About the Author
Donnell Alexander has written about hip hop and African culture in America for the Los Angeles Times, Utne Reader, and The Source, and was senior staff editor for Los Angeles CityBeat. His essay “Cool Like Me: Are Black People Cooler than White People?” is a staple of university curricula and has been widely anthologized. He also writes literary criticism for the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of the forthcoming novel, Rhyme Scheme.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Straight Outta Bunkie
I wasn't the first or five hundredth young cat to come out to L.A. looking for something my family couldn't ever give me and end up staring at a special brand of trouble.
Two towns east of Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Indio, are where I was raised. In these sleepy towns-one a rich folks' tourist haven and the other a two-percent black farm town-my mom, Esther Lee Roberts, and stepdad, HQ, brought up me and my two brothers and sister. Intermittently, I lived with my grandmother in a minute Louisiana town called Bunkie.
I'm the only one of my siblings who had a different father. No one in my family tried to make me feel like an oddball, but it was simply my birthright to always feel designated as a man apart.
In grade school, most kids my age were smaller than me. Workouts weren't necessary for me to be ripped with muscles. And unlike my mother's children with my stepdad, I was on my way to easily eclipsing the six-foot mark. I never felt like I belonged with my age group, so by elementary school I was hanging out with older people.
My mom was the kind of person who cared about every little thing. Say she was out standing in the yard and some stranger walked up and said he needed help. She'd be worried if she couldn't do something about his trouble at that very moment. She would just marinate in minute shit like that. She cared too much-about other people. Herself? Well, that was something else altogether. She trapped herself in the world of caring about everybody, not having any fun. And when things didn't go her way, there would be a shitstorm.
Ma got real sick when I was about five years old. I went to live at my grandmother's house in Louisiana while my sister, my only sibling at that point, moved to an aunt's house in Las Vegas. At Grandma's house, all of her kids were grown and gone. My grandmother was tickled to death just having me around.
Mom stayed sick for about a year and a half. Later on I would learn that she had breast cancer. During an operation to remove a growth, surgeons contaminated my mother's body. She contracted hepatitis, turning a strange off-brown from her head to her toes. Get this: My mother never sued.
"At least the hospital didn't charge me," Mom reasoned.
That was my mother. She just sorta absorbed life's blows.
Tiny and rural as it was, my Louisiana town felt the most like home. My uncles were great, young adult role models-especially Dock-who really connected with me. Grandma, who doted on me and made me feel special, provided a loving environment, unlike the crib in Cali, which was constantly in turmoil. My mother and stepdad did not get along very well.
Eventually my mom got better enough that I could go back to California. The Louisiana life was fine, but every kid wants to be with his mother at the end of the day.
No sooner had I settled back into my Cali home than Grandma fell ill. Even I knew the prognosis before the diagnosis got voice: Grandma had gotten attached to me. It hurt her when I left, and she became sad and physically vulnerable. So I went back. And forth. And back and forth. One year in Palm Springs, California, and one in Bunkie, Louisiana. I developed a Bayou accent thick enough to attest to my comfort in the South. As much as I loved Louisiana and as much as I loved my mother, a lot of my decision to grow up in two places was about making other folks happy.
Now Bunkie was straight country, almost to the point where money wasn't a factor. Almost. As long as the football games and races kept on going, it didn't bother me that there were outhouses at Grandma's place.
Regardless of where on the map I happened to be, money didn't keep me from having anything I might have wanted. We just didn't want much. Mom raised us kids in the Jehovah's Witness faith. Material desire was deeply frowned upon by JWs, so there was never anything I wanted to have that I couldn't have. Things were just there for me. I just didn't want anything. I was more into hunting, fishing, and sports. If my parents bought me a single basketball or a football, that was more valuable than a whole box of toys.
