I met Dean Baquet, who was then the first African-American managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, at a dinner party when he was still new to town. I was puzzled by his appearance — he looked European to me, or maybe Middle Eastern — and I had a vague need to solve the mystery of it.
Baquet was soft-spoken and deferential. He said he was a reporter and mentioned that he had read my novel, Dead Above Ground. I was surprised and flattered. Then, well, he explained: “I read all the books I can on or about New Orleans.” While I admired his ambition, I have to admit I was a little deflated. On the other hand, the mystery about his appearance was solved: “So, you’re from New Orleans?” I asked. He nodded, and it all made sense — his ambiguous ethnicity, my sense of connection to him (later I learned that my beautiful aunt Barbara might have dated one of his relatives).
I understood that he was obsessed with the city that obsessed me too. His need to know everything about New Orleans is the real deal, a labor of love, of wanting to understand the place you were born into — a place that explains you, defines you. Now, he runs the Los Angeles Times, and that makes perfect sense to those of us from New Orleans who made the trip to Los Angeles; a city of foreign-born folk now has an editor from a foreign American city leading its most influential paper.
Baquet, like many Creoles, has the particular condition of not belonging; we are exotic to identifiably black people, and to whites too. Because of this, we often are forced to observe the world from a distance — it’s difficult to comfortably belong in a racially polarized world.
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Still, it’s interesting to realize that your racial identity is contextual. My light-skinned oldest brother seems to have no idea that he’s white to everybody but his family and the fellas from the old neighborhood. It’s damn hard to move through society if you must carry your family and neighborhood with you, though many of us try. Even for Creoles, it’s hard to identify other Creoles outside the context of New Orleans, or New Orleans culture. So, now someone of my ilk calls the shots at the Los Angeles Times, and I don’t know what that means for the paper overall. But I do know he understands the complexities of racial and ethnic identity and the secret that most of us who have made the transition from New Orleans to the broader world have learned: Sometimes your culture is what you take with you, to remind you of who you are when everybody is wondering what you are and where you’re from.