Vol. 1 No. 4 2008



ESSAY


GRUMPY OLD BLACK MEN,
or Bill Cosby’s Lament


An essay by Fred Beauford


“ The most racist group in America is older black men.
You know pleasant Willie down at the store. Well Willie
ain’t so pleasant. He hates your guts!”

--Joke told by Chris Rock

Downtown Los Angeles is a place that is not suppose to exist. In the minds of many who live in the Los Angeles area---even some who work here, and occasionally play here, and should know better—there is no such thing.

No, they tell you, there is no such thing as a downtown in Los Angeles, not the kind of lively downtown you find in a real citiy like New York, San Francisco or Chicago.

You have a constant scene of surging crowds; young, highly educated men and women-- cold blooded, driven professionals, the new ruling class, dashing in and out of tall buildings; well dressed Ladies Who Lunch (and shop); hard-nosed older white males who carried important looking briefcases, and had the well-fed look of new world winners.

A large immigrant population could also be found in New York, or Chicago, there from all over the globe; they all wanted to experience people in a hurry, and a city that never sleeps.

Arabs, Jews, Asians, whites, blacks, hotdog vendors, street hustlers, a place where one expects to meet others, no matter what the late hour.

.

A lively street scene any reasonable person would never tire of. One that they could enjoy day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, with each day producing a slight variation on a theme, which keeps the unending parade of humanity stimulating, interesting and rarely a dull moment, as you slowly stroll by store after store laden with colorful goods and goodies, passing on the way, street vendors, both legal and illegal, and strong hints of sex, money, power and danger.

That’s what a downtown is supposed to be. And no such thing exists in Los Angeles.

Yet, as I stood at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Street on a recent warm June day, I was surrounded by tall buildings; and as a traffic light changes to go, I was swept along down Broadway by a massive crowd of people.

The people on the street don’t walk as fast as they do in New York; but do people walk with that much purpose anywhere else in the industrialized world?

I do see shop after shop loaded with goods. Mostly jeans, sports caps and tee-shirts. One read: No Hispanic. No Latino. Mexicans. We are Mexicans. We are an indigenous people.”

I see street vendors, evenly divided between male and female, young and old—hawking bus tokens, slice mangoes, first run, bootlegged DVD’s that are often on the street weeks before the movie appears in theatres, and an abundance of untaxed Marlboro and Newport cigarettes at $2.50 a pack.

I see more than a hint of danger, in that I spot a Three Card Monte Game, run by an elderly Hispanic man.. And, I see more then an abundance of armed and unarmed security guards. I watch badly dressed black street people, who are obviously not as enterprising as the bustling Hispanics-- begging, selling drugs, or running little con games.

City buses abound, and there is even a brand new subway nearby.

What the hell were they talking about? What did they mean that there was no downtown to speak of in Los Angeles? This downtown could rival any downtown in America. All the elements are here, except perhaps a few; and perhaps that is why many think no downtown exists.

In all of these thousands of people surrounding me, there were few dashing young professionals, and absolutely no elegant well-dressed Ladies Who Shop, and precious few hard-nosed, well-fed white businessmen.

And there wasn’t the sexy feel of big money here, despite the diamond district being such a large part of downtown.

The faces are almost all brown. The rhythm of the music blaring from the well-stocked stores is Latin; the language of the street is Spanish, as well as all of the signs on the storefronts. The magazines, small picture books and newspapers on the newsstands were also all in Spanish, although the photos staring back at me from the magazine covers only bore a passing resemblance to the darker faces surrounding me.

These people on those covers, like the people one sees on Spanish language television, were truly Hispanic, or Latino; white people, Europeans, people you would run into on the streets of any town in Spain.

One could easily imagine that this was a big city anywhere in Central or South America except for the tell tale clue of the large amounts of homeless, or near homeless black men. As I walked, I thought of that tee-shirt and see a supreme irony buried in the sentence, “We are an indigenous people.”

The “indigenous people” ancestors were once considered useless to the European settlers because they refused to work the land for little or nothing; so they were marked for elimination as the settlers brought in African slaves to pick the cotton and tomatoes.

Now, the descendents of the Africans are considered the useless ones, as they fled the cotton patches of the nation in droves years ago, never to return. Now the descendents of the European settlers are welcoming back the indigenous people with open arms, as they are now more than willing to work the fields of this country for little.

As one walks down Broadway, pondering all of this history contained within the confines of this urban space, one can not help but notice the impressive infrastructure. Huge, boarded up theatres, tall, sturdy, empty buildings, still dominate this part of downtown, even as neglected as they are.