Being a Jehovah's Witness wasn't ever something I felt passionate about. I went to worship at the Kingdom Hall because my mother went. Going door-to-door across Palm Springs with Watchtower and Awake! magazines was a part of life, like the dry desert heat. I grew up on the straight and narrow. Hunting in Utah with the tight-lipped HQ at the head of our pack. No drinkin'. No cussin'. Nothing untoward at all. Smoking anything was definitely out of the question, especially because I was so deep into athletics. But the sports had to be unofficial; the organized form ran counter to the rules of the religion. We had Bible studies all through the week in our home. Then there were multiple meetings down at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. And those sessions demanded that we study for them in the days leading up to the meetings. My "thing," athletics, was in conflict with a religion that-honestly?-I wasn't especially feeling.
This was a problem; athletic competition was my true love. Sports were my thing. I loved football. I loved basketball. In Bunkie, I played every day, all day long. But when I moved back to Palm Springs, and it was time to play after school, I couldn't because Mom was so against anything that might compete with the Jehovah's Witness life. In her mind, there were magazines to be placed and scriptures to be memorized. She just couldn't see the good in me chasin' some ball around. If I got home from school early and then had to return to campus for a practice, my mother would get highly upset. She wouldn't let me go. This made for a lot of arguments in my California home.
I somehow managed to finesse things so that I could join the Indio High School basketball team. One night I was on the court lining up for a free throw attempt when I looked over to the corner of the gymnasium and saw my mom. Whoa!
Nobody in my West Coast family had ever come to watch me play. I sensed nothing good was gonna come from this first-time occurrence. What cinched this feeling was the really pissed-off expression Mom wore across her face. I had an understanding with Coach Robinson though. He knew about my situation and that I was a JW. So when he spotted my mother he called a time-out.
"Go see your mom," he said.
I walked right over to her.
"Let's go," she said.
"You mean leave right now? Mom, we're in the middle of a game."
"I don't care. Let's go. You're not playin' no ball."
I started to explain that if I walked off the court right now my team would have to forfeit.
"If you don't come with me now," my mother said, "don't come home."
I walked away from my mother and asked Coach to put me back in. He did and we won and my mother wasn't among the gym's spectators. I didn't celebrate. Nope. I panicked. It dawned on me that my mother meant what she said and that I actually could not return to the place where I lived.
This felt a helluva lot bigger than our usual family conflicts. My mother was my mother, and I loved her, but I couldn't deal with the way she couldn't handle me succeeding at anything outside of religion. She was mad at the whole idea of personal gratification.
I called my Uncle Dock. I loved my uncle and wasn't really shy with him, but I muttered a little into that old-school receiver. "It ain't really workin' out at my mom's house here in Palm Springs."
Without a second thought, he agreed to send me a ticket to Bunkie.
During the whole back and forth from Palm Springs to Louisiana, my mindset was, If everybody's happy, I'm cool. I just wanted to please everybody.
At the same time, I used to sit back and wonder: Who are my real friends? Who's really down with me? In both Louisiana and Cali, from time to time I'd be sittin' and talkin' with folks swapping stories and someone would start something that was supposed to involve me and they'd be like, "Remember when . . . ?"
And I'd go, "Uh, actually I was in Cali when that happened."
And in Cali it would be vice versa: "I was in Louisiana when that happened!"
I didn't cuss or drink or smoke. Mostly, I just felt odd and square. Alone in a crowd on two different coasts.
I don't mean to badmouth all of my time with the JWs. The religion had so much studying built in, I couldn't help but become a solid reader. And going door-to-door with those magazines, it never occurred to me to be shy. But it was a different religious experience, outside of the JW stuff, however, that affected me most. The event that changed my life happened at Second Union Baptist Church with my grandmother. It was on a hill at the end of a long gravel road. Mostly southern ladies, the people in this Baptist church were just real soulful people. They loved to sing their bluesy interpretation of gospel.
My Uncle Dock was real smart. He had been a straight-A student. One day he stood up in front of the church and recited a poem entitled The Creation, about how God made the world. It blew me away how he read the piece and the power he held over the entire congregation, which was on the edge of its seats. The way he used his hands; he clapped to make thunder in emphasis. He took control of the whole church. Everybody was quiet. Nobody said nothin'. They just hung on every word he spoke. They felt everything he did and said.
Dock moved me so much that from that day on I knew I had to be involved with public speaking and decided to become an actor.
One night shooting the shit up late in...