unable to bend down, she croons at them, promising them milk later. These kittens are from the spring time pregnant cat.
Josie Moore was a student at the University of Chicago where she says she was discriminated against. She speaks of that time before slipping back to describe how her father donated the land so that the colored church could be built back further in time to how she and brothers and sisters used to care for the land, the cows, pigs and horses. Her memory is loose, missing parts like the Woolworth clip he wore the last time we met.
"It was a lot of work being on that farm. The hired help on a rainy day could go fish and were able to do something for my family and the community. Something worthwhile, not some shallow thing that's here today and gone tomorrow. I'd have liked to have built something nice that the kids could enjoy. And I still have this dream right now, of going back and uniting our land. We call it the John Crockett Estate, after my father."
We stand in the front of her house, looking out upon Valencia Park, once an all white enclave, the homes handsome and spacious. She moved in and set in gear white flight. Now blacks live here. But it is not this place she sees, it is the land back in Mississippi. "I'd have liked to build the land up so that all the people from that community could come back and call that home if they wanted to. We still have our church, and the second Sunday in August everybody gets back there who can. We go to church and sing and shout and have us a good time at Poppa's church!"
She pauses for a moment, caught up in the pleasure of the memory. "What I'd love to do, what I've been dreaming about all my life, is to go back there and unite all this land. Set it up as a community thing where anyone who wants to can go home and stay there as long as they want, work on the farm, raise cattle. And when they get tired, move on and let the next person do it. I want to do that so bad, but it looks like time runs out on you.
"If I'd been a white woman," she says, "maybe I wouldn't have the money to do this. At least I think the state would be more willing to support my ideal."
A dark head appears at the window. It's Mr. Leroy, the man helping to put the house in order. She calls out a greeting, then leans close and speaks in a croaking whisper. "I don't have anything to give him, but I'm going to try my best to figure out some way to pay him."
We make our way down the brick walk toward my car. "I've lived my life helping others, and by helping others I've achieved a lot of satisfaction. When I was 15, I was a little country schoolteacher. And being a little country schoolteacher down South, you are taught to give of yourself to others. We were raised up in the church, and I've tried to live the way my parents would have wanted me to live.
"My husband was Richard Leroy Moore and we lived what you would call a "plutonic' life together." Surprise must register on my face, for she wonders aloud if she has used the wrong word. I suggest the word she wants is "platonic" and means a couple who do not have sexual relations together. I am embarrassed to be speaking this way before an 85 year-old woman, but she laughs and says, oh no, then that sure isn't the word. "What I mean is that he lived his life, and I lived mine."
“You mean you were independent.”
“Yes, you can say that.”
We are now at the end of the steps.
“I’ve had some friends who were white, and they were very nice people and did so many things to encourage me. They said I should be doing things for myself and forget the world. But that would be out of my character. All of my life I’ve been doing things for other people. I’d be very unhappy just doing for me.”
Perhaps now it’s time that she lived for herself?
“Maybe you’re right,” she says.
I give her a hug and step away. She stands framed by the house she bought to raise her sister’s children in, the house whose purchase began the white flight from the area. Now the house, with Mr. Leroy’s help, may survive until this woman’s passing.
“You want to know the truth?’ she asks. “The truth is that if I was a white lady, I’d get somebody to help me fix up this house so I could live in it and be happy. You think somebody at your newspaper will come and help me?”
She waves, then turns and slowly heads back up the walk.
In “Mississippi — Goddamn!” Nina sings a line.
- You don’t have to live next to me,
- Just give me my equality.
Fashion folks tell us the color black slims the figure. But when Detective Tyrone Crosby enters the room, tall and broad-shouldered, his 285 pounds sheathed in black – fitted shirt, skinny tie, slacks – he looks immense. And he looks mean. He is 42 and radiates ill will the way a hard running turbo V-8 engine gives off heat. Our room, with a long table and a chalkboard, is off the receptionist area at the Southeast division headquarters of the San Diego Police Department. Suddenly the place seems to lack oxygen, as if something is sucking up all the air. Crosby sits. He is like a movie star, instantly dominating the room. It is a useful trick for a cop. Lives depend upon his ability to quickly impress his will on a scene.
“Where would you like me to begin?” he asks.
At once everything changes. It is his voice. Professional athletes train their bodies to work life powerful machines; but their voices, not subject to such a regiment, sometimes remain caught in youth. Crosby’s voice belongs to a man 25 years younger. 10 pounds leaner, and a whole lot sweeter than the years may have otherwise allowed. Hearing the voice, I understand he is not angry or ill tampered; rather, like the 27 pounds of equipment a police officer may carry, Crosby lugs around heavy vibes, the unseen burden of his profession.
