Race in the Brain

One warm southern California day, I strolled up the sidewalk of my apartment building in West Hollywood and spotted my white seventy-something neighbor sitting at her window, her daily spot.

“Hey Virginia!” I greeted her as I approached.

She glared at me and asked, “Are you a racist?”

“What????” The suddenness of the question and the repulsion in her face and voice sent me backwards.

“All you ever write about is race. Race race race.”

I was too stunned to defend myself, outraged at the person I passionately prayed for when she had open heart surgery. The woman whose newly-purchased treadmill I helped move across our busy street so she could begin her rehab.

How dare she?

“You need to watch who you call ‘racist,’” I told her. “Don’t ever come at me like that again!” I stormed into my apartment cursing.

How could she view my work as racist? My artistic mission statement is, “I am an artist striving to share my life and my observations, acting as a bridge between races, sexes, sexualities, religions, and religious believers and non-believers.” How had I failed?

After giving Virginia’s question much pondering, I found myself asking, Was race all I wrote about? Was I like one of my black friends who couldn’t have a conversation without finding a way to reference “white people?” The one who I once told, “If you ever have brain surgery and your head is cut open, white people are going to crawl out of it.”

My mind downloaded poems, essays, and scenes I had written that disputed her claim. I realized all Virginia knew of my work were two essays. One, featured in the LA Weekly based on a real letter to my seventeen year-old nephew, recounted the experiences his father, my brother, and I had with the police, and what he should to do if he were stopped: Don’t argue, keep your hands down, don’t ask questions, be polite, suppress your anger, get away alive, report them afterwards, if you wish.

The second piece was what prompted Virginia’s question. It was an essay she had just read in the LA Times: three men (two blacks and a Latino) voluntarily stopped what they were doing and helped a surprised white male motorist push his van to the shoulder of a busy street. In the essay, I marveled that these men put aside any possible racial slights in their personal history and dealt with the task at hand—helping a fellow motorist out of the street. The rainbow coalition at work, I joked.

Virginia’s husband was Chinese—they are both dead now—who often told me how horribly they were treated as a newly-wed interracial couple in the late 1950s. This included being verbally assaulted on a train by a group of passengers, but he also shared how poorly her family had treated him. Virginia may have suppressed her memories in the name of a melting-pot society but her husband certainly had not.

I finally realized she just wanted me to buckle down and move on. No time for all this race foolishness. Her criticism reminded me of those from a conservative Latino friend who has been a major supporter of my work and a great friend for seventeen years. Occasionally though, he teases me about the poems I’ve written depicting racial injustice, implying that I give them too much power, that I perversely enjoy the incidents that inspired the work. I laugh it off but it bothers me and adds to the injustice I’ve already experienced. I interpret his mocking and Virginia’s denial as coping mechanisms, refusals to acknowledge oppression and racial slights in their attempts to avoid rage. Admitting that you’ve been slighted or are affected by the horrors going on this world also brings witnesses to your oppression. Who wants to be perceived as a victim?

Perhaps Virginia and my friend possess the ability to move past injustice without being emotionally involved or taking it personally. That is their choice. They are mentioned here because they have made personal comments about my choice. I am oppressed, but I’m not anyone’s victim. I am powerful. That is my worldview based on the madness I have seen and experienced. Choices and thoughts. That is where I practice my freedom. I strive to make sure someone else’s bullshit doesn’t consume my life. When I look in the mirror, I want to see my ancestors, not my oppressors. I have written several solo shows and at the end of each writing process, I inspect my work to ensure all my poems, monologues, and scenes aren’t about experiences with oppression, insult, and racial profiling. I make certain there are pieces that reflect me as a human being, though the culture of race is used as background. (And the culture of homosexuality, too—I’m gay.) Topics I have addressed in my work include ambition, debt, religion, unrequited love, parental issues, family, and self-actualization. But suppose I decided I wanted to address racism or homophobia as a single issue: Would I be guilty of race (or homophobia) in my brain?

Once, in front of a friend visiting from Chicago, the owner of a neighborhood store where I frequently shopped accused me of stealing an eighty-nine cents bottle of Coke while I was wearing almost a thousand-dollars-worth of clothing. The altercation ended with the storeowner screaming from behind his thick glass-plated window, “I saw you! I saw you,” while I, so angry I stood on my toes (according to my friend), yelled, “I’ve never stolen anything in my life!”

A day later, my friend and I sat in a gay bar in predominantly-white West Hollywood, and watched as the bouncer carded every black person who entered (including us). I took the manager aside and informed him. “It didn’t happen,” he yelled repeatedly, angrily waving his large flashlight as the other bouncer stood menacingly at his side.

Shortly afterwards, I wrote “Welcome to LA,” a multi-media poem with video and music, detailing the racism I experienced in my neighborhood the weekend my ex-boyfriend—my soulmate—came to visit, and how the weekend ended: with an exquisitely warm welcome from a white storeowner on the same block, a balm for my anger. For weeks, I sat at my desk enthralled with the writing of the poem, in a state of bliss I don’t get from anything else. I loved writing it. I love performing it. I DESPISE the incident that inspired it.

I began “Welcome to LA” with humor, as I often do when I write a piece that features moments of rage. The humor is a reminder to myself that I am not just that moment. It’s also an attempt to ease the viewer/reader into what will be an unsettling ride:

++++++Silk baseball jacket
++++++Khaki pants from Beverly Hills
++++++Dress shirt from Georgio Armani
++++++I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Spielberg!
++++++I’m a star!
++++++Got on my good shit today!
++++++Soul mate’s coming to town!
++++++Welcome to LA!

