The first time I try to meet up with Makeda “Dread” Cheatom, she doesn’t show. I leave her a note. An hour later, she calls to apologize, and we arrange a new time for later that afternoon. Ten minutes after we hang up, she calls back.
“What time did we say — 1:00 or 3:00?” she asks.
I remind her that we said 2:00.
But once we’re finally seated on the perfect-for-sitting tree stump in front of the WorldBeat Cultural Center, the organization of which Cheatom is both founder and executive director, I have her undivided attention. Or, rather, she has mine.
“George Harrison was mad at me, because I wouldn’t let him smoke,” she says over the sound of drums coming from inside the center. “I had the first nonsmoking restaurant [in San Diego].”
The restaurant to which she refers is the now-closed Prophet International Vegetarian Restaurant, opened in 1971 at 4461 University Avenue.
“We were multicultural, and San Diego didn’t have that at that time,” she says. “We were Mexican, Japanese, white, black. We thought we were cool.”
A little bald baby wobbles out of the water-tank-turned-cultural-center in Balboa Park, across Park Boulevard from Balboa Hospital. He has escaped from the kiddie drum class inside. A half-second later, a man hurries out and scoops him up.
“He’s making a run for it!” Cheatom calls to the man.
The man laughs and carries the kid back inside.
“So, anyway,” she continues, “George Harrison comes in. It was probably ’75 or ’76. They were Krishna people who brought him in. At that time, I think he got into the Hari Krishnas, who don’t eat anything that grows below the ground. So he goes, ‘Well, you got mushrooms. You serve mushrooms and onions and carrots.’ And I’m young and arrogant, and I’m like, ‘I don’t care who he is. He still can’t smoke in my restaurant.’”
It’s hard to tell if she regrets that she upset the former Beatle until she says, “Now, I know he died of throat cancer. He’s probably saying right now, ‘I should have listened to her.’”
Cheatom has the androgynous face of an old soothsayer. Her heavy-lidded eyes bear a sadness that doesn’t quite lift, even when she smiles. Yet there’s nothing guarded about her. This is our first meeting, but before I leave today, she’ll tell me she loves me.
Cheatom was born in 1942 to southerners who’d moved to San Diego in the early 1940s. Her mother and father had fifth- and third-grade educations, respectively. On her birth certificate, she says, they were listed as “a maid and a boot black.”
“Everybody from the south came to work in the defense plants,” she says. “The government gave us these cracker-box houses. [Linda Vista] was an extension of the south. We had chickens and stuff like that. So I grew up with that existence. Grandmothers stayed home to take care of the children. They’d hit you, too. They had the authority, because they watched everything you did.”
The drumming and singing has stopped. Parents file out with their children on hips, in strollers, or hand-in-hand. They wave and smile at Cheatom as they pass by. She waves back.
“He’s keeping you young!” she calls to a man carrying a beefy toddler.
“Yeah, just turned one,” the man calls back.
“No — I say, he’s keeping you young, man!”
The man responds, “Who said you supposed to get old?”
“Nobody!” Cheatom shouts. “We’re not gonna do that, are we?”
Cheatom’s phone rings. She picks it up, then, without waiting for the caller to speak, says, “Call you back,” and hangs up. She looks at me and continues as if there’s been no interruption.
“One time, I was arrested for stealing my own car.”
When I laugh, she smiles, but only briefly.
“Yeah, man. I had an Austen Healy, and you know black people didn’t drive sports cars in those days. I was always picked on. In those days, you had to show your registration. I had my steering wheel in, trying to be cool, you know. You could pull it in or pull it out.”
She mimes pushing a steering wheel in and pulling it back out.
“And I had a magnet with my registration. I put it on the heater. But, somehow, it fell or whatever, but they weren’t going to bother to look for it when they pulled me over. I was in the beach area, and they took me to jail. I remember the car door was closing, and the officer goes, ‘Good-bye, nigger.’ A policeman.”
She shakes her head.
“When we grew up, man, everybody just wanted to get out of here. A lot of great people moved out. If you had any artistic ability, that’s what you did, because they would kill you. Most of my friends died or went to jail. You just couldn’t make it here.”
Cheatom looks down at her hand and fiddles with one of the eight beaded bracelets on her wrist. A drum sounds from inside the building. It’s not a steady rhythm, but an intermittent series of tones, as if a child is banging on the drum skin.
“Black people are suffering from post-traumatic slave syndrome.” Cheatom looks up again. “We didn’t get any therapy or anything for what’s been happening to us. That’s why there’s black-on-black crime and self-hate and all these different things.”
She gives me a significant look. I get the feeling she’s said this a hundred times before. She segues into an explanation of how Transcendental Meditation eventually helped her let go of her own demons.
“The meditation helped me realize that I have a divine self, and that the only thing to be angry at is anger. I started raising my level of consciousness.”
Cheatom, too, dreamed of leaving San Diego, but felt she couldn’t leave her family. Both her parents were alcoholics, and her uncle was a “hobo, you know, sleeping in cars.”
At 13, she did leave for a while, traveling up to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, where her older brother was stationed. Though she’d gone to “escape the alcoholic situation” at home, she found that her brother and his wife were also drinking, and that “there were some abusive things going on in the household.”