“My father was in the service. He met my mother in Cuba, and I was born there.” Crosby looks and sounds like a regular African-American kind of guy. His biculturalism comes as a surprise.
Being half-Cuban, he says, has given him a somewhat different slant on things. When his family settled in San Diego, he could stand back and look at American culture from the vantage point of a foreigner, a boy born in Cuba, an outsider. Quickly enough, he says, he entered into the life of his community. At Morse High School he played football and later went on to play college ball for Southern Utah State University. There, he says, he felt discriminated against because he was a student athlete. Fortunately, he met a professor named Leak, a man, like himself whose heritage was mixed.
“Be unusual,” advised Leak. “Don’t fit into any of the categories that have been prepared for you, that people will put you in if you let them.”
“I majored in art,” continues Crosby. “Here I was, this big buy working over my easel.” Indeed, he still paints and today has had four one-man shows. Again, I am surprised, But why? After all, in the P.D. James mysteries, the detective, Adam Dalgeish kills time by writing first-rate poetry. But that is fiction, and Tyronne Crosby is the real thing – a detective, an aggressively masculine figure, who speaks a little Spanish to his mother while she cooks up his favorite rice and bean dish, whose oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings are exhibited; who is well educated, articulate and thoughtful.
One is warned against judging a book by its cover, but such judgments have stalked Crosby. He recalls with chagrin how, in the second grade, when he told his teacher he wanted to be a Marine officer. She replied that such a dream was impossible. Crosby later went on to finish officers candidate school and only severe illness kept him from accepting a commission.
Indeed, the list of dreams he has realized is impressive “I wanted to play ball, and I did. I wanted to paint and I do I wanted to become a black-belt martial artist, and I have.” He studied Shorin ryu for 10 years and then set up a school of martial arts and taught children self defense. Finally, 16 years ago, he decided that he wanted to be a policeman and serve his community. Two years later he was on the beat in Southeast San Diego. Over the next 14 years, Crosby moved up from cop to detective, and today he works as a juvenile intervention officer for the Southeast division.
“The department is trying very hard to have a communication with the community. We know it takes a whole to defeat the problem. Cops can’t do it by themselves, and the community can’t do it either. We have to have a joint effort, to know each other. Southeast San Diego is a mixed community, not just black folks, and they do not get the credit that they deserve. It has been my experience that this community communicates and cooperates with the police more than any other community in the city. The media puts it out; “Southeast San Diego – War Zone.” This ignores the fact that we have drive-by shootings all over the city.
“My point is that as citizens of a community, it is our responsibility to speak up. When we are being misrepresented, we cannot, as citizens, expect others to speak up for us. We must speak up for ourselves. I look at it like this. You take care of your home, don’t you? Well, the community is your home too. You should take care of it.”
The young people referred to him by various agencies have had light brushes with the law – petty theft, graffiti, and the like. These are not major offenses but, according to Crosby, they can manifest as larger problems if not addressed.
His training experience with kids in martial arts informs his current work. “The kids who come in here have an excuse to justify bad behavior. They have not been shown that, hey, you have got to be accountable for your actions. You’re judged by how you carry yourself and how you do what you do. I try to teach them about how, if you make a mistake, you make a mistake. Okay, You can better yourself. Go on from there; that’s not the end-all.”
Serving first as a patrolman and now was a detective, Crosby’s front-line experience offers clues as to why so many young black men find themselves involved with the criminal justice system. (Estimates go as high as one out of every three between the ages of 18 and 35.)
“Lack of direction,“ he says, simply. “These young men come into that critical age of adolescence where, historically, the father kicks in and engages more fully in the child’s upbringing. Across cultures, this is the role the man serves,” he says. “The man teaches the maturing boy how he is to get along in society. But these young black men are not getting this.”
Crosby takes his hat off to mothers of single-parent households. “They’re doing double duty. And they’re not doing this out of choice but out of necessity.” Asked if he sees a solution, he is again straightforward. “Fathers should become fathers. I don’t care what program you come up with, whether it’s Washington, D.C. or Sacramento, it’s not going to take the place of a father being a father. There is no guarantee that a man will be with a woman forever, but to bring a child into the world, that is for life. Take care of it. Deal with it the best way you can.”
Crosby credits his own development to his two-parent family and the significant mentors who took him in hand.
“I have six children. Three are boys. And let me tell you, it isn’t easy for children to have a policeman as a father. Other kids make fun of them. I explain that mine is an honorable profession. I go out every day and help serve the community, not bring it down. I haven’t killed anyone or sold dope to anyone.
“I explain that we should not put down those who are trying to better things. In my opinion, as a people, as black folks, we need to grow up to the point where we can begin to self-critique, to look at our problems in a mature way and try and face them.”
