Lessons in Black
November 28, 1969. The corner of 42nd ave and Central in Los Angeles was a familiar place to me, a place I had made my way to weekly for three years in a long city-crossing series of bus rides from UCLA to the heart of what then was called “the Ghetto.” On that block stood Operation Bootstrap, a unique self-help community center and vocational school started by two former civil rights workers. I had begun volunteering after the Watts Riots in 1965. On this night however, the school was closed and I arrived driving a dilapidated Chevy station wagon, at the end of a caravan of Communist Party members that had been summoned by the Black Panther Party. I was 21, still a student at UCLA, still a roamer of beaches and hills and not a Communist. And barefoot for some reason I cannot now recall. But it allows me to remember now the feeling of the warm city sidewalk under my feet as we walked toward the open door, nervous young Black Panthers with rifles and berets manning both sides of it. They gestured up to the roofs of the buildings on the opposite side of the street and, with a start, we took in the rifles extending all along the Central Avenue roofline held by men lying on their stomachs. The Los Angeles Police Department was massed in force. Inside, we were shown the entrance to an upper room where seven or eight young mothers with infants in arms had been attending a class in new baby care when the confrontation began. We had been summoned to escort them home, and, one by one, we did. I dropped off the woman and child I was assigned and drove home without incident.
I did not then take in the real peril all of us were in - a peril the Black Panthers were to face in earnest two weeks later. I found myself in the company of Communists because I had chosen that night of all nights to find out for myself what Communism was direct from a comrade’s mouth. Somehow I had located their offices in LA and driven there in my old Chevy from the North Hollywood apartment I shared with my father. For two hours, an eager young man, not much older than me, had done his best to explain the theories and imaginings of the Communist movement. A cell leader working to find converts in local factories by day, he was eager to tackle a college student studying history. He was filled with idealism. And I had been primed, oddly, by the far right of the Republican Party, to want to hear him.
Some time during the 1950’s McCarthy hearings, not so long after the birth of television, these men, those most terrified by the threats posed by the rise of Communist ideology after WWII, held a series of televised giant “educational” events in a football arena filled with people in which they tried to explain to Americans in detail their opinions of the false promises and dangers of this movement. It was the first time my child’s brain had ever tried to follow abstract thought. And, ironically, all I took away from watching was that Communists wanted to help poor people. That sounded nice. Later, as a fifth grader I even undertook to teach myself Russian. Studying in secret, I managed to memorize the alphabet and finally say “Shto eto? Eto karandash.” (What is it? It’s a pencil) before I lost interest. Later, as a college student, my curiosity was renewed when the Great Leap Forward in China was being promoted on college campuses all over the nation as a glorious thing, said to be liberating millions from feudal suffering. Mao’s “Little Red Book was passed out for free on college political tables leading to the UCLA cafeteria. I read of the dramatic idealism of the fighters in Red Star Over China and was moved by their passion to make this world fairer. Listening to the earnest young man, however, I grew more and more troubled by the future he painted.
“But when is it finished?” I interrupted him. “When do we stop being revolutionaries and begin being free people again? Free to do other things? Like art?”
“Never,” he blurted. “The revolution must constantly be renewed.”
“But what mechanisms are there to control the leadership if it becomes corrupt?”
“That could never happen. All power will belong to the people.”
“All poor people are not saints,” I pointed out. “ How will the Communist system prevent the rise of a corrupt strong man?”
And so we went on until we could go no more and I became and have remained ever after, dismayed by this unique human experiment, despite its admirable first goals to rid the world of very real injustice. Indeed, even then my doubts were proving valid as events of the sixties and the nationwide purges under Stalin and Mao unfolded. So I thanked him, ticked Communism off my list of interests and was about to leave when the call came. “The Black Panther Party needs volunteers!” someone shouted across the room. “White ones.” He went on to explain they needed young people they thought the police would hesitate to shoot, because their LA headquarters were surrounded. What made me turn back at the door and go with the Communists? That is easy to answer. I considered the Black Panther Party, though I did not know them well, as my neighbors.
