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Between 1985 and 1990, 61,773 Black Angelenos left Los Angeles County. Most resettled in the Inland Empire.
My family moved to a quiet cul-de-sac in the newly forming suburb East Highland. Our previous residence, in Rialto, had been transitional, nice in some ways, not in others. My father was from West Side Chicago, while my mother had worked her way up from a hard childhood in the sticks of the Central Valley, so this real-deal Southern California suburb studded with palm trees in the shadow of snowcapped mountains, East Highland, was heaven without qualification. The two other Black families whose homes sat next to ours had similar success stories. The Johnson family was headed by husband-and-wife postal workers, while the Smith family was led by a mother who ran care homes for the mentally disabled and a father who cut heads. It was 1990 when we got there, and I was nine, a year younger than Pat and Royal, the sons of the Johnson and Smith families, respectively. (Note: Characters’ names in this essay are pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)
The three of us cliqued up quickly, became basketball buddies and fast friends, even if I, small and slender and shy, was more of a younger brother and a follower to Pat and Royal than their full-fledged peer. I remember the July day that Pat went wandering in the desert beyond the housing tract, where packs of coyotes called out to one another at night. There, by daylight, he found a rattlesnake and somehow killed it before it could kill him; I remember him peacocking up the cul-de-sac, displaying the dead rattler for the suburb to see. I remember Royal’s mother being bitten by a scorpion while she did her laundry, how she had to be rushed to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where the world’s leading antivenom doctors were just beginning their practice.
Besides getting sideways with snakes and scorpions, this was a much safer place than the places all of us were from. And we were thankful for that. Mr. Johnson, who was a military vet, flew the flag in his front and back yards. Mr. Smith, meanwhile, was a barber and a Detroit native and, in the tradition of that city, spent most all his free time fixing up an old Porsche that sat resplendent and immobile in his garage. I would see it gleaming there when Royal, taking after his father’s line of work, would cut my hair with predestined precision.
Me and the Johnson and Smith boys walked to the bus stop together. Eventually, we three became four when a white boy from a house next to ours became our friend. His name is Jerry. He became a cop, a bad one, swollen with steroids and tribalism. His Facebook page features tributes to fallen officers, warnings to nebulous foes, and a post showing a bizarre brown-colored caricature in a 49ers jersey squatting on a urinal in front of two men. “Kaepernick always seems to be sitting when everyone else is standing,” the caption reads. But he wasn’t like that when I knew him. Jerry was a thin boy growing tall, with a good heart.
Between Jerry’s house and the bus stop was another house. It stood out in the development because it looked about a hundred years older than our shiny, newly built abodes. Where our houses gleamed white in the desert sun, this house was gray paneled, its wood black and rotted in places. Where our homes were canopied by the palm trees that grew like grass in the desert, the backyard of the gray house was overgrown with ugly, skeletal trees. Above these stunted trees rose a Confederate flag perched upon a pole. The flag was of a piece to me with the trees and maybe the Porsche in Mr. Smith’s garage and my mother’s memories of the grape fields before Cesar Chavez: of another, older, darker world.
But our parents’ world was our world. Which is why, I guess, it fell to us boys to deal with the white man who sat on his front porch in a lawn chair mornings. He’d warn, “Don’t you set foot on my lawn, you n——.” And to Jerry, “Don’t you side-eye me neither, you n—–loving white piece of trash.”
I don’t know what would happen today to a grown man who, unprovoked, called a group of kids “n——” and “n—– lovers.” There was no Clint Eastwood character on our street to mock him. No social media to shame him. No social justice newswire to condemn him. No one worked from home back then either, so all the adults, all our parents and all their protections, were elsewhere. It was just us and him.
So when the white man roasted us, Pat and Royal roasted him right back, calling him a cracker-ass cracker. I hung back, walking with Jerry, who was the same age as me. When Jerry was called out, he didn’t say anything either, just threw the guy the bird and kept walking.
“The difference,” the man was wont to say, “between n—— and shit is shit turns white.”
“See if I won’t step on your lawn,” Royal would retort. “You ain’t shit.”
One Friday morning as we walked to school, Royal didn’t say shit. He strode past all of us, even Pat, and stomped one solitary shoe in the overgrown grass of that front lawn. He stood his ground, glaring at the man sitting on his porch.
Pat and Jerry sauntered up beside Royal. They did not trespass on the grass, but they eyed the man as well. I was walking up right behind the three of them when the man leapt from his lawn chair and yanked open his front door. “Get ’em!” he yelled—and a pit bull raced from inside the house, making a beeline for us.
Royal, Pat, and Jerry sprinted up the road toward the bus stop as the dog cut for the gap between me and the three of them. I took one step up the street toward their escaping shadows, and I saw the dog leaping for that same strip of brightening sidewalk. The beast had sensed that I was the weakest and cleaved me from my pack. I reversed field and ran into the street, making for the fences on the opposite side of the road. The dog cut on a dime and left nine cents on the sidewalk, chasing me down. I looked over my shoulder and saw it nearly at my heels. In one kinetic sequence, I slipped my backpack off my shoulder, slung it at the dog, lost my balance, and went skidding across the asphalt, leaving my melanin in the road. My bag of books hit it squarely in the face. The dog, dazed, paused, and its owner called it back. I watched it shake away the impact of the blow and trot away, an animal weaponized to kill on command. I got up and with my fingers dug gravel out of the white inner layer of skin that draped my kneecap. I started to bleed badly, the white meat overtaken by my clotting blackish blood. The man vanished into his home with his dog. I don’t remember anything else about that day.
