On Race (and fuck you for asking)

November 13, 2021

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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I wonder what would have happened if my parents hadn’t moved to the Jefferson Park area of Los Angeles. What would have happened if they had moved to Palm Springs as my mother wanted to do? How would Hillary, my oldest brother, have handled that? How would that have felt being in a world of whites while looking like the whitest white boy when you thought of yourself as black? How would that have felt in a Frantz Fanon race dialectic kind of way? Would his identity have fractured into a million shards of conflicting iterations of self? Would he have gone mad and disfigured his face that resembled that white boy’s face on the advertisements for earning your high school diploma through the mail? Hillary looked so white that he was cast in The Spook Who Sat by the Door just by standing in the unemployment line when a casting agent magically appeared and asked him if he wanted to be in a movie. “We need some light skin niggers,” he said.

I assumed the guy doing the casting was black, but I never got around to asking Hillary. Mama said we needed to get to the Centinela Drive-in and see it before The Spook Who Sat by the Door was pulled from the theaters because white-racist-ass Los Angeles Mayor Yorty said it was inflammatory and would incite another riot.

He was right about that, but it wouldn’t be one riot. Instead, it would be a steady stream of rebellions. 

That night I remember a full drive-in; every space taken, cars as far as the eye could see, and it was mind altering for a fifteen-year-old boy. But then The Spook Who Sat by the Door vanished for decades, though I did find a bootleg VHS copy recorded over an Army recruitment video. The film reappeared when my hero Tim Reid brought it back into the world. Reid also starred in Frank’s Place, one of my favorite things in life.

And yeah, the film really was something good to know, a primer on how to pull off a domestic insurgency against a racist regime bent on making sure people of color were kept on their knees. 

The rest of the family didn’t have the cognitive dissonance that Hillary experienced. Gregory looked black enough and had a huge Afro and played football, and Jeffery was born a woodsman or a carpenter, though chemistry and physics came easily to him. He liked ping-pong and watching television with mama and sleeping like a dead man. Race ambiguity didn’t seem to affect him, maybe because people realized that maybe he wasn’t to be fucked with. Jeff wore a huge pea coat even when it was warm, and thick corrective shoes that made him look a little like Frankenstein if Frankenstein sported a solid block of feral hair shaped like an Afro. I think that alone was enough to make the casual bully keep a distance.

Me? I had more problems to consider than how people saw me. I heard voices and had to sleep with my mother until I was eight and ate to calm himself. I was afraid to die like it could happen at any second. My parents knew I might be damaged goods, so they wrapped me in layers of love and concern and eventually I grew out of being panicked by my own thinking. Finally, my unhinged gothic imagination somehow lost its hold over me and I could breathe and think things outside of my fears. I no longer worried if it was the first Tuesday or the last Thursday of the month that the siren testing happened. I stopped being the one kid in junior high thinking the world would end before I kissed a girl.

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.