BRAVE NEW WORLD : GRAY BOYS, FUNKY AZTECS AND HONORARY HOMEGIRLS : For Kids Growing Up in the Crazy Incubator of L.A., Cultures Are Melting Into a Bold New Mix

Share via
Lynell George is a staff writer for L.A. Weekly. Her collection of essays and reportage, "No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels," was published in December by Verso

Let’s call him “Perry.” * If you grew up in Los Angeles (back when it was still hip to dub the mix “melting pot”) and sat through a homeroom roll call sandwiching you somewhere between a Martinez, Masjedi, Matsuda and Meizel, you knew one--but more than likely two. This Culver City “Perry,” a classmate of mine, had Farrah Fawcett-feathered blond hair, moist blue-gray eyes and a Tiger Beat dimple in his chin. Tall and gregarious, at first glimpse he seemed destined for the surfers’ corner in the cafeteria--that tight tangle of dreamy adolescents who, in wet suits under their hooded Bajas, made their way down to Zuma Beach on slate-gray February mornings. Blaring Led Zeppelin, Boston or Aerosmith, they trailed westward, away from the sun. * In broad-lapel Qianna shirts and denim flares, Perry, who looked less like Peter Frampton than Barry Gibb, embraced the electronic trickery of Parliament-Funkadelic, the East Coast soul of the Isley Brothers, or some Ohio Players midnight jam swelling from the boombox. He certainly never surfed. He shadowed the intricate steps of the Soul Train dancers, sat with the black basketball players in the back of the bus and attempted to chat up their little sisters in a sonorous baritone carefully fashioned after (who else but) Barry White.

“Oh, man, he’s like K.C., you know, in the Sunshine Band,” those who knew him would tease. But new faces would take a second look, then bristle and inevitably inquire: “Hasn’t anybody told him he ain’t black?”

“Chill out,” Perry’s best partner, the tallest, most imposing BMOC would always defend. “He’s OK. He’s gray . . . .”


After a while, most everyone forgot what Perry wasn’t--even forgot that he was “gray”: the hard-won badge worn by those white kids who seemed much more comfortable hovering in the space between.

It often worked other ways, too. White kids, honorary homeboys and homegirls who dressed like cholos and talked the grand talk about mi vida loca . Blue-blood black kids who surfed and played mean, tireless sets of country club tennis. Japanese kids who saved their lunch money to buy Forum floor seats for Earth, Wind and Fire spectaculars and were slipping everyone hallway high-fives during passing period long before it became pro-ball decorum.

Over the years, L.A.’s mix has only evolved into a much more complex jumble as immigration patterns shift and swell, as blurred neighborhood boundaries subdivide or change hands. However, Los Angeles (as shown by the chaos last spring) is still a segregated city, despite such “border towns” as Culver City, Echo Park or Carson and the disparate bodies that inhabit them, blending and sharing their cultural trappings and identifiers. These contiguous neighborhoods inspire intercultural dialogue. And those living at the fringes have (not without incident) found it necessary to learn something about adaptation. Dealing not in dualities but in pluralities, survival in this city requires a cultural dexterity heretofore unimagined.

L.A. has metamorphosed into a crazy incubator, and the children who live on these streets and submit to their rhythm rise up as exquisite hothouse flowers. They beget their own language, style, codes--a shorthand mode of communication and identification. It’s more than learning a handy salutation in Tagalog, being conversant in street slang or sporting hip-hop-inspired styles. This sort of cultural exchange requires active participation and demands that one press past the superficial toward a more meaningful discourse and understanding.

By no means a full-blown movement, these young people, a small coterie, exhibit large-scale possibilities. Unaware and without fanfare, they are compelling examples of how effortless and yet edifying reaching out can be.

Their free-form amalgamation billows up in street style (like the “Gangsta”/ cholo -style baggy chinos and Pendletons that hit the mainstream fashion pages a few months back) as well as in street music. Latino rapper Kid Frost shook it up with his icy, tough-as-nails Public Enemy delivery, then sharpened the edges with staccato snatches in Spanish. For raw power, post-punk badboys the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t have a thing on their counterparts, the Badbrains.


