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Ghetto Beauty

Little house in the 'hood

James and Alesa Faust: “People might question, ‘Why do you have your kids in dreads?’ ”
James and Alesa Faust: “People might question, ‘Why do you have your kids in dreads?’ ”

Draco, A roughly three-foot Savannah Monitor Lizard, lives in a cozy dog (lizard?) house behind James and Alesa Faust’s rented three-bedroom, one-bath home in Logan Heights. The fenced-in yard that surrounds the low, slate-blue house is small and full of vines and leaves and trees, but the concrete patio in back, where Draco lives, is bare. The lizard — wrinkled, clawed, slow, and sheddy — sleeps much of the time, though he will rouse himself to eat. “Rats and dog food,” says Alesa. “He likes rats over dog food, but we give him dog food with protein powder in it for his calcium.” As I wonder about the calcium content of rat bones, Alesa’s five-year-old son James grins and volunteers,“He used to dig through the meat looking for a little baby rat.”

James Jr., Draco, and Imani. "We teach the kids reality at a young age."

“[It’s interesting] how superstition can protect you in a place like this” comments Alesa, gesturing around her to indicate the neighborhood, not far from St. Vincent dePaul Village. “What people don’t understand, they stay away from. They would say, ‘You’re a trip — you’re weird, you’re strange.’ So they keep their distance, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s great, because I could use the peace. When I lived in East San Diego, a long time ago, I had a 16-foot python, so nobody bothered me. When Imani [Alesa’s nine-year-old daughter] was born, I had to rent the house behind us [for him to live in], he was so big. Just the fact that people know about Draco [helps]. It’s like, you have to have some sort of... I won’t say shield, but some way to protect yourself, especially if people feel like you’re someone they can get over on.”

Draco, of course, is not a guarantee against trouble. When we meet, Alesa is hobbled by a foot injury and walks with a cane — marking her, perhaps, as someone who can be “got over on.” She tells an odd story of a traffic-related misunderstanding the day before, which resulted in a woman approaching Alesa in a menacing fashion. Alesa suspected that the woman was “tweaking”— high on crystal meth — took up her cane, and beat the woman back. She later discovered that the woman had been about to visit Alesa’s next-door neighbors. “She’s a pain in their butt, but they deal with her. The next day, they were all, ‘Hi!’ so I know they’re not holding it against me. Obviously, this woman has a problem. In a strange way, it’s good that she knows she can't just come over here and do whatever she wants. Sometimes, a bully realizes,‘Oh, that person’s not going to take it,’ and the bully backs off.”

Alesa’s children were witness to the latter stage of the confrontation. “It’s something that I’ve tried to explain to my kids — ‘That’s what you saw, because this is where we live. And we have to face the reality that there are people around here like that.’ I just kind of do the way my mother did us, and that’s all I know — but not exactly like my momma did us... We teach them reality at a young age.

“I mean, Imani got her chance to enjoy Barney just like any other kid. [But] from the time she was a baby, she saw the harsh realities of life. She knew so-and-so was a ho, so-and-so was a junkie. These people were our neighbors — Maria was a junkie-prostitute, but she was also a nice person. I know that sounds strange, but that’s the reality of where we lived. Imani grew up to know reality and to know homeless and crazy. She grew up to develop instincts, to know,‘Okay, this person’s tripping.' We go out in the driveway, and there are people that sleep [in the alley] right on the other side of the driveway every night. We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us.”

Or at least, they don’t bother her now. “You have to be able to give — everything we don’t want, we either take it to St. Vincent dePaul’s or we put it right on the [back] fence. Everything the kids out-grow, I just lay it on the fence, and 15 minutes later, it’s gone. We were getting ripped off until we started giving stuff away for free — Imani’s bike, some yard tools. All of a sudden, we don’t get ripped off anymore. It’s like people understand that whatever we have to give, we’re going to give it, so nobody bothers us anymore.”

Though there has been some material cost, a sort of minimal peace — an agreement to let each other be — has developed. “We used to get a Vietnam veteran out here, always talking about the war at the top of his lungs. But when he’d see us, he’d say,‘How you doing?’ So we’d try to play it cool, because you’ve got psychotic people walking the streets every day around you, and your kids are outside — you’ve got to think. But he never bothered us, and I said, ‘Cool. As long as he keeps his distance, and he speaks to us [civilly], he can be out there ranting and raving all day long.’ We tell the kids to stay away from him. They know the ones to steer away from when they’re riding their bikes.”

This policy of mutual avoidance extends to fellow residents as well as transients. “None of the neighbors have been in our house, and we’ve been here almost two years. We’ve never been in theirs, and that’s just how it is. It’s not that type of neighborhood where everybody’s going to be in and out of each other’s business, because that causes trouble. I’m not antisocial; all the ladies ’round here know each other and speak to each other outside, and that’s the way I like it.”

The neighborhood, then, is a chain of islands, each near enough to feel the necessity of polite exchanges, each isolated enough to be a society unto itself. Entering James and Alesa’s house, that feeling is reinforced by the multitude of family portraits on the walls. They are mostly professional photographs of varying size, some of James and Alesa, some of the parents with their daughter, some of James Jr. Two collages of snapshots, mostly featuring extended family members, flank the largest of the portraits. Along with the photos, the couple has framed their wedding invitation: December 19, 1993, in Presidio Park.

The front door opens onto the living room. Though the walls are white, the room is dimmed by the shades drawn over the old windows and by the deep blue wall-to-wall carpet. A black couch and loveseat line two walls; across from the couch stands an entertainment center featuring a television and another monitor for video games. Between the two monitors are stacks of videos, arranged by viewer’s preference: Bruce Lee and Westerns (mostly Clint Eastwood pics) for James, black comedies and others for Alesa, Rasta videos for the two of them, and a healthy pile of stuff for the kids, including Jurassic Park, Pokémon, The Lion King, A Bug’s Life, and Stuart Little.

Besides the family photos, the walls are decorated with artificial flower arrangements, pinkish paintings of African women and flowers, and an African mask. A computer desk sits next to the couch, piled high with papers. College textbooks are stacked against a wall; they belong to Alesa.

Alesa started college at San Diego State in the early ’80s — the first in her family to attend — working two jobs to pay for her classes. “I took time off to work and then to have my babies. I stayed at home, breast fed, and took care of them until they were both old enough to go to school. People kept saying, ‘Yeah, but you left school.’ So what? The time I spent with them at home was just priceless. I feel sorry for mothers that have to [work] to survive, because I can feel how someone would want to stay home with their babies.”

During this down time, she met James. To tell the story, she steps back a couple of generations. “My grandfather came from Jamaica. He lived down South — that’s where he met my grandmother — and I never knew he was Jamaican. My mom moved us out here when we were little, but when I grew up, I was really attracted to the Rastafarian culture, and I didn’t understand why. The Jamaican culture was just natural, and my mom and I got into it. Then, three years after my grandfather died, we found out [where he was from].

“Then I met James, and he was into it also. He was working at the indoor swap meet over in the ’hood on Euclid. He was working in the reggae shop, and I used to go in there, because you can buy hair products for black people that you can’t buy in a regular store. I would hear the music [in the store], and I was, like, ‘God, who’s playing that?’ I went back there, and it was him. I wouldn’t go up to him; I would just watch him, just looking from afar. But I was with my sisters one day, and I had this little outfit — you know, a little cleavage and stuff — and he called me over to him, and that’s how we started.”

