Since this president’s election, there is more discussion around race – however awkward the genesis for those talks may be. For months now I’ve been struggling to get onto paper the good, the bad, the highs and lows of an adolescent life that started in Compton, California. Yes, Compton – of which I am straight out. Surprisingly, in this post-racial society, race keeps getting in the way of my story; which begs the question, can one grow up in and graduate from Compton High School and have race NOT be a constant issue? I’m sure I’ll have the answer surrounded, if not captured, by the end of this missive.
Growing up in Compton prepared me for a lot of things. My adolescence was like living in a national gold fish bowl what with the Watts Riots a few miles away and the steady stream of whites rushing to get out of this changed city adding to the white-flight statistics. I didn’t need to be told I was part of an undesirable collective as perceived by races other than my own. Looking back, I chose a road less traveled, I got outside of the goldfish bowl and like Frost my road may have looked less traveled but, after my 40th high school reunion, I find I am not alone in my search for happiness, peace and answers.
Are we in a post-racial society now that an African-American democrat is in the White House? Although I live in one of the New York counties that went for a republican candidate, I don’t believe a person is racist by virtue of voting republican, I do worry though at the muted undertones in conservative attempts at casual conversations about race. I believe the root-issue, sometimes putting covert racist feelings in ugly relief, is basically fear – like white flight. When we talk about the things that make us afraid – the dark is always at our unconscious base.
I am straight out of Compton, yet people don’t fear me. For some of my more conservative friends, I am the black friend that’s easy to have. Proof that that person can get beyond race. But I’ve lived long enough to know that the fly on the wall in faculty rooms, local pubs and restaurants knows a lot more than the quiet buzz it emits.
Since our president’s election, the home down the road has put up several confederate flags, rural neighbors cease to wave when I walk by and the young, unemployed white males delight in yelling and coming close to me with their car as I walk alone. It is their attempt at getting me to jump, be afraid and quit walking past their trailer. I am afraid only after I issue my own one-finger-salute. I am outnumbered here in the hinterlands – if I consider my race, which my own reactionary response has forced me to do. I consider my need to curb my reactionary ways. I’d like to always respond with the dignified approach that would make my southern-born grandmother proud. But, alas and alack, I am a child of the 60’s where snappy, life-saving comebacks await, emotionally double-parked, on the tongue. There was the time when the woman who orders the textbooks for the community college at which I am an adjunct made the pre-Martin Luther King day holiday declaration that, “white folks don’t get national holidays. I told her the college probably wouldn’t mind if she came in and worked on that day in protest. I used a light, teasing tone believing any logic would be lost here as she kept pushing at her original argument. In desperation, I released my last salvo; “Well, if you white folks would have quit killing black men sooner then there wouldn’t be a need for such a holiday now would there?” – my verbal equivalent of the undignified low-road, middle-finger. Reactions such as these, I know, could get me hurt or, at the very least, unresolved book orders.
I was asked to give a book talk to a local teachers’ group. The entire event went well. I entertained thoughtful questions which I was able to answer with ease and humor. After the talk the president of this group came to me praising me for my performance. And in her defense, I have to say she did not say how “articulate” I was (in my experience, the word, articulate, is used to refer to an African-American who somehow, magically, can spring from the ghetto and speak “regular English”) but, as we discussed the Harvard, Yale, lawyers and doctors in her family she jumped onto the subject of two black males on a New York City escalator, one going up, one going down, and how disturbing it was to see one throw a duffle bag across the up-down divide to the other. The jump from her offspring of many merits to two anonymous black males on an escalator created conversational whiplash for me. “Wait, your son was throwing a duffle bag to a black man on an escalator?” I asked for clarification – for her as she obviously did not realize the verbal do-do she had stepped into here at a retired teachers’ book talk. She stammered seemingly shocked that I would think her son could be involved with such nefarious goings on before mentioning how she so hoped drugs were not involved in the duffle bag transaction. My mind immediately went to my 22 year-old son and how he would be perceived by this woman had he forgotten his gym gear in the subway and had his cousin pick it up for him. So many ways to look at things and yet, this woman gravitated to the worst. Why? I considered an offer to join the group though I remained perplexed at the group president’s choice of conversation with me. Is this what post-racial conversations are supposed to be like? Is content less important than the ease with which one can display one’s views? Would a post-racial conversational ease be a more apt description of today’s dialogue? I have since discussed this incident with white friends from whom I can expect honest responses. Their take was, this woman was letting me know that, while I may be well-read, educated and able to command a roomful of strangers, I didn’t go to HarvardYaleStanford, I am not a doctorlawyerdentist and, ipso facto – I am not as smart as her children who are, by the way, white. One friend suggested this woman needed to invalidate any racial success I may represent by inserting her own perceived evil (read fear) of the black male. Why does this make me sad?
