My Brother’s Ghost: On Race and Grief in Los Angeles

July 1, 2023   •   By Nico Slate

THIS IS WHERE my brother lost his eye: 1212 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica. A restaurant with a confusing name above its door: 1212—nothing but the numbers. Inside, the ceiling is too high and the metal tables glitter with artificial light as I think about my brother and that night some 30 years ago when an argument with a white man led another to smash a beer bottle into my brother’s face. I used to call it a hate crime, but the truth is more complicated, and I don’t know what to think or feel as I sip my overpriced seltzer and watch tourists navigate street performers and those massive dinosaur topiaries that spew water into reflecting pools. I wish I were one of them—a tourist—not a grieving brother struggling to make sense of all I’ve learned about that night, struggling to make peace with everything I still don’t understand.

About 10 years ago, I began investigating what happened that night in Santa Monica. I decided to write a book, Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race, that interweaves the story of my brother, born to an American (white) woman and a Nigerian (Black) man in Los Angeles in 1972, with my quest to understand the attack that took his eye, helped impel him to become a rapper, and contributed to his death in a car accident in 2003—an accident he might have avoided if he had still had both of his eyes.

My brother’s story is an L.A. story. To be precise, my brother’s life and death reflect the paradox of race in Los Angeles—the fact that racism persists (as the recent city council scandal made clear) and many neighborhoods remain largely segregated, even though the city has become increasingly diverse and more and more Angelenos have joined an active and growing community of people who identify as multiracial. According to an analysis of census data by UCLA’s Latino Policy & Politics Institute, almost 15 percent of Californians now identify as “two or more races.” Of course, the history of the United States makes clear that racial mixture does not itself threaten white supremacy or end racial division. Indeed, as my brother’s story reveals, if we are to create a future beyond racism, we must grapple with the many burdens of our past.

My brother and I had the same mother but different fathers. Having a white mom and a white younger brother did not prevent my brother from being spat on at Knott’s Berry Farm or being questioned by the police outside our grandparents’ home in Sherman Oaks. The police were looking for a five foot five Black man in his twenties. My brother was 14 years old and six foot one, but he was Black—at least in their eyes. Being multiracial did not influence how my brother was seen by strangers—whether at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (where security guards routinely followed him) or at Renaissance in Santa Monica, the club that was later redesigned and given that ridiculous name: 1212.

I bring my kids to 1212, planning to explain that this is the place where their uncle lost his eye. They know the story, at least in rough outline, but I’m afraid to make it too real before they’re old enough to navigate the complexity of the truth. I feel anxious as I ponder how to explain what happened in a way that is real but not frightening. My chance comes after they’ve finished their fancy pancakes, but I can’t find the courage to bring up the attack and instead ask if anyone wants ice cream.

Later, the idea strikes me: I can take them on a tour of the Los Angeles my brother loved—not the city that surveilled him and stole his eye but the city in which he learned to play basketball, fell in love for the first time, and found his passion for music and movies. Many of the spaces that defined our childhood were diverse: the Venice Beach Boardwalk, the Panorama City’s Mallmall, the Van Nuys Sherman Oaks park. There were at least a dozen different nationalities represented on our block of Burnet Avenue near the intersection of Roscoe and Sepulveda boulevards.

It’s not that I want to avoid the city’s violent past. I know enough history to realize that every block in this city has been shaped by the legacy of white supremacy. In his 2021 book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, Clint Smith writes of his native New Orleans that “[t]he echo of enslavement is everywhere. It is in the levees, originally built by enslaved labor. It is in the detailed architecture of some of the city’s oldest buildings, sculpted by enslaved hands. It is in the roads, first paved by enslaved people.” The racism of Los Angeles is different, of course, but has left its own deep wounds—starting with Spanish colonization and running through the racial exclusion, redlining, and segregation that continue to divide the city. I know it is impossible to escape these histories, but I also know that much of my brother’s life in this city was defined by resilience and joy—and I want my kids to see that part of Los Angeles too.

So, I take them to the Griffith Observatory—a place my brother loved for many reasons, most of which had nothing to do with the stars. Soon after entering Griffith Park, we pass the Greek Theatre, and a memory returns: my brother and several of his friends are going to sneak up the hill to watch a concert for free. My brother had invited me to come along, but there is a fence we have to climb and I hate climbing fences. My brother kneels down beside me and tells me that I am going to climb the fence and that he is going to give me a flashlight when we’re on the other side. He meets my fear with faith, and his belief in me is enough to get me over the fence and up the hill, as the stars roll over us and the music begins.