When they met, Alesa thought James was racially mixed. “He does tan real dark. He took me to his family’s house on Thanksgiving, and I was, like, ‘James, who are all these white people?’ He was, like, ‘My family.’ He’s looking at me like I’m crazy, and I’m, like, ‘Where are all the black people?”

James, who has been sitting with us in the living room while we talk, pipes up. Though he is wholeheartedly Rasta, “I don’t try to say that I ain’t white. I have black friends who say, ‘Oh, did you see that white boy? — Oh, sorry, man, sorry.’ Because they have respect for me. I’m, like, ‘Hey, man, that doesn’t bother me.’ I know when they say ‘white boy,’ they’re meaning this particular individual, like a real richie kind of guy or something, or whoever they were mad at at the time. They’re not addressing words toward every white person in the whole world.”

James’s involvement with the Rastafarian movement, and hence his appearance, was arrived at intellectually, as opposed to culturally. “It’s a real conscious movement. [Just because] it comes out of Africa doesn’t mean you have to be African to be Rasta. It’s not about being African or Jamaican; it’s about God being the Father of us all. I was already interested in God as a Christian — the Bible and stuff. If that wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have ever become a Rasta in the first place. I started listening to reggae music — like Bob Marley — and the words really attracted me. I mean, the music was nice too, but a lot of historical things that Bob would sing about, and things like dreadlocks and Jah. And I started wondering, ‘What is all this? Who is Rastafari? What does Jah mean?’ As I got deeper into it, I realized that it’s, like, a whole cultural background. It’s not just black guys from Jamaica who started saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to call this guy God or Jah or something and just play music and smoke herb.’ There’s a lot more to it, historically.”

Still, his involvement with a predominantly black movement, along with his childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood, has perhaps given him a certain sympathy with blacks. Says Alesa,“I can get pretty ghetto up here, and he has to swallow a lot. There’s a lot of pent-up anger and frustration just trying to be black and survive, you know? I have to be safe in my home; I have to have some sort of place where I can vent. So a lot of stuff he hears is stuff that most white people don’t get a chance to know — how black people really feel.” (She also tries to express those frustrations through poetry, sometimes reading at open-mike sessions.)

Get ghetto? “It’s like, I was born in the projects — in the ghetto, and there’s a certain mentality, a certain way of life, a way of speech.... There’s a way of everything about the ghetto. It’s like, okay, yes, I am an English major...but I don’t know how to say it.”

She and James trade off starting explanations before Alesa hits on something. “Not knowing about standard American English. Not understanding about the white world. Some people would call it African-American English. That’s what my linguistics teacher says — ‘Yes, that is from African-American English.’ She gets all professional; she cracks me up.” I comment on the ease with which Alesa slides between the two forms of English she mentions, and for a moment, we slide out of the ghetto and into the South. “Yeah, or like country. Our people originated in the South, so sometimes, I have a country twang without even realizing it. That’s just in me. It’s so weird; I’ve been to the South, like, once in my life. I do not have the personality to take what people have been taking for centuries. I’d end up in jail.

“That’s where my step-father’s from, and that’s why, when I first dated a white guy when I was 15, he was not a happy camper.” Her stepfather assumed that the fellow’s intentions were dishonorable. “I was living in Murphy Canyon — Navy housing. The first time Brian came to pick me up for a date, my father’s face just went [ashen]. Brian was a cool surfer type of guy, and he was, like,‘Hey, man! Hey, dude!’ to everybody. He was trying to be cool to my father, and my father just started cleaning his gun. The first thing out of his mouth, [he said to me], ‘Don’t bring home no gray babies.’ My mother turned around and she looked at him and she said, ‘Shut your ass up. All the white girls you dated...’ So it’s like a double standard, [but] my mother put him in his place ”

(Further evidence of James’s sympathy: his father-in-law, who once warned against gray babies, “doesn’t down me. He’ll say, ‘My son-in-law might be white, but he’s able to teach me a lot about my own culture.’ It’s not like, ‘Well, because I’m Rasta, I’ve got to learn all this black stuff.’ It’s just like, I heard things through the music historicalwise, and then I delved into it and learned about it”)

James brings us back to getting ghetto. “I see that some of that [ghetto] attitude is almost like, ‘Hey, the world owes me something,’ you know? ‘I can do what I want, because I’ve been done wrong.’ ” When I press further, Alesa gives a different account, switching now to a more academic tone. “It’s like an attitude developed over struggle, struggle that comes from surviving harsh conditions on a regular basis. You kind of develop this...hardness. It’s like there’s a certain point where you won’t take any more BS, because you’ve had to live with it, and when you recognize somebody trying to give you some kind of attitude, you immediately let them know, ‘Hey, I’m not about that. Don’t even give me that.’ Some people might call it ignorance, but to me that’s what people in the ghetto have built up to protect themselves.

“I understand it as beauty. To me, it’s not a negative thing. I see it as the development of a culture that fought its way through.” She says that, considering the history of blacks in this country, “in order to have some sort of self-esteem, some sort of success rate as a people…there had to be some point where people would say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Where people just said, ‘Hell, no, we ain’t gonna take this,’ and just come up. To me, that’s a good thing…it’s a pride thing. I love it still.”

But even if she loves it in principle, she does not plan to spend her life there. Her talk of the future involves escrow accounts, investments, and a better life. “I like HGTV. I learn a lot about decorating, how to fix up a house. That’s something we know we’re going to do in the future. I’ve been keeping up with Bob Vila all summer.

“I think that’s what keeps me so hopeful, because I know [living here] is temporary. My dad works in the civil service, and he’s trying to get me a civil service job. With a college degree, you can start off making anywhere from $32,000 to $35,000. My major is English with a single-subject teaching credential, so either working with my dad or just going to school for the next two years — my senior year, plus a year to finish my credential — I could be making enough, just by myself, to be out of here in a home of our own. Everything we’re doing is a forward process toward something we know we want.”

When she talks about explaining reality to her children, she proclaims, “Just because you live around these people doesn’t mean you’ve got to think like them and act like them. If you have to defend yourself, you do that — you ain’t no punk; you’ve got to survive in the ’hood. That’s where you live. But at the same time, you can do something else with your mind, [have] your own dreams and your own goals that have nothing to do with these people around you. The only way we can teach them is by doing it ourselves. We can say it all day long, but if we’re sitting around doing nothing, they’re going to sit around and look at us like,‘Yeah, right. Y’all ain’t doing nothing.' "

James is one of those people who “calls it ignorance,” and he explains himself along similar lines. “When I say ‘mixed with ignorance,’ I mean the ghetto attitude that people will hold on to rather than overcome to become a better person. Like using cuss words all the time; to me, that’s ghetto. But people will use an excuse and say, ‘Oh, that’s because I had a hard life.’‘Well, but you could still overcome that.' " Though he admits it is not an easy task, he points to himself as evidence of its feasibility. “I came out of high school thinking, ‘Hey, I could become a gang-banger.’ That’s all I really had. And I ended up becoming a Rasta and shunned away from all that and saw it as ignorance.”