But I do remember telling my father what had happened when he got home. Dad was a short, brawny man, one of those dudes with a neck so wide and traps so thick that one or the other of the two barely seemed to exist. He also knew how to fight. “If a man can’t do it with his hands, he doesn’t deserve to do it,” he would say when the near-daily news stories of drive-by shootings in South Central, bleary-eyed mothers casting cries to the heavens, baby pictures of their murdered boys, would flash across our television screen.
Come Saturday, Dad walked with me to the gray house. He had his two hands and a baseball bat. He knocked on the door with the bat. The tall, raw-boned man opened the door.
“My son says you let your dog loose to attack him. Is this true?”
“I’ma do what I have to do to protect my property.”
“If you do that again,” Dad said, tapping the bat on the cement porch, “if you do anything to harm my son, you won’t be dealing with kids, you’ll be dealing with me. That’s the dog that chased my son?” He motioned over the man’s shoulder at the grim, determined canine scratching along the far fence line. The backyard was closed to the house by one of those clear, double-paned sliding doors. I remember realizing that the dog couldn’t get to us this time. I remember a violent desire to watch Dad beat the skinny white man.
“I’ll shoot you,” the man said, which was its own kind of concession.
My eyes cut back from the dog to the far wall of the house’s interior, where an old shotgun leaned barrel up. Dad looked at it too: “You won’t get to your gun.”
That night, as I slept soundly, dreaming of righteous racial revenge, some kids TPed our palm trees. We woke to rolls of toilet paper draped like poorly constructed cobwebs across our fronds. Pat and Royal came over to check out the display and help take it down. We shimmied up and down palm trees and wound the paper back into rolls, checking for shit surprises as we worked.
Monday came without mercy—apparently the calendar would continue no matter what. But now when we walked to the bus stop, the man stayed inside the gray house. I remember thinking how quiet the sounds of our voices were, how they trailed away so harmlessly.
By the end of the week, I was almost feeling safe in my neighborhood again. On the way home from school, I walked up the road opposite the gray house with my friends. I was talking to Royal, who would cut my hair that night before going to Riverside to holler at the white girls from the university. Royal was saying how I needed to be at the garage no later than 6:30 if I didn’t want to go around raggedy to whatever it was I was fittin’ to do, and Pat was saying I would be a mack one day, like him, not like Royal, who only hollered at ugly girls he knew he had a chance with, when I felt or heard or had a premonition of something canine coming after me. A rope of electricity thrilled through me as I turned to see not the racist’s pit bull but a giant Doberman in full stride hard on my heels. I dropped my backpack and screamed the way only a child trained in terror will scream—and I ran, leaping away from the dog and up onto the fence in one bound. I darted along the fence railing as sure-footed as a gymnast, still screaming. Dogs in the yards that I passed leapt and nipped at my heels. The memory of Ricky in Boyz n the Hood running away rushed into my consciousness. In the film, the gangsters head Ricky off and blast him with a 12-gauge.
And then I heard faint laughter and I stopped screaming. I looked back and there was Pat and there was Royal and there was Jerry. They were staring at me sunlit and speechless, realizing now the gap that had opened between their bravado and my fear when the racist’s pit bull had cut me from them with one jagged turn of its hips. The laughter came, instead, from a little, light-skinned girl. Her ponytail fell across her laughing mouth as she bent down and snatched at the Doberman’s collar. Her name is Kenia, but right then she was the devil, the laughing devil from the other side of our fence. I watched as Kenia hauled the dog away, which actually meant that she was bringing it, panting, drooling, barking, back toward me. I knelt on the railing and dropped down onto my side of the fence, landing softly in the redwood chips that we, Dad and I, had laid along our fence line like a shore of bright sand marking our possession.
Two decades later, Kenia would become a close friend. She would also become an accomplished investigator. In fact, almost all us Black kids from that neighborhood have made good, moved on up. We are not the statistics of crisis about the Black male in America or the missing Black girls tracked to their disappearance in investigative reports. We are businesspeople, PhDs, JDs, and raising good families. But these memories, for me, are as much about white people as they are about Black kids running from a dog, or a Black father seeking to protect his son. I don’t know what it is to be born into a bounty, the white American bounty, no less, the greatest prize in the history of the earth, and then to see it taken from you not by theft or war but by process and accretion, by the long reverberation of civil rights statutes, by justice and time.
I think about people figuring through their privileges and privations. I think about Jerry weighing a paycheck and a pension and a certain social cachet in the subculture of Trumpian tribalism against the adjunct minority status that we could offer him if he stayed with us on our side of the street. I imagine him crossing the street because, in a sense, that makes sense. And I imagine the dispossession that the man in his lawn chair probably felt. Maybe it felt more cosmic than local to him, an axial shift from one earthly order to another.
A week or two after the Doberman chased me onto my fence, the pit bull bit a little white girl in the neighborhood. This was too much. White children were delicate enough to be protected. The housing association pressed the family in the gray house to move, and finally they did, taking down their Confederate flag, muzzling and caging their dog, and loading the moving vans.
When last I was home in East Highland, Kenia’s mother told me a story: She was driving home when she saw an animal in the street. She noticed its size and its gait, and the way that it moved, ignoring the sidewalk. She drove up close, and it stared at her cold and unsoliciting, not like a dog. She let the car idle and met the animal’s gaze.
“When we first moved here, I remember those coyotes howling every night. But I never saw one,” she explained. “We’ve built so far into the desert, they have nowhere else to go, so they’re coming into the neighborhoods.” There had been other sightings in recent years, evidence of suburban overexpansion and of the laws of nature, theirs and ours.
“He was right in front of the gray house. You remember that house. And I thought how this is ours now. We have something to protect.” She waved her hand at the window and the empty street outside. “So I revved my engine,” she went on, “and he bolted. Booked it right out of the neighborhood and just kept going and going until he disappeared.”