IT WAS was a privilege to write this piece for Oxford American for their storied “Music Issue.” This year’s theme was “up south” and all of the writers were asked to contemplate the trail of southern music as it moved out of the American South and influenced and shaped how we play, listen, celebrate and grieve. I wrote about my New Orleans family and how they carried not just music, but food, language and ritual along with them. I grew up 2,000 miles away from New Orleans, but my relatives kept it alive inside themselves. The music is in my bones and heart. I was honored to be able to continue to tell my family’s story. There’s even a playlist to accompany the text.
I ALMOST missed the e-mail with the invite to “travel” for a story. My work inbox is a loud mix of music, arts, books press releases and announcements and miscalleaneous musings, so I was happy that the editor pinged me a second time to make sure I’d seen the request to participate.
I haven’t been back to San Francisco now for a couple of years, but I think about the city often. I lived there for a short time in the late 80s and spent much of the 90s visiting friends and colleagues and trying to keep myself familiar with the changes — which were as rapid if not more as those I was experiencing here at home in Los Angeles.
I hadn’t thought about that chapter in a long while. Not deeply. That required that I reach back into old journals (sparse evidence there) and photographs (a little more) to try to recall what it felt like. I told the editor that I wanted to write about ghosts and the names in the address book that don’t correspond with streets and phone numbers any longer. But what triggered precisely where I wanted to go was happening upon a series of photographs on Twitter that depicted Caffe Trieste over the decades. That unlocked something inside me about rituals and how one sees oneself in a place.
Caffe Trieste, North Beach 2015
From the piece:
“Advancing through the frames, a half hour slipped away. An hour. More. Not until daylight fully faded did I stop myself: what sort of wish — or melancholy — sent me scrolling through scores of other people’s memories? Decades of regulars ringed around small tables, nursing the last swallow of a cappuccino; solo patrons’ eyes focused on middle distance; loose configurations posted just outside the entrance on Vallejo Street in animated conversation — stilled.
It wasn’t simply wistfulness that powered my search. Perhaps it was a shade of self-absorption or hubris, but I realized I was looking for myself. I was, without at first knowing it, hoping against hope to find some ghost of myself — part of this story, too. I was searching for evidence, not just that I had been there, but that it had moved through me.”
From there, I was able to drop down the rabbit hole, shadowing old routes, reacquainting myself with old selves.
What a great experience working with my editor, Claudia La Rocco at SF MOMA’s Open Space. I hope to be able to work with her again. She took great care and was such a wonderful sounding board.
APOLOGIES FOR being so behind on posting articles. Trying to play catch up. Things have been back-to-back.
This was a piece that I didn’t know I needed to write, but when the opportunity arrived I knew I had to wrestle with some themes that had been drifting through in conversations for years.
It’s an ode to a Los Angeles that is holding on with a very specific vividness and richness, but every time I revisit, I see features that appear slightly different, feel a rhythm that feels somewhat sped up or askew. At moments,, it’s difficult to put into words, but this is a reflection of what it is to be not just in a place but of a place.
From the piece:
As a journalist, I keep my eye trained on statistics — census numbers, pie charts, bar graphs — that indicate shifts that we may not detect with a naked eye. Therein blooms stories. As a Black Angeleno those charts and calculations aren’t abstractions. They are something you feel in your body, some sort of undertow in your day to day existence. Something has changed, power has shifted. Census numbers, like a Ouija planchette, pull attention toward power or possibility — the vote, the money, the influence.
For many decades, Los Angeles had been known as a Black migrant “magnet.” Folks came for the promise and the sunshine. The Black population in L.A. has dropped 30% since 1990, according to census data.
Home is always in us…
My piece for KPCC/LAist on Nipsey Hussle and the soul and heart of Black Los Angeles is here.
LAST SUMMER, when the country was surging with COVID infections and civil unrest, I heard a protest moving its way through the main thoroughfare adjacent to my home. Masked citizens carried signs and raised their voices in unified calls for justice. I wondered at once where they were headed to gather. Just a few taps and swipes on my mobile let me know that crowds were headed to Charles White Park. A fitting place for a protest calling for racial justice.
White, the artist, made the San Gabriel Valley his home for decades, dedicated his work and life to addressing inequity and offering not simply uplift but examples and tools for the journey toward social justice. In 2019, I made it a point to get out to LACMA to see the wide-ranging retrospective of his work — the drawings, paintings, mural details, sketchbooks—even early documentary-style photographs.
Immediately, I regretted that I had waited until the last minute to view the show. One slow Sunday morning, walking through the galleries simply wasn’t enough. This was one of those retrospectives that was meant to view more than once, to spend time with each period, medium, approach. The last show that I felt the same way about was the Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA, and coincidentally but not entirely surprising, Marshall was a student of of White’s at Otis College of Art and Design.