Returning to the story of their meeting: they discovered that they had grown up only a few blocks apart in Skyline, but while they shared friends and moved in the same circles, they managed to avoid meeting until around 1991. James proposed after seven months; they were married soon after that. But in the interim, Alesa developed a brain disorder that was misdiagnosed and mistreated for some time before it was discovered that she had Tourette’s syndrome. “I didn’t know I had a genetic brain disorder from my father’s side of the family — some people say ‘absent parents,’ some people say ‘deadbeat dads,’ some say ‘asshole’ — it depends.” (She now refers to her stepfather as Dad.)

James and Alesa had been working together teaching at an institution for developmentally disabled kids, and they enjoyed their jobs. “It was cool,” Alesa explains, “because you have this kid who the city schools basically wrote off, and you get them doing enough schoolwork where they can graduate and take care of themselves. We were considered the cool couple as far as the staff went. I think they really liked us, except for J.D., who tried to bite a hole in James’s arm when he found out we were getting married. And he attacked me on the bus. I used to have a hook nose ring; he ripped it out. I had to defend myself. It was horrifying.”

Imani, running past, jumps in. “Hey, Mommy, who beat you down?”

“Honey, nobody ever beat me down. Don’t try that. Go on and play.”

“That crazy?”

“Yeah, that crazy boy tried to attack me, but I put him in his place.”

Unfortunately, after her disorder set in, Alesa found she was no longer able to handle her job. “You have to really be at your best, physically and mentally. Some of the kids could be very violent, and you wouldn’t believe their strength. It would sometimes take six adults to hold down an eight-year-old.” The place didn’t pay enough for James to work there on his own, so “we had to look at our lives and say,‘What are we going to do? We can keep going to these dead-end jobs, doing all this stuff we hate, or we can flip it, kick it for a little while, be low-income, go back to school, and get our shit together.’ That’s what we decided to do.”

Alesa found her “guardian angel” in the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, which, since she had become disabled, agreed to pay for her schooling for as long as she wanted to attend in order to retrain her for another job. After getting an AA from City College, she transferred to San Diego State, where she is currently a senior. Her disability also reduced the rent requirement for Section A housing, enabling her to rent her house.

For his part, James is working the night shift as a truck loader. He hopes one day to get a master’s in history and teach. “I’m one class from an AA business degree at Southwestern and one class away from a history degree [as well].” He plans to transfer to State when time and money allow. He also intends to open a reggae shop, selling “the hats, the belts, the shoestrings, scented candles, incense, little body oils that smell real good, rolling papers, cigarette lighters. I’d like to develop a website. I can’t really afford to open a shop right now, so my plan is to start out slowly,” setting up a booth at various campuses, swap meets, and street fairs.

Dinner tonight is tacos and tostadas, and Alesa begins their preparation by brandishing a large, well-worn industrial fry-pan. “Our friend from Jamaica gave us this; it’s the best frying pan I ever had. It looks bad, but I wouldn’t trade it in for a brand new one. I mean, I have new ones that I don’t use — everything is so tiny and cramped in here that I can use just so much. We’ve got stuff all up in the attic. We had a big townhouse before we moved here.”

The kitchen — pale, spare, also adorned with family photos — is indeed small, so that it feels a touch crowded when James, Alesa, and I all stand inside it. Alesa pours oil into the pan, heats it, and begins frying tortillas, one at a time. The tortillas puff and stiffen as they brown in the oil. As they approach crispness, she folds some over with a pair of tongs, holding the fold above the oil to make the taco shell. Others she leaves flat.

“I basically learned to cook from my mother. I’m the oldest female, so you know I had to cook. This particular dish she likes me to make for her. She made it differently. When we used to eat meat, she used to make tacos with beef. Then we moved to ground turkey. Then she stopped eating meat altogether, and we stopped eating meat. Religious reasons, and I’ll say health reasons. Our family has trouble with diabetes. We have this thing in our family where we say,‘We don’t have old people in this family.’ Everybody dies young: bad diet, bad lives, crime, anything. I guess Mom got tired of watching her family drop like flies, and we kind of followed suit. It’s just not worth it — all the pork and the sugar and the fat, it just clogs your heart. No hamburger is worth your life.”

Instead of beef, these tacos will be made with Momingstar Farms’ spicy veggie crumble, a mass of browm lumps that fill the kitchen with a heavily seasoned aroma as they go into the pan. Alesa mashes a can of no-lard refried beans into the crumble as it sizzles. “It’s just our way of cutting things down a little bit. It’s not like we’re perfect, but at least it’s not pure pork. Don’t get me wrong; I used to love me a pork chop, like I used to smoke cigarettes. Then I heard through the grapevine that my real father lost one of his lungs, so I decided, ‘That’s enough Marlboros for me.' " While she talks, she also opens a box of Kraft Lite Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese Dinner and gets it started.

As we talk in the kitchen, the size of the house is reduced by the enormous presence of children at play. On the other side of the kitchen wall, in the living room, Imani and James engage in furious mock kung-fu battles, full of throaty cries. “My kids are just as crazy as I am,” laughs Alesa, “or was...or still am, I don’t know. We used to play the death game. The death game is where my sister and I would sit on our bed, and I would put the pillow over her head and smother her until she almost died. Then, if she socked me on the arm, I would get up — that was the sign. If you socked the person, that meant you were about to die, and they would get up. It was so stupid, but of course, I’d lay there, and she’d put a pillow over my head and try to smother me.

“We used to play BB britches. That’s where every time someone says a word with the letter b, you get to sock the person who said it. We rode on a Greyhound bus from San Diego to Cincinnati, Ohio, playing that game. The people with us thought we were insane. We were sitting in the chairs, beating each other the whole way, having the best time, totally enjoying ourselves, killing each other, having fun. When I See them get going, I’m like, ‘Well, there we go.’ ” Eventually, the whooping and tearing about gets to be too much, and Alesa barks an order to settle down. “You guys go play in the other room; y’all getting out of hand.” The ensuing silence is short-lived; the battle begins anew.

We turn for a moment to the children, and in particular, to the children’s hair, the outward sign of their parents’ inward faith. “We know people are going to make issues for our kids,” admits Alesa, “especially for our son,” whose dreadlocks are more surprising to see than Imani’s. “He hasn’t said he wanted to cut his hair [after being teased about it]; he says, ‘They’re laughing on me.’ We tell him that they don’t understand our culture, that they have to learn about Rasta people. Once they’ve learned, they’ll like us. And we’ve been right.”

“People might question, ‘Why do you have your kids in dreads?’ ” says James.“[But] what if we all had dreads in our family, and then we have a son and we let him be short-haired? He’s going to feel separate from his own family.”

“It’s what we believe. “We know people are going to make issues for our kids,” admits Alesa, “especially for our son,” whose dreadlocks are more surprising to see than Imam's. They’re going to be born into what we believe and follow. Later, if he wants to cut it off, then he can.”

Alesa develops the theme of familial unity. “When Imani was a year old, I used to comb her hair, because people were, like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re gonna do that to her hair? You’re going to give her an African name?’ They would go crazy, and finally I started combing her hair. Then one day, we had this fight. She was a year old, and I was trying to comb her hair and put these teeny-tiny rubber bands in her hair. We were tussling on the floor, and she was screaming,‘No! NO!’ And, finally, it dawned on me. She gave me the dirtiest look that a child can do — she was offended that I would comb her hair and not comb my own. She was angry. When I realized it, I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll leave it alone.’ She stood up and walked away and looked back at me, and I’ve never touched her hair since as far as cutting and combing.... It’s an ancient hairstyle that a lot of people had, and not just black people either.”