++++++Chicago sons—Valedictorians
++++++We trade book recommendations
++++++I am reading on self-esteem
++++++And recite my lessons
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++I’ve got to speak up for what I believe.

In this poem, I use the metaphor of LA as the film capital of the world to take the piece beyond I was accused of stealing, and the very next day I saw all the blacks carded at a bar in predominantly-white West Hollywood while all the whites were warmly welcomed.

The encounters with the indifferent managers sent me into a rage that resulted in a deeper understanding of the murder of Latasha Harlins. Harlins was a fifteen year-old black female who was killed by a Korean storeowner in Los Angeles almost two weeks after the videotaped assault against Rodney King was broadcast. Six months after Harlins’s death, Soon Ja Du (the storeowner) was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, which carried a sentence of up to sixteen years in prison. The judge sentenced her to time served, 300 hours of community services, and five years’ probation. The 1992 LA uprising wasn’t just about Rodney King; Rodney King was just the last straw.

++++++The store video of young Latasha Harlins
++++++Plays on his face (the storeowner who accused me of stealing)
++++++She is thirsty so she drinks
++++++As she approaches the counter.
++++++The storeowner calls her a thief.
++++++Latasha sees her movies playing on her silver screen.
++++++A child of the inner city
++++++Young and emotional
++++++She curses and swings.
++++++As she turns to leave
++++++She jerks and takes a bullet to the back of her head
++++++The money for the drink spilling out of her hands.

++++++Oh Latasha, now I understand.

++++++Soul mate knows I will not swing
++++++So he allows me to speak
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++Speak up
++++++For what I believe.

++++++I’ve come here for years, I say
++++++Every time I say hello
++++++And the only time you see me
++++++Is when you think I’m stealing.
++++++I am on my toes yelling
++++++Soul mate describes the scene later
++++++I remember nothing but Latasha
++++++The store clerk at DeKoven’s (who followed me every time I entered their store when I was a teen)
++++++Water hoses with extreme velocity spraying children
++++++Tar and feathering
++++++Whips and chains.
++++++African drums beat out a warning
++++++It could be you, It could be you.

The poem—as did that week—ended on a hopeful note, but asks, What would have happened if I didn’t have the whites I knew to balance the horrors I was reliving? How would I have perceived that weekend if my friend and I hadn’t met the white storeowner who gave us the warm greeting?

Writing to work out my pains is something I have done since childhood. When I couldn’t bear what I face—bullies, an angry stressed-out mother, the stifling of my personality—I wrote. This carried over to my adulthood. The infuriating incident of being accused of stealing, and being disrespected in a world where customers are supposedly always right, became an epic performance poem. The story of a white cop lying that my brother was speeding the night he was driving me to my high school district’s Board of Education meeting, where I served as a student advisor, was part of my essay on the necessity of telling a young black man I loved what to do when he encountered the police. (This was in 1995, by the way.) I turned that same encounter into a funny scene from “Black Stuff,” a well-received satire on black male identity that I co-wrote with actor/writer Alexander Thomas. Unfortunately, I know there will inevitably come a day when I have another work inspired by a despicable act to add to my oeuvre. In fact, another outrage from the summer of 2015 inspired this essay.

Besides my work being a balm for my ills, it is my calling. I feel I was put on this earth to share my life, no matter my intense need for privacy and someone’s demands I be quiet. When I tell of the incidents that insult my spirit, I release them and hope that my listener/reader will know they are not alone. Others will remember my stories when someone around them asks, Why are black people so sensitive, so angry?

I write my story so it will be there for someone who has never experienced the humiliation that comes with profiling and racial insult and think it doesn’t happen. I write for those who are unable to articulate what they feel when they are slighted, and for those who succumb to the influence of someone like Virginia who wants them to ignore what they’ve experienced or seen, and pretend it didn’t happen. That is what the manager of the bar yelled at me when I pointed out to him that his bouncer only carded black customers: “It didn’t happen.”

As I wrote in “Welcome to LA”:

++++++He can tell me
++++++He’s punishing me for something my brother did
++++++Mother used to do the same.
++++++He can tell me
++++++Only the blacks he knows can enter without being carded.
++++++But he can’t tell me it didn’t happen—
++++++My glasses give me 20/20 vision.

Alexander and I performed the “Black Stuff” scene involving the lying policeman at a national performance conference. A liberal white lesbian from New Orleans I had befriended at the conference stopped me afterwards and asked, appalled, “LeVan, was that true? Did that happen?” I took her beyond her experience. That experience confirmed the necessity of being exposed to lives unlike our own. In order for this to happen, writers can’t sit on their truths.

*     *     *

In 1996, at one of my closest friend’s rehearsal dinner for his wedding, his brother-in-law, who is white (as is my friend), told me that when he witnessed blacks’ ecstatic reaction to the OJ Simpson murder verdict on television (absolute joy at the not-guilty verdict when it looked like Simpson killed his white wife), he was puzzled and wanted to understand. He went to a local bookstore and purchased a bagful of memoirs by black authors and devoured them.

“Do you have a better understanding?” I asked him.

“Not a better understanding,” he replied. “I understand.”

LeVan D. HawkinsLeVan D. Hawkins is a solo performer and published poet and writer. He is a Lambda Literary, Millay Colony of the Arts, and Dorothy West/Helene Johnson Foundation Fellow. He has read his work at venues such as Dartmouth College, UCLA Hammer Museum, Disney Hall REDCAT Theater, Minneapolis Central Library, & Links Hall Chicago. www.levandhawkins.com