Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line
Dispatches from a Black Journalista
Publication Year: 2011
Here are thirty-three insightful and wide-ranging pieces of literary, cultural, political, and personal reporting on the contemporary black American experience. Drawn from the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Salon.com, and elsewhere, this collection also features major new articles on President Barack Obama, black and Hispanic conflicts, and clinical depression. In each, Kaplan argues with meticulous observation, razor-sharp intelligence, and sparkling prose against the trend of black erasure, and for the expansion of horizons of the black American story.
Published by: Northeastern University Press
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Foreword. The Physics of Race
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Two of the biggest names in the history of physics had an intellectual beef that went something like this: Albert Einstein believed that we can explain the universe in a single theory that unifies all the forces of nature; Werner Heisenberg believed that we can only say what’s likely to be the case at any given time and place in the world. An overarching theory of the universe is ...
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I am grateful to many people for their unfailing encouragement and support over the years of my journalism and of my writing in general. Howard Blume, Sara Catania, Joe Donnelly, Janet Duckworth, Sue Horton, Judith Lewis, Steven Mikulan, Steven Leigh Morris, Laurie Ochoa, John Payne, and Charles Rappleye, all made my years at LA Weekly productive and creatively ...
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Los Angeles, 1992. Opportunity was in the air, though it hardly appeared that way. The air itself was pungent with smoke; South Central was charred and skeletal after the riots of late April and early May, its sprawling but meager insides exposed block after block, intersection by intersection. But the shock had its benefits, as shocks always do. The truth was out. The injustice and ...
I agree that the two are inextricably linked, though in my experience as a black person, the equation is exactly reverse: it is the political that is the personal. But so long have we been defined and overwhelmed by the political, its effects on the personal have been minimized, sublimated, or ignored altogether. We as individuals have become less important and less visible ...
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I have a big butt. Not wide hips, not a preening, weightlifting-enhanced butt thrust up like a chin, not an occasionally saucy rear that throws coquettish glances at strangers when it’s in a good mood and can withdraw like a turtle when it’s not. Every day, my butt wears me — tolerably well, I’d like to think — and has ever since I came full up on puberty about twenty years ago ...
Black Like I Thought I Was: Race, dna, and the Man Who Knows Too Much
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Wayne Joseph is a fifty-one-year-old high school principal in Chino whose family emigrated from the segregated parishes of Louisiana to central Los Angeles in the 1950s, as did mine. Like me, he is of Creole stock and is therefore on the lighter end of the black color spectrum, a common enough circumstance in the South that predates the multicultural movement by ...
Fire and Ice: Making It Up
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Like a lot of women of my age, fashion sense, marital status, and middling economic strata, I have conflicted feelings about Lancôme. Ambivalence about makeup is rampant among my sex for all sorts of reasons — why a nude or natural “look” has nothing to do with a nude or natural face is a good place to start — but for the moment let’s focus on one factor of that ...
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In these days of polarizing, pulverizing debates that make it almost impossible to describe what it means to be African-American anymore, I find it’s better to simply describe a day in my life: It’s Thursday. I drive to Locke High School to teach a weekly poetry workshop to a group of tenth graders. Locke is a terribly underperforming, occasionally violent campus in a poor, significantly black neighborhood in ...
Down and Downer*
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Little frustrates me more on a daily basis than the notion that I should be, must strive for, and must remain at all costs, positive. Positive is a word that connotes anything good and encouraging, but its sunniness is often wrapped in tyranny. I’ve lived with that tyranny all my life, but was sharply reminded of it when writer and critic Barbara Ehrenreich ...
Blue Like Me: On Race and Depression
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Not physically, but psychically, and in a way rather worse than the modern miasma of inner perplexity and urban wariness that we call depression, a condition we’ve grown almost fond of because we’ve grown so fond of countering it with the latest wrinkle creams and poetry workshops and such. This despondency was different, and felt completely above, or beneath, any ...
State of a Nation
In my writing, America is a recurrent character that is alternately a villain, a casual acquaintance, a frog prince, and a bully with a heart that it fears showing more than it fears anything else. A racial incident or plot development — the L.A. riots, the ebonics debate, Hurricane Katrina, the election of President Obama — always reveals America most clearly, down to its roots, and in ...
Barack Obama: Miles Traveled, Miles to Go*
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It hits me most when I’m in the car. At the top of the hour, any hour, on any day of the week in the wake of January twentieth, the newscast leads with a report of President Obama. What he said or did, what he’s thinking, or what issues he’s grappling with in the near future. I stare at the dashboard: President Obama! Who? I almost laugh in astonishment. I thrill with a ...
Losing New Orleans
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I never knew how much I needed New Orleans until it was gone. “Gone” is too dramatic a word to describe what Hurricane Katrina did to the city, I know. It is still on the map. The French Quarter keeps regular hours. But emptied of half its people, dark and paralyzed and trash-strewn on streets where houses are moldy husks and dead bodies are likely still unexcavated, ...