Crosby is quick to add that such self-criticism cannot ignore the fact that racism does exist. As a black man who also happens to be a police officer, he has met events that took on a racial coloring. He prefers, however, not to elaborate, saying only that for every one of those incidents, he had a white officer who put his life on the line for him. When he saw the videotape of the Rodney King beating or heard the Mark Fuhrman tapes during the O.J. Simpson trial his first response was disbelief.
“What I saw was not professional. In each instance, that material hurt police officers and law-enforcement folk all across the country. They gave the whole profession in a black eye. And I know that it does not reflect everyone in the department or the department’s code of conduct. In this profession, one misstep is enough to throw into question a long career of unblemished behavior.
“And don’t get me wrong,” he says, lifting a hand as if he is testifying in court. “I’m not condoning Fuhrman or those officers in the Rodney King business. But if we’re talking about responsibility, the media has a lot to do with this short-circuit appraisal. The media is in the business of selling news and what sells news is sensationalism. Many of the public’s views come to them from the media. About mistreatment at the hands of white cops, we tend to forget that we’re dealing with human beings on both sides of the fence. It is an especially difficult job because sometimes, we’re allowed only fractions of seconds to make decisions of utmost importance.”
Extraordinarily articulate, Crosby stumbles only when I ask him to imagine himself as white. He paused, reflecting, “Okay,” he says, pushing a little away from the table. “I am a cop, probably my same age, but he says, “I’m living now in North County, maybe in a mixed community. I work as a police officer with young people.”
According to Crosby, as a white man he would be striving as he is now to communicate with others, because, whether white or black, his essence remains the same and it is one that seeks to relate to connect.
“I have the trials and tribulations that come from being a black man in the society and of course that makes living difficult, but – and maybe this is where my Cuban background comes in – because we are known for not quitting, and I am not going to quit. And besides,” he says, whether you’re white or black, it seems to me it is all the same. If it’s not trials and tribulations in one place, it’s going to be in another. Nobody has it easy. There is always going to be something out there that I’m going to have to face and deal with. In other words, imagining that I’m white does not mean that all the problems go away.”
He acknowledges that there might be advantages to being a white man, these being mostly financial. “But the real advantage has been for me, as a black man, that I have learned about other people, and I know who I am. Black folks,” he says, ‘forgot where we came from when we got materialistic. We traded our souls for a Cadillac.
He cites the drug trade as an example. “We live in a capitalistic society of supply and demand. If there was no demand for drugs, then drugs would not be brought in. There would be no money in it. It is as simple as that. Nobody is putting a gun in their hands and telling these brothers to go out and get them some dope and use it. They’ve made that choice. And no program – not the ‘I Love You’ program or the ‘Kiss Me’ program – is going to change matters until we face the fact and do something about it.”
Crosby has come by his views working in the same community in which he grew up. “People know me here from when I was a little kid. I get my reward every day when I hear people speaking to me, calling up and asking for Detective Crosby, asking if I would intercede because I’m someone they know, who they are familiar with.”
Across color and gender, he says police officers are people who want to fix things, make it right. “But one day you wake up and discover that maybe you can’t fix everything. You discover,” he say, “that you’ve burned out trying to fix everything.”
Two years ago, Crosby went back to church. “There, “he says, “I asked for peace. Because, let me tell you, don’t you think it takes a toll seeing the carnage? People don’t invite cops to their house for dinner. We see them at their worst. And it takes a toll.” Nothing more clearly demonstrates that toll than the atmosphere in the room. Crosby has given no details on the carnage he has witnessed, yet when he first sat opposite me and I felt something was consuming the room’s air, I told myself I was imaging things. But it was neither my imagination nor was it actually Crosby. Rather, it was the living memory he carries about a monkey on his back.
I change the subject and ask what it is like for him when he paints. His features light up and for the first time the oppressive air in the room lifts a little. “I feel a lot of things,” he says. “The stresses from the job release, I watch the experience unfolding the way the hand moves with the paint brush and the canvas grows crowded with color, the way time drops away. Can you imagine a big boy like me sitting in the classroom with all these future artists? I stood out like a sore thumb. But I did it. And what I create now is unique. No one on the planet would do it just the way I did. I put the experience in religious terms, how the Lord gave me this talent and how anything is possible.”
Kids, he says, must begin to think the same way. They must believe that anything is possible. “Who said everything was going to be easy? It ain’t over till it’s over, and you just might surprise yourself and come out on top. But you won’t if you quit.” As for parents, he is also clear. “Dare to be parents! You don’t need to be friends. Be a parent, because they need it. If we are going to save these kids, we must do that.”
Right on time, Shirley Weber steams down the hall, offers a firm handshake, then turns and leads her visitor back to her office on the second floor of the board of education building. The room is small and very orderly. Professional papers are neatly stacked and catalogues, books arranged in bookshelves by subject, engagements, circled on her desk calendar.