This is also a clue that once upon a time European settler once existed in this area. One wonders what made them abandon their well-developed habitat and workspace. Prolong drought, perhaps? A plague? Pushed out by a superior, more aggressive tribe?

***

No matter what happened to the Europeans, for me, it’s the presence of the large number of black men, more than the living proof that a downtown does indeed exist in Los Angeles—that has drawn me to this area over and over.

I wondered who these people were. Where did they come from? Were they all mentally ill? Were they all addled out of their minds by reality bending drugs? Why were they so strangely quiet, with the rest of Los Angeles, and the country, barely aware of their considerable presence? Why didn’t they march on a nearby City Hall and burn it down? Where was their Rev.Al Sharpton, for God’s sake?

A BUS TRIP


I first discovered this world over ten years ago, one warm summer night. Back then, I was a coward. Long before Sept. 11. I hated getting on planes.

That night, I was going to take the Greyhound to San Francisco to see a few friends. It had been several years since I swore never to take that uncomfortable bus again; but summer was quickly coming to a close, and I soon would be leaving California for my teaching job back on Long Island at SUNY Old Westbury.

***

When I arrived at L.A’s downtown Greyhound bus terminal, I was greatly surprised that the terminal was no longer there. It was an empty shell. Closed up. Gone.

I asked around.

“It’s down near Alameda,” someone informed me, pointing eastward.

“Is that within walking distance?” I asked.

The Latino man with light brown skin, a little mustache and fancy cowboy boots looked at me with a serious, helpful look. “No, no. No walk. Take bus. No walk,” he explained in a heavy accent.

I could sense that he was warning me of something, not advising me. Still, I persisted.

“It can’t be that far.” I said.

“Not far. Few blocks.”

He then held up his hand to his mouth, as if to silence any crazy idea that may have popped into my head. “No walk.”

I had my one lightly packed suitcase on a thin but sturdy go-cart. It was a nice night. Warm, moonlit, as pleasant as it gets in Southern California. Plus, I wanted to get on that Greyhound as soon as I could. I knew how city buses ran in Los Angeles. During the day, you could wait for an hour and half for a bus. At night, who knows when one would show up. I could ride a bicycle to San Francisco quicker!

I could probably walk to the new terminal in under 20 minutes.

I thanked the Mexican man for his help and advice, but decided to ignore his counsel. I was going to make the walk, despite his misgivings.

As I walked a few blocks east, I had a strange sensation of having hundreds of eyes fixed on me. As I walked on, with the uneasy sensation becoming even stronger, and me growing more and more uneasy, I soon found myself in the midst of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black people, mainly men, standing in the streets, sitting on the sidewalk curb, or huddled together in little bunches on the sidewalks.

This was a vast army, more black men than I had ever seen crowded together since the good old days in late 50’s Harlem. Block after block of them.

Most seemed to be watching me, some staring boldly at me, following my every move. Others tossed quick, furtive glances, sensing somehow that I didn’t belong there, only that somehow, through some strange lapse of judgment, I had carelessly stumbled upon their world.

In the Los Angeles I knew, the only place one sees large numbers of black men congregating outdoors, is down at Venice Beach, as the basketball players gather almost daily. But most of these basketball players are energetic, sleek, small muscled, thin-legged young men; with mighty springs hidden in those unimpressive looking legs.

Some could leap so high, and dart so swiftly in and out of other bodies, and pass the ball so quickly down the court, sometimes without looking, as if they had eyes in back of their heads, and dash up and down the hot, sun-swept court for extended amounts of time, at blinding speed-- that the white tourists that watched them, would gasp in unison, and disbelief, as one of them suddenly leaped so high, and with such real flash, as he delivered a decisive, powerful, slam-dunk!

***

But no one was going to gasp in admiration at the drab, poorly dressed, drugged-out looking men I saw that warm summer night in downtown LA.

***

I held on tightly to my thin little cart, and drew it closer to me, and was more than happy that I had only a small bag, and was dressed in my Greyhound best; meaning, I looked beyond ordinary, as if I had little, and was of no importance, or really worth bothering about.

Small potatoes.

To me, when I wanted to be left alone, that was one of the little perks of being black. I was just as furtive as some of the men who were now watching me. I quickly glanced about, making mental snapshots of these men as I walked warily the now seemingly endless blocks to the bus station, now fully understanding the concern of that helpful Hispanic man who had warned me: “No walk.”

I have seen these black men many times before on the streets of San Francisco and New York, where I have lived so much of my life. I had also witnessed much of the same phenomenon nationally, serving for eight years as the editorial director of the Crisis. Part of my job was to visit city after city, to try and understand why these black men live as they do.