Thoroughly Modern Mammy: Of Coons, Pickaninnies, and Gold Dust Twins: Why Do Black Curios Stay Chic?
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The most memorable Christmas gift I ever got was from my best friend about six years ago, an old-fashioned pegboard listing stock grocery items one needed to be reminded to buy week to week, such as flour, sugar, and bread. The board itself wasn’t memorable, but its particular old fashion seared my consciousness and then some: at the top was a decorative ceramic of a ...
Behind the American-History Curtain: Washington, D.C., and the Lessons of Memory
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This summer, my husband and I went to Washington, d.c., for the first time. I had never approached a visit to a city with such leeriness; flying past Texas to Washington felt like sailing into the heart of darkness. My lifelong curiosity about d.c. that began with that serene postcard picture of the Capitol building in childhood had evolved over the decades into a cubist mixture of ...
They’re Going Crazy Out There
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It hardly seems possible now, nearly ten years later, that at the moment Los Angeles was setting fire to itself with the tinder of its driest and least-fed souls, I was getting a facial. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and I was reclined in a chair in an Inglewood salon, my face hot and moist and not feeling very much better than it did when I walked in roughly an hour before; but ...
Celebrity is unavoidable, especially in Los Angeles. It bears on everything, even intractable matters of race that seem wholly confined to forgotten urban landscapes and to the inner-city industrial complex of nonprofits, community groups, consultants, government programs and the like. Celebrity and race are an uneasy mix, at best. But sometimes the famous slip their usual role of ...
The Accidental Populist: Magic Johnson Gives Some Back
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Magic Johnson is trying not to look pleased. He sits forward, shakes his head slowly and tries to muster some gravity to counter the blush of a famous Magic grin that snuck up at the very end of this story, which he’s just heard for the first time. He rubs his big hands together like a Boy Scout starting a fire with a stick of wood. He says as solemnly as possible that he doesn’t ...
The Empress’s New Clothes: Serena, to the Dismay of Many, Makes the Scene
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It is both monumentally frustrating and oddly comforting to be reminded that, a year after the terrorist attacks, Americans haven’t lost any of the cluelessness or cultural myopia that shapes our national character and makes us grate — on nerves — the globe over. In bad times people understandably cling to the familiar, but it’s almost as if we believe that an obsession with the ...
Falling for Tiger Woods
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It’s been well over a year now since I became a devotee of Tiger Woods. It was instantaneous, highly combustible love, the kind that in a span of a weekend cheerfully made mincemeat of the fact that I’d never watched a golf tournament, set foot on a proper course or swung a club more than twice in succession. I fell for Tiger the same way the tomboyish protagonist of one of ...
Homeboys in Outer Space and Other Transgressions: TV in Black and White
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Laugh aloud if you must, but the Los Angeles Times has speculated on that possibility in its fevered reporting of the fact that network television, as it heads into the last fall season of the millennium, doesn’t have a single new show featuring a minority lead character. This has prompted outrage from black people, chiefly the NAACP, which has declared the situation ...
White Man with Attitude: How Randy Newman Went from Pop Music’s Reigning Schlub to Movie-Music Royalty
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For nearly thirty-five years, Randy Newman has been making records, and 2001 is like any other year. He has no comeback album or down-and-out-in-the-industry stories, thanks to a second career as a successful film composer, and thanks to a pop career that, admired as it was, never really ascended in the first place — to be down and out you must at some point have been high ...
I’m always proud to say that I was born and raised in Los Angeles. The notion of L.A. as home defies expectations and challenges the West Coast uninitiated to picture a place that’s specific and lived-in — with named streets and neighborhoods, with sites of historical significance — rather than the old placeholders of Hollywood, palm trees shooting up into orange skies and ...
Welcome to Inglewood — Leave Your Aspirations Behind! Why Coming Home Has Been a Labor of Tough Love
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Every day, if the weather cooperates and my exercise conscientiousness holds, I go for a walk. I get in my car and drive about a mile north of my house, park on a sleepy side street off Manchester Boulevard and begin an elliptical, four-mile-plus loop around the once-fabulous Great Western Forum in Inglewood. The walk is an hour long, steadily though not extremely uphill, and has ...
Rags to Richard*
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The beauty and bane of Los Angeles, still, is that so much of it has to be introduced to the world, again and again. Few know its soul; more believe it has no soul at all. The city doesn’t mind these misperceptions; sometimes it relishes them, takes them as protection from the harsh historical and sociological elements that over generations have leveled sections of grand places like Chicago ...
The Eastside Boys
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My father’s trumpet came out on Saturday at dusk after he finished the lawn work — along with the wooden music stand holding finger-worn sheets of Bach, Mozart, and Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain.” He always bowed his head and ruffled the keys before playing. Sometimes his music sounded tired, like he got some days, but mostly it was golden: “The Shadow of Your Smile” ...