Ms. Weber wears a blue suit, low heels, and little makeup. At a time when African-American women are pressing their hair and coloring it bombshell blond. Weber’s “do” – a thick mass of kinky, unprocessed hair that blooms like a cloud around her full face – harks back to the ‘60s, when blacks were grabbing up their pride like pulling live coals from the fire. Her “natural” sets Weber apart. In her poem “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals.” Gwendolyn Brooks writes:
- You never worshipped Marilyn Monroe.
- You say: Farrah’s hair is hers.
- You have not wanted to be white
- Nor have you testified to adoration of that state
- with the advertisement of imitation.
In an age of undoing imitation, her clear indifference marks this woman as dangerous. I pose the question – how she imagines her life might be if she had been born white.
“You have to be kidding me!” She barks a laugh. I mention others I have talked with and how their thoughts help cast light on the subject of race relations. She thinks for a moment. “All right,” she says and nails me with a look, “I’m ready,” She jumps right in. “If I was white, I don’t know if I’d have the same sense of urgency that I carry with me today. And I believe I might have explored options other than in education.” Being black, she says has meant that she has had to be twice as good and work twice as hard. Her reasoning is disturbingly simple.”
Weber grew up in a segregated Los Angeles neighborhood and attended segregated schools before going to UCLA. Where she did well. An instructor, Moleti Asante, urged her to go on to graduate school. “He told me, “They will kill you and one will know that you’re dead. That was his argument for making yourself heard.”
Banking on her intellect and internal fortitude,” she entered the doctoral program and was doing fine, or she thought, until the chairman of her department asked to meet with her. She was 24, she says and had gotten nothing but A’s from him in her courses. He told me that I was not going to make it and that I should drop out, she says, shaking her head. “Of course he used words like ‘suggest,’ ‘but the bottom line was the he wanted me to go away.”
Weber is held to memory for a moment.
“You know,” she says, wonderingly, “I keep thinking that, one day, we will work toward a level of parity, of equality. Maybe if I’d have been a white woman, I would have been encouraged. But I was young and he was the chairman of the department, and what he said carried a lot of weight. It threw me for a loop,” she admits, then points her finger as if it were a six-shooter, “but only for a little while. I went on to get my degree, and the rest is, like they say, history.
Weber offers harsh wisdom to her own two children. “When you are black,” she tells them, ”you must prepare yourself for constant defeat. That way,” she adds, “it is so much sweeter when you win.” She claims she gets her strength from being black.
“Today, with what I know and who I am, if I was a white person, I’d be either the governor of California or the president of the U.S.” She laughs again, but I am not sure she is kidding. She stands extends her hand over the desk, then think better of it and comes around to my side.
“White women talk about a glass ceiling,” she concludes opening the door. “But read my lips. What black folks face is a street ceiling”.
The door closes.
Larry Malone, my eighth interviewee, could not read or write when he graduated from Lincoln High School.
“In the third grade I was put in the special education class. If a teacher could not educate you as a regular child, you were placed in special ed. I thought I was dyslexic, that I had some developmental problems. After a number of tests, it was found that I didn’t have a medical or emotional problem, as such I was told, instead, that I learned by listening. But teachers were not prepared to teach kids who were more verbal or aural. So kids with physical disabilities and kids who couldn’t read, and some with emotional problems, we were all put in the same class. They did not work on one’s weaknesses. I didn’t learn basic grammar rules, for example. It was a place where we were just coddled. The academics were not addressed.
“Throughout my school career, I felt the shame of being in the ‘dumb’ class and made a commitment, shortly before graduating from high school, that no one would call me dumb again. And so while I couldn’t read or write, I understood that people were judged by the jobs they held. I went out of my way to get good jobs. Because I was articulate, no one suspected that I couldn’t read or write.
We sit at a desk in anonymous building. Malone is an intense man, and as he speaks, he leans forward. Attentive, I find myself doing the same. By the end of our talk, we will be bent over, facing each other like a pair of linebackers in a huddle.
Malone is light skinned with hazel-colored eyes, and his at 40, the sturdy build of a former athlete. In high school he played football for the Hornets and ran track. Today, as a consultant to the San Diego United School District, he offers a black perspective on the history of the African – American community. He is also the co-author of the San Diego Historical Society’s Black Pioneers of San Diego 1880 – 1920. But despite his achievements, the memory of his school years still rankles. “At graduation, the school district presents you with a document and says, essentially, “We got you to this point, now we detach ourselves from you.” What this means for someone like myself – and there are plenty of people out there like me – is that it is a false document.
“I have been to the board of education several times to speak with anyone who could explain what happened, what went wrong. There is the perception that private schools cost and the public schools are free and that in private schools you get what you pay for. But public education is not free. The taxpayer is paying so that these schools can operate. And so the way I look at it, not only was I cheated, but my family was cheated, and the taxpayers were cheated.”
