My three-year-old daughter has a beautiful Afro. It’s big and round (unless she’s leaned back in her car seat and flattened it), and most importantly, she loves it. After I use the pick to roundify it, I adorn it with one of the brightly colored headbands I purchased at the Rite Aid on Adams Avenue ($4.99 for a pack of six). My daughter runs to the full-length mirror in my bedroom, where she dances and sings, “I’m a princess! Shake your booty!”
I’m overjoyed that she loves her hair. I’m also afraid there will come a day when she tells me she wishes it were long, straight, and yellow.
Yesterday, on the way to her gymnastics class at the Toby Wells YMCA in Kearny Mesa, we saw a little girl with Afro puffs on both sides of her head walking through the parking lot hand-in-hand with her mother. My daughter pointed and shouted, “Look, Mommy! She looks like me!”
And a month or so ago, on a walk through Bird Rock, we saw a black woman with a mass of curly hair ride past on a bicycle. That day, too, my daughter pointed and said, “Look, Mommy! She has hair just like you!”
I have to control an impulse to run after these people, to ask them to come and populate our world. Back in March, when two little black girls showed up at the ballet class my daughter takes at the YMCA in Chula Vista, I went out of my way to introduce myself to their mothers. I probably came off as an eager beaver.
My husband and I have had a thousand conversations about whether we should move our family to New Orleans, where he grew up and where the majority of his gigantic family still resides. Our recent move from City Heights to Eastlake has both postponed that conversation and made it more poignant — postponed because we’ve purchased a house, poignant because Eastlake isn’t exactly Diversity Central.
A few weeks ago, my husband had a talk with J, our 14-year-old son. “The only people who romanticize the ghetto,” my husband told him, “are those who have the option of not living there. If I win the lottery, you think I’m going to buy a house in Southeast San Diego, just because there are other black people living there? Hell, no. I’m going to buy a house with an ocean view in La Jolla. You know why? Not because I want to be white or because I’m not proud of who I am. I’m gonna buy a house there because that’s where the ocean view is.”
That sums up our move to Eastlake — we wanted all the view and the square footage our money could buy. And while I love the handful of options for strip-mall sushi here, I miss the taco shops and Somali restaurants around the corner from our old place in City Heights. Every option has pros and cons. We knew this before we moved.
I drive 50 miles to get my daughter to and from her preschool in Kearny Mesa each day. While she’s there, I do my work at coffee shops. My husband reminds me that I could add a useful hour to my workday (it might allow me to get the exercise I complain I have no time for) if I put her in a school closer to home, but I want to maintain a connection with San Diego’s urban experience: coffee and stewed goat meat in City Heights, craft beer and gourmet soup in North Park, green tea and mochi in Kearny Mesa.
San Diego’s populations are segregated, but some schools here are more diverse than any I saw during my years in New York. I might have happy visions of my daughter walking to a neighborhood school with friends, the way I did growing up, but the place I have my sights set on for her, once she’s of age, is a Chinese-language immersion school, where the population is 40 percent Hispanic, 22 percent white, 16 percent African-American, and 6.5 percent Asian. Her friends will be Ethiopian, Korean, and Mexican. Some will have hair just like hers.
I’m Oozing Geometry
Late one afternoon in April, I’m at my friend Delicia’s apartment in Bay Park, where she lives with her family. Out the living room’s sliding-glass, past the lime tree and jalapeño peppers growing on the balcony, stretches a wide view of Mission Bay. We’re sitting around the table with her husband, Jerry, and their two kids. The subject of school comes up.
August and Zoe, who call themselves Halfrican-American because their mom is black and their dad white, started their school years at Pacific Beach Elementary. They represented half the school’s black population.
“At Pacific Beach, there were no completely black people,” Zoe clarifies.
My daughter has yet to meet Zoe, but when she does, I know she’ll be smitten. At age nine, the girl is all drama, as hyper-talkative and bubbly as her 13-year-old brother August is careful and reserved. At one point, when I tell Zoe she’s cute, she responds, “I know.” Delicia looks at me, eyebrows raised. “See what I have to deal with?” she says.
Today, the top layer of Zoe’s hair is a combination of cornrows and straight. A few days from now, she’ll wear a curly ponytail. The last time I saw her, all of it hung down in waves.
“There were four,” Jerry says, meaning the total number of black students at Pacific Beach Elementary. “I saw the data, and there were four. All of them were half-black. The black achievement at that school was off the charts. They all got good grades. The black achievement outpaced all others.”
The family calls up memories of the other black kids: Sammy with the Afro and some kid with dreads that Zoe can barely remember. There might once have been a fifth child, Joquan…something.
