For the last several years, I’ve been going to a salon where black people of note around the city gather in a living room to discuss the state of the black nation as it exists in the great outpost of Los Angeles. By notable people I don’t mean famous or influential so much as committed to a concern about a litany of troubles that have black communities everywhere in a noose: high unemployment, incarceration, drug use, miseducation, poverty, ebbing political strength. And violence. Violence, of course, is only the logical result of all of these things, or one or two of them, but it makes the papers the most and has long achieved a kind of criminal celebrity status in black circles that everybody hates with a passion but that nobody dares contradict. Violence has rudely taken a seat at our invitation-only salon table and upstages everything and everyone in the room when we talk on our appointed nights; nobody in the middle-class crowd has to say a word about it, but there it is, perched heavily on our shoulders like a vulture, darkening the bright news about somebody heading a new youth program or receiving an award for years of dedicated service or getting a long-sought promotion at the county. Even in the convivial first hour, as we eat and clink ice cubes in lovely after-work languor that’s at least as much of a draw as the serious discussions, we are somehow aware that our gathering is a respite from, not an effective challenge to, the turbulence in the streets that is never far away from any of us.
Indeed, the small-town gentility of the neighborhoods where we usually meet — Baldwin Hills and View Park and Leimert — is but a few blocks from the raw arteries of Crenshaw and Western and Vernon, deeply familiar to all of us but also the sites of more shootings and homicides than we like to recount these days. So we don’t. Someone might bring up a shooting over appetizers, but it’s understood that the main conversation is reserved for trends and issues, not incidents; we may talk about violence but not about its discrete parts. I realized at one point in going to these salons that, oddly enough, as dire as the bigger picture in the black community can look, it’s often not nearly as dire as the smaller one. Our degrees and positions prepared us to attack the overview — with policy, budgets, campaigns for mayor — but what to do on the ground, where a steady ooze of violence is sucking down much of that carefully configured overview like paper into quicksand, nobody quite knows.
In such close quarters, it was inevitable that something would come to a head. At our last meeting, we had no set topic, and the host suggested that we each name a couple of things we’d like to see happen in the community, enumerate a short wish list. As we went around the room, I could only come up with weariness and resentment about the whole exercise — how many times had we done this, really? And to what end? That night I lost the battle and broke down into an existential crisis, the one that lies in the growing chasm between the streets and the well-intentioned sophistry of the middle class. I had reached the frayed ends of a rope I was charged to climb up, up, no matter how tired I got or how much my hands burned, to reach some holy pinnacle of positivity that would save us all; tonight, there was no there there. Perhaps there had never been. When my turn came, I blurted out all this to my colleagues. They listened first with astonishment, then with sympathy, then relief — of course everybody felt this way, but didn’t feel they could say so. Suddenly there was permission to acknowledge the vulture in the room, and we all began talking openly about violence, where it touched us and how. How the black males who were dying by their own instigation or in crossfires, along with entirely innocent bystanders who were getting younger and more innocent all the time, had to be dealt with or we’d all be damned. One man said the only solution was to go door to door, street by street, in affected neighborhoods to root out the problems before they made their way to the barrels of guns or edges of knives; at that, there was a collective shudder. “I ain’t no coward,” said one burly man who had done such a thing before, “but I ain’t crazy either.”
There was nervous assent. And then one woman in the corner of the room with a teacup balanced in her lap began telling her story. It was about the son of a very good friend, as middle-class and concerned as the rest of us, who had been killed recently by stray bullets and who they had buried the week before. She talked about the sermon at church that had been heavy on oratory and comforting words and appropriate homilies, but nowhere on solutions or reasons why. How churches, too, had become respites from, and not responses to, the chaos that defied all the good news we sought in our own stations in life and in our opportunities, good news that seemed increasingly more insular and self-congratulatory. How this church had buried two such victims in the span of a week without batting an eye. How, really, the son or daughter or friend or nephew of any of us in the room would be next, if we hadn’t been struck already. This woman had a lilt in her voice that was wonderful to listen to, and it made her story that much easier, and that much more staggering, to hear. We were enraptured nearly against our will.
When she finished, we sat without saying much at all. Our turns were done, or forgotten. We could only absorb the truth of the matter, which was that the triumph of our being there in that house at all, on the hill of View Park, paled in comparison to the tragedy that lay just below, and how viscerally connected the two were. For the moment we were entirely helpless in the face of this truth; we could only reflect on the wealth of people we knew, or knew of, who were black and stricken by the cancer of violence/homicide. The degrees of separation between us and them were small to none. Violence is family. I silently free-associated and came up with the fact that my niece, a student at Stanford, has a high school friend shot in the back and paralyzed; my father, sitting across the room from me, paid a visit to an old restaurant haunt on Western some years back and nearly ran into a fusillade of bullets while getting a hamburger. You could argue that we were sometimes putting ourselves in harm’s way, but the fact is that living as black people in a big metropolis is, to a great degree, living in harm’s way. For the bulk of us who are Southern migrants or their descendants, L.A. was supposed to be a different kind of metropolis, and it is, in that you can live separately enough to ignore the separateness — the segregation of fortunes, if you will — for a very long time.
We couldn’t ignore it any longer, not that day.I must say that that the sense of helplessness was enervating but liberating — we were all momentarily freed from the duties of uplift. We left the house not anybody’s talented tenth but members of the black proletariat, as weighed down by a peculiar sense of impotence as the average gang member. We were not just mouthing the rhetoric of “we’re all in this together,” we were living it, and it felt . . . well, dangerous. The devil was at our heels, which we would be reminded of as we drove home along Crenshaw or Vernon and pulled up to houses that were lovely but were more than likely to be outfitted with window bars and iron-gated screen doors, guard shacks and signs boasting of our protection by round-the-clock security a phone call away. We’ve barricaded ourselves, however subconsciously, but we can’t hide. I haven’t gotten a notice yet for another meeting.
If there is a next time, I’ll be sure to write out that wish list.