So, I write yet another homage, bowing to the disfigured feet of U.S. race relations. I need to make decisions here; do I quit walking alone in my rural community? Do I not join the retired teachers’ group? I fear the minute I allow prejudice to determine my decisions – I have lost. Doomed to a life of us vs. them. And maybe there is a connection (besides the obvious) between this essay and the 40th reunion of Compton High School’s students of 1969. This was a mass meeting with 400 hundred beautiful, middle-class, accomplished men and women. Yet, I find it curious that, while I moved around to more than a few tables, I did not come across one at which the past presidential election was a topic. Maybe it was a conversation that happened after the reunion, in the lounge after midnight, without those who, heeding the fatigue of our 50s, went straight to bed. Maybe there was conversation around the backlash of the last election; white vitriol that springs up from the well of fear. Fear of the loss of white-skin-privilege. Fear that this president, however erudite and politically savvy, is not like a “real American” instead, being someone from whom “real Americans” should take their country back. Maybe there was a conversation about an ugly fear that walks on silent feet, tiptoeing into the heart’s interstices. The brain can deal with this fear but the heart is no match for this dark tool cloaked in hearth, home, grizzlies, and loss of a parched constitution. Maybe, too, there was conversation about loss by those resigned to the fact that the color of one’s skin will always, always be a factor in a once white country whose collective self-esteem has had its roots watered deeply for many years in racial superiority. My experiences on that undignified, low-road of human nature makes me ask, “Who would want to give that up – totally?”
Sadly, maybe that last question holds the answer – to the problem and the solution.
And while we can now broach the topic of race with ease (however uncertain) the answers and solutions will be anything but easy.
CHRISTOPHER AND I WERE TALKING ABOUT YOU THIS MORNING. WE WERE PASSING THE PHELPS BRIGADE. CHRISTOPHER WAS CRACKING UP. HE SAID, “OUR GWENNIE LOU DID NOT LIKE THESE PEOPLE. I TOLD HIM I WAS CONCERNED THAT THEY WOULD FOLLOW US DOWN THE STREET. CHRISTOPHER SAID, YEP, BUT GWENIE GOT INTO HER RENTED CAR AND LET THEM HAVE IT!!!!! WE WERE LAUGHING ALL THE WAY DOWN GAGE BLVD. !!!!!!!! LOVE THE SITE. I WILL FOLLOW UP WITH YOU ON YOUR ESSAYS.
OH GWEN, THIS IS SOOOOO GOOD. IT WAS LIKE A STICK PIN IN MY HEART. DURING MY EMPLOYEE REVIEW AT MY “LITTLE JOB TO KEEP ME BUSY” I WAS TOLD THAT I AM PERCEIVED AS BEING “ARTICULATE”. GIVEN THE TOTALITY OF MY EXPERIENCE AND CIRCUMSTANCES, I JUST HAVE TO LAUGH, BECAUSE THE IRONY WILL NEVER BE APPRECIATED BY THOSE THAT HAVE NO CONCEPT OF HUMAN FAIRNESS AND EQUALITY.
Excellent expression of the subleties of “race relations.” What is most sad, or maybe not, is that so many people, friends, or whatever of the white race are often unaware of their fears and negative perceptions of people of color.
All the comments I have read at article postings regarding Obama are so often tainted with negativity. America screams about the “immigration problem” but refuses to deal with the “American” employer who continues to hire them. Oh no, that would mean we would have to direct some of that anger towards their neighbors. Obama is considered ruining our country with big government but many sat silently by for eight years while our past president was allowed to tumble our economy and banking institutions into the ground. Those that do speak out against Bush have muted anger compared to the outcrys regarding Obama’s administraton. They would be the first to deny it has anything to do with race. Some things will never change. We can only continue to be our best and remain strong in our convictions and beware so we don’t fall into negative generalizations.
You speak for me and I thank you for your gracious words. Talk soon my dear friend.
Gwen such profound thoughts. I have always felt that there are three (3) things that white America fears: (1) Most of all the black man, (2) and educated black man and most profound of all is number three (3) an educated black man with money.