Malone was raised in a single-parent home. The oldest of four children, he says he owes a lot to his mother, who not only raised four children without the support of a man but at the same time educated herself. (Ironically, his mother has recently retired from serving as an education specialist with the school district.)
“I knew I was a bright kid,” he goes on. “History always fascinated me. But I wondered why they never spoke about black people, why none of those historical figures looked like me. I had a male African-American teacher, Minor Tinsley, and he offered some important insights. But I believe that so many young black men find themselves incarcerated because they don’t have men they can identify with who are standing in front of the classrooms. As important as what they’re taught is how they are, what expectations or, more accurately, limitations, are placed on them in school.”
Malone emphasizes mentoring programs for the African-American male. Having worked with these young men, he says, he has seen the rage and the other consequences that seemed to result from an inability to know how to be intimate.
“Their distrust is natural, but we treat it as an aspect of criminality. We currently deal with the problem as intervention and not prevention. And that is a problem.
“I am just like those young men. I am angry – but I understand my anger – its historical, political, social roots. This is why I push education. Because in knowing in understanding, it is a kind of power that no one can take from you.”
For Malone, the Million-Man March in Washington was living proof of his views. “There was no cussing, no drinking and that spirit needs to continue. What I got out of the march was the sense of commitment. It showed that, from an economic standpoint, we can do things without asking people for money. We can take control of our own lives. I hear people say that black folks think too much about the past, about slavery, for example. My response is if we shouldn’t look to the past, then why should we honor the Constitution? Too often we choose to celebrate what we appreciate and enjoy, but we do not take responsibility for what is dark and troublesome.”
Malone’s own childhood was darkened when his father abandoned the family. He says today that for a long time he suffered without validating his feelings of abandonment. The fact that he was later sexually abused by an adult friend of the family only left him more alienated and distrusting.
“And everyone – but especially black males – needs to learn to trust each other.”
Malone, who is separated from his wife, is devoted to his daughter, Lena. “I enjoy being a parent. But we need to remember the African saying, ‘It takes an entire village to raise a child.’ I’ve learned to deal with institutions by working with my own child, and I’d say that the only way you come to trust institutions is if they have proven themselves effective. I’m going to be involved and see, first hand, what is working. I give no institution a rubber stamp.
“Let’s get back to basics.” He says. “As blacks, we need to put our money where we get most of our dividends. We can focus on the problem forever and never solve it.
“But the fact is that we have aspects of the solution at hand; and let’s look right there in the family, where love and respect already exist because for many of us, this is a reality. Segregation meant that blacks had to depend on each other. Well, we need to get back to that place. We need not to be afraid of other, and we must strive not to perpetuate stereotypes that keep us separated. We need Affirmative Action because people won’t always do what they are supposed to do; but we also need to make each other accountable.”
When asked the question of how his life might have been it he’d been born white. Malone does not falter. “We are taught to wear so many masks,” he says at one. “Whites have a sense of freedom that black folks don’t enjoy. Whites feel that this country quite literally belongs to them – the dirt, the sand, the water. If I’d been white, I think I’d have connected more with the earth, with the ocean. For example, how many black surfers do you know. You have a connection when you feel free. Even white folks who are born poor, they have a connection. They believe that this is theirs.” He says, lifting an arm in a wide gesture meant to take in the world beyond this room. “Even the most successful African American does not truly believe that this is theirs. How many blacks do you see go bungee jumping or hang-gliding? Whites, they have this sense of freedom And a sense of power.
Malone has traveled and seen cultures that honor blacks. Here, he says, we’re trained to despise what we are.
“What is gang behavior but striking out at those who look like you? The biggest industry for blacks is cosmetics and hair. We are trying to alter our appearance. Because I was lighter skinned than a lot of my friends and I had green eyes. I was treated better; you could say I was prized. But I had to go inside myself and look and see what this came from. And I had to tell myself not to celebrate this. When I see a black woman with short, unprocessed hair, I tell her that I admire her, that I think she’s gorgeous. But the fact is that I respect her beauty more than she does herself.”
Malone acknowledges that if white culture helped to make his life difficult, individual whites have supported him and become his friends. “That’s why I say if we close ourselves off from others, refuse to take a chance, then we’ll never celebrate our humanity.”
- We real cool. We
- Left school. We
- Lurk late. We
- Strike straight, We
- Sing sin, We
- Thin gin, We
- Jazz June, We
- Die soon.