Recently, the Funky Aztecs have taken the baton. Their new recording, “Chicano Blues,” offers samples from soul crooner Bill Withers while vamping on traditional 12-bar delta blues. When not dipping into reggae dub-style or funk, Merciless, Indio and Loco pay homage to the rich California melange with the raucous single, “Salsa con Soul Food.”

For Merciless, who’s 19, the mixing was almost inevitable. His family moved to an all-black neighborhood in Vallejo when he was 9, and before he shaved his head a year ago, “I had real curly hair,” he says. “Just, I guess, by the way I dress, a lot of people mix me up with either being black or mixed with black.” And the rhythms of hip-hop were a break from the street. “My Chicano partners they were all into their little gangs, you know, their little Notre XIV. Everyone was talking about gangster stuff: ‘I’ma kill you,’ ‘I gotta gun,’ ‘this bitch is my “ho.” ’ But I wasn’t into that, I was more like expressing myself politically. It was mainly my black friends who were into rapping and deejaying and stuff like that.

“It’s a trip because my own race trips off me. I even got chased out of my own barrio. But the brothers are real cool with me. It’s not that I side on them or whatever because my race always puts me down. It’s not like that, but if you’re cool to me, I don’t care what color you are--I’m going to give you that love right back.”

Lives and attitudes like that wreak havoc with stubborn stereotypes and archaic notions about what it is to be African-American, Latino, Asian-American or Anglo in a quickly transfiguring metropolitan center. In a recent Village Voice Literary Supplement, L.A. expatriate Paul Beatty eloquently shared a vision of home: “Growing up in Los Angeles,” writes Beatty, “I couldn’t help noticing that language was closely tied to skin color” but not exclusively. “Black folks was either ‘fittin’ ’ or ‘fixin’ ’ to go to Taco Bell . . . . The four Asian kids I knew talked black. . . . When I started writing, I realized that me and my friends had difficulty processing the language. We felt like foreigners because no one understood us. We were a gang of verbal mulattoes. Black kids with black brains but white mouths--inbred with some cognitively dissonant Mexicans who didn’t speak Spanish and looked crazy at anyone who thought they did.”

Some argue that this sort of mixing dilutes culture and creates innumerable lost souls; but many of those who live it see this sharing as realistically inclusive and ultimately enriching--so long as one holds on to integral bits and pieces of one’s own. Those more optimistic hear rumblings in and of this New Age patois as harbingers; these young people are well-equipped bellwethers of the new cultural hybrids of Los Angeles.

The mixing starts earlier and earlier, as Jai Lee Wong of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission points out: “My child is 4 1/2 and is fluent in Spanish because his baby-sitter teaches it to him.” He tends, she explains, to identify people by the language they speak, not by their racial or ethnic designations. “If they speak English they are English or American. If they speak Korean, they’re Korean,” Wong says. “And even though his father is Chinese and speaks only English, my son thinks he’s American. For him it’s not based on race or ethnicity. He hears me and his father sitting around identifying people by race and it confuses him. Then one day he started talking about that ‘green kid over there.’ Turns out that he was talking about a white kid wearing a green shirt.” Race is a concept not beyond, but perhaps already behind him, Wong realizes; a clumsy piece of baggage that already weighs him down.


The new world view? “It’s a people thing,” Merciless says. “It’s not a black or brown or white or red or orange thing. It’s a people thing. We all just need to grow up.”

ON A RECENT POSTCARD-BRIGHT SATURDAY AFTERNOON, performance artist Danny Tisdale, assuming his flashy alter ego, Tracey Goodman, sets up a folding table with a matte-black cassette deck and a small P.A. system. Microphone in hand, he begins “hawking” a few specialty products for people of color: skin bleach, rainbow-hued hair extensions and the “new” Contours Sculpting System (“used for refining the nose, lips and buttocks”) to inquisitive Santa Barbara Paseo Nuevo mall denizens. Eyes concealed behind inky black shades, Tisdale/Goodman shouts out carnival-barker style: “Transitions, Incorporated!” just above Frank Sinatra’s live, over-the-top rendition of “New York, New York.” He promises “the ticket to success” as he displays photos of Michael Jackson, the smiling and yet-unaltered preteen juxtaposed with the blanched and angular post-”Thriller” visage.