“They’ve got Hindus who wear the locks,” continues James, “and every time the locks are seen in an ancient culture, they always represent something like a priesthood. That’s where Rastas get it from; what it represents is a covenant with God. You’re basically separating yourself unto God from regular society.” The separation has come with various pains — besides suffering the occasionally unkind judgments of strangers, James says he cannot become a supervisor at his job because of his hair. James and Alesa both bemoan the lack of understanding of Rastas in the general culture, and especially the stereotype of Rastas as drug-dealing devotees of voodoo.

The dining room adjoins both kitchen and living room, and through a doorway I notice a picture on the dining room wall of a reserved, thin-faced gentleman decorated with strips of paper upon which various titles have been printed; King of Kings and Lord of Lords, The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, The Light of the World, The Elect of God. “That’s just a picture of mine of Haile Selassie,” offers James. “I kind of put it together. He’s the King of Ethiopia, and those are his throne titles.

“Basically, you could consider him somewhat the fleshy godhead of the Rastafarian movement. Different Rastas believe different things about him. Some just believe he was a great Christian king; some believe he’s like Christ in the flesh, returned. Some believe he’s like God in the flesh.

“I just kind of see him as what his name is, as a representation of God in the flesh. Kind of like the head cornerstone, just the same with Christ. I kind of see him and Christ being the same as far as spirit and flesh go, because his flesh is traced back to King David and Solomon, just as Christ said his flesh was of David. And they both had the spirit of God — he was considered to be a really holy guy.

“When Mussolini was having a war with him, he went and prayed while Mussolini was trying to kill him — just showed what kind of person he was. He prayed for three hours in a real old church, and later, the bombs that Mussolini was dropping were bouncing off the churches — stuff like that. Some Rastas actually shook hands with him when he visited Jamaica in 1966, and they said they got a real weird vibe. It felt like electricity, like they were touched by something.”

The differences over Haile Selassie’s exact status are, in James’s view, typical of the movement. “The downfall within the movement is that there’s really no set organization. It’s like, everyone has some kind of philosophy about Haile Selassie.”

Keeping with the Christ theme, I comment on a mirrored triptych of sorts hanging in the dining room and depicting a Last Supper attended by blacks. “That’s Alesa’s portrait,” says James. “It represents a black Christ. That’s more African-American style. They have a Rasta one like that where the 12 apostles are all dreadlocks and stuff. It’s cool. I wouldn’t say that I know that every apostle was black, but [neither] were they all white. I think they were all mixed up: Arabic, African, a mixture of people. I try to get off the white and black thing. I just look at them, like, ‘Hey, we’re all people, and we’re all children of God, so that makes us all equal, because there’s good and bad in everybody. We can’t say that one race is greater than another.’ ”

Alesa agrees. “James and I make the joke that our families are both equally dysfunctional. I have actual family members that I will not allow in my house. I don’t care how cool they think they are; I know they’re psychotic. We went to my family reunion back home, and we’ve got a cousin, and we all know not to leave our kids alone with him. ‘Kids, now, go to the bathroom in twos,’ you know. No family can say they’re perfect, because all families have that one crazy aunt or that one eccentric — like I have an aunt that used to be my uncle, and she’s married to a preacher. Go figure. I love him still — her, him, that doesn’t change. Every family has those elements. We realize that it’s up to the individual people; no one group is better than the other. Everybody’s messed up in their own way.”

Dinner is ready. “We fix the kids’ plates first. That’s how I was raised. The kids eat first, and if there’s not enough food for the adults…that’s just kind of how we do it. We make their plate first and then sit them down at the table. Then we make our plate, and then we say our grace. My sisters and I started saying this grace we learned in Sunday school, and now all my nieces and nephews and my kids say it. It’s almost like a nursery rhyme; it just keeps them in the habit of learning to pray. It goes, ‘I fold my hands/ and softly say/ Jah, thank you for/ my food today.’ In Sunday school, it was ‘God.’ We added ‘Jah.' "

The kids are seated at the small table set diagonally in the living room, and it is time for the adults to eat. James has readied a platter of sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, grated cheese, and olives.“Do you want to do this yourself?” asks Alesa, “or do you want me to do it? Some people have a thing about other people touching their food. My mother’s funny like that.”

While we eat, the Fausts show me a video made by a friend of theirs about Rastas in Jamaica. The man who made it, a white Rasta like James, was kidnapped by the people he came to document and held for several days while they made sure of his intent. “They didn’t know if he was CIA or something. I guess, over time, he reasoned with them; he said, ‘I’m writing up a little booklet and making a video that we can use in the States as something to teach about Rastafari.’ They let him make it. It’s pretty cool. It has different views — some Rastas, because it comes from blacks, they hold onto that black solidarity, or some of them call it black supremacy. But it’s not like saying, 'We’re black, we’re better than everyone else.’ It’s kind of weird; black supremacy, when they state it, is more like saying, ‘We want equal rights and justice. Give us our rights to live and be who we are and be rulers of our own land’ or whatever.”

At one point, a woman begins singing a song in which she uses “everygoody” where it seems clear she means “everybody.” “They call what they were saying ‘word sound and power.’ They change certain words to fit, like ‘diet.’ They call it a ‘livit,’ because when you diet, you’re really eating to live better. So they say, ‘Why do you call it a diet, with the word ‘die’ in it? They call ‘oppression’ ‘downpression,’ because what you’re really doing is putting people down when you’re oppressing them. You’re not ‘up.’ The woman has changed ‘everybody’ to ‘everygoody’ because the body is not bad, but the sound ‘bad’ is part of ‘body.’” James is quick to point out that “not all Rastas [think this way].”

Later, there is a shot of a man talking about “herb for the healing of the nations”— marijuana. James steps in: “There’s parts of the Bible where it talks about herbs for the use of man. It’s an herb like any other, just like roots and spearmint, for medicinal purposes.” A scene ensues of men passing a water pipe called a chalice. James tells me that “it’s more of a sacrament. That is, because we’re the living church — you know, each person’s body is a church. Just as in the building churches, where they burn incense within the building, they kind of say burning herb is like you’re burning your sacrament within your church. It’s also a form of meditation.” Adds Alesa, “All cultures have that in their beliefs.”

“Most of them,” says James. “It’s a way to become relaxed within yourself and your mind. We pray sometimes after burning herb — give thanks to Jah while you’re feeling it, things like that."

“Chanting and praying is the part I like best,” comments Alesa. “It’s like a communion, in a way. When we used to go to the binghis and everybody used to chant and pray together, it seemed like even though there were people that I didn’t particularly care for, at that moment, it didn’t mean anything. We all became one voice in praise, and to me, that’s more important.”

James Jr., finished now with dinner, notices the men with the chalice pipe. “What’s he doing, blowing?” he asks.

“No, he’s sucking it in,” replies his father. “They’re not drinking it. It’s smoke going through the water, but they’re not drinking.”

“If they’re sipping, then it’s going to come up,” says the boy, confused. “You can go play now,” interrupts Alesa. “Find a game or get ready for bed; it’s your choice.”

“You have to be a little bit older to understand some of the herbs,” explains James.