I was looking for someone like the speaker in Gwendolyn Brook’s poem “We Real Cool.” I wanted someone young, a high school dropout, maybe someone who’d had run-ins with the law. I got Ronnie Shelton. He is not a dropout, and he has never been picked up by the police. But he is at loose ends and, at 22, still likely to find himself a part of that distressing population, among the ones in three African-American males trapped in the criminal justice system. Shelton knew the kind of person I was looking for, and now, just five minutes in the car together, he runs down the credentials on his badness. He relates how he goes to house parties and has been a witness to shootings in which his friends have died. According to him, it might be drugs, a robbery, or maybe gang related. Or some times, Shelton says, they’ll do it just to do it.
“Are you saying this to make your story sound more interesting?” I am yelling over the roar of freeway traffic. We have 6:00 dinner reservations at one of the Embarcadero restaurants, and we’re late.
“No”, he assures me, “I have friends who die all the time.”
We slip into a parking space and head for the restaurant. Shelton is a big man, over six feet tall, more than 200 pounds, broad shouldered, and quite pleased with himself. His dark eyes and youthful good looks have made him popular. He is already a father. Aggressively masculine, he is vain and clearly assumes that he has good reason to be. Fortunately he has a sense of humor and in a 22-year-old, a little cockiness can be charming.
But when we enter the restaurant, the world stops. Every dinner (all of them white) turns to look. We are two black men together. I know, black men experience this kind of thing all the time. And it does not help that Shelton, natty in his fashionably oversized togs, cap cocked to the side, cellular phone in hand, stands with the same don’t-give-a-fuck grace of Snoop Dogg or Tupac. Shelton does not look mean. He looks cool. But these restaurant patrons cannot tell the difference. Shelton does not retreat from their appraisal.
“It happens to me a lot.” He says later, at the table. “When I walk somewhere, people get uptight because I’m a black man; but I ignore it. I know how much they hate me, but they can’t do anything to me.” Then, reconsidering, he adds, “It’s not that they hate me. They just hate what I am. You see, they can’t hate me, because they don’t know me. It’s just because of my color. It’s their fear. People are going to go ahead and think what they’re going to think. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
I suggest that what others are thinking can mess with his own head, that it might ultimately mean the difference between living and dying. “Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t let anything get to my head. And you learn to carry yourself a certain way. For example, you don’t go to La Jolla with your pants saggin’ and a rag on your head unless you want the cops to pull you over and ask what you’re doin’. That’s mandatory. It don’t matter, even if you’re Latino or whatever. There’s no gaming allowed in La Jolla and certain other suburban areas.”
Our orders are taken. While we wait, Shelton sips a beer and ignores the veiled looks sent our way. He has a son, Christopher, who is cared for by his ex-girlfriend’s grandmother. Shelton sees the boy regularly, but it was just a “high school thing” with the girl. There is no relationship today.
Shelton is the oldest of four, raised in a single parent household. His father was shot dead. Speaking of his mother with great affection, she has been the most important influence in his life. “She’s a single parent and a Christian, and no matter, what, she always did what was right, what she had to do. And no matter how hard she had to struggle, she was always there for her kids. I appreciate my mom for that. She influenced me to stay in school, get good grades. I always got god grades, good citizenship. I was always on top, an honor roll student.”
The year he graduated from high school. Shelton running as an outside linebacker, helped the Morse Tigers rank fourth in that nation.
“Because we were powerful in certain sports we’d go up north and they’d get intimidated. Sometimes they’d have hatred, ‘Oh man, those blacks and Samoans, they big!” We’d get off the bus, and there would be these people all quiet, staring. The only thing you could hear was our cleats on the cement. That’s how quiet it would get.
“When cops have stopped me,” he says, taking some beer and veering onto another subject, “it was kinda scary at first, because you don’t know what to expect, what’s going to happen next. Thinking what to say, what not do, what to do. It’s a heart-beating feeling, because you figure they’re pulling you over because something is wrong. I’ve been pulled over a lot of times where I was in a predicament being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Shelton admits that sometimes, when he needed money, he found himself operating on the wrong side of the law. Luckily, he was never caught.
“I knew that kind of thing wasn’t for me. I always wanted to do something professional, like be a professional football player, or do something positive, because that’s how I am. I can live in the ghetto, that environment, but I don’t have to be a part of that environment. It doesn’t enthuse me.
“If I wanted to find trouble, I know where to look. Right there on Euclid Avenue. But,” he says, “I want to do what’s right, make legal money without facing death row or time with life. I like freedom too much. I got to stay mobile, move around and see places, see things. I get bored real fast. And I like nice things. I don’t want to have to worry about struggling about when I’m going to get the next bill. I like nice things and know what I have to do to get nice things and live a decent life. So that’s why I’m going to school, to set goals for myself and help others when they need help.”
Shelton was a student at Chapman University. “In a white school, because I’m big, I was automatically pegged as a football player or a wrestler. They figured I was on scholarship.” But he was not on scholarship and had to find work where he could. Going to school part-time, working, coming home but not finding there an environment where it was easy for him to study, he was forced to drop out.
