I grew up here. In this very neighborhood. 108th and Hoover, to be exact. This was the late 1980s, early 90s. Those who know this place intimately still refer to it as South Central, Los Angeles. Newcomers, developers, and those who mistakenly believe it to be, however illogically, a subset of both Compton and Inglewood, know it as South Los Angeles. Whatever you call it, this is my home.
My parents and their families emigrated here from Dangriga, Belize in the mid 1970s and I was born not long after in 1985. For about 40 years, my maternal grandparents lived in a modest apartment just three blocks away from where I sit, writing. After many years away, I made the conscious choice to return, and set up and maintain a studio in my mother’s garage. Manchester Ave. is my main vein; Vermont Ave. is my main artery. 76th and Western is my heart. These idyllic lawn-sprawled territories are the settings for many of my earliest memories and the people who inhabit these lands are the imagined “We,” “Us,” and “Our” of my artistic declarations.
This morning, I learned that Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges relating to the murder of Philando Castile.
I wonder exactly when the children playing in the backyard next door will begin to realize that this world—their world—so seemingly expansive, so limitless, will view their very presence within it a most threatening one; a presence that is to be approached with caution, interrogated, and feared. When do the yells and cries of skinned-knees and play, transition into the debilitating wails that the adults in their lives know too well?
I wonder if this will be a precise moment for each of these kids, or if the conditioning is already well under way, being finely tuned down here near 76th and Western where we all dream the dream where we’re flying. Where their rectangular patch of grass lassoed by a wooden fence does not feel like a container but rather a sanctuary. A place ripe with curiosity and wonder and imaginative possibility. A place where their current game of “Mommies and Monsters” (in which the mothers have to save the babies from the monsters) is, unbeknown to them, too eerily accurate. A place where survival is magic and resilience is the native tongue.
I will not be marching in the streets today. Or tomorrow. I am still heartbroken and exhausted from the last time. From all of the times. My direct action will be that of a continued and deliberate presence next door to my neighbors and their children, a living example of an alternative narrative, authoring beauty from my own sanctuary within a neighborhood that has been a haven under fire for as long as I can remember, imagining and actively working toward more illuminated futures for all of “Us.”
EJ Hill is an artist from South Central, Los Angeles.
This is the first in a series of X-TRAonline Summer Reading, a letter drafted on June 17, 2017. Look forward to more from EJ and our summer columnists in the coming months.