Taking the proceedings as the real thing, an African-American woman in a pin-striped suit and patent-leather sling-back heels breaks free from the circle, approaching the display at a quick clip. Interrupting the pitch, she requests a card, asks if surgery is at all involved. For a moment, most everyone gathered around the table incorrectly assumes she’s a clever plant, a perfect foil. But as the woman becomes more insistent, arms flailing, voice ascending several octaves, Tisdale’s manner appears less certain. He’s fresh out of snappy retorts; smiles vanish slowly from the surrounding faces. “But will this really work for me?” she wants to know. “Will it truly help?” She’s tried so many others.

The piece makes some people angry and renders others silent and bewildered. On a basic level it forces participants to confront, on the spot, the scope and texture of that uncomfortable quandary: What should one give up to achieve success in contemporary American society? The varied responses of those critiquing from the sidelines mirror the real-life incertitude of people enmeshed in this cultural gamble. A prime place in the mainstream isn’t won without a price, or without compromise.

What happens when what was carried over from the Old Country becomes cumbersome, archaic, better to be swept under the rug lest anyone see? It is that loss of organic culture that sits at the heart of many debates about cultural accommodation. Most frequently, we see the conflict in terms of whitewash assimilation versus the “who stole the soul”-style wholesale cultural appropriation. Shelby Steele and Clarence Thomas are trotted around (depending on the camp) as products or “victims” of the former. And rappers the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice or Young Black Teenagers (an all-white rap crew) are seen as the latter: opportunists who pilfer the million-dollar beats and mimic the belligerent stance of this black urban art form without having the cultural understanding or sensitivity to carry it off effectively.

But even the most seemingly clear-cut examples of cultural compromise--like the mainstream-bound black woman tugging at Danny Tisdale’s coat--are shaded or haunted by a wide array of weighty ramifications based on that choice, the consequences of turning one’s back on one’s culture. “. . . Blacks who imitate whites continue to regard whiteness with suspicion, fear, and even hatred,” says professor and culture critic Bell Hooks in her latest book, “Black Looks,” revealing just one nuance in the many hues of assimilation--this one with a conditional cultural safety net woven in. And Hooks suggests that what appears to be, at face, an embrace, is something much more complex, even duplicitous; an ingenious, sophisticated tool fashioned especially for urban survival.


L.A., after all, is not at all the Shangri-La it often presents itself as being, especially when it comes to ethnic/cultural relations. Hate crimes, cross-cultural gang violence, ethnic “nationalists” such as skinheads, randomly hurled racial epithets along city byways are all a part of the city’s fiber, woven in among flashes of accord and affinity. Xenophobia fueled by ignorance, rigid class stratification and skewed and outmoded media representations have all played a part in stoking interracial tensions in this city as well as across the nation.

That has helped make assimilation, for people of color, a weighty cultural gamble, a risky compromise in the journey toward success within the American status quo. Nowadays, asking one to assume bits and pieces of another’s culture at the expense of one’s own is viewed as an exercise out of the question, especially when attacks from without are so pointed and regaining what was lost in the past has been so painful.

But alternative forms of assimilation--for example, that of slipping in and out of multiple cultural identities--don’t demand that people reject their own identifiers. They stress inclusion. In light of L.A.’s rapidly metamorphosing demographics, this drift is likely to become not the exception but the rule.

The mere fact of L.A.’s diversity makes the contentious concept of assimilation far less cut-and-dried than it was in the past, when widespread use of the term melting pot suggested that a soul branded with “minority” status in the United States had to “melt down” his or her cultural trappings--language, dress, religious ritual or even body type--to aspire to the American ideal.