In the segregated world of the sixties, I know that too needs explanation, so let me go back four years from that night. In August of 1965, when I was seventeen years old, newly graduated from Santa Monica High School, I was living in Malibu with my mother, her second husband, Charlie Farrell, and my then seven-year-old brother, Chris. Malibu was not yet the series of gated communities of celebrities and the hyper-rich that it was to become, but it was rich enough - Charlie was a well-paid engineer at Hughes Aircraft - and we counted several actors as our neighbors. The days were mild and clear, the sea clean and blue. The beaches were much wider than they are now, and not crowded. We lived squarely within the California Dream. What a puzzlement then, one day, to see smoke rising from the heart of Los Angeles on our far horizon.
“What’s that?” I remember asking.
“There is a riot in Watts,” I was told. I frowned. This was a place name I had never heard before. “The Negroes are burning their ghetto.”
The fires and the riots went on for six days, and I had more questions. “What are Negroes doing in LA?” I remember asking. “What is a ghetto? Why are they burning it?” I had barely glimpsed people of other races in my cloistered world. Looking back in my high school year book, I now see dark faces, but they led separate lives in the early 60’s. And for me, their presence had never really registered. Put to the question, I would have said that “Negroes” or “colored people” as descendents of African slaves were then named, all lived in the south.
I did not know it yet, but I suffered from a learned myopia that was nearly universal among northern whites of my generation, even in liberal families. The world I grew up in was saturated in the attitudes of the Jim Crow era. In school my US history textbook informed me that slavery had been a good experience for most Africans, providing them, not only with civilization and religious instruction, but free food, and rent, not to mention a steady job. I do remember wondering if that could really be true. Hadn’t I also heard that slaves often tried to run away? But in fact, I and most of my peers were almost comically out of touch with the history and realities of race in America as the Civil Rights Era dawned. I did not know people of color were routinely excluded from the hotels we stayed at, even in California, nor that most of the restaurants we patronized did the same, as well as the companies hiring for the jobs which supported our middle class lives. I was shocked to discover a couple of years later that even the purchase agreement of our Malibu house stated that the property could not be sold to “coloreds.” My mother had always declared that Negroes were equal. That we should never ever discriminate. She did this so vocally and so predictably whenever someone “colored” came into view, even in their presence, that I always became acutely uncomfortable as if I were being told not to look at or question a person with some terrible disability. I can only imagine how keenly the person she was talking about must have wanted to get out of her range. And yet, with my step father, she signed that lease. It was required by the real estate office and they really wanted the house. How could it really hurt anyone? She never noticed when, at five, I picked up and repeated the childhood rhyme circulating around me when we played hide and seek, “catch a nigger by his toe, if he hollers, let him go.” It was how she had learned the song. It was how it had always been sung. There was no malice in it, but no awareness either. Just as we played cowboys and Indians and always shot down the Indians. We were walking blind in a moral minefield and never noticed any of it.
I had heard nothing of the racism and police brutality African Americans regularly suffered, nor the family ordeals generated by being “last hired, first fired.” Interracial marriage was a felony in most states. Interracial dating created apocalyptic levels of shock in every person who walked by, of either race. It was almost unheard of. What I thought I knew about the lives of African Americans, came from glimpses of white actors in black face on vaudeville stages, from the aw shucks jiving of the characters on TV’s Amos and Andy, or the “Yassuhs”, and “Yassims” muttered by actors posing as self-abasing slaves who opened the mansion door for their white masters in movies about the old South. These were always shown as broken clowns of human beings, demonstrating in every gesture what “slavish” means. In fact, these grotesque screen portrayals fit well with the propagandized history I was receiving in elementary school. Those who think there has been no progress in America might do well to dig up some of these old films. Gone with the Wind, saturated with racist myopia as it is, looks positively enlightened by contrast. Movies about Africa were worse and they were an endlessly popular genre. For years my child’s image of Africa was lines of gibbering simpletons wearing clothes like diapers with boxes on their heads, following behind handsome resourceful white men in neatly ironed khaki. At the first sign of danger, these diaper men would throw down the boxes and flee in terror, gibbering in a higher register. When the movie “Zulu” was made in 1964, of the South African battle of Rorke’s Drift in which a trained regiment of highly coordinated Zulu warriors attacks a British military station, it was a revelation. In high school, and even in college, the history of Africa was presented almost exclusively as the history of white colonization. We have indeed come a long way, however far there remains to go.