August and Zoe left that school two years ago, and August recently finished seventh grade at Millennial Tech Middle School in Southeast San Diego, off Euclid and Market. He chose it for its robotics program; he’s already weighing options for high-school robotics.
The year August began middle school, Delicia enrolled Zoe at Valencia Park, a K–5 dance-and-drama magnet school, two miles away. The population at Millennial Tech is 41 percent African-American, 37 percent Hispanic, 11 percent white, and 11 percent “other.” At Valencia Park, those numbers are 37.5 percent African-American, 42 percent Hispanic, 4.9 percent white, 6.8 percent Laotian, and 4.9 percent Filipino.
When I ask if these demographics make a difference, Delicia says yes without hesitation. “They’re used to it now, but when we took August to visit, he was, like, ‘Oh, my God, there are so many black kids here.’ I think it’s important for him to know he’s not the only smart black kid in San Diego.”
I glance at August, who’s been sitting quietly in his seat. His expression is as straight as his spine.
Of her daughter, Delicia says, “No matter where Zoe is, she’s popular, because she’s friendly and she talks a lot. But I also think it’s important for her to be in a place where she’s not exotic, where she’s just one of the girls.”
Zoe just completed fourth grade, where she had her first black teacher.
“It’s the small things,” Delicia says. “Like, when Zoe did a project about ‘What’s your favorite food that boils in water,’ and Zoe wrote ‘grits.’ Her teacher gets that,” Delicia laughs.
“Yeah,” Zoe says. “Mrs. Crockett told another teacher that I’m a little Southern girl, because I’m always talking about how I love grits, because grits are awesome.”
“My Southern California Southern girl,” Delicia says.
Mrs. Crockett, they tell me, is responsible for stimulating Zoe’s love of math, where she used to feel only fear. Now, her confidence in the subject rivals her confidence in most other areas of her life.
“I’m oozing geometry,” Zoe declares.
How does she feel about her new school, in general?
“At my old school, people weren’t into as many things as they are at the school I go to now.”
“I mean, like, at recess, basically. Because academically, it’s pretty much the same to me.”
How are they different at recess?
Zoe sighs. She slides her elbows down the table, until her chin is resting on it.
Suddenly, she sits up.
“I know!” she says. “Before I went to Valencia Park, I never tried Hot Cheetos, because I thought they were going to be too hot. Now I love spicy food!”
This inspires Jerry to remark on the “army of ice-cream and snack trucks that descend on the school” as soon as the last bell rings.
August waits patiently for his turn to speak. Or maybe he’s just waiting patiently, in general. Zoe again spills herself over the table. August, the dry noodle to her wet one, the starched collar to her loosie-goose, retains his impeccable posture.
“I don’t see much of a difference,” he says of the demographics at Millennial Tech versus those at Pacific Beach Elementary, “because I see people as people. I appreciate that some people like to celebrate their culture. I’m not really one of those people to say ‘I’m black and I’m proud and saying it out loud.’ Because I don’t really think about my race unless prompted to.”
It would be easy to assume that August feels this conversation is a waste of his time, but I also sense a goofy kid below the surface of his serious faÇade.
Delicia confirms this hunch. She shows me a photo of what the family lovingly refers to as “Auggie’s Afro.” In the photo, August is hamming it up. The large, full, mass of curls that grows up from his scalp and hangs down over his eyes adds volume to the…ham. That mass of hair has since been replaced by a shorter version, which Delicia informs me was a punishment — “because he doesn’t care about anything else.”
Jerry admits that he’s happy with the kids’ change of schools, partly because he is more comfortable in the kind of working-class community he grew up in. He also says he likes having the kids in schools with larger black populations, especially August, because as the boy continues to pursue math and robotics, his school world will get whiter and whiter.
“He’s going to get plenty of that,” Jerry says. “I’m happy to have him around more black kids, and [I want him] to go visit his cousins in Texas more often, so he can know more about the world from their perspective.”
“Our cousins,” Zoe says, “who watch VH1 every morning.”
Delicia tells the story of a friend of hers who grew up in San Diego, a black woman who left home and went to Spelman, a historically black college for women in Atlanta.
“Her friends were, like, ‘Who the hell is AC/DC?’” Delicia says, laughing.
Which moves the conversation on to music. Zoe lists LMFAO, Bruno Mars, Jill Scott, and Pink among her favorites. August doesn’t get excited about any of it.
“I don’t really listen to music,” he says.
“He likes NPR,” Zoe says.
Us and Them
When people find out I’m from Idaho, they usually respond in one of four ways. For each of the four I have a response.
Them: “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
Me: A patient smile until the laughing stops.