“I like to be around people, to learn about them. And sometimes the only way you can learn about different people from different backgrounds, different nationalities is in the classroom. You’re not going to learn about different people walking around, sitting on corners, running from cops, or going on gang bangs and shooting people.” He is now enrolled at Southwestern College.
He wants to major in criminal injustice and work for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. His school attendance is spotty.
Our food arrives, A Caesar salad is placed in front of me. Shelton’s meal covers the rest of the table. He orders another beer and then attacks – plunging his popover shrimp in tartar sauce, drowning his fish tacos in salsa, dousing his French fries in ketchup. I look at him as he eats. Will he one day be among the statistics of others his age who find themselves in jail, on parole, or dead?
“Not me,” He shakes his head. “What I do is that I keep myself from blowing up when I really don’t have to by thinking of myself behind bars and not having my freedom, not seeing who I want to see or doing what I want to do. That’s what I think about. So that keeps me from doing a lot of things that others maybe find themselves doing. I’m the kind of person, once people know the kind of person I am, they try and take advantage of me. Maybe I might get a little irritable, but mostly nothing bothers me. I’m just cool. If you say something trying to hurt my feelings or make me feel bad. I’ll say, ‘Oh, whatever!’ and no hard feelings. That’s the way I am, my personality, And if people accept me for who I am, no matter what color, that makes me happy.”
We forego dessert. Shelton orders a creamy espresso with a liqueur. He is ready for it when the question comes.
“If I’m white, I can do what I want without people looking at me crazy. I got a little power, I’m accepted wherever I’m at, as long as it’s a nice area. The law is pretty much on my side, as long as I got a little money. If I commit a crime, I might get away with it because I’m white and I got a little money. If you’re black, even with a little money, you’re in trouble. That’s how society is.”
He imagines that as a white man he might not already be a parent, that he would have finished school. “For me, being black, I can’t go to school and not worry about anything else. I always have to work – all kinds, from retail to shipping and stocking; most of the jobs are pretty much minimum wage. That’s why I’m going to school, because you can’t really get any kind of job without college, any kind of money without a degree.”
Shelton is not unaware of reverse stereotyping. “We think white folks are all rich and have it together, “he says, “but that’s the same thing like pinning me with their ideas about what I am. That’s a stereotype, I’ve got a lot of white friends and my best white buddy, he’s cool. What makes him cool? Himself, just being himself. He don’t travel around thinking he’s got power because he’s white. All my Caucasian friends are cool. They know what to call you and not call you. You know what to call them and not call them. If you hang out with certain Caucasians and they’re you’re friend, they expect to talk the way you talk, say what you say; it’s only fair. And they’re cool. They know what to say and to who.
“If I was white, I’d be cool. I’d hang out with black guys, and if my white friends had a problem with that, I’d say that the black guy was my friend. I’d say wake up and stop hating because you’re not hurting anybody but yourself. What comes around goes around, so it’s not even worth it – so don’t do it.”
Eyes follow us as we leave the restaurant. Outside, making for the car, Shelton draws admiring gazes from several young women black, white, and Latina. He smiles, exuding a lusty nonchalance.
In the car, he points me in the direction of the freeway.
My last interviewee, Khalada Salaam Alaji is as tall as a man. Lean and shapely, she steps from the elevator, gripping a thick leather briefcase. Her white cambric veil hides her hair. Large, dark eyeglasses hide her eyes. With sunglasses and veil combined most of her head is covered. I am reminded of Jackie O, photographed on Skorpios in her heyday. But Jackie never carried a briefcase and always showed a lots of fashionable leg. Khalada Salaam Alaji offers no hint of exposed flesh. She extends her hand in greeting. Her voice is softly melodious. She smiles, and the resemblance to Jackie sticks. It is more than a question of beauty. That which hides, reveals wrapped in purdah, Khala Salaam Alaji is an icon.
We meet at the Community Preparatory School that Salaam Alaji helped found 15 years ago. She says that today it is a communal experience in which her husband and the teachers are combining efforts so she can concentrate on issues of raising money and relocating the school.
We adjourn to her office. It is a neat clutter of papers, office supplies, classroom materials, and kids drawings displayed on the walls. The room smells of chalk paste, and crayons. Sunlight pours through a large window opposite the door. Salaam Alaji loves the sunlight but says it might be a little much for a visitor. She pulls the cord and the blinds turn up, leaving long creases of light stacked on one another. In the background, children’s voices ring out from the classrooms that line the hall.
The children, says their principal, are being introduced to a vision of the world in which the human is wed to spirituality, where they enjoy a feeling of their worth as human beings, in which they recognize the expectations that their parents, the school, and the community have for them. Not all parents are Muslim, nor is the Muslim ethic forced upon the child. Each day at Community Preparatory School does begin, however with the first psalm of the Koran.