I - and most of the rest of “white” America - were at the beginning of that journey in 1965. But I was keen to start. When Watts went up in flames, I asked my father if he would drive me there so I could see for myself. He drove me through quickly once the streets had opened again, doors locked and windows up, and I remember only flashes of what seemed then a foreign country. Traffic moved steadily but broken windows still lined the streets. I did not notice the residential areas behind the grim boulevards, thousands of row houses, many as neat as a pin with well kept gardens. Or see the Sunday parade of elegant older ladies in large flowery hats on their way to church that I later became aware of. So much of Watts in those days was populated by a generation of law-abiding country people who had escaped the old South. They carried with them values of hard work and family loyalty and hope. But those hopes were being dashed as they fought to make a living or realize any kind of personal dream in still racist California. And they were losing their children to the violence and despair of race-based gangs. The Slauson Street Gang. The Crips. The Bloods. They were all started in those years.
Several months after the start of my student life at UCLA, a small notice caught my attention on a library bulletin board. Operation Bootstrap, a black self-help organization in south central Los Angeles was seeking volunteers. My curiosity about the riots still strong, I decided to go. It was a long journey from perky Westwood to Watts on a city bus in those days. I needed three buses to get there, if memory serves. The streets grew ever more functional and drab as each bus drove farther south, hundreds of blocks of factories or small poor businesses, empty, littered vacant lots, liquor stores on every corner. Gradually the color of the passers-by on sidewalks grew darker as we passed through Asian neighborhoods, hispanic neighborhoods and finally neighborhoods that were exclusively “Negro.” Those getting on the bus looked tired and dispirited. There were young women with a long day of menial work behind them and a whole life of it ahead. There were young men who swung into seats, edgy and miserable from their endless fruitless search for any job that would last more than a few days. Grey-haired men and women, old before their time, gazed blankly out the windows, illusions gone. And there was anger to be seen through those windows. I remember a sudden flare of fury as women outside a liquor store began to fight, screaming insults, dragging each other down to their knees with hands buried in their opponents hair. A drunken young prostitute staggered diagonally across a major street, her shirt ripped, yelling obscenities at passers by. To me it seemed a fearful, alien planet. I was nervous even to walk a block by myself in those early days.
But I soon had friends. Operation Bootstrap itself, on 42nd and Central Avenue, proved to be a large cinderblock building with a sizable central room and several smaller ones. My offer to volunteer was greeted warmly by the three men who started it. Bob Bailey, Robert Hall and Louis Smith and been involved, only months before, in the Freedom Rides to help bring voting rights to blacks in the South. In Los Angeles, their goal was to lift residents up “by their bootstraps” by offering them free skills-based education right in the neighborhood. The idea was that students would quickly be able to make a real living from learning keypunch or going into the arts or helping to build a toy factory, funded by Mattel, that made black dolls. Teachers from local universities and businesses volunteered to offer free classes. Lou Smith was also in the midst of a concerted outreach to educate and involve college students like me. He didn’t just want to get jobs for a few people. He wanted to change the culture. It was his notice on that bulletin board at UCLA that had brought me so far. And so my education in black began in earnest.
As I worked at the front desk as a receptionist, he began with short lectures. I learned about the realities of slavery, about the old South and the new 1960’s version, the cattle prods, the jail house beatings, the realities of Jim Crow for the people who lived there. I learned about “field negroes” vs “house negroes,” a schism created in the antebellum south, that was still poisoning attitudes within the black community. Those with darker skins, more African hair or features, were not seen as attractive. But that was changing even as I absorbed the lessons he was teaching me. Stokley Carmichael had arrived in Watts for a series of evening harangues and at long last “Negroes” were hearing the novel idea, “black is beautiful.” “Black” became their proud new identity. It was truly a movement of consciousness for a whole nation.