UA couple of months ago, I was asked to write an essay for Otis on White and his impact on students and on Southern California. It was precisely the right antidote for the at-the-boiling-point trouble we were living in in the moment. White’s own path offered up a series of difficult hurdles, but he kept clearing them, time and again, and always reached back to help others strategize so they had a clear sense of how to clear their way as well.
From the essay:
“It is possible to make a portrait with the gifts of legacy. Those deeds and words become textures, hues, strokes, and shadings. Memory assembles itself into an afterimage that reflects that richness, and the depth and breadth of the impact a single figure may have on people, place, and practice.”
As I was working on the essay, reading deeply, and connecting with people who either crossed paths with him in work or social arenas or who knew him as a teacher, most everyone commented on his commitment to recasting skewed narratives about Black people in the United States. Instead White set out to center his work around the celebration and documentation of the contribution of a people maligned and misunderstood: For both him and his subjects: “His art was a shelter and a balm.”
IN A MONUMENTAL year of swerves, set-backs and dead-ends, to hold this in my hands feels like a miracle.
This book is the fruit of many, many days, weeks, months and years of requesting boxes, thumbing through files, squinting at looseleaf pages filled with line after line of drafts. Reading. Absorbing.
The Pasadena-born writer, Octavia E. Butler willed her papers to the Huntington Library and shortly after the archive opened in 2016, I accepted a commission from Los Angeles-based arts organization Clockshop to work on a piece that was part of their “Radio Imagination” initiative, a year-long exploration of Butler’s work and legacy. As I was putting the finishing touches on my piece, I thought I was turning the corner of completing my work in the reading room, but instead I stumbled on a quote of hers that took root in my imagination. Butler was often asked: “What is science fiction to you?” An answer she settled on and often repeated was: “Science fiction is a handful of earth, a handful of sky and everything around and in between….” Science fiction allowed her the latitude to create a new reality, a new world, and ground that world, at first glimpse at least, in the familiar.
This quote resonated deeply. Mostly because I’d clocked in so many hours reading though her day-to-day prescriptions for clearing writing hurdles, solving a financial crisis and wrestling shape-shifting fear. Also, I held in my hands the often humble items — her bus pass, her library card, her dime-store notebooks and hand-me-down diaries — she used to achieve miraculous gains in her life
I couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate subject to work with and through during a global pandemic. As I re-read her words about habit, grit and ultimately “bounce” — there was a message for today and the next day.
“A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” isn’t a biography nor is it an literary analysis, but you see the early paths, influences and obsessions. The book is a focused exploration of those tools and interior maps Butler utilized to create a life that was larger than anyone could have imagined for her.
The book publishes on October 20th and the first online event will be held that evening, hosted by Eso Won Books via Crowdcast. I’m honored to be in in conversation that evening with Ayana A.H. Jamieson who is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network
LIKE SO many of us I have been trying to figure out ways to manage my new reality. I miss convening with friends near and far and moving about the city, state and country.
I’ve watched many of my friends and colleagues attempting to close their socializing gaps with a rigorous schedule of video conferencing. (I’ve even had to do some of it for my reporting activity in the last few months). But nothing really replaces face-to-face. And for long-stretch conversions, I prefer the phone. (Something about the screen feels distancing to my head.).
Very early on when California went to “Safer at Home” regulations, I began writing letters. I pulled out old stationery and my pens and just tried to find my old correspondence voice. It took awhile. Letters are different from texts and emails, they have a different feel, flavor and pace. They should anyway…
I wrote about this for the L.A. Times a few weeks back. Here’s the piece
IN THE EARLY DAYS, of our “shut down,” I was asked to file a report from my corner of the region. The world had changed so abruptly and I am not clairvoyant, but I kept looking at what was right in front of me until the words circled and un-scrolled. Here’s a piece I did last Spring for LMU Magazine.
“Days before everything turned inside out, when I still had access to the full stretch of my old world, I attended an opera based on science fiction author Octavia E. Butler’s prescient novel “Parable of the Sower.” Fittingly, the story is set in a 21st century dystopian Los Angeles — a city ravaged by long-term drought and upturned by grim social disorder. Butler, who was born and raised minutes from where I now live, shrugged out of the label “seer.” Rather, she often spoke about how one can read the future just by being attentive to what’s outside the window. “Learn from the past,” she warned. But, too: “Count on surprises.”
Learn to read the cycles, Butler knew.
Of late, Los Angeles has been at its most impossibly lush: The mountains and their contours aren’t hidden by a scrim of haze. The sunsets bloom paint-box vivid — ribbons of lilac and blush pink. The air offers a perfume of new blooms — jasmine, citrus, sharp lavender. And now, with so much at a standstill — no conversations in the street, no rush-hour car horns blasting — nature is at the forefront.