Them: “There are black people in Idaho?”
Me: “Not anymore. I left.”
Them: “I’ve never met anyone from Idaho before.”
Me: “Well, now you have.”
Them: “That must’ve been hard.”
Me: “It was what it was.”
It took me years to get to the place where I could sum up my childhood — I am biracial, adopted by a white family — as “it was what it was.” And while I believe it “made me the woman I am today” (and so on), I wouldn’t mind sparing my kids the self-doubt.
The other day over lunch, Delicia, who grew up as “The Preacher’s Kid,” told me a story about coming home from school and using “the teachers are prejudiced” as an excuse not to participate in something or other. She’d heard her friends say it. But her father looked at her, and he said, “So what?” In the end, “Why would you let that stop you?” was the message she internalized.
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.”
Mr. Thomas, who grew up in Macon, Georgia, smiles at his son. The biggest difference he sees between his childhood environment and his son’s is the absence of emphasis on “manners” and “civility.” Yet it’s apparent — from Matthew’s firm handshake and the unprompted “It’s very nice to meet you” — that Mr. and Mrs. Thomas have instilled those values at home.
Matthew is in the fourth grade at Benchley-Weinberger Elementary, a school with a black population he can count on his fingers.
“One, two, three…” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “Approximately six. That I know of. Four males and two females.”
Does it bother him that the number’s so low?
“Not really, because even though they don’t have a big population of blacks there, they have a lot of programs that volunteer at the school. Like, there was one where…you wrote an essay about black history. If you got first place, you got $100. Second place, I think, was $75, and third place, $50. I won first place last year.”
Mr. Thomas (not quite beaming, but close) informs me that the contest was sponsored by “the Deltas,” of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
“I wrote about Dr. Ben Carson,” Matthew says, “the first man ever to disconnect Siamese twins.”
It’s because of Matthew that I decide to attend a service at Mount Erie Baptist Church. He says he spends upwards of five hours a week there. It occurs to me that maybe those five hours (along with visits to Milton’s barbershop) help make his school life “it is what it is,” rather than a place where he suffers in the absence of something vital.
On the Sunday following my conversation with Matthew and his dad, I step over the shattered glass of the bus shelter’s advertisement board and head up a steep drive to a peach-colored stucco church. Gospel music had been barely audible from the sidewalk at the corner of Ocean Boulevard and South 47th, but as I enter the building and make my way down a corridor, it grows ever more loud. It’s just after 11:00 a.m. and at least 80 degrees. By the time I climb the stairs and find a seat in the church’s balcony, I’m sweating in my Sunday best.
I look around and remember something Delicia once told me: she and Jerry were living in New York when he was accepted to grad school at UCSD, and in anticipation of the move, Delicia called a white friend who’d grown up in San Diego. She asked if there were any black people here. The woman hesitated, then said, “Yes, I think so.”
And here I am now, among hundreds of people with skin in various shades of brown. I can’t see every person in this church, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t a single white, Asian, or Hispanic. No doubt about it, this is a black church.
Ushers in black pants, white shirts, and white gloves stand in the doorways. Up front, below confetti-colored stained-glass windows, the choir, dressed in navy-blue robes with yellow sleeves, sings a song that must be called “How Great Is Our God?,” since that’s the line that is repeated over and over. The voices are accompanied by an organ and drums. Some in the congregation sit; others stand and sway to the music.
All around me, women cool themselves with paper fans, some printed with the slogan: “Stand up and be counted in the 2010 Census.” The women are dressed in everything from hats and freshly pressed church clothes to fashionably shredded jeans. They wear their hair in dreads, Afro-ponytails, straight page-boys, all kinds of extensions, lots of flower adornments. There’s a little bit of everything.
The young male usher in the balcony wears the sides of his head shaved; the middle stands up in a combed-out Afro-mohawk.
“How great is our God?” the choir sings. “How great is our God!”
Two rows in front of me, a can’t-be-more-than-25-year-old woman in a floral print dress is on her feet, both hands in the air and her head bowed. She sways to the music, casting her eyes to the ceiling every now and again. To my left, another young woman sits quietly with her eyes closed. Directly in front of her, a woman twice her age, wearing a crocheted top and purple feather earrings, dabs at her eyes with her fingertips. I can’t tell if she’s crying, but this would be the place to do it. Everyone seems to be having an individual spiritual experience.
Although I have no religious affiliation, or aspirations, I can see coming back. The music is good, the atmosphere lively, the community solid.
My only fear about occasionally bringing my outspoken young daughter with me is that one day in Sunday school she might say, “Oh, I’m not here for Jesus. My mommy just wants me to love my hair.”