My own mind was moving as well, peeling off layers of unconscious bias as if I were an onion. Lou’s lessons sometimes took effect days after I received them. One I remember particularly. At UCLA one day, I attended a science fiction film made in Japan. A space ship landed and aliens from Mars emerged, a prince of Mars and his many robed attendants. Science fiction was in its movie infancy in those days. Such improbable characters were routine. But the audience and I began to laugh out loud. The reason? The royalty from Mars were all Japanese! And then, mid laugh, I stopped. And for the first time, realized.
I remember the same lesson coming home as I really looked at the graphic in my UCLA anthropology textbook one day. The Evolution of Man was illustrated, starting with a monkey, rising to brute, to ape man, and at last to glorious homo sapiens. I had never before noticed how odd it was that this pinnacle of creation was always pictured as a robust white man with reddish hair wearing tennis shorts. Of course he would be white. The European version of mankind, I finally realized with real shock, was exclusively what my culture had always presented to me as what “human beings” looked like. All others were exotics, variations from this norm, odd people always being studied by scientists who shared photos of them in National Geographic Magazine. And that final image was male because of course women were a specialized variation too, not the main event of the species. When the Japanese put themselves forward as aliens who looked like human beings, what I experienced for the first time was the shock of cognitive dissonance.
There were other revelations, some perhaps more than Lou even intended. In the garage behind Operation Bootstrap, once a week, “encounter sessions” were organized. College professors from USC and UCLA, a sprinkling of young volunteers like myself, and some 30-40 neighborhood people, speaking to each other with passion, love, despair, and sometimes fury across the racial divide. Lou or Bob started it off and young men stood to harangue the professors with the stories of the police brutality they had endured and all that was wrong with America. The crowd swayed and amened and people called out supportive comments. The professors were conciliatory, eager to learn. For they carried what all whites in those days carried, a keen sense of guilt for the injustices that were all around us then, even for slavery itself. In the sixties there were still people alive who had known people born into slavery. This was not ancient history. And the terrible aftermath of Jim Crow was certainly not over. I struggled with that concept. White guilt. I still do. It may have been a necessary part of the healing process in our society then. I am not so sure it is now.
As the lessons continued, black Americans grew to impossible stature in my mind, handsome, powerful, daring, worldly wise in ways the whites my own age could not hope to attain to. I found myself frowning at the “honkey” boys in college. They now seemed meek, ungraceful, unmasculine, even childish. It was black men and women who had my attention, and because of Lou Smith, my trust. This false image itself became one more layer of my onion however. One night, after such a garage encounter session, two men I didn’t know, but Lou did, invited me to coffee afterwards. One, I later learned was Bunchy Carter, founder of the LA Chapter of the Black Panthers, the other his friend, Wilbert Terry. I remember no unease as they drove me south, deeper into the ghetto, and finally stopped at their apartment. The conversations sparked in the encounter session continued on a friendlier level, though I can’t now remember what we said. It was Terry, mainly who talked. It was Terry, who, an hour after i got there, pulled a gun out of his pocket and pointed it at me. “Do you know what this is?” he enquired, clearly curious what I would do or say next.
I frowned at the small silver object in his hand. “It's a piece,” he informed me, puzzled at my lack of comprehension.
“A piece of what?” I asked him. Confused by this sudden turn in the conversation.
“It’s a gun, bitch.”
The statement seemed to hang in the air, but I finally got it. And the fact that the gun was pointed at the middle of my chest. This was producing a most remarkable sensation. My body had gone cold, then riveted on the line the bullet would take. It felt as if all my organs were moving, congealing at that point into a ball of ice. “What are you doing?” I asked him, finding it hard to concentrate on anything but those physical sensations. “You’re scaring me.”