Now, the sun is hot, I’m a pudgy 43-year-old dad, and I’m grateful that I don’t need to climb any fences. I drop my wife and kids at the top of the hill next to the observatory, find a place to park (not an easy task on a Saturday afternoon), and power-walk through the crowds, searching for my family. I find them behind the observatory, gazing across the city from above, the ocean rippling in the distance. We stare in silence before following the crowd to the famous pendulum that greets visitors in the observatory’s main entryway. My son is fascinated by the pendulum’s swing, the way it slowly inches toward a series of small blocks. When it finally knocks over one of the blocks, everyone cheers.

My brother brought me here when I was my son’s age. I remember the warmth of his large hands on my shoulders. I remember reaching up to grab one of his hands as I watched the pendulum swing. Now here I am again, and it’s still moving—the pendulum and the river of time it tracks. I look at my son’s face, taut with excitement, and then back at the pendulum, and it strikes me that thousands of people must have memories of watching that metal sphere slowly traversing its course, or of standing outside gazing at the ocean or the Hollywood Sign, or of going to a show at the Greek. This whole park is blanketed with memories.

It’s like the last two minutes of the 1995 film Before Sunrise, in which the audience sees many of the places the two young lovers have visited over the course of the film: a riverboat café, a city square, the Friedhof der Namenlosen (“Cemetery of the Nameless”), and a green field, their wine bottle and glasses still lying in the grass as an old woman walks slowly across.

All cities are imprinted with memories—the memories of the living and the memories of the dead—but there is something special about my hometown, something uniquely spectral. Los Angeles is a city of ghosts. In the TV series City of Ghosts (2021), a gaggle of kids solve mysteries by talking with phantoms in different L.A. neighborhoods: Boyle Heights, Venice Beach, Leimert Park. My own kids are intrigued by anything paranormal, and I expect that is what hooks most younger viewers. As a parent, I like that the show exposes my children to the ethnic diversity of my hometown, even if it largely avoids the violence of Los Angeles’s racial past. The show is, after all, meant for kids. I say that but then wonder: How can I teach my kids the paradox of race in Los Angeles if I can’t even explain what happened to Uncle Peter in Santa Monica?

My brother was like a father to me—the only father I ever had. I saw him as the heart of our family, but how did the world view him? How did he view himself? The more I wrote about his life, the more I came to see how the violence of racism branded his body long before he lost his eye, separating us in ways I had routinely ignored. Despite the “one-drop rule” and the supposed binary nature of race in this country, Blackness has always been a paradox, “inconsistent, continuously in flux, and yet also a constant condition” (as scholar and memoirist Emily Bernard puts it in her 2019 book Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine).

For my brother, his Blackness was always in question. He sought out Black role models, like the renowned painter and community activist Rozzell Sykes, who transformed his own home on the 4800 block of St. Elmo Drive into an art gallery and maker space. My brother embraced Black institutions, like Styles Ville, one of the oldest Black barbershops in the Valley. As a kid, I failed to consider how my presence at St. Elmo Village or Styles Ville “outed” my brother as biracial. It wasn’t until the night he was attacked in Santa Monica that I realized how much my whiteness had shielded me from the question my brother struggled with—how to be Black and biracial in a city that was held up as a model of multicultural diversity yet was riddled with racial violence.

In 1972, the year my brother was born, African American writer Chester Himes said that “race prejudice in Los Angeles” created a kind of “mental corrosion” that left him “bitter and saturated with hate.” Twenty years later, Los Angeles erupted in flames after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted. My mom stayed up late during the riots, terrified that she didn’t know where my brother was, a biracial kid who looked Black in a city torn apart along racial lines. Two years later, the police found him barely conscious in an alley off Third Street Promenade. Later, I would learn that security guards had let the attacker go, grabbed my brother, and shoved him into that alley, bleeding from what had been his right eye.

My brother lived on both sides of our racial paradox. He knew, in ways I often failed to see, just how urgent it is that we confront racism in all its forms—from the structural inequities that divide our cities to the anti-Black violence that has long been at the core of white supremacy. Our challenge is to reject the myth of a post-racial America while finding hope in the love that so many Americans share across racial lines, the love of a brother who took me to Styles Ville even though it made him stand out.

My brother’s Blackness was an issue from the day he was born, when the white doctor did not consider that the father might not be as pale as the mother, and worried aloud that my brother’s bluish skin meant he wasn’t getting enough air. My brother was born at Santa Monica Hospital. My mom and my brother’s father had planned to watch the sunrise on the shore before heading to the hospital, but the contractions intensified rapidly, and they never made it to the beach. Sitting in the hospital room, holding their child, they could not have known that, 22 years later, their baby would lose his eye only a mile away.

Driving from the observatory back toward Santa Monica, I think of my mom and my brother’s father—all of the dreams they had for their child. I think of my children, exhausted and sweaty in the back seat. I want them to know my brother for all of who he was—a man who buried his wounds within dreams, like the city he loved.


Nico Slate is the author of Brothers: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Race, which was published in May by Temple University Press.