When she returned to San Diego on the Greyhound bus, she did so with her brother’s three-year-old son in tow. The boy lived with her until he was seven or eight and then went back to Tacoma. Three or four years later, while Cheatom’s brother was overseas, his wife ran away; she left their three children in the care of her family members in Texas. Upon his return, he retrieved the children and handed them off to Cheatom, who raised them.
“I was always the adult. At 19, I had three kids from my brother’s family, raising them and stuff. So I stayed around and did what I had to do for my family and the community. People still give me their kids, mostly when the kids get in trouble. They give them to me, because I always do well with them.”
A man with a full head of tidy, uniform dreadlocks comes out of the building; he’s followed by a woman with a beaming smile. The man steps forward. He dips his head in apology.
“I know,” Cheatom says, before he can speak. “People are asking about the Noche Cubana. We need to figure out a night.”
“Let’s do it in March,” he says.
“Yes, let’s get ready for that,” she says. “I’ll be here this week, if you guys want to make an appointment on Friday.”
The woman looks at the man and says, “We’ll be downtown.”
“Okay, good,” Cheatom says. “Come by. I’ll expect you.”
The couple apologizes for the interruption and walks off.
“I’ll have some lentils for you,” Cheatom calls after them.
The woman turns back. “Oh, yeah!”
Cheatom says to me, “I’m a good cook. Everyone wants to eat my food. On holidays, I put on free shows, and I cook all night, just to make the money, so I can pay the sound, pay the musicians, just so the people can have a free concert.”
On that note, she stands. She wants to show me the garden.
We cross the concrete driveway in front of the cultural center, and head down a path lined with flowers and other vegetation. Toward the back, on the left, she points out the bok choy and salad greens growing in her “vertical garden,” a series of Styrofoam pots painted brown and mounted on tall poles rising from the ground. A squirrel runs out from under the gate.
“Oh, no. You gotta get out of here.” The squirrel scurries out from under the gate and runs away. “I’m gonna get his butt, man.”
Cheatom points out various features of the garden, the solar oven, the solar-powered fountain, and a curved bench (created by pouring and molding cement over 500 bags of sand) that circles a fire pit.
The way Cheatom tells it, it was the mid-’80s when she noticed there was “nothing supporting Africans and African-Americans in Balboa Park.” By that time, she’d studied Transcendental Meditation with a woman named Beulah Smith in Coronado, telecommunications at Mesa College, and food service and culinary arts at City College. Her restaurant, The Prophet, had a large following, as did her radio show on 91X, and she’d begun to host reggae boat cruises on the Hornblower and regular reggae nights at Bogey’s and Spanky’s Saloon.
“I had all the cab drivers, all the Nigerians,” she says. “Every African from the diaspora was there. Me and Damaje Lee [her radio partner] were the DJs. The Jamaicans were there, but we didn’t just play Jamaican music. It was like a little New York. I’ve always had a New York vibe. Everybody thinks I’m from New York. I played soca, I played salsa. I played a lot of reggae. The Ethiopians would be there. So I had support of the whole African diaspora. It was happenin’.”
Balboa Park didn’t have anything to represent all these people. So Cheatom approached park administration and asked for a building to start a cultural center. Though she says she’s not great with dates, she guesses that was about 1985.
“They were, like, ‘Nah, we don’t have no buildings.’”
So she went to the city council. She was assigned a hearing date, when she’d be able state her case and vie for the building which currently houses the Mingei International Museum. She knew she wouldn’t get that building. She felt that park administration was forcing her into a battle she couldn’t win.
This date, she’s sure of: September 21, 1989. The same day her mother died.
“The day I was supposed to go to the hearing, at 3:00 in the morning, my mother died. The hearing was at 9:00. Everybody [at home] said, ‘Don’t go.’ I go in the room, and I close the door. My mother’s body was in the other room. And she was talking to me. I had been her caretaker. I forgave her for all the mean things. It was hard, you know.”
“So my mother dies,” she continues, “and I thought, you know what? My mother scrubbed all these people’s floors in Point Loma and downtown and all these motels. I said I’m going to do it for all the maids and people who got harassed in San Diego.”
At the hearing, when it was Cheatom’s time to talk, instead of fighting for the building she knew she wouldn’t get, she said, “I just want a dilapidated water tower.”
Those at the hearing laughed.
In the end, Cheatom got what she wanted, though she claims it would take the park three years to remove all the garbage and construction junk stored in the building. In June 1995, it became the official location of the WorldBeat Cultural Center.
“All these plants,” Cheatom says now, gesturing at the garden around her, “all this was just nothing. The park didn’t do nothing. Everything I’ve done in the park, I’ve had to fight them tooth and nail. Institutionalized racism continues. I want people to know it is not gone.”
Off to the right of the garden path, posters bearing diagrams of grasshoppers, honeybees, ants, and dragonflies adhere to stakes in the ground. A woman who has joined us on the path points them out to her young daughter. Cheatom’s face lights up.
“In African culture, we have extended families. Your child is my child, you know? This a children’s garden.” She pulls up a weed and tosses it to the side. “Since I’ve had a bad life, children are very important to me. Especially when you’re not wanted by your parents, you know. My mother didn’t want me. She was very mean.”
We watch the little girl dig a small hole in the ground and plant a stick. Some of the weariness leaves Cheatom’s face.
“I really believe it’s a whole different day coming,” she says. “It’s really good that these Occupy people see the oppression that we’ve been through. I think people are getting enlightened, and they realize that it’s not cool to oppress people.” ■