Was I crying about loss after loss, defeat upon defeat, murder after murder, war after war, injustice piled for as long as I can remember?
Conceived in Massachusetts and born during the June of 1949 in Los Angeles, I was brought home to a house on the corner of 90th and Normandie, a spot called South Central by the L.A.P.D. The area is now the heart-beat of the black community; it is where the movie, “Boyz in the Hood” was shot. The area known as Watts was four blocks away. My father told me his story of stopping many times to sit and chat and drink home made wine with the Italian fellow who was building what became known as “The Watts Towers.“ In 1949 no one cared about the color of their neighbor’s skin, least of all an infant and a single mother with two older toddlers from another father who remained at sea…forever.
“Kid” Ory, who was one of the originators of Dixieland Jazz at the beginning of the century, then lived a few houses over from us. When my father, a second generation Dixieland Jazz drummer arrived six months after my birth and four years after his War, one of his first gigs was to play with “Kid” Ory in a nightclub across town. “Baby Dodds in New Orleans to Howie Gibeault in L.A. The torch had been passed.
In 1951, the city of Lakewood, California was built, seemingly over-night, over the flat, irrigated bean fields twenty miles to the south -southwest of Los Angeles and it was there that my mother pointed to a plot in the dirt and, taking my father by the hand, walked him through the G.I. Loan process that purchased the yellow, three bedroom house in the middle of the block that would become, 5942 Deerfield Street.
At the height of the Baby Boom, Lakewood held a population of 84,000 people. There seemed to be five children in every house. I do not know how many of my former neighborhood families followed my mother’s lead and moved into the newly constructed homes of this post modern version of a suburb, but I do know this: not a single black family followed us, nor, could they. Lakewood was, by design and purpose, a de facto segregated city, just as South Central was destined by design to become the de facto area of segregation for black folks. “Tomorrow’s City, Today,” Lakewood’s motto that was announced in print as you entered the city had no intention of introducing any black family or individual to tomorrow’s city today or any other day in any near future. My brothers, my sisters and I, along with the entire Baby Boom generation of Lakewood experienced our entire public education, Kindergarten through High School, without seeing one black classmate or neighbor. Mexican’s and American Indian’s were another matter because, well, they had always been there; we had stolen the land from them fair and square. They were given a pass. There were six Elementary Schools, three Junior High Schools and two High Schools serving the city of Lakewood. My graduating class of 1967 at Lakewood High School produced 1,200 students, none of whom bore the claim of being black.
That was a torch that had not been passed.
I did not know the story of Emmett Till in real time for two obvious reasons: All of the above for starts and the fact that I was only six years old when he was murdered. To tell the truth, I do not know if the story of Emmett Till made it to the West coast as a news story in 1955. What is known is that due to the policy of the Otis and Chandler families who had owned the paper since the 1860‘s, the story received no coverage in the Los Angeles Times. A small story buried in the Long Beach Press-Telegram of September 28th, 1955 printed the AP story of the verdict along with a picture of the loving white couple at home kissing, the man who had killed him and the woman who had accused him. “Southern Chivalry Lives,” it seemed to say while whispering Emmett Till is dead.
In January of 1956, Look Magazine, which, along with Life Magazine, arrived at the home of nearly other house in Lakewood on a weekly basis, was, I imagine, the first time the white world of “Tomorrow’s City, Today” learned of the fourteen year existence and fate of a black child from Chicago named Emmet Till. Inside the magazine was a story on the two white men who having been found not guilty in either the kidnapping or murder of young Emmet could not face trial ever again on those charges decided to sell their story to Look for the sum of $4,000. Prefaced by an Editor’s Note, modest in it’s tone of condemnation towards, “…the long history of man’s inhumanity to man…,” the writer of the story, one W.B. Huie introduces the white main actors in the context of and comparison with Colonial Africa: ”…In relation to the Negroes, they are somewhat like white traders in portions of Africa today; and they are determined to resist the revolt of colored men against white rule.”
Huie is remarkably uncritical of the rational and reason, even the behavior of the white men and women of this story. After reading the story today one can be sure that Look Magazine offended no white reader in the south who consumed that week’s edition. Though the shear brutality of what those men did to that young boy may cause the present day reader to sit there stunned to wordlessness, more terrifying is matter-of-fact manner the writer reports their actions and lives before, during and after the murder of Emmet Till. There is something else in the nuance of Huie’s writing, something sinister and chilling. The murderers admit or claim that they never intended to kill, “this…nigger… Their intention was to “just whip him… and scare some sense into him…”We were never able to scare him. They had just filled him so full of that poison that he was hopeless.” That poison the murderer was referring to was their claim that Emmett Till refused to be intimidated by the men’s words or deeds, even defying their beating with the claim that he had been with many white women and that his grandmother was white. Huie lends just enough non-judgmental narrative as to almost justify the insane behavior of these two Huie described war heroes of the Ante-bellum south.
Emmet Till and the story of his short, unhappy life along with his picture of a Fedora donned smiling young boy has been in the news a lot lately and I have to say the first image and words out of my mouth when the story of Trayvon Martin’s death first broke were to my wife, “It‘s Emmett Till all over again,” I whispered, and I began to cry.
I have spent the last three days writing and wondering about my reaction. The thing is, I don’t remember how or when I learned of Emmett Till, I only know he has been with me forever. I became politically aware and politically active when I was seventeen, the same age Trayvon Martin was when he was murdered. Was I crying about lost youth, both Trayvon’s and mine? Was I crying about loss after loss, defeat upon defeat, murder after murder, war after war, injustice piled for as long as I can remember? All I can say is this about that: As a nation and a people we had better turn to one another and begin a truthful and meaningful dialog on matters of justice that should or very well could consume us all.