The King of Compton: Mayor Omar Bradley and His Reign of Chaos
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I don’t come here. As I drive through Compton on my way to meet Mayor Omar Bradley, past faded but neat rambling houses and islands of large shade trees, I realize that in all the years I’ve been informally covering black Los Angeles, I’ve been strenuously avoiding all things Compton. Los Angeles is ...
Wearing the Shirt*
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My neighbor is selling his house. I’m taking the news of his selling hard, with a low flame of panic and a sense of loss that’s settling in too early, like old age. This goes well beyond the loss of a friend I had just begun to make on my morning rounds with the dog. This is not about me. Inglewood needs him. Shelton is young, in his thirties. He is black, like the majority of residents ...
Lost Soul: A Lament for Black Los Angeles
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As a kid growing up in the west end of what would come to be known as South-Central Los Angeles, my world was limned in black. The prevalence of black people in my neighborhood was not, as it tends to be today, a cause for alarm or a sign of inevitable social decay. Blackness simply encompassed everything — best friends, spring carnivals at the local Catholic school, the ...
Mothers and Fathers
My family is my first and most enduring story. My parents are both from the South, New Orleans, and I claim that heritage even more eagerly than I claim my first-generation L.A. status. My mother and father came here and did things they almost certainly wouldn’t or couldn’t have done back home, where opportunity and space was restricted. L.A. was imperfect, but it had ...
The Last Campaign
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I’m not proud to admit this, but I’ve never been much inclined to try to overcome my fears. I’ve always regarded fear less as a trial and more as another essential compound in the periodic table of spiritual elements. Rather than stare down the demons, I tend to make room for them and then go on about my business. Roller coasters inspire terror, so I don’t go to amusement parks. ...
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Growing up, I always considered myself to be my mother’s child. I liked what that meant: my mother was kind but entirely unsentimental, self-possessed but unassuming, practical above all things. She got married in a plain tea-length dress and short gloves and then gave the whole outfit away because she said she didn’t need it anymore; she and my father never took a honeymoon, ...
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Before this story is written, I must first say that the story is not over. I don’t have children, but I could merely because it’s possible. I’m thirty-nine. At press time I still have ovaries and a womb and they still wait, as they have been waiting since I was thirteen or so, at least that’s the way I imagined it. They have incredible patience, and wonderful equanimity — they could wait ...
Teach on That
Education has become a very sterile word, one that conjures up buildings, bureaucracy, test scores, and the like. But for black people, education is much more than the sum of those parts: it’s an article of faith, a life-giving force, a creative goal, still the most reassuring thing standing between us and the oblivion that always threatens. Nor does education simply mean “school.” ...
Held Back: The State of Black Education
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First, a warning: the story you’re about to read is not news. It’s not even a new development in an old story, an update in the strict sense of the word. Many people believe, not too privately, that this story doesn’t really have what the news business calls a hook, a prominent element of conflict or urgency that would at least qualify it to hover in the wings waiting for a shot at ...
Man and Superwoman
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One of the great peeves of my adult life has been an underdeveloped understanding of the phrase giving back. Black people place a particular, non-negotiable emphasis on giving back — though how much we actually do it is highly debatable — and the older I got and the more certain I grew of its importance, the less clear it became. How to give back? When? Who best ...
The Glamorous Life*
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Annette Starr Hudson was one of an increasing number of stories that by 1999 I didn’t want to do. Not because I didn’t think they were worthy, but because they wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t lead to change. By the late ’90s it was evident that no new order was rising from the ashes of 1992, nothing like it, and I was getting exhausted by older people who had now lived through ...
The Boy of Summer
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For innings and months and languorous seasons at a time, the Dodgers spoke to everything that made me increasingly delirious but that I could hardly get words around: sun, air, group license to scream, the incrementally exquisite thrill of the wait between a pitch and a ball in play, the liberty to construct a hero out of nothing more than the way he tossed his helmet to the grass or ...
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This is a Greek tragedy playing out in the furthest reaches of the Western world — at a modest but comely red-brick high school in the hinterlands of West Los Angeles, just off the Santa Monica Freeway. This is a story riddled with ironies, some of which are infuriating but most of which are profoundly saddening, because they illustrate how real issues can be obfuscated by people ...
The Color of Love
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Two years ago, if anyone had asked, I would have said that I would probably never marry. I had nothing against the institution, but by my middle thirties I had come to believe that the marriage I’d always imagined might never happen. I didn’t find this tragic; I found it liberating. Not getting married meant absolution from a number of entanglements I could do without — a deadwood ...
Married People Live Longer than Single People
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I find out my husband Alan has cancer the day before I’m supposed to fly to South Africa. I have never been there and haven’t been off the continent for a while. This is not an official diagnosis, though it will become one. It’s a very educated guess by the ear, nose, and throat doctor, Dr. Smith, a black woman with a Caribbean accent, elaborate braids, and a bright, confident ...
Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2011