Growing Up Black In OC
The first fight—the first of many—came in seventh grade, during a Total Chaos show at Chain Reaction. Two tall, camo-wearing teen idiots with shaved heads charged me while shouting, "Nigger in the pit!" They started swinging. Luckily, I side-stepped and socked one of them in the nose before a couple of other anti-fascist punks helped me to stomp their asses and get them tossed out.
People often ask how I handle it, living in a place as utterly un-black as Orange County. How, of all the places my parents could've settled as a progressive, interracial couple, did they pick OC, particularly Yorba Linda, to raise a family? Sure there's the peace and quiet, the schools, the ample parking. But life gets complicated when you're a flake of pepper wandering in a desert of salt.
The way I talk, the music in my iPod and the friends I've made don't easily mark me as "black," whatever the hell that means, to most county residents. I have dark olive skin, my hair didn't even curl until puberty, and I've been mistakenly spoken to in Spanish, Hindi and Farsi more times than I care to count. Even in my career, some of my colleagues have said, "Oh, I forget you're black!" as if that were a compliment. I only bring this up because my take on growing up black in OC carries that extra sting of isolation that comes from the initial question of "So what are you?"
It's the moment when I get asked that question that I wish my 27 years here could come spewing out of my mouth and directly onto the shirt of whoever inquired. What am I? Well, the first identifiable thing I can remember being is Catholic. That's not because I consider myself especially religious, but because I spent most of my life in a white Catholic church, St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda (how cosmic, right? He's a black saint). I'm a product of Servite High School and know white, upper-middle-class people better than they know themselves. I've learned to speak their language. And I know when they're speaking down to me—which, when I was younger, was almost always. Passive-aggressiveness might as well be my second language.
The second thing I can remember being is a historian—a black historian—and not necessarily by choice. But when your father is a black history professor who spends his entire day lecturing on Plessy vs. Ferguson and names such as Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey at the local university, you better believe I was getting handed some coursework as soon as I could read. Though slogging through books on black history in addition to social studies homework about pilgrims could've felt like a chore to most kids, such things offered an academic window into black culture that taught me about my roots in a way nothing else around me ever could. In a lot of ways, this extracurricular education was a good lesson on living in Orange County—whether it's good people, good music or good weed, if you want to find authentic shit around here, you have to dig for it.
Third, I'm a musician. While my tastes are eclectic, it was Bad Brains who got me to pick up the bass. It was Bootsy Collins who kept me on it. And growing up darting to warehouse shows between Anaheim and Fullerton as a teen offered me my first taste in tokenism, as I was usually the blackest thing in the room. And depending on the griminess of the gig, that could be a problem (see the Chain Reaction experience above).
I could fill this essay with all the fights I've gotten into in OC because of my blackness. Of course, most of my confrontations with race have been far subtler; due to societal mores, I am often forced to use words instead of fists. That's also why I'm a comedian—or maybe just a smartass. I studied all the greats: Pryor, Fox, Rock, Chappelle. My fascination with comedy was and still is an attempt to expand my vocabulary and wit to harden it so it hurts worse than a punch. I throw it often—at clubs, bars, generally places where a suburban male might go to get sauced in public and spout a racist joke within earshot of me. I've learned that inflicting public embarrassment on someone is the way to deal with 90 percent of the problems I encounter in regard to race.
A few weeks ago, I was at a sports bar in Tustin, drinking and watching basketball with a friend. At one point, a group of guys noticed that black athletes were on all the screens playing every sport—baseball, basketball. Hell, even Tiger was on.
"Damn, man, the only black guys in Orange County are on the TV screens," one of the guys said. Then he shouted to the bartender: "Is there anything they can't do with a bat and a ball?"
I looked up from my Newcastle. "Your mom didn't seem to think so last night."
The bar erupted in laughter.
Yeah, easy line. But when it comes to how my blackness commingles with my OC-ness, the one thing I'm most proud of being is an optimist. I'm not a bitter black guy. Despite memories of being harassed, looked down upon and isolated, I also don't forget the times I've been embraced and accepted because of my differences from the people around me. I'm still pretty much willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when they step up to shake my hand. If I expect that for myself, I know I have to be willing to give it. Regardless of color, that's what a man does. And that is what I am.
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