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James and Alesa Faust: “People might question, ‘Why do you have your kids in dreads?’ ”
James and Alesa Faust: “People might question, ‘Why do you have your kids in dreads?’ ”

Draco, A roughly three-foot Savannah Monitor Lizard, lives in a cozy dog (lizard?) house behind James and Alesa Faust’s rented three-bedroom, one-bath home in Logan Heights. The fenced-in yard that surrounds the low, slate-blue house is small and full of vines and leaves and trees, but the concrete patio in back, where Draco lives, is bare. The lizard — wrinkled, clawed, slow, and sheddy — sleeps much of the time, though he will rouse himself to eat. “Rats and dog food,” says Alesa. “He likes rats over dog food, but we give him dog food with protein powder in it for his calcium.” As I wonder about the calcium content of rat bones, Alesa’s five-year-old son James grins and volunteers,“He used to dig through the meat looking for a little baby rat.”

James Jr., Draco, and Imani. "We teach the kids reality at a young age."

“[It’s interesting] how superstition can protect you in a place like this” comments Alesa, gesturing around her to indicate the neighborhood, not far from St. Vincent dePaul Village. “What people don’t understand, they stay away from. They would say, ‘You’re a trip — you’re weird, you’re strange.’ So they keep their distance, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s great, because I could use the peace. When I lived in East San Diego, a long time ago, I had a 16-foot python, so nobody bothered me. When Imani [Alesa’s nine-year-old daughter] was born, I had to rent the house behind us [for him to live in], he was so big. Just the fact that people know about Draco [helps]. It’s like, you have to have some sort of... I won’t say shield, but some way to protect yourself, especially if people feel like you’re someone they can get over on.”

Draco, of course, is not a guarantee against trouble. When we meet, Alesa is hobbled by a foot injury and walks with a cane — marking her, perhaps, as someone who can be “got over on.” She tells an odd story of a traffic-related misunderstanding the day before, which resulted in a woman approaching Alesa in a menacing fashion. Alesa suspected that the woman was “tweaking”— high on crystal meth — took up her cane, and beat the woman back. She later discovered that the woman had been about to visit Alesa’s next-door neighbors. “She’s a pain in their butt, but they deal with her. The next day, they were all, ‘Hi!’ so I know they’re not holding it against me. Obviously, this woman has a problem. In a strange way, it’s good that she knows she can't just come over here and do whatever she wants. Sometimes, a bully realizes,‘Oh, that person’s not going to take it,’ and the bully backs off.”

Alesa’s children were witness to the latter stage of the confrontation. “It’s something that I’ve tried to explain to my kids — ‘That’s what you saw, because this is where we live. And we have to face the reality that there are people around here like that.’ I just kind of do the way my mother did us, and that’s all I know — but not exactly like my momma did us... We teach them reality at a young age.

“I mean, Imani got her chance to enjoy Barney just like any other kid. [But] from the time she was a baby, she saw the harsh realities of life. She knew so-and-so was a ho, so-and-so was a junkie. These people were our neighbors — Maria was a junkie-prostitute, but she was also a nice person. I know that sounds strange, but that’s the reality of where we lived. Imani grew up to know reality and to know homeless and crazy. She grew up to develop instincts, to know,‘Okay, this person’s tripping.' We go out in the driveway, and there are people that sleep [in the alley] right on the other side of the driveway every night. We don’t bother them, they don’t bother us.”

Or at least, they don’t bother her now. “You have to be able to give — everything we don’t want, we either take it to St. Vincent dePaul’s or we put it right on the [back] fence. Everything the kids out-grow, I just lay it on the fence, and 15 minutes later, it’s gone. We were getting ripped off until we started giving stuff away for free — Imani’s bike, some yard tools. All of a sudden, we don’t get ripped off anymore. It’s like people understand that whatever we have to give, we’re going to give it, so nobody bothers us anymore.”

Though there has been some material cost, a sort of minimal peace — an agreement to let each other be — has developed. “We used to get a Vietnam veteran out here, always talking about the war at the top of his lungs. But when he’d see us, he’d say,‘How you doing?’ So we’d try to play it cool, because you’ve got psychotic people walking the streets every day around you, and your kids are outside — you’ve got to think. But he never bothered us, and I said, ‘Cool. As long as he keeps his distance, and he speaks to us [civilly], he can be out there ranting and raving all day long.’ We tell the kids to stay away from him. They know the ones to steer away from when they’re riding their bikes.”

This policy of mutual avoidance extends to fellow residents as well as transients. “None of the neighbors have been in our house, and we’ve been here almost two years. We’ve never been in theirs, and that’s just how it is. It’s not that type of neighborhood where everybody’s going to be in and out of each other’s business, because that causes trouble. I’m not antisocial; all the ladies ’round here know each other and speak to each other outside, and that’s the way I like it.”

The neighborhood, then, is a chain of islands, each near enough to feel the necessity of polite exchanges, each isolated enough to be a society unto itself. Entering James and Alesa’s house, that feeling is reinforced by the multitude of family portraits on the walls. They are mostly professional photographs of varying size, some of James and Alesa, some of the parents with their daughter, some of James Jr. Two collages of snapshots, mostly featuring extended family members, flank the largest of the portraits. Along with the photos, the couple has framed their wedding invitation: December 19, 1993, in Presidio Park.

The front door opens onto the living room. Though the walls are white, the room is dimmed by the shades drawn over the old windows and by the deep blue wall-to-wall carpet. A black couch and loveseat line two walls; across from the couch stands an entertainment center featuring a television and another monitor for video games. Between the two monitors are stacks of videos, arranged by viewer’s preference: Bruce Lee and Westerns (mostly Clint Eastwood pics) for James, black comedies and others for Alesa, Rasta videos for the two of them, and a healthy pile of stuff for the kids, including Jurassic Park, Pokémon, The Lion King, A Bug’s Life, and Stuart Little.

Besides the family photos, the walls are decorated with artificial flower arrangements, pinkish paintings of African women and flowers, and an African mask. A computer desk sits next to the couch, piled high with papers. College textbooks are stacked against a wall; they belong to Alesa.

Alesa started college at San Diego State in the early ’80s — the first in her family to attend — working two jobs to pay for her classes. “I took time off to work and then to have my babies. I stayed at home, breast fed, and took care of them until they were both old enough to go to school. People kept saying, ‘Yeah, but you left school.’ So what? The time I spent with them at home was just priceless. I feel sorry for mothers that have to [work] to survive, because I can feel how someone would want to stay home with their babies.”

During this down time, she met James. To tell the story, she steps back a couple of generations. “My grandfather came from Jamaica. He lived down South — that’s where he met my grandmother — and I never knew he was Jamaican. My mom moved us out here when we were little, but when I grew up, I was really attracted to the Rastafarian culture, and I didn’t understand why. The Jamaican culture was just natural, and my mom and I got into it. Then, three years after my grandfather died, we found out [where he was from].

“Then I met James, and he was into it also. He was working at the indoor swap meet over in the ’hood on Euclid. He was working in the reggae shop, and I used to go in there, because you can buy hair products for black people that you can’t buy in a regular store. I would hear the music [in the store], and I was, like, ‘God, who’s playing that?’ I went back there, and it was him. I wouldn’t go up to him; I would just watch him, just looking from afar. But I was with my sisters one day, and I had this little outfit — you know, a little cleavage and stuff — and he called me over to him, and that’s how we started.”