“Go into the bedroom,” Terry commanded. “Take off your clothes.” He was confident, clearly on familiar ground. I would obey with a gun pointed at me. That is what one did after all.
Instead I sat down on the couch. I had never had a gun pointed at me before, never experienced violence or coercion of any kind from my fellow human beings. I was 20-years-old and, entering the fugue state of emotional shock, still could barely take in that my hosts had become so uncivil. I continued simply to argue, and to refuse. For some reason still mysterious to me, Terry never took the next step. He didn’t hit me or take my arm or try to move me by force. Instead he began to talk. He talked for almost another hour, waving the gun at me, unleashing all his fury at whites. He demanded to know why it was okay for white men to molest black women, but now that I was in his neighborhood, I thought I should be exempt.
Carter interjected a few comments, and, oddly, seemed to be on my side, or at least not on Terry’s. From time to time he attempted to shift the conversation to a kind of banter, an invitation. He suggested I join their “stable.” They kissed the women who prostituted for them he assured me. They were emotionally supportive pimps. For a college girl whose head was still full of over-the-top historical romances, this was not a strong argument. To this day I wonder at the profound loneliness of any woman who would think it was. They had clearly found it a successful recruiting message in the past. So I continued to sit on the couch, rigid, refusing all suggestions and commands, but I did not feel the full shock of fear until suddenly, when Terry wasn’t looking, Carter took away and hid the little pistol he had set down on the mantel. Was I then in real danger of being murdered? He knew his friend. Was Terry crazy enough to do that? My frozen mind and body began to emerge from its shock. I stood up. When Carter, still arguing with Terry, brusquely gestured to the door and said I could go if I liked, I slipped out into the hall and down the stairs. I couldn’t hear whatever arguments Carter used to stop Terry from pulling me back in. I just got in my car and drove.
At home, my father was still out. I went to bed, shaking in every limb, and never told him of my near escape, though, much later I did tell Lou. He grimaced, but said little. And in April, 1968 came another lesson when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I remember Lou pushing me out of the building and into my car minutes after the news first came on the radio. “Drive!” He commanded. “Go now!” I remember angry hands slapping my car at intersections as the electrifying news spread across LA on the radio. I drove and made it home and followed the news that night as activists and LA police barely stopped Watts from erupting once again. Across the nation 110 other cities burst into riot and unrest.
For over a year, any thought or mention of that night with Carter and Terry made my hands shake uncontrollably. A inch wide swatch of hair on one side of my head turned white. And yet, thanks to the grudging intervention of Carter, I was not raped, and not physically harmed. It makes me admire, today, the courage of young people in inner cities who often experience multiple episodes of such armed bullying in their teens. It was far more than I could handle at age 20.
I never talked to Carter or Terry again. I often thought of them with anger, but I was shocked when I learned it was Carter who was gunned down a year later, with John Huggins in an event hosted by the Black Student’s Union at UCLA. A member of the US organization led by Ron Karenga (Bootstrap’s neighbors on the other side) took offense at something they said and shot them both. Reading his biography today, I have learned that Bunchy Carter is credited with starting the Black Panther organization in Los Angeles - something I didn’t know when I met him, and before that was a leader in the Slauson Street Gang with the nickname “Mayor of the Ghetto.” I am almost sorry to reveal that, according to what he said to me that night, he was also a pimp because the BPP he led was truly trying to move beyond gangs and create a political movement that lifted and empowered black youth. They offered classes, free community breakfasts, and role models who tried to protect others from bullying police. He had been rapidly evolving, from gang member, to prisoner, to Black Muslim, to community activist and leader. Where he would have ended up if he had not been assassinated, no one can say. Nor what the Black Panther Party would have become if its leaders all over the country had not been assassinated or imprisoned by the FBI, as they were over the next years. Reading today the memoir written by Elaine Brown - one of their last surviving leaders - I can see the immaturity, as well as the earnest courage, of their ideas. They carried guns and postured in sexy black leather and demanded respect and obedience, but they also really tried to help. I believe now that their self-righteous approach was destined to skirt closer to fascism than the communism they were accused of. But they were so young, in their early twenties. It took real courage to do what they did in those Jim Crow tainted days, learning everything for themselves from the ground up, putting their lives on the line, and fighting with each other as often as with those outside. It was those internecine struggles the FBI encouraged that lead to Carter’s death. Of Terry, I never heard more, nor wanted to.