This beauty, in other instances, would be comforting, but each day the world outside the door feels more threatening. How can these spring days be so dazzling, and yet they don’t quiet the sense of unease? They underscore it.
Since early March, with the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the sense of unease and sadness that I, and so many others, have been swimming through is as novel as the pathogen itself. Its slow approach is something we can neither hide nor run from. It’s a force we can’t even see.
Silence has become a shelter. I’ve begun telling people I know and love that language has not caught up with the expanse of my emotions; my feelings are too new and seem to occupy some unexplored territory of both place and self.
I am a journalist, so it is often difficult for me to take a break from the news. In these weeks of sheltering, I cook to radio analysis. Over coffee, I keep scrolling, absorbing stats, reading charts, hitting share buttons to disseminate best-practices advice. But the more information I have the more it feeds anxiety — the “what ifs” and “if onlys …”
THIS PIECE was deeply satisfying to research and to write and then COVID arrived and then we had to do a high-wire act in a blink. The city went from it’s vibrant noisy self to empty freeways and main thoroughfares and a quality of quiet I had never experienced here in my lifetime.
The piece is not exactly a love letter to Los Angeles, but it was a way for me to reconnect to the place I travel in my head and in my heart most times —the Los Angeles that you can experience if you give yourself over to it.
From the essay:
As a native of Los Angeles, I take this blink-awake moment to occupy someone else’s imagination, absorb its sensory cues, take in the physicality of the place with someone else’s eyes. Bask in it. To wake in paradise, into a second chance, is a trope, but one of the sturdiest conveyed in film and books and music and television. It thrums in the light of paintings and swims in the frames of photography. What might it be to see, feel, smell, hear, taste Los Angeles for the first time?
That’s outside my own stream of memories, of course, as I have always been here. But growing up here, I understood very early that we daily traverse both a real and imagined Los Angeles.
We live amid a tangle of clichés and misapprehensions. We may cut them back, but we will never kill them. Still, this is my city, my shelter, my place.
So much here shifts in a blink, as effortless, it sometimes seems, as a scene change. Depending on who you speak to, we are built on either impermanence or illusion. Earthquakes, fires, floods rewrite the narrative of the city as we know it, in the moment. Depending on how you frame the story, there’s always some malevolent force crouching in paradise.
LAST WEEK, I was in the last stretch of finishing up an essay about Los Angeles—what it looks, feels, sounds like and the histories we all on. All this, just as we received the order from the state of California and the city and county of Los Angeles to stay at home. Not a lock down, but to limit our movements around the city due to the novel coronavirus.
During a teleconference with my editor, we sorted out a way to include this new and unprecedented chapter in the story of the city. Last weekend, on the way to do morning groceries, I wound through my old neighborhood to see what an emptied-out L.A. was beginning to look like.
These photos illustrate this.
It was heartening to see how quickly people acted and yet heartbreaking to see the city stilled in such a dramatic way..
You can read my essay up at High County News here.
I GREW up eavesdropping on all manner of serpentine stories about road travel.
Drive at night. Drive all the way through. Don’t dare talk to anyone.
As much as I love to explore, I knew that this came with risks. Writer and photographer Candacy Taylor’s deeply researched and important new book, “The Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America ” examines the fraught territory of the open-road for black travelers. Taylor’s book connects the dots between Jim Crow segregation, redlining to present-day racial and socio-economic disparity. It is an impassioned plea for present-day activism; a call to revisit these sites that once symbolized freedom and power, and build on the history of hope.
I review the book for the Los Angeles Times.
From my piece:
Publisher Victor Hugo Green, a black mail carrier in New York with a seventh-grade education, said he’d come to the idea while observing a Jewish friend consult a kosher guide to plan a vacation in the Catskills. Taylor, however, suspects a more complex origin story. Green, who also managed the career of his musician brother-in-law, had no doubt absorbed stories about the travails of securing safe accommodations on the road; those anecdotes would have been influential as well.
Green teamed up with fellow postal worker George I. Smith to create the guide. “The first edition was only ten pages,” writes Taylor, “but it was a mighty weapon in the face of segregation.” Green’s brother, William, later joined Victor and his wife, Alma, to produce the guide out of their Harlem home.
At the outset, 80% of the listings were clustered in traditionally African American communities, including Harlem, Chicago’s Bronzeville and Los Angeles’ black enclaves stipulated by racial housing covenants and held in place for decades by redlining. The “Green Book”became a trusted brand and an emotional touchstone due to Green’s vision, grit and stamina and the guide’s consistency and reliability.