When they met, Alesa thought James was racially mixed. “He does tan real dark. He took me to his family’s house on Thanksgiving, and I was, like, ‘James, who are all these white people?’ He was, like, ‘My family.’ He’s looking at me like I’m crazy, and I’m, like, ‘Where are all the black people?”

James, who has been sitting with us in the living room while we talk, pipes up. Though he is wholeheartedly Rasta, “I don’t try to say that I ain’t white. I have black friends who say, ‘Oh, did you see that white boy? — Oh, sorry, man, sorry.’ Because they have respect for me. I’m, like, ‘Hey, man, that doesn’t bother me.’ I know when they say ‘white boy,’ they’re meaning this particular individual, like a real richie kind of guy or something, or whoever they were mad at at the time. They’re not addressing words toward every white person in the whole world.”

James’s involvement with the Rastafarian movement, and hence his appearance, was arrived at intellectually, as opposed to culturally. “It’s a real conscious movement. [Just because] it comes out of Africa doesn’t mean you have to be African to be Rasta. It’s not about being African or Jamaican; it’s about God being the Father of us all. I was already interested in God as a Christian — the Bible and stuff. If that wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have ever become a Rasta in the first place. I started listening to reggae music — like Bob Marley — and the words really attracted me. I mean, the music was nice too, but a lot of historical things that Bob would sing about, and things like dreadlocks and Jah. And I started wondering, ‘What is all this? Who is Rastafari? What does Jah mean?’ As I got deeper into it, I realized that it’s, like, a whole cultural background. It’s not just black guys from Jamaica who started saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to call this guy God or Jah or something and just play music and smoke herb.’ There’s a lot more to it, historically.”

Still, his involvement with a predominantly black movement, along with his childhood in a racially mixed neighborhood, has perhaps given him a certain sympathy with blacks. Says Alesa,“I can get pretty ghetto up here, and he has to swallow a lot. There’s a lot of pent-up anger and frustration just trying to be black and survive, you know? I have to be safe in my home; I have to have some sort of place where I can vent. So a lot of stuff he hears is stuff that most white people don’t get a chance to know — how black people really feel.” (She also tries to express those frustrations through poetry, sometimes reading at open-mike sessions.)

Get ghetto? “It’s like, I was born in the projects — in the ghetto, and there’s a certain mentality, a certain way of life, a way of speech.... There’s a way of everything about the ghetto. It’s like, okay, yes, I am an English major...but I don’t know how to say it.”

She and James trade off starting explanations before Alesa hits on something. “Not knowing about standard American English. Not understanding about the white world. Some people would call it African-American English. That’s what my linguistics teacher says — ‘Yes, that is from African-American English.’ She gets all professional; she cracks me up.” I comment on the ease with which Alesa slides between the two forms of English she mentions, and for a moment, we slide out of the ghetto and into the South. “Yeah, or like country. Our people originated in the South, so sometimes, I have a country twang without even realizing it. That’s just in me. It’s so weird; I’ve been to the South, like, once in my life. I do not have the personality to take what people have been taking for centuries. I’d end up in jail.

“That’s where my step-father’s from, and that’s why, when I first dated a white guy when I was 15, he was not a happy camper.” Her stepfather assumed that the fellow’s intentions were dishonorable. “I was living in Murphy Canyon — Navy housing. The first time Brian came to pick me up for a date, my father’s face just went [ashen]. Brian was a cool surfer type of guy, and he was, like,‘Hey, man! Hey, dude!’ to everybody. He was trying to be cool to my father, and my father just started cleaning his gun. The first thing out of his mouth, [he said to me], ‘Don’t bring home no gray babies.’ My mother turned around and she looked at him and she said, ‘Shut your ass up. All the white girls you dated...’ So it’s like a double standard, [but] my mother put him in his place ”

(Further evidence of James’s sympathy: his father-in-law, who once warned against gray babies, “doesn’t down me. He’ll say, ‘My son-in-law might be white, but he’s able to teach me a lot about my own culture.’ It’s not like, ‘Well, because I’m Rasta, I’ve got to learn all this black stuff.’ It’s just like, I heard things through the music historicalwise, and then I delved into it and learned about it”)

James brings us back to getting ghetto. “I see that some of that [ghetto] attitude is almost like, ‘Hey, the world owes me something,’ you know? ‘I can do what I want, because I’ve been done wrong.’ ” When I press further, Alesa gives a different account, switching now to a more academic tone. “It’s like an attitude developed over struggle, struggle that comes from surviving harsh conditions on a regular basis. You kind of develop this...hardness. It’s like there’s a certain point where you won’t take any more BS, because you’ve had to live with it, and when you recognize somebody trying to give you some kind of attitude, you immediately let them know, ‘Hey, I’m not about that. Don’t even give me that.’ Some people might call it ignorance, but to me that’s what people in the ghetto have built up to protect themselves.

“I understand it as beauty. To me, it’s not a negative thing. I see it as the development of a culture that fought its way through.” She says that, considering the history of blacks in this country, “in order to have some sort of self-esteem, some sort of success rate as a people…there had to be some point where people would say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Where people just said, ‘Hell, no, we ain’t gonna take this,’ and just come up. To me, that’s a good thing…it’s a pride thing. I love it still.”

But even if she loves it in principle, she does not plan to spend her life there. Her talk of the future involves escrow accounts, investments, and a better life. “I like HGTV. I learn a lot about decorating, how to fix up a house. That’s something we know we’re going to do in the future. I’ve been keeping up with Bob Vila all summer.

“I think that’s what keeps me so hopeful, because I know [living here] is temporary. My dad works in the civil service, and he’s trying to get me a civil service job. With a college degree, you can start off making anywhere from $32,000 to $35,000. My major is English with a single-subject teaching credential, so either working with my dad or just going to school for the next two years — my senior year, plus a year to finish my credential — I could be making enough, just by myself, to be out of here in a home of our own. Everything we’re doing is a forward process toward something we know we want.”

When she talks about explaining reality to her children, she proclaims, “Just because you live around these people doesn’t mean you’ve got to think like them and act like them. If you have to defend yourself, you do that — you ain’t no punk; you’ve got to survive in the ’hood. That’s where you live. But at the same time, you can do something else with your mind, [have] your own dreams and your own goals that have nothing to do with these people around you. The only way we can teach them is by doing it ourselves. We can say it all day long, but if we’re sitting around doing nothing, they’re going to sit around and look at us like,‘Yeah, right. Y’all ain’t doing nothing.' "

James is one of those people who “calls it ignorance,” and he explains himself along similar lines. “When I say ‘mixed with ignorance,’ I mean the ghetto attitude that people will hold on to rather than overcome to become a better person. Like using cuss words all the time; to me, that’s ghetto. But people will use an excuse and say, ‘Oh, that’s because I had a hard life.’‘Well, but you could still overcome that.' " Though he admits it is not an easy task, he points to himself as evidence of its feasibility. “I came out of high school thinking, ‘Hey, I could become a gang-banger.’ That’s all I really had. And I ended up becoming a Rasta and shunned away from all that and saw it as ignorance.”