Here, where Central and South America meet the Pacific Rim and West Indies, the definitions of what it means to be black, white, brown or yellow blur, and fitting in requires an entirely different set of tools and techniques. Paule Cruz Takash, a UC San Diego anthropologist and ethnic studies professor, notes that “assimilation is not a one-way street,” with everyone striving to adopt Anglo culture. As the phrase “Ellis Island West” spices news reports about the growing lines winding around the city’s Immigration and Naturalization Service office, the question of assimilation becomes broader, takes on new definitions.

Ironically enough, in the past two decades, the media and other information arteries, traditional tools for stratifying cultures with the uncomplicated, and erroneous, shorthand of stereotypes, have been invaluable tools for breaking down stereotypes and reworking prevailing theories about cultural identity. New mixes take shape at monster movie-plexes, super-bookstores and the alternative glitz of underground clubs (and the easy access to them). The ears and eyes take it all in--and the brain then reassembles it, gives it new form.


And an increasing number of L.A. newcomers embody and advance the recombinant culture. Nahom Tassew, a 17-year-old Ethiopian who’s a junior at Belmont High, came to the United States knowing “just what I saw on movies and TV” about African-Americans. “I thought if I came here, I’d have to become a thief,” he says, “or that was what people would think I was.” After 2 1/2 years, he has a new attitude (“I saw that (African-Americans at Belmont) were people . . . that there were good people and bad people, that every race has good people”) as well as friends from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Japan and China. And he’s studying Spanish. “I need some Spanish words,” he says. Just what will emerge from these admixtures is difficult to say. Tassew, at least, will acquire an early-age sophistication, learning classroom English along with the street Spanish of his neighborhood, finding astonishing cultural parallels (from salutation rituals to food) with his Chinese friends. In that environment, he and others have found, there is no room for xenophobia.

Principals and their support staffs at high schools around the city have been looking closely at their campuses’ rapidly altering idiosyncratic mixes and the way students like Tassew work within them. At Carson’s Banning High, principal Augustine Herrera has watched the numbers shift dramatically over the past six years. Upon his arrival, the school was 57% Latino. That ratio has changed drastically: Banning’s population is now 72% Latino, 20% African-American and 8% Asian/ Pacific Islander. “For the most part they get along but I don’t want to sugarcoat it.” Herrera says: “We have the same problems that the city faces. We have kids who don’t get along. What goes on in the city goes on on campus . . . a mindless name-calling that sometimes degenerates into a fight.”

Race riots on L.A. high school campuses last fall were physical manifestations of city frictions at the boiling point. Students battling over abstracts or what, at face, seems frivolous--like the kind of music played at a Friday night dance.

“For many, it is the first time they have to mix,” Herrera says, and conflicts and more positive exchanges are inevitable. “One feeder junior high is predominantly Latino, one is predominantly black--they must interact. At first there is a sense of distrust, so being in this environment is a good experience for them.”

Assistant principal Bea Lamothe has noticed that the hip-hop-inspired cross colors, usually associated with black students, have caught on with the Samoans and Latinos this year, and she’s carefully observed what is a quieter form of cultural exchange and communication as well. “There are a few African-Americans who live on the Eastside in Wilmington who wear white T-shirts and khakis and speak Spanish.” Students are often unaware that they are mixing codes or modes, she says. They’re living their lives, just trying to fit in.

At this age, these adolescents--native-born or immigrant--are not looking for, or relying on, words to describe or define their lives. They prefer action over theory. For many of them, it’s working. And like the music that fuels them and serves as an anthem: It’s all in the mix.


THE STUDENTS HAVE UNFURLED A CLOTH BANNER and hung it high above the stage of Belmont High School’s cavernous auditorium. In electric, wild-style lettering it proclaims: La Raza Unida (The United Race). As the SRO crowd mills around her, principal Martha Bin stands on the sidelines, blond hair folded into an elegant updo, her walkie-talkie poised in a freshly manicured hand. This year, voting to pass on the usual Columbus Day assembly, the student body, Bin explains, chose instead to pay homage to the campus’s Latin cultural mix--spanning several countries and continents.