Salaam-Alaji is a Muslim but does not belong to the Nation of Islam or any Islamic group. She identifies with Muslims and in their belief in one god Allah. She follows certain practices including Ramadan, and hopes one day to make the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. She supports the philosophy of the Nation of Islam about doing for self. “The best helping hands,” she quotes, “are at the end of your own wrists.”
Salaam-Alaji started the community based school in a duplex on Dewey Street. “Those interested in supporting us,” She says, “had first to see results. That took about six years, and when the first group of kids were ready to graduate, they tested very well. One young girl tested in the 99th percentile nationwide and won a scholarship to Francis Parker.” Salaam-Alaji’s older son Rashan (her younger boy is named Jabali) was also in that first group and did well. But she wanted him to go to public school and “hand out with the brothers.” He went to Bell, where he did very well. (In college, Rashan Salaam would be the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner.)
“The early years were very experimental, but they went very well,’ she says. Today, the school has enrolled 50 children in six grades. “But to continue to empower children, we must make the effort to see that the institution continues to exist. We plan to move and to build our own building. Courtney Hall, the center for the Chargers has given a substantial gift that we are going to use toward a building fund.”
I ask the question, “How would your life have been if you’d been born white?”
“Whites,” she says, “know the value of teaching their own. If I’d been Jewish, I think, there would have been a natural rallying around the school. You see segregation was bad thing when one is denied the human stuff, not being able to eat where one wants, and so forth. But most of the black leadership came out of the South. I am saying that segregation was not altogether bad. We can learn from it.”
She notes a need for a spiritual change within the nation and was pleased that the Million-Man March spoke of the need for a strong family. “It really must come from the family. It may sound like a cliché, but it is true. And the only thing that will set us all free, every one of us on this planet, is truth.”
I return to the question, Salaam-Alaji, balking, says, “I only know my own life. For example, I don’t think I would have come any earlier into an experience of my own power as an administrator if I’d been born white, because white folks are struggling with their own identities just like everyone else.”
This, my last interviewee, is proving in some way my most difficult. I ask her to create in her mind a white person. She tries, “Well, first it would be a white person who I wouldn’t mind being around – someone clean, not ignorant, generous, nonargumentative, a soulful white person. And,” she say, “I have a friend like that. Judy Hamilton and her husband, Chris. They are good people, not pretentious.
“I think the problem confronting the white culture is the fact of too much of everything. Too much wealth, too much poverty. Too much everything. It is an extreme condition facing the white culture. And we, as a people, tend to follow them Blacks identify with white people. I’ve seen a real shift in my lifetime. I try not to let it upset me, but look, for example at music and fashion. Now no one has to like the music I like,” she says, “or dress the way I do. But personally, I find it shocking. I hope for a turn-around, because I don’t think this is working.
“I want to see us all – white, black, Chinese, Japanese, whatever – I want to see all of us learning to coexist together, respecting what we have in common and acknowledging and honoring what is different in each of us.”
Salaam-Alaji tells of a guru who once told her that when you tell your age, someone will at once see it in you. “And I,” she says, “refuse any limitation. If I accept limitation, you can bet there will be people lined up to accommodate me.”
I stand and thank her for her time. She comes around the desk and pulls the cord to the venetian blinds. Sunlight floods the room. She stands against the window. Her form is outlined, her silhouette almost black. She says the question I asked betrays a world where there is no hope of racial harmony.
I am not sure I understand.
“The question,” she says, ‘relies on the notion of distinction, and that is what racism is all about, not difference but distinction.”
I list the different responses I have heard – the call for the values of self-discrimination found in segregation, the desire to return South and create a self-help community, the hope for unity, an equality that transcends race. If the question is racist, the responses certainly have not been. I offer as something of a cautionary note the fact that as my last interviewee, her statement may carry an exceptional weight for the reader. She is not fazed.
“So many Caucasians,” says Salaam-Alaji, “want us to follow them. They want control over us, to have us fit into their system and to want to be like them. There are not very many who know how deep lies their own racism.” Standing there, she speaks with an odd lack of emphasis. The music has gone out of her voice. The icon is now the sibyl. But she speaks kindly.
“The question that propels your story – ‘How would my life be different if I was born white?’ – implies, I think, that we would want to be like them, as if we spent our lives wondering what it must be like to be white. And that’s part of the problem – and not because some of them might think it, and some of us might want to be white. The problem is in the positive value placed on whiteness and the negative value placed on blackness. That’s the problem.”
Nina calls her song a show tune, “but the show hasn’t been written yet…”
- Why don’t you see it?
- Why don’t you feel it?
- I don’t know. I don’t know.