Returning to the story of their meeting: they discovered that they had grown up only a few blocks apart in Skyline, but while they shared friends and moved in the same circles, they managed to avoid meeting until around 1991. James proposed after seven months; they were married soon after that. But in the interim, Alesa developed a brain disorder that was misdiagnosed and mistreated for some time before it was discovered that she had Tourette’s syndrome. “I didn’t know I had a genetic brain disorder from my father’s side of the family — some people say ‘absent parents,’ some people say ‘deadbeat dads,’ some say ‘asshole’ — it depends.” (She now refers to her stepfather as Dad.)

James and Alesa had been working together teaching at an institution for developmentally disabled kids, and they enjoyed their jobs. “It was cool,” Alesa explains, “because you have this kid who the city schools basically wrote off, and you get them doing enough schoolwork where they can graduate and take care of themselves. We were considered the cool couple as far as the staff went. I think they really liked us, except for J.D., who tried to bite a hole in James’s arm when he found out we were getting married. And he attacked me on the bus. I used to have a hook nose ring; he ripped it out. I had to defend myself. It was horrifying.”

Imani, running past, jumps in. “Hey, Mommy, who beat you down?”

“Honey, nobody ever beat me down. Don’t try that. Go on and play.”

“That crazy?”

“Yeah, that crazy boy tried to attack me, but I put him in his place.”

Unfortunately, after her disorder set in, Alesa found she was no longer able to handle her job. “You have to really be at your best, physically and mentally. Some of the kids could be very violent, and you wouldn’t believe their strength. It would sometimes take six adults to hold down an eight-year-old.” The place didn’t pay enough for James to work there on his own, so “we had to look at our lives and say,‘What are we going to do? We can keep going to these dead-end jobs, doing all this stuff we hate, or we can flip it, kick it for a little while, be low-income, go back to school, and get our shit together.’ That’s what we decided to do.”

Alesa found her “guardian angel” in the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, which, since she had become disabled, agreed to pay for her schooling for as long as she wanted to attend in order to retrain her for another job. After getting an AA from City College, she transferred to San Diego State, where she is currently a senior. Her disability also reduced the rent requirement for Section A housing, enabling her to rent her house.

For his part, James is working the night shift as a truck loader. He hopes one day to get a master’s in history and teach. “I’m one class from an AA business degree at Southwestern and one class away from a history degree [as well].” He plans to transfer to State when time and money allow. He also intends to open a reggae shop, selling “the hats, the belts, the shoestrings, scented candles, incense, little body oils that smell real good, rolling papers, cigarette lighters. I’d like to develop a website. I can’t really afford to open a shop right now, so my plan is to start out slowly,” setting up a booth at various campuses, swap meets, and street fairs.

Dinner tonight is tacos and tostadas, and Alesa begins their preparation by brandishing a large, well-worn industrial fry-pan. “Our friend from Jamaica gave us this; it’s the best frying pan I ever had. It looks bad, but I wouldn’t trade it in for a brand new one. I mean, I have new ones that I don’t use — everything is so tiny and cramped in here that I can use just so much. We’ve got stuff all up in the attic. We had a big townhouse before we moved here.”

The kitchen — pale, spare, also adorned with family photos — is indeed small, so that it feels a touch crowded when James, Alesa, and I all stand inside it. Alesa pours oil into the pan, heats it, and begins frying tortillas, one at a time. The tortillas puff and stiffen as they brown in the oil. As they approach crispness, she folds some over with a pair of tongs, holding the fold above the oil to make the taco shell. Others she leaves flat.

“I basically learned to cook from my mother. I’m the oldest female, so you know I had to cook. This particular dish she likes me to make for her. She made it differently. When we used to eat meat, she used to make tacos with beef. Then we moved to ground turkey. Then she stopped eating meat altogether, and we stopped eating meat. Religious reasons, and I’ll say health reasons. Our family has trouble with diabetes. We have this thing in our family where we say,‘We don’t have old people in this family.’ Everybody dies young: bad diet, bad lives, crime, anything. I guess Mom got tired of watching her family drop like flies, and we kind of followed suit. It’s just not worth it — all the pork and the sugar and the fat, it just clogs your heart. No hamburger is worth your life.”

Instead of beef, these tacos will be made with Momingstar Farms’ spicy veggie crumble, a mass of browm lumps that fill the kitchen with a heavily seasoned aroma as they go into the pan. Alesa mashes a can of no-lard refried beans into the crumble as it sizzles. “It’s just our way of cutting things down a little bit. It’s not like we’re perfect, but at least it’s not pure pork. Don’t get me wrong; I used to love me a pork chop, like I used to smoke cigarettes. Then I heard through the grapevine that my real father lost one of his lungs, so I decided, ‘That’s enough Marlboros for me.' " While she talks, she also opens a box of Kraft Lite Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese Dinner and gets it started.

As we talk in the kitchen, the size of the house is reduced by the enormous presence of children at play. On the other side of the kitchen wall, in the living room, Imani and James engage in furious mock kung-fu battles, full of throaty cries. “My kids are just as crazy as I am,” laughs Alesa, “or was...or still am, I don’t know. We used to play the death game. The death game is where my sister and I would sit on our bed, and I would put the pillow over her head and smother her until she almost died. Then, if she socked me on the arm, I would get up — that was the sign. If you socked the person, that meant you were about to die, and they would get up. It was so stupid, but of course, I’d lay there, and she’d put a pillow over my head and try to smother me.

“We used to play BB britches. That’s where every time someone says a word with the letter b, you get to sock the person who said it. We rode on a Greyhound bus from San Diego to Cincinnati, Ohio, playing that game. The people with us thought we were insane. We were sitting in the chairs, beating each other the whole way, having the best time, totally enjoying ourselves, killing each other, having fun. When I See them get going, I’m like, ‘Well, there we go.’ ” Eventually, the whooping and tearing about gets to be too much, and Alesa barks an order to settle down. “You guys go play in the other room; y’all getting out of hand.” The ensuing silence is short-lived; the battle begins anew.

We turn for a moment to the children, and in particular, to the children’s hair, the outward sign of their parents’ inward faith. “We know people are going to make issues for our kids,” admits Alesa, “especially for our son,” whose dreadlocks are more surprising to see than Imani’s. “He hasn’t said he wanted to cut his hair [after being teased about it]; he says, ‘They’re laughing on me.’ We tell him that they don’t understand our culture, that they have to learn about Rasta people. Once they’ve learned, they’ll like us. And we’ve been right.”

“People might question, ‘Why do you have your kids in dreads?’ ” says James.“[But] what if we all had dreads in our family, and then we have a son and we let him be short-haired? He’s going to feel separate from his own family.”

“It’s what we believe. “We know people are going to make issues for our kids,” admits Alesa, “especially for our son,” whose dreadlocks are more surprising to see than Imam's. They’re going to be born into what we believe and follow. Later, if he wants to cut it off, then he can.”

Alesa develops the theme of familial unity. “When Imani was a year old, I used to comb her hair, because people were, like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re gonna do that to her hair? You’re going to give her an African name?’ They would go crazy, and finally I started combing her hair. Then one day, we had this fight. She was a year old, and I was trying to comb her hair and put these teeny-tiny rubber bands in her hair. We were tussling on the floor, and she was screaming,‘No! NO!’ And, finally, it dawned on me. She gave me the dirtiest look that a child can do — she was offended that I would comb her hair and not comb my own. She was angry. When I realized it, I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll leave it alone.’ She stood up and walked away and looked back at me, and I’ve never touched her hair since as far as cutting and combing.... It’s an ancient hairstyle that a lot of people had, and not just black people either.”

