Family Valued: A Cousin and L.A. History Lost

A South Los Angeles sunset | Photo: puck90/flickr/Creative Commons License

I've been writing a fair number of eulogies lately, but since death and other natural disasters don't distribute themselves evenly in news cycles (or blog cycles, if there's such a thing), here is one more.

My cousin Thais died on Sunday night. It feels strange to even write those words: she died. I didn't know she was capable of the act until she committed it, and by all accounts she did it as decisively as she had done most things in her life: sat up in bed, stared straight ahead and was done.

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She died at home, a small frame house on 58th Drive off of Slauson near Hooper Avenue in deep South Central where she and her siblings had grown up (she and her sister, my cousin Edra, attended the lately infamous Miramonte Elementary). It's hard to imagine today that the neighborhood in the 1940's and '50s was part of the most contested space in L.A., the crucible in which the core of the city was struggling for, and against, integration and change. Back then, blacks were pushing south from their traditional enclaves along Central Avenue, and Slauson was the dividing line between black and white. Thais and her family lived on 58th just south of that line, technically in enemy territory; they moved there a few years before the 1948 Supreme Court ruling that struck down the legality of restrictive housing covenants that had kept blacks at bay up until that point. Let's just say that my family didn't get a warm welcome from the new neighbors.

Thais grew up very conscious of this history, but was very forward-looking. She didn't waste time challenging herself. At Fremont High (which my father and her brother Paul had helped to integrate, Little Rock-style, in the late 40s) she became its first black and first female student body president. The '60s proved to be a perfect match for her adventurous spirit and sense of activism. She graduated from UCLA and later went back and taught in the High Potential program (the forerunner to the campus' Academic Advancement Program, aimed at bolstering black student retention). Brilliant, engaging and endlessly fascinated with information and history, she learned several languages and traveled the world, living for a time in both Europe and Africa. By the time I arrived at UCLA as a freshman in the fall of '79, Thais was at work on a Ph.D in linguistics. I'll never forget the day I saw her from across a quad of that frighteningly large campus and being flooded with relief.

I was an insecure 17-year-old trying to make like this school was no big deal. It was. But having family nearby, especially Thais, made the prospect of university life much more manageable. Thais and I were an odd couple, separated in age by more than a generation and separated in experience by much more than that. But she talked to me over many dinners and get-togethers like a friend and fellow traveler; over the years she filled me in not just on the workings of UCLA, but on family history and the details of her own life, which had been plenty exciting and rewarding but had also its share of doubts and half-regrets. I got it all.

Thais was diagnosed with Alzheimer's a decade ago. It hit early, and was just about the worst possible thing that could have happened to a voracious mind like hers. She ebbed away from us slowly, year by year, until mostly what was left was a physical outline of her, suggestions of Thais as she had been at her most animated and alive -- a hearty laugh, a knowing smile, an attempt to say something that this time yielded silence and frustration.

She at least seemed content in her growing isolation from reality, which was reassuring but also distressing because, while certainly optimistic and upbeat, Thais was not would I call content. She was restless, dynamic, forever connecting the dots of daily events to the great, unfinished story of life and justice that she embraced like nobody else I've ever known. Whatever I am as a journalist I owe in some measure to Thais and to the high standard of risk, caring and self-expression she set for me without ever realizing it. She once said to me in a reflective mood over dinner and wine (she drank, I didn't), quoting James Baldwin: to love is to dare to know. I never forgot that, as I will never forget her.

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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