My husband, who comes from a family of Black Power activists, tells similar stories about his upbringing. Both he and Delicia grew up in solid black communities that fostered such a strong sense of self that, by the time they ventured outside of those communities, they were able to handle whatever came at them with self-image intact. What’s equally true is that neither Delicia nor my husband had significant contact with anyone who wasn’t black until they were teenagers.
This is not the case with our family.
Raising our two kids, my husband and I help each other keep the projection in check: I remind him that just because he’s a social recluse, it doesn’t mean our son won’t need the company of his peers; he reminds me that just because I had a major racial identity crisis, it doesn’t mean our daughter will.
I do take some cues from our 14-year-old son. He’s having a difficult time adjusting to life in Eastlake.
J wears his hair in waves. When you’re a kid who irons your T-shirts and jeans before hanging them in the closet, keeping your waves neat and your edges sharp requires regular visits to the barber. When we lived in City Heights, he could take his allowance and walk up to Big Boi’s on the corner of Euclid and University. Here, that’s not an option.
He says that no one in Eastlake knows how to do his hair. But because it’s a long drive, my husband is only willing to take him to City Heights when he has business in that direction. Even then, he’s not willing to wait the two hours it might take for J’s favorite barber to fit him in. So, J has to take whichever chair is empty. Last time, that didn’t work out very well; the new guy made such a mess of J’s hair, he fumed about it all day.
The first time I took him to my friend Milton’s barbershop at El Cajon and Utah, he left happy. At Milton’s, while the men wait to get their hair done or their faces shaved, they sit around and talk mess. Those in the chairs join in. The men joke, they rib each other, sometimes they get serious. That day, Joe did J’s hair. J listened as the guy in Milton’s chair waxed poetic about the Black Holocaust perpetuated by Planned Parenthood. Not only did J leave with his hair so fresh and so clean clean, he came out with an education on one man’s favorite conspiracy theory.
“You know how people say things that sound crazy,” he said in the car on the way home, “but then they explain it, and it kinda makes sense?” He went on to explain what he’d meant a few days earlier, when he’d told me that some of the black kids at Eastlake Middle don’t “act black.”
“They don’t seem to care about being black. And, like, if there’s someone black on American Idol, or whatever, they join all the white kids and make fun of them. You know? But I guess they’re just a product of their environment, or whatever.”
Or maybe they don’t have a barber like Milton or Joe.
J talks a lot about us and them. When I ask what else is different between Eastlake Middle School (with a 5.7 percent population of black students) and the School of Creative and Performing Arts (his former school, which is 17 percent black), he reminds me that, because SCPA is a magnet school, the kids came from all over the city. At Eastlake, they’re almost all from the suburbs.
J’s two closest friends at his new school are a pair of brothers who moved from Skyline to Eastlake right around the same time we did. They have two different takes on the experience. J summed them up for me: one says, “It’s like our environment changed, but we don’t want to”; the other says, “If I have to be here for the next four years, I’m going to make the most of it.”
As uncomfortable as J is in Eastlake, he thinks it’s a better environment for his sister to grow up in than City Heights.
“But I don’t want her to grow up and be bourgie,” he says. “I don’t want her to look down on people.”
I get that.
I don’t want it, either.
Scarier was the day when J said in passing (paraphrased here by my husband): “The white girls like the black guys, and the Mexican girls like the black guys, and the Filipino girls like the black guys. And the black guys like them, too. But no one likes the black girls.”
At which point, my husband and I had a discussion about whether the kids should attend school in Eastlake. Maybe we should pack up and head back to New Orleans, the way my husband’s sister did after two years in San Diego.
When she left, she told me, “I need to get back to where the men appreciate how fine I am.”
I’m Not Here for Jesus…
Ten-year-old Matthew Thomas and his father Don live in San Carlos, a neighborhood north of La Mesa, west of El Cajon. One of the first things I ask is if San Carlos has a large black population. Both answer no. When I ask Matthew if being surrounded by a large black community matters to him, he says, “Sort of, yes, but not necessarily. I’m into a lot of cultures [from] all over the world.”
We’re sitting at a plastic folding table in a quiet, empty room at the Mount Erie Christian Academy on 47th Street in Southeast San Diego. Matthew maintains eye contact and speaks intelligently and easily, as if he’s practiced at conversing with adults. At the same time, he exposes his nervousness by kneading his legs with both hands.
“Also,” he says, “I have a lot of friends here [in San Diego] that are white. I’ve [learned] about their culture, too. I have these neighbors who live right across the street from us, who are Jewish. When our children’s church celebrated Passover, I was ahead of them, because I already knew a little bit about it.”