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On The Duality of Being A Black Man. One Response To Our Question: 'What Does It Mean To Be Black In LA?'

Gang interventionist Everett Bell does outreach in 2011 at the location of the 2009 killing of an 18-year-old high school student mistaken for a rival gang member in Compton. (Mark Ralston/Getty Images)
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The theme of LAist's Black History Month coverage this year is: “What does it mean to be Black in L.A.?” We'll publish reponses from community members and staff throughout the month. Add your voice to the conversation below.

Yesterday, we shared two different perspectives from Black Angelenos, an LAist reader and reporter Emily Elena Dugdale, who have roots in other countries. Their dual identiies as a Kenyan American and Colombian American,respectively, helped them find a greater sense of community in L.A. and has led to discomfort having to "'choose to fit in a racial box."

Today, a lifelong Angeleno who has ties across the city explores his duality as a Black man: struggling to survive as he's perceived as a threat and striving to thrive in a city he feels connected to by his relatives and ancestors.

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"I’m a Black man, but I was never part of a gang. For one, I was considered a square because I didn't push a line, and because I was always more of a brainiac. In the 1990s and 2000s, being smart and Black wasn't as cool as it is, rightfully so, today. That came with it's fair share of social challenges. Early on, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. Rapper Earl Sweatshirt described it best in his song, 'Chum,' in which he said, 'Too Black for the white kids and too white for the Blacks.'

"I wasn't blessed with the opportunity to grow up on one side of town. I have homies from the Westside, Eastside and South Bay who have lived their entire lives solely in those regions. My family moved a lot, which meant I was always an outsider. And, navigating L.A. neighborhoods there was a color consciousness you had to have. Red, blue, purple, orange were all colors that when worn, could get you killed. Certain baseball teams and football teams had symbolic meaning and wearing them in the wrong neighborhood could also get you killed. If the threat wasn't from other Black males who suffered from what I call 'color trauma,' then it was from the Latino gangs or the police, who correlated 'Black male' to 'enemy.' The threat of death was always imminent, or at least it sure as hell felt that way. At one point, I got shot simply for being mistaken for a gang member.

"Today, as a husband and father of three, being Black in L.A. means something different. To be an adult is an accomplishment. There's a sense of pride that comes with the phrase, 'If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere' because it's true. L.A. is tough, man. It's so densely populated and everyone is fighting for their right to the space, so it produces strong people. I believe I'm stronger because of how I had to orient my mind around the moves I made growing up.

"From a philosophical perspective, I'm more connected to the reality that African American people were founders of Los Angeles, and that history, like a lot of Black contributions, was nearly wiped from the books. I'm more connected to the fact that I'm part of the history of the Great Migration from the South, as families looked for greater opportunities in the North, Midwest and West to escape Jim Crow’s persecution. I'm humbled by that.

"Today, I live in Inglewood. The city was once a major hub for the KKK (there was a regional headquarters in Downtown L.A.) and is becoming a gentrified entertainment mecca. Being Black in L.A. means I'm part of the 8% of Black people who are still here, fighting for the space that was once a place of refuge for my relatives and ancestors, that became a place that not only terrorized me, but taught me to love who I am, be proud of where I'm from and, ultimately, how to find success in city where it's tough to just survive, let alone thrive. It's a gift and a curse, but what is life without duality?"

— Tommy, Inglewood



The first installment of our The 8 Percent project began exploring the inextricable ties between L.A. and its Black residents — how Black migration, community and culture have shaped and changed L.A. For Black History Month, we’re homing in on a more specific experience — yours. Tell us: What does it mean to you to be Black in L.A.?

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