Thus it was that the (hopefully) final layer of my personal onion came loose. I looked down one day at my yellow-toned freckled and tanned arms and began to object to being labelled “white.” It was not just that the color was inaccurate, I began to bristle at the idea that my identity was a color. Calling any person a skin color tells you almost nothing important about them as a person any more than the color of their eyes or hair. It may hint strongly at a history or a social status, but it also may not. The label “white” was used to make assumptions about me that were rarely true. “Black people know all about white people,” I was told repeatedly in those days. “All the movies and TV shows are about white people. We know you. You do not know us.” But I have never seen a TV show or movie that comes even close to the life I personally lead or the thoughts I personally have. I did not know the people around me at Operation Bootstrap perfectly, but I had made tremendous efforts over three years, and some progress, in doing so. I finally woke up and realized very few such efforts were being made in reverse. For most at Operation Bootstrap, excepting Lou Smith, even after those three years, I was still, first and mostly, only a color.
From the lessons at Bootstrap and from reading history, and most of all from the years of world travel that were to follow, I have learned that “white people” are not unique, not even in their racial blindness. To think they are is to show ignorance of the experience of oppressed groups in almost every country and time - Koreans in Japan, untouchables in India, Tibetans in China, Muslims in Tibet, Shia in Iraq, Tutsi in Rwanda, non-Communists in Cambodia, Jews in Germany and Russia, Palestinians in Israel, Armenians in Turkey, Rohingya in Myanmar. The list goes on. The European Age of Imperialism was real and terrible in its effects and attitudes, but to elevate Europeans to a status as unique monsters no other group will ever match creates a kind of racism in the negative. A silly idea. There is so very much impressive competition.
Meeting a person and taking their skin color as a critically defining characteristic, to me now, is the bottom line of racism. Being able to forget about skin color altogether, or take it as no more than a detail of personal appearance like eye color, or height, is the liberation from racism we all seek. Moving contrary to the dawning era of “political correctness” I also began to push back against arguments for “white guilt.” Today I no longer accept responsibility for actions that took place before I was born, on issues I had no part of creating. Nor do I accept guilt for decisions I do not make now or for thoughts I do not have. What I do feel morally responsible for are my actions now, and for the thoughts I share. I still support efforts to repair the damage of the past, such as affirmative action in school placements and job placements, but not reparations. (Barring the Russian Mafia) none of those alive now have ever been slave owners nor have any been their slaves. We do not owe each other money. Life is hard in myriad ways for everyone. What we owe each other is fairness going forward. We owe each other awareness of the lingering effects of the past and the need to ensure they do not persist or give unfair advantage. When abuses occur in our society because of current racist attitudes, we owe each other real listening, protection, just laws, and a just response - in both directions.
As I see each new generation of “black” American youngsters wake up to the horrors in their history, I can acknowledge their anger, maybe even accept their need to aim it at me for a time as they come to grips with it. But in the end I have come to agree with Morgan Freeman’s revolutionary conclusion: “The way to finally end racism is to stop talking about race... I don’t want to call you a white man anymore. Don’t call me a black man. I am Morgan Freeman.” It serves up no justice to say, as I so often hear said these days, “It doesn’t matter if you personally are racist. You are part of a racist system.” By all means call out racist attitudes that are really manifesting in action or speech, but so often the people who are shaming others are guilty of exactly that same myopia. And “systems” consist only of specific people and the institutional rules they think they are following. So let’s really talk when things feel wrong. And really listen. And every person in the conversation maybe look in the mirror a little longer as we change together old rules and habits that still need changing.
I am Francesca, complexion light yellow-brown with freckles. Eyes blue. Wavy hair gone white. 5’6”. Weight secret. Nice to meet you.