In what looks like an elaborate show-and-tell, students bring bits and pieces of their culture to Belmont’s stage. Since the auditorium won’t accommodate the 4,000-plus student body at one seating, there are two assemblies--one morning, another in the afternoon. The second performance begins with several girls in frothy turquoise dresses, their partners in dark, pressed suits, displaying rancheras . Later come the cumbias , a mambo and an elaborate dance performed with lit candles that originated in Peru. Capping the show is a trio in below-the-knee, extra-large baggy shorts, who rap and joke in English, Spanish and French.

“We are a school of immigrants,” says Bin, sitting down for a moment in a quiet classroom next to the auditorium, her walkie-talkie close by. “Many of the black kids are Hispanic. We have Chinese-Cubans. We have Koreans who speak Portuguese.” Belmont, one of the largest high schools in the nation, with 4,500 students on campus, buses out another 3,000 to accommodate the crush of the Temple/ Beaudry/ Echo Park district youth population from which it draws. Bin says 78% of the student body is Latino; the rest is a mix that includes citizens of Romania, Colombia, Armenia, Ethiopia and Biafra. “You sit them together,” Bin says, “they just have to get along-- conjunto --together.”

William Han, an 18-year-old Belmont senior, thinks he knows why. “Students who attend Belmont,” he says, “are first-generation American students, whereas at other schools they are second or third. We are immigrants. This is our first experience.” Han knows the struggle to adjust. It was just four years ago that he and his Korean parents moved here from their home in Brazil. A bright and talkative “American” teen, he wears an oversized jersey with “William” embroidered in green, green/gray pressed slacks and black sneakers. His black hair is close-cropped and sticks up like the bristles of a stiff brush. Like many of the kids around him, he’s something of a citizen of the world--he speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and Korean. “Things at Belmont are honest,” he says. In the common fight to cope with a new culture, “people accept you for who you are.”

Because of the intricate cultural mix surrounding the school, there are concerns and needs that are unique to Belmont. “Our ESL students tend to be Spanish speaking, but a lot of Asians speak Spanish before English on our campus because they hear it in their neighborhood,” says assistant principal Rosa Morley, herself an embodiment of ethnic and cultural blending. (She has Chinese parents but grew up in Cuba. Fluent in Spanish, she feels most connected to Cuban culture.)

“The kids feel that the whole world is like this,” Bin says, and that can be a problem later on. “They have some difficulty when they move out of this environment and are no longer the majority.”


“We don’t tell them this isn’t the real world,” Morley says. “They will find out sooner or later. We are sheltering them in a sense but cannot control what life will bring for them.”

BY COLLEGE, ONE DOESN’T see as many “Culver City Perrys.” The university, for those who make it, is often the startling baptism, a reawakening or first-awakening of self. Students moving out of ethnically/racially diverse environments and into the austere university setting come face to face with cultural stratification. It is, for many, the first time that they are called upon to choose sides or feel a need to become politically active.

The Institute for the Study of Social Change, based at UC Berkeley, reported on diversity at the university level a year ago in a study called the Diversity Project. The study’s goal was to address “a vital and constantly unfolding development emerging in American social life,” focusing primarily on demographic changes in the country and how they affect interpersonal communication on college campuses. There would be no solution to the problems of diversity, the report stressed, as long as we think in polar terms. The extremes of “assimilation to a single dominant culture where differences merge and disappear vs. a situation where isolated and self-segregated groups (retreat) into . . . enclaves” don’t work, researchers concluded. The report was based on 69 focus-group interviews with 291 UC Berkeley students.

The report advises a “third and more viable” option: “the simultaneous possibility of strong ethnic and racial identities (including ethnically homogeneous affiliations and friendships alongside a public participation of multiracial and multiethnic contacts that enriches the public and social sphere of life.”

In testimonials in the Diversity Project, students spoke frankly about the problems of bridging two worlds and the inexorable pressure to fit in. An Asian-American male was traumatized when presented with a completely alien environment: “I was totally unaccustomed to being in (a) social situation where only Asians were there. So I was completely lost . . . . I got so frustrated, I rejected . . . my Asian-American identity and had a lot of Hispanic friends.”

