A History in Black and Brown

Keeping faith in the future is becoming very difficult for me, which I realized yesterday during an event I can only describe as positive. After a couple of months of teaching a poetry workshop at Morningside High in Inglewood, I attended a final reading of my students' work in the school auditorium. It's an old, cavernous space and was not their venue of choice -- they thought it would be in a smaller lecture hall where they'd practiced -- but it wound up being the only place in school with a microphone. But it turned out to be an inspired development. The dozen or so students stepped up to the challenge, laid aside their protests and fear of public speaking and read aloud poetry that revealed their innermost thoughts and feelings to an audience of strangers. For the most part they read clearly and took their material seriously. I was impressed and more than satisfied with what we had accomplished. Not bad for a bunch of ninth-graders who really didn't want to do this workshop in the first place. Ultimately, they had allowed me in.

Afterward, as we milled around eating donuts and sipping juice in the lobby, it struck me that all but one of the students in attendance were Latino. One of my goals in doing this workshop was to mentor black students, show them the transformative power of writing that had shaped my vision of my own future when I was 14. You know, give back. I chose to do it at Morningside because I live very close by and because I assumed I would get a fair number of black students, even though Inglewood has a large Latino population as well. I had nothing at all against having a mixed group, just wanted to have some of my target audience.

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I got almost none of that audience. That was partly because the class I taught once a week was English-language development and more likely to have Spanish speakers. But the situation was a stark reminder at how blacks in L.A. are pulling further and further apart even when they're close together and still living in the same neighborhood. I was reminded that blacks just have to make the best of the present even as we continue to try and characterize a segregated past that was both more oppressive and more nurturing than anything we've experienced since its demise; I was also reminded that in the public's imagination, a new group of immigrant strugglers have filled the space of colored-people struggle that blacks occupied for most of the country's history. I realized that raising the voices of Latinos -- through this poetry, through politics -- is the narrative of now, of the new. Yesterday I felt suddenly old, and not just because I turned 50 six months ago. .

And yet I was invested in my students, proud of all of them, satisfied with the fact that I was responsible for what they did up there on that too-big stage. Here's my takeaway: I am leaving a mark on a group of kids who may not be black like me, but whose views of who and what black people are might have shifted in a good direction simply because I was there and shared a bit of my life experience, hope, and dreams. That's some history I look forward to.

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.

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