When I tell people that I grew up in Compton, they are shocked that I am able to have an intelligent conversation and not stammer and studder through the English language.
One of my closest friends think that the current president is doing a horrible job, I don’t get into political discussion often but I ask what is he doing that is so much worst than we “Bush’s We Have Acheived Victory” statement. This friend is a retire Marine Captain.
Continue with your thoughts and look forward to hearing more.
And yes I am proud to say that I grew up in Compton and a member of the best class to gradute from Compton High in 1969.
YES WE DID!
Thank you for this piece. I’m also Compton bred and schooled. Proud to tell people when they ask where I’m from. It’s like I’m asking for what I know is going to be either surprise, shock, or “but you’re not like THEM,” attitude. I look forward to the obvious erroneous, racist statements and remarks so I can become ‘The Ancient Mariner” and talk their ears off; give them history lessons on the rape of indigeneous people, remnants of what they think is post-racial but is really still in existence, how a family in the 60’s were still being held in peonage (slavery) because they didn’t know slavery had ended, how Columbus was 20,000 years too late in “discovering” America and was still in the wrong place.
It amazes me that even some of the whites from my own neighborhood, whom I went to school with, still “don’t get it.” Whites that attended our reunion last year, and there were very few, didn’t even broach any conversations about how their families left Compton en masse One of whom I thought was a friend, who will remain nameless, had me over to her house for a barbeque after our reunion last summer. We talked about school for awhile and then she said, “but I never thought of you as Black.” What?!? Well, you can imagine how my attitude when downhill from there and so did the conversation. I’ve not been back to her Orange County home since. She’s one of those that doesn’t, nor will she ever “get it.”
When I started Compton High as a Freshman, it was predominantly white, though starting to dwindle. Even the senior square had invisible divisions. Well we all know what happened soon after I graduated. Class of ’69 definitely knows.
Generations of fear-mongering and inborn beliefs of privilege astound me. I’m not TRYING to sound racist, but could it be in their DNA that they actually believe that the blood that runs through their veins is anything other than red like everyone else? Can they really, logically, believe that slavery didn’t have an impact on EVERYONE in this country? Even them?
I volunteer at The World Stage in Leimert Park Village as a witing workshop fclitator and member of the Anansi Writers workshop.We’re in the heart of what is now South Central LA — typically called “The Black Side of Town” or Ghetto. Maybe it’s the weekend drum circles and African shops that line the streets, or maybe it’s the weekly literary venues we hold that give us the forum to express ourselves, our community, our life in America and yes, the white-lash of a Black president. Recently, whites have begun to move back into this community and feel privileged to try and take over our venues. The disrespect is amazing and when they are called on it, and I’m known as the Town Cryer cause I blast them each and every time they think they can just waltz in with cameras and take photos or write journalists articles without so much as a howdy-do on what we’re doing — without permission, they’re either offended, shocked or apologetic like they didn’t know they didn’t have the right to take over. that is until we write letters to places like USC asking what they’re teaching in their Journalism curriculum. They would never do it across town on the West Side or in Beverly Hills.
I suppose I could go on and on — your article has fueled a flame that’s burning in me to the point that I’ve begun to look for fights to pick and causes to take up. Not very dignified, but then again, I’m “articulate” in my arguments and adamant in my stance against racism whenever and wherever I see it. I’ve even resorted to using the two-finger, thumb-down African curse sign when I see a real threat–that’s no joke. I’m not too far removed from sending out a non-verbal curse.
Gwen, keep these articles coming. We need dialogue to vent, inform, support, and not become complacent. Wonderful essay, Gwen. Your observations are profound and hopefully provoke discussions that don’t necessarily include sports and which celebrities got divorced. Big Bravo from Class of ’64 graduate.
Hey sister, that was so on the mark! One of the most interesting things I’ve ever experienced happened a few years ago. I was waiting in a (multi-racial) line for a concert, when a car full of drunken white men drove by. They starting shouting the n-word as they passed. Immediately, a group of white people confronted them, surrounded their car, and told them in no uncertain terms that their behavior would not be tolerated. I was astonished and proud of the human race at that moment. My only disappointment was that this happened in Montreal Canada, and not in the U.S. When that is the normal way white Americans deal with white racism, then I’ll say we can have post-racial conversations. In the meantime, Gwen, keep telling it like it T-I-S tis!