I have a trained eye for spotting this kind of problem, and even have suggestions to offer as to how to solve it, such as encouraging street vendors, to take advantage of the obvious love these men have for standing around outdoors, glad to be in each other’s company. One can see the wisdom of this idea watching the sun worshiping Central Americans same love for being outdoors, where they sell anything on the streets of LA, from the latest bootleg DVD’s, to fruit, hotdogs, jewelry and also anything else you can imagine.

***

But even a jaded as I had become, and as long as I had lived off and on in Los Angeles, since 1973, I was totally unprepared for the sheer numbers. I had never seen such a large concentration of block after solid block of poverty-stricken, depressed black people as I did that night.

This couldn’t be called a black “community.” Community implied women, children, old people, ministers, drug dealers, school teachers—a full spectrum of humanity like we find with the Hispanics, even more than we find with the whites.

Here, it was more like a concentration camp with invisible gun towers, vicious dogs and barred wires, for a defeated, shell-shocked army. There were mostly men, and only rarely did a drunken, toothless white woman, or a bedraggled black woman or white man would appear. And despite the large numbers of Asians and Hispanics in Los Angeles, not one was spotted anywhere in this crowd.

Some of these men looked crazed from drugs; many looked as if they were in need of mental care. I often saw the same kind of mentally ill people on the streets of downtown San Francisco.

I remember one black woman in particular. She was elderly, toothless. fair skinned and could curse up a storm. Her riffs were truly inspired, however, as she stationed herself at the busy Market and Powell Bart station and artfully built upon wave after obscene wave, motherfucking and cocksucking everyone who dared crossed her path!

For those who were unfortunate to really get her ire, as one young gay man did the day I was watching, she would fix her crazed eyes on them and add: “And you and your dirty, cock sucking mama both suck the same big black dick. You know what I’m talking about, motherfucker!”

Even those that were being motherfucked, like that young white man, would occasionally smile in delight at the sheer eloquence of her tirade.

One young black man turned to me one day after I just stood in a strange kind of transfixed awe listening to her strange carrying on, and shook his head and laughed out loud. “America has driven black people crazy.” He said.

I have since thought about his statement more than once. Even a casual observer can’t help but notice that blacks seem to have the highest percentage of crazed people on the streets than any other group. Had America indeed driven so many blacks crazy?

***

If it had, then a large portion of them were now staring at me as I made my way to the bus station. Not all looked crazy, or drugged out, however. In fact, some looked just like me. In fact, many looked just like me; only they didn’t carry around fancy, respectable titles like Editorial Director of one of the oldest publications in America, the famous Crisis Magazine, the official publication of the NAACP, and an even better title of Associate Professor of Media Studies, and teach at SUNY/Old Westbury, a part of a major higher education system.

Some of these black men, however, had spotted the real me, and knew I was harmless; they also probably knew I was just passing through the area like I was, just because I was afraid to fly, and wanted to save a few bucks, and wanted to see some old friends.

***

I no longer felt any fear for my safety. Something, somehow,however, deeply moved me. I knew that something-- our political system, history, nature, racism—whatever, had dealt these black men a bad hand; a very bad hand..

There also seemed to be an age cut off point, or rather, an age cut on point. It seemed that they were mainly in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.

At Venice Beach, the black men were young men in their late teens and early twenties. One often wondered why they were not working. It was clear that they weren’t lazy. Anyone that could run up and down the long basketball court for hours in the blazing Southern California sunshine could hardly be called lazy.

But how could they afford to play basketball day after day? Who paid for their food? Their rent? Those expensive sneakers they wore? Why weren’t they in college, or working?

***

However, or whoever, paid their rent, I now know that these two group of black men, seemingly very different, flowed one into the other. One had a highly visible presence on the American, and the world stage, while the other was barely noticed. which brings me back to Chris Rock’s “joke.”

In America’s mind these handsome, dashing, energetic, entertaining young men, on basketball courts all over the country, are the true face of a hopeful black America, not these seemingly defeated souls in a quiet, hidden downtown Los Angeles. Because of this, and these highly visible young men, unlike other groups of people, it seems that the major societal influences most blacks have comes between the ages of 15 to 35.

This influence is considerable, and is the major cultural force worldwide and has made many people, including some black men. wealthy beyond belief. Young people all over the world dance to the rhythms we invent, or watch in wonder at our clearly superior athlete prowess-- as some of us now live a princely existence.

But our influence seems to end just at the time when young white and Asian men are just beginning their push for power and influence. After a certain age, we just cease to exist as a cultural force.

Is it any wonder that Michael Jackson wanted to stay as young as he could, even willing to risk his princely existent to make it happen. It is little wonder, that when the games end, and the music slows down, many old black men get so grumpy.

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