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Reading While Black, And Other Ways To Court Trouble

Jervey Tervalon, top row center in plaid, as a student at Susan Miller Dorsey High School, circa 1976.
Jervey Tervalon, top row center in plaid, as a student at Susan Miller Dorsey High School, circa 1976. (Courtesy of Jervey Tervalon)
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My older brothers Hillary and Gregory were smoking weed and drinking beer in Hillary's 1958 Jag in front of our house on 2nd Avenue. Hillary was a mechanic and had painstakingly restored his Jag, which had beautiful leather upholstery and a cherry wood dash. Greg played college football and had run track when he was in high school.

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As usual, I was on the porch watching my brothers getting high at a discreet distance. Then, as they would do, an LAPD cruiser appeared, squealing to a stop behind the Jaguar. Out popped police with guns drawn, shouting for my brothers to get out of the car showing their hands.

Hillary complied, but maybe because he looked way whiter than Greg, they didn't focus on him. The two cops pointed their guns at Greg as he stood there with his arms folded. Then Greg said "f**k this," and turned and walked toward the backyard gate.

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Jervey as a teenager. (Courtesy of Jervey Tervalon)

"Stop!" the white cop said.

"Why? I'm sitting in a car in front of my house, and you got to roust us," Greg said, and the cop again said "Stop!"

I was scared. I had seen enough movies where people got shot, and I knew he could die if he kept walking.

The policeman leveled his gun at Greg's back, and I knew it would happen, that he would get shot right there in front of the house we were raised in. But then the policeman lowered his gun, and he and his partner got back into the patrol car and drove off.

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I was shaken, seeing in my mind my brother lying on the ground bleeding to death because of what, because he was drinking a beer and smoking weed in front of his own house.

It was there and then that I began hating guns, but soon enough I would have guns pointed at me at least five times. I learned that situations spin out of my control, and that situations can instantly turn deadly.

***

Growing up as I did in Jefferson Park, a neighborhood in Black Los Angeles, I had people looking out for me, and while trouble could and did happen, it didn't happen that often where we lived. But it happened to me when I was on a sojourn to another neighborhood to visit a pretty girl. She lived about a mile away, off Normandie. I probably should have expected to have my behind kicked so hard by the local wannabe gangbangers that I'd see stars.

I earned a memorable and valuable lesson: the necessity to be ridiculously careful to avoid the usual violence some boys and young men perpetually inflict on each other, that sometimes could result in a trip to a hospital or worse. It was memorable because an ass-kicking is always memorable.

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But back to guns and police, rolling up on my pootbutt ass out in a super affluent, white part of Los Angeles that felt like it was on another planet

***

What did you call a Black nerd in the '70s? You called him a pootbutt. I was a pootbutt. I didn't bang and I didn't sling. I read comic books and I read novels. I thought Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was real, and when I read Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" the world stopped around me. I was that kind of pootbutt.

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Jervey's high school friend George, the fellow Tolkien fan. (Courtesy of Jervey Tervalon)

Susan Miller Dorsey High School was just the place for a shell-shocked pootbutt to chill. I found other pootbutts to discuss books and play chess with.

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George was my friend, and he was more sprung about "Lord of the Rings" than I was. I think he even mastered Elvish or came close.

Then George moved away to Brentwood, and my mother drove the 20 miles for me to visit him. Brentwood was as white then as now, as though the entire neighborhood drank massive amounts of bleach.

George and I had only one goal that day. Tolkien's "The Silmarillion" was to hit the science fiction bookstore in his neighborhood.

We were beside ourselves with excitement that we would have our own copies of the book in our sweaty hands. I don't even remember how long the line was, since we were so focused on snagging our copies.

We rushed back to the lush lawn in front of his apartment building and we sat together reading, quietly and eagerly. Then we looked up to see two police officers glaring at us, their hands very close to their holstered .38s

"What are you two doing?" one of the two white cops said.

How could I respond? It was obvious that we were two chubby pootbutts clutching thick books on a sunny afternoon.

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Yes, it happened while reading this. (Zisa Aziza via Flickr)

"Reading," George said flatly.

"Where do you live?" one of them asked.

"There," George said, pointing to the apartment building behind us.

Both of the police officers seemed skeptical that George lived there. They looked at each other and then they looked at us. It was pretty obvious they didn't believe him, and that we'd soon be in the back seat of the patrol car.

I had never been handcuffed before, but I suspected I'd soon have that experience. George and I were both big for our age, but we were still just 16-year-old kids. I started to shake, sure that we were going to be arrested.

"Stand up," one of the white cops said, and I started to panic.

"What's going on here!" I suddenly heard from behind us.

My mama was coming up the street at them; George's mama from the building. A two-pronged attack. My mama walked quickly across the lawn, and George's mother was walking faster toward us from the apartment building, in the opposite direction. Two enraged women who sensed their children being harassed by a police made so blind by racism that we, two nerdy pootbutts, were their targets.

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Jervey's mother, Lolita. (Courtesy of Jervey Tervalon)

"Why are you talking to these boys? What did they do for you to be even talking to them? They're both going to college!" my mother shouted.

George's mother was more focused and wanted their badge numbers.

My mama cultivated anger just for those kinds of moments, where her ferocity would be on full display. George's mother possessed the same ability, and these police officers now were caught between them. Whatever plans they had vanished, and they hurried in retreat to their patrol car and left the scene.

Our mothers arrived to save us -- ferocious in their need to protect us, so much so that the police wilted in the face of their passion.

But, when I think about it, those cops didn't see two Black women defending their kids. My mother looked white.


MORE FROM OUR RACE IN LA SERIES


Maybe in the cops' minds my Creole mother possessed white privilege, just enough to rage against the injustice of harassing kids for reading while Black without being arrested or worse.

It was just more police denying our humanity, the need to put us in the place they thought we needed to go. But we would never be put in our place. George and I and all the pootbutts of the world would not bend or bow.

We'd go on to live our lives knowing that race-driven hate and violence would always be with us, but we'll handle it -- steady and cautious, knowing the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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