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Rethinking West Adams
Death will make you do that.
The first order of business is to give up my grudge with filmmaker John Singleton. He gets the majority audience he deserves. On the other hand, I wonder where Cuba Gooding Jr. is and what he thinks.
It must be a natural consequence of my memory of West Adams that I find the existential process of deracination so straightforward and simple. I grew up in a black neighborhood. I know what it’s like to be called a nigger by my friends and neighbors in a friendly and neighborly way. I also know how and why my neighborhood turned into a ‘hood, and why boys close to me became boyz of legend. That legend is familiar to America due to the popularization of the new generation of gangster films produced by Hollywood in the 1980s, starting but certainly not ending with Boyz N The Hood. If it was produced today it would probably be called Dem Niggaz, but I digress.
In the middle of this essay is my reflection upon the death of one of my closest friends from the neighborhood I lived in from about 1963 to 1981. I have been saying for quite some time that I’m from a small town called Black. It has been my way of talking about an upbringing and a culture that remains mysterious to anyone without firsthand knowledge. It is a necessary tool that pries between the differences of race, class, family, culture and citizenship. Like everyone, I will always owe something to my formative years, but unlike the followers of Singleton, I have multifarious and nuanced stories to report; when I feel like it.
Today I am feeling pressure. On my open browser is a street view of London’s Mawbey Road. A man in a dirty track suit has his face blurred by the Googlemobile that has photographed these housing projects. I’ve seen these parking lots before, in movies of desperation half a world away including the recent gangster film ‘The Gentlemen’. I was curious to see what the cheapest properties in England’s version of Monopoly were to our American Baltic and Mediterranean. I am feeling the pressure of representing a place I no longer have any use for, a place and a narrative I’d just as soon be oblivious to. There are words to be spoken and I’m unsure as to whether they need to be, or how seriously they should be taken. After all, we do have our gangster films, don’t we?
I wrote half a novel half a lifetime ago when I was fighting to represent Los Angeles as I saw it. Nothing like it has ever made it into popular culture. There are two writers that come close to my visions of the City of Angels, one Wanda Coleman, has died. The other Jervey Tervalon as disappeared from my periodically operated radar. Oh. He’s on Facebook. I guess I also have to give props to Paul Beatty. He knows West Adams. They all did. Now somebody decided to call the place Jefferson Park. Maybe it was Google because the Thomas Guide never used the term and there is no actual Jefferson Park. It’s being gentrified as we speak - the house my father bought in 1966 for 30,000 now goes for .. well somewhere in the neighborhood of a million. So, so many perversions.
The kid next door to me died. He was my age. I went to his funeral yesterday. It was a purple and gold funeral befitting the Laker fan that he was. So I caught a glimpse of the family and people I used to know when I was preparing my life to be an astrogator like Starman Jones. I knew there was a world out there, even other worlds. My black neighborhood was far too small for the man I aimed to be. Yesterday I returned. Me. Comfortable, confident and once again resigned to disappointment. I often bemoan my vector knowing that there remain precious few who knew me from back in the day. We often have to abstract our past to ridiculously low common denominators. It is tiresome, especially when the truth is stranger than fiction. Worse still we have to make explicit the wrongs and rights that separate us from that which we used to hold close and now is estranged. We have to bear all of the uninterpretable silence. We have to reckon with the truth unsaid. I don’t find the truth particularly compelling in my case because I have now relinquished this past. It is an anchor whose chain has rusted through time and I am poised on the verge of cutting asunder. I am darkly considering the dark side and it goes a little something like this, hit it!
As I mentioned, it seems as if most of the men from my West Adams are plagued by death and have chosen sides. Some were servicemen and cops. Others were thieves, drug dealers and killers. I joked with the Spousal Unit that we didn’t have many rapists in the old ‘hood. Then again what do I know, and by what standard? The Baller and I stand ready to talk MAGA, because we know what our own neighborhood used to be, as dysfunctional as it was - there was good and evil, and the good stood strong. I could tell you the story of TC, in fact, go there. There are glimpses of this same world dogging my memory. As anyone who cares to know and bothers to go, black neighborhoods in America suffer from neglect. All of us neglect them because they are an embarrassment and we’ve run out of good ideas searching to cash out on a few ‘perfect’ ones.
I’ll tell you this. Everything we buy from China that we used to make here is that thing that might have saved the girl next door her front teeth. She could have operated a machine that presses aluminum. That could have gotten her a simple dental plan. But instead we have rockets that launch desk-sized satellites so people in North Dakota can get on Facebook. Instead we legalized weed. Instead we have created an internal third world that might have been the second world so many of us were before we burned it all down by 1969.
Death is not so horrible. What’s horrible is that the dead don’t speak and we get to lie about their lives when they’re gone. It’s difficult enough to deal with the truth and deal honestly with the living. So I hope I don’t have another compelling reason, other than autobiography, to go back to West Adams and peel back the onions of our relationships. It’s true that you can’t go home again. It’s sad that I don’t want to.