“They’ve got Hindus who wear the locks,” continues James, “and every time the locks are seen in an ancient culture, they always represent something like a priesthood. That’s where Rastas get it from; what it represents is a covenant with God. You’re basically separating yourself unto God from regular society.” The separation has come with various pains — besides suffering the occasionally unkind judgments of strangers, James says he cannot become a supervisor at his job because of his hair. James and Alesa both bemoan the lack of understanding of Rastas in the general culture, and especially the stereotype of Rastas as drug-dealing devotees of voodoo.

The dining room adjoins both kitchen and living room, and through a doorway I notice a picture on the dining room wall of a reserved, thin-faced gentleman decorated with strips of paper upon which various titles have been printed; King of Kings and Lord of Lords, The Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, The Light of the World, The Elect of God. “That’s just a picture of mine of Haile Selassie,” offers James. “I kind of put it together. He’s the King of Ethiopia, and those are his throne titles.

“Basically, you could consider him somewhat the fleshy godhead of the Rastafarian movement. Different Rastas believe different things about him. Some just believe he was a great Christian king; some believe he’s like Christ in the flesh, returned. Some believe he’s like God in the flesh.

“I just kind of see him as what his name is, as a representation of God in the flesh. Kind of like the head cornerstone, just the same with Christ. I kind of see him and Christ being the same as far as spirit and flesh go, because his flesh is traced back to King David and Solomon, just as Christ said his flesh was of David. And they both had the spirit of God — he was considered to be a really holy guy.

“When Mussolini was having a war with him, he went and prayed while Mussolini was trying to kill him — just showed what kind of person he was. He prayed for three hours in a real old church, and later, the bombs that Mussolini was dropping were bouncing off the churches — stuff like that. Some Rastas actually shook hands with him when he visited Jamaica in 1966, and they said they got a real weird vibe. It felt like electricity, like they were touched by something.”

The differences over Haile Selassie’s exact status are, in James’s view, typical of the movement. “The downfall within the movement is that there’s really no set organization. It’s like, everyone has some kind of philosophy about Haile Selassie.”

Keeping with the Christ theme, I comment on a mirrored triptych of sorts hanging in the dining room and depicting a Last Supper attended by blacks. “That’s Alesa’s portrait,” says James. “It represents a black Christ. That’s more African-American style. They have a Rasta one like that where the 12 apostles are all dreadlocks and stuff. It’s cool. I wouldn’t say that I know that every apostle was black, but [neither] were they all white. I think they were all mixed up: Arabic, African, a mixture of people. I try to get off the white and black thing. I just look at them, like, ‘Hey, we’re all people, and we’re all children of God, so that makes us all equal, because there’s good and bad in everybody. We can’t say that one race is greater than another.’ ”

Alesa agrees. “James and I make the joke that our families are both equally dysfunctional. I have actual family members that I will not allow in my house. I don’t care how cool they think they are; I know they’re psychotic. We went to my family reunion back home, and we’ve got a cousin, and we all know not to leave our kids alone with him. ‘Kids, now, go to the bathroom in twos,’ you know. No family can say they’re perfect, because all families have that one crazy aunt or that one eccentric — like I have an aunt that used to be my uncle, and she’s married to a preacher. Go figure. I love him still — her, him, that doesn’t change. Every family has those elements. We realize that it’s up to the individual people; no one group is better than the other. Everybody’s messed up in their own way.”

Dinner is ready. “We fix the kids’ plates first. That’s how I was raised. The kids eat first, and if there’s not enough food for the adults…that’s just kind of how we do it. We make their plate first and then sit them down at the table. Then we make our plate, and then we say our grace. My sisters and I started saying this grace we learned in Sunday school, and now all my nieces and nephews and my kids say it. It’s almost like a nursery rhyme; it just keeps them in the habit of learning to pray. It goes, ‘I fold my hands/ and softly say/ Jah, thank you for/ my food today.’ In Sunday school, it was ‘God.’ We added ‘Jah.' "

The kids are seated at the small table set diagonally in the living room, and it is time for the adults to eat. James has readied a platter of sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, grated cheese, and olives.“Do you want to do this yourself?” asks Alesa, “or do you want me to do it? Some people have a thing about other people touching their food. My mother’s funny like that.”

While we eat, the Fausts show me a video made by a friend of theirs about Rastas in Jamaica. The man who made it, a white Rasta like James, was kidnapped by the people he came to document and held for several days while they made sure of his intent. “They didn’t know if he was CIA or something. I guess, over time, he reasoned with them; he said, ‘I’m writing up a little booklet and making a video that we can use in the States as something to teach about Rastafari.’ They let him make it. It’s pretty cool. It has different views — some Rastas, because it comes from blacks, they hold onto that black solidarity, or some of them call it black supremacy. But it’s not like saying, 'We’re black, we’re better than everyone else.’ It’s kind of weird; black supremacy, when they state it, is more like saying, ‘We want equal rights and justice. Give us our rights to live and be who we are and be rulers of our own land’ or whatever.”

At one point, a woman begins singing a song in which she uses “everygoody” where it seems clear she means “everybody.” “They call what they were saying ‘word sound and power.’ They change certain words to fit, like ‘diet.’ They call it a ‘livit,’ because when you diet, you’re really eating to live better. So they say, ‘Why do you call it a diet, with the word ‘die’ in it? They call ‘oppression’ ‘downpression,’ because what you’re really doing is putting people down when you’re oppressing them. You’re not ‘up.’ The woman has changed ‘everybody’ to ‘everygoody’ because the body is not bad, but the sound ‘bad’ is part of ‘body.’” James is quick to point out that “not all Rastas [think this way].”

Later, there is a shot of a man talking about “herb for the healing of the nations”— marijuana. James steps in: “There’s parts of the Bible where it talks about herbs for the use of man. It’s an herb like any other, just like roots and spearmint, for medicinal purposes.” A scene ensues of men passing a water pipe called a chalice. James tells me that “it’s more of a sacrament. That is, because we’re the living church — you know, each person’s body is a church. Just as in the building churches, where they burn incense within the building, they kind of say burning herb is like you’re burning your sacrament within your church. It’s also a form of meditation.” Adds Alesa, “All cultures have that in their beliefs.”

“Most of them,” says James. “It’s a way to become relaxed within yourself and your mind. We pray sometimes after burning herb — give thanks to Jah while you’re feeling it, things like that."

“Chanting and praying is the part I like best,” comments Alesa. “It’s like a communion, in a way. When we used to go to the binghis and everybody used to chant and pray together, it seemed like even though there were people that I didn’t particularly care for, at that moment, it didn’t mean anything. We all became one voice in praise, and to me, that’s more important.”

James Jr., finished now with dinner, notices the men with the chalice pipe. “What’s he doing, blowing?” he asks.

“No, he’s sucking it in,” replies his father. “They’re not drinking it. It’s smoke going through the water, but they’re not drinking.”

“If they’re sipping, then it’s going to come up,” says the boy, confused. “You can go play now,” interrupts Alesa. “Find a game or get ready for bed; it’s your choice.”

“You have to be a little bit older to understand some of the herbs,” explains James.

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