|Illustration by Shino Arihara|
Don’t get me wrong, on the right day, when the weather’s cool and crisp and you can see the mountains and the Hollywood sign, and you’re on the way to make groceries, and you smell jasmine, peaches and lemons, or you’re at the beach and see waves burst up onto the shore, I love Los Angeles. It’s the people I can’t stand.
In New Orleans I knew where I stood. I was colored, even if I looked white. I belonged with the colored. In Los Angeles it isn’t like that. L.A. is the size of ten New Orleans. People don’t know your brown-skinned sister, or your black-as-coal uncle. You stand on your own. Every day when I went to work and drove out of my black neighborhood, I became a white woman, white as anyone could ever want to be. It wasn’t like passing; passing involved risk, but in Los Angeles there wasn’t risk. You were what you looked like. I had the skills people wanted: data-entry training. Finding job offers was too easy, like picking lemons in Los Angeles, they were all over. I never brought up the fact that I was a colored woman, and they didn’t ask about it, except for this one cracker interviewing me who wanted to know about my address, what kind of neighborhood I lived in. He was smooth, I’ll give him that. If it wasn’t for his nasty, toothy smile, I might not have noticed. He was on to me. Either I was passing or I was married to a colored man, both unacceptable to this interviewer.
I knew it then; I wouldn’t get that job, or if I did, he’d try to extract a price for his silence, my dignity or more. I smiled at this asshole, knowing exactly what he was thinking, that he was smarter than me, better than me. All this secret bullshit. He asked me about my neighborhood once more.
“Lita, now where do you live again?”
I surprised myself and began to cry.
“Take your stinking job and shove it where the sun don’t shine,” I said, loud enough for the whole office of starched-down white folks to hear, and they heard me all right, all that shock on their faces made me feel good as I walked to my car. Whatever fear of white people I had in New Orleans was gone in Los Angeles. Now, as white as anybody, I could curse them out, and what would be the consequence? White people had the right to scream at each other, and I was going to use that right for all it was worth.
I rushed home and told Winston how I cursed out a white man in front of an office filled with white people and that it felt damn good.
“Lita, you can’t do that. That’s nothing but trouble.”
“It wasn’t trouble for me,” I said. “It was easy, and it felt good. I want to do it again if some white trash wants to embarrass me.”
“Don’t do it. Don’t be causing problems. This ain’t New Orleans.”
I didn’t bother to respond. That’s how Winston was raised, and it was as much a part of him as the hair on his head. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be a fly on the wall. Be a shadow on the floor; just don’t give white people a chance to get a bead on you. Down in New Orleans that made sense, but L.A. was different — at least, that’s what I thought at the time.
I did find the job I wanted, one where everyone thought I was the attractive white woman from Louisiana who didn’t have much to say, who didn’t have any interest in having a drink after work. It was all I could hope for; I got paid more than I had ever been paid, and I was treated well, like white people. If it meant I couldn’t have pictures of my brown-skinned kids on the desk, that was okay. I could accept that to put food on the table. I knew the moment I got sick of that job I could tell all of them to kiss my ass. I’d find another job, just as good, in a week.
Now, though, my life had reversed; driving home to my neighborhood brought a new kind of attention. Police stopped me on more than one occasion. Once I was pulled over by this cop who looked like he stepped out of a television show; close-cropped hair, sunburned white face, walking to the car scrutinizing me at the window, taking off sunglasses and speaking in a low voice so as not to be overheard. This cop was there to steer me straight.
“Listen, lady. I pulled you over because you don’t belong in this neighborhood.”
“Excuse me?” I said, confused at what he was getting at. Then it was clear as day.
“This is a black neighborhood. You lost? Follow me out.”
“No . . . thanks. I’m visiting friends.”
The cop raised an eyebrow.
“Friends, huh? I guess you know what you’re doing.”
The cop turned around and walked to the patrol car without a look back.
That’s what was weird about my life in Los Angeles; everybody saw me as what they wanted to see me.
The Spanish people talked to me in Spanish, whites thought I was white. Colored people took a minute or two to add it up, trying to figure out what was my angle, then they got it, thought about their cousin who looked white. It was interesting in a way, not belonging anywhere; floating unmoored.
Cousin Benny had moved his family out to Riverside and told them never to say what they were, or where they came from — at least, that was the tale chasing after him. Did he tell them to forget what they were, or maybe it was what they used to be? Anyway, it was their own business and not mine. I guess Benny had decided I was good enough or light enough to visit them, because he called repeatedly, insisting that I come. He hadn’t seen anyone from New Orleans in ages. I took my youngest, Jude, out there to visit because he was my darkest, and I wanted to see their reaction to him. Benny and his wife were happy to see me, but they rushed Jude into the house like he was a bank robber and the cops were right on his butt. I knew exactly what was going on, but they had made that leap, across the river of race, but still Benny was worried that the hint of brown in my child’s skin could ruin it all.
Benny had married a white woman; he had a beautiful house and a job as a pharmacist. His kids were two blond boys with straight hair and hazel eyes. My Jude had curly hair and a tan, a permanent tan, and that was unacceptable. They needed to be whiter than their neighbors to pull it off. I guess Benny thought that I was of the same mind, but that was the difference between me and Benny; he wanted to belong, needed to belong, had ambitions of a colorless life of plenty. I just wanted people to respect me, or leave me the hell alone.
Benny’s kids seemed nice enough, but I realized as I talked to them that they had little to do with the other children in the neighborhood. Benny kept them in; both boys were pale like the sickest of shut-ins. It made sense; Benny didn’t want them to slip up and give it away that they were Negroes, so he kept them inside, growing like mushrooms in a hothouse basement.
Benny tried to encourage me to move out to Riverside, that it was a lot easier than Los Angeles — there was nobody to hold you back. I wonder if he meant black people or white.
Excerpted from Jervey Tervalon’s new novel, Lita, to be published July 1 by Atria Books.