In this period of self-searching, what will help these students realize this “third experience”--recognizing diversity while maintaining their own distinctive cultural identity--is to develop the cultural equivalent of achieving bilingual or multilingual proficiency, to be sensitive enough to adapt to one’s surroundings without losing sight of self.


This concept of cultural pluralism--where each group makes an influential and duly recognized contribution to American society--may seem naive or merely whimsical, but in light of the tremendous cultural shift, it is tenable. “Racial and ethnic identities are always formed in dialogue with one another,” says George Lipsitz, professor of ethnic studies at UC San Diego and author of “Time Passages,” a collection of essays on diversity and contemporary pop culture. “So to be Chicano in L.A. means to have a long engagement with black culture. What kind of Anglo you are depends on what group of color you’re in dialogue with.”

Lipsitz has noted that this mixing once was a more class-based phenomenon, but that drift has altered dramatically in recent years. “When I see desegregated groups of graffiti writers, one of the things that strikes me is that they’re also mixed by class,” he says. “Style leaders are working-class kids who present themselves as poorer than they are but they have a suburban following. One writer told me: ‘Y’know, I go down to the Belmont Tunnel, I go out to the motor yard in Santa Monica, I meet a guy who lives in Beverly Hills, I meet someone who went to Europe last summer.’ It’s the way they expand what’s open to them.”

Lipsitz doesn’t see this mixing as a grievous threat or as diluting culture, as some nationalists do. People find allies wherever they find them, he believes. “For example, there is a group of graffiti writers who call themselves ‘ALZA’--which stands for African, Latino, Zulu and Anglo. ALZA, Lipsitz says, is Chicano slang for rise up. They found each other. Nobody set this up. Nobody put an ad in the paper. They look for spaces that are what we call ‘multicultural.’ I don’t think that they ever think to look at it in those ways. But there’s a sense of interest and excitement and delight in difference that makes them look for more complexity.”

But painting this phenomena as some sort of “we are the world” harmonious culture fest would be erroneous. Like those in the Diversity Project, Lipsitz has witnessed some of the more painful outcomes of “fitting nowhere,” what isolation and alienation can do to a young person’s spirit and soul. “I’ve talked to many students who are either from racially mixed backgrounds or who have what they consider to be an odd history--maybe they were the only black student in a white high school or something like that,” he explains. “Then at the university it seems that there is an inside that they are not part of, and there is no obvious subgroup that they can join.

“They don’t feel comfortable maybe with African-American culture. Or there are Chicanos who come in but they don’t speak Spanish well enough for MEChA (a college-level Latino political organization); or there are Asian-Americans who are Korean or Vietnamese, and the campus is dominated by Japanese- or Chinese-Americans. It is their love of difference, danger and heterogeneity that brings them together. When a singer like George Clinton comes along--who’s too black for the whites, too white for the blacks--”in a way he’s talking to people whose lives are like that.”

SUSAN STRAIGHT TITLED her first short-story collection after one of her favorite herky-jerky, George Clinton-sired Parliament-Funkadelic jams, “Aqua Boogie.” Maybe it was something about the rhythm. But probably it was the music’s quicksilver spirit--arrogantly individual and all over the map. When Straight’s “Aquaboogie” hit the stores, book reviews and small journals almost two years ago, she inspired quite a few double takes. In her stark, sober portrait, her blond hair framed a steely face out of which light eyes stared boldly into the camera. A novel in short stories, “Aquaboogie” finds its center in a depressed Southern California locale called Rio Seco and its characters among the working-class blacks who live and die there.


The writing--eloquent, sensitive and honest--wouldn’t have riled so many except for the fact that Susan Straight is white, one of the few white artists giving voice to what’s considered to be a black experience. “If I was a lousy uriter and I was trying to write about a neighborhood like the one I’m writing about and had all these details wrong . . . then I don’t think I deserve to be published,” Straight says. “I know my little corner of the world and that’s what I write about. And I think I do a good job. I don’t fit into a box,” she adds with that same tough, unblinking stare, “and see this is a big problem for people. It’s like everywhere I go, which box do I fit into? I don’t. Sorry.”

