On Race Like We Do

November 20, 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 write in coffee houses because at home I become a domestic, spending my writing time cleaning and cooking. The truth is writing is demanding and housework is wonderfully mindless. Consequently, to escape house cleaning, I go to a place where I can chill and listen to music and think and write. At the Starbucks in LA Cañada I couldn’t find a seat until this small group of white women gestured for me to sit with them in an open chair. I nodded, relieved to have somewhere to start work. They chatted away about their lives and how far flung their travels had been. The older blonde lady had been in the military, and another had lived overseas for the last few years, and the other was quiet. They talked about how great it was to be together again. Then the lady from the military asked where I was from. I said New Orleans with my usual pride, though I left New Orleans when I was five.

“I love New Orleans,” she said, “I spent a lot of time there being stationed in Biloxi.”

I wanted her to keep talking but someone else in the party took over the conversation.

I couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying.

Then for no good reason I found myself talking about my grandmother who cleaned houses in Biloxi. In a sundowner city, all negroes had to be outside of the city limits by sunset or else. She and her dark-skinned first husband had so much work one day that they couldn’t get it done until after sunset. When they finished cleaning, they hurried to their car and started out. They saw that they were being followed by a sheriff, and she worried that they would stop them and beat them senseless, or kill her husband, or kill them both. She looked white and he was black, so they might be more doomed there than elsewhere because they were in Biloxi where it was even more bloody racist than most of a bloody and racist state. Then for whatever reason the sheriff’s car hit the gas and drove ahead of them and disappeared into the darkness.

I expected that the three women I was sitting with were possibly overwhelmed by my story, but they just kept talking as though I had been discussing yesterday’s weather. But as I said, they were very polite and even said scalding things about Trump.

I felt a little mad at myself for talking so much, but it was time to go and as I stood up to leave the white lady from the military spoke to me in a low voice.

“My family was black in Biloxi, but I got away,” she said to me and before I could respond she was gone and that was the last time I saw her.

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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.

Photo of New Orleans Negroes, Lolita Tervalon and Baby Hillary, 1948.