Last weekend, I spent part of the holiday hanging out with my old neighbors from the block where I grew up in South Central. It was an informal reunion of the '70s generation of west 98th Street, a dead-end enclave close to Century and Van Ness on the L.A. side of the L.A.-Inglewood border.
The afternoon was a revelation for me in more ways than one. Talking to my former neighbors (I can't quite say friends, more on why later) who are now middle-aged and beyond with kids and grandkids, it was clear that the social cohesion we all took for granted evaporated long ago. The story is familiar now to black people everywhere: the good old days of togetherness, aided by segregation and its aftermath, have been supplanted by the chaos of gangs and other kinds of urban trouble that have always been with us, but have dominated the picture for a while now.
Yet we all puzzled over how that cohesion had given way so quickly to the chaos, how there seemed to have been no transition or bridge. It was even more puzzling given that we had all grown up with the racial idealism of the Black Power era and the fruits of the recent civil rights fight that had finally broken the back of legal segregation and voter suppression. The '70s and afterward was supposed to be our time, the advent of the first "born free" black generation in history. We didn't really comprehend that history at the time or necessarily care, but there was definitely excitement in the air on a daily basis, a sense that we were on a path substantially different from the path our parents had walked, or been forced to walk. The horror stories about black life in Texas and Louisiana were, in the expansiveness of the time and of L.A. itself, just that -- stories that we could keep and re-tell, but realities we would never have to live ourselves.
Last weekend it was difficult for any of us to characterize precisely how our lives had gone or how reality was for us now. One guy had lost his airline job long ago and seemed to be making things up as he went along; another guy, a neighborhood leader type, had retired from the city from a nondescript job that hardly fit his talents and outsized personality. We avoided talking about work and professions and aspirations and instead swapped stories about how we had all survived, a tradition that goes back to slavery. A conversation that will always uplift if nothing else will do the job. We did that, and pored over old elementary-school class pictures that kept us all laughing and saying how so-and-so was bad and hadn't changed a bit, things like that.
Mainly I observed all this. It was my role, what I had always done. I loved my neighborhood but I had always been on the outside of it, too introverted and sensitive to really join the cliques and participate in all the rambunctiousness and heady trash-talking of the age that I found fascinating and even inspiring. But it wasn't me, really. I was always therefore left alone by other kids -- in a respectful way -- a fact that came up more than once during the gathering.
"Who are you?" said the guy who'd lost his airline job. He was proud of the fact that he knew everybody and their history in detail, but he couldn't place me. It bothered him.
Erin, I said. One of the Aubry's. I reminded him that he used to play with my older brother, Kris, that they were in the same grade.
He lit up. "Oh yeah," he said. "I remember you. You were around but you were quiet. I mean real quiet."
That was true back then. I was happy to be accurately remembered, the best that a journalist (which is what I became, though no one asked) can hope for.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.