Straight, who balances a UC Riverside lecturing position with writing, leading various local writing workshops and household duties, was born in Riverside. She still makes her home there with her husband (her high school sweetheart, who is black) and two daughters in a sunny, rambling California Craftsman on a wide, tree-lined street. For Straight, fitting in was more of an issue once she left her Riverside friends and environs.

“I went to USC straight from high school. I got a scholarship--my Dad was unemployed at the time. I loved going to USC--once I found some friends,” she recalls with a laugh. “When I first got there it was like I talked funny, I came from a bad neighborhood, I had a T-shirt that said ‘Itsy-Bit’ on the back in that Gothic writing. USC was a really scary place for me coming from Riverside, where everything was country.”

She ended up hanging out with athletes--mostly black football players from places like Pomona and Inglewood. “Those were my friends,” she says. The problem didn’t end at USC’s boundaries. It shadowed her cross-country, shot up at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was constantly embroiled in fiction workshop debates, then later took shape and form in the publishing world when she sent stories to New Yorker and The Atlantic. “Of course everybody thought I was black, which I didn’t know, but I understand,” says Straight. “They just didn’t want to read about that kind of stuff. They had problems with the dialect, they had problems with the subject. It was a little bit ‘harsh.’ One person wrote back: ‘Your world view is very bleak . . . .’ I thought, ‘Man, I’m sorry. Fix the world, and then my view won’t be so bleak.’ ”

What Straight was attempting to do with her body of work made some blacks angry, some whites a shade of uncomfortable that some found difficult to articulate--people like her first agent, who took it upon herself to chastise her client soundly. “She said: ‘I didn’t know you were white.’ And then she said: ‘I think you’re deceiving people.’ She sent all my stories back and wrote me a big, old long letter about ‘ . . . the American public isn’t ready for something like me . . . .’ She really thought that I should be writing about something different,” she says with a shrug, palms upturned. “So what am I supposed to do? Go back and get born again? Have different parents? Grow up in a different place? Marry a different man? Then I’ll be writing about different things, right? That’s a big order.” Confronting her “bleak world view,” Straight started writing mostly out of a sense of frustration and a need to take some sort of definitive action.

“Look at me,” she says. “I weigh 99 pounds. I mean what can I do? I can’t bring my friends back from the dead. I can’t stop people from doing what they’re doing. Drugs have been a big problem. I’ve so many friends who have no brains left, and that’s not from rock, that’s from angel dust. I thought: ‘Well I can go home and just write these little stories.’ ” Her “little” stories deal with enormous and grave issues--death, drug addiction, poverty, abandonment--but they also speak to nurturing aspects, the strength of black family structure, about love, about relationships between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, community resilience. Not the black experience, Straight stresses, but a “particular” black experience.


What rests at the core of understanding, Straight believes, is reaching out and treating others with respect. “People have always said that black people know white people much better than white people know black people, because it’s a matter of survival. And that’s what I grew up hearing,” says Straight. “Now being black is in vogue as far as the movies and stuff. Maybe it should be a matter of survival for white people to know how black people live now.” As UC San Diego’s Lipsitz notes, “You look around to see who has something to teach you,” a new Golden Rule that can be looked upon as an informal paradigm for 21st-Century survival. Kids on the borders of several cultures are “trying to be honest in a dishonest world,” he says. “I think if something good were to happen, it would come from them. I think that they’re trying to live a life that’s not a lie.”

Those who might be viewed by some as having “odd histories” because they’ve spent their lives juggling codes or responding to the various influences within them are breaking down walls and erecting sturdy bridges through the mere act of living their lives. Granted, this vision appears mere chimera, almost utopian. But it is, for them, proving to be an integral component of psychic survival. In this period of uneasy transition, complicated by overwhelmingly rapid change, young people ride the periphery, and their lives do impressive battle with notions of a now-archaic “norm.” But their quiet revolution is fueled by much more than simply the adolescent ache to belong. It is a more honest, eyes-wide-open way to reach out and greet a world as confounding as they are.