On the day we as a nation celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I’m thinking about how I spent his actual birthday on Sunday. My white Atlanta-born girlfriend – a woman who was in her mother’s womb as she made sandwiches for black families coming to ATL for MLK’s funeral – and I rolled out of bed and hurried out to All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Pasadena for a talk on King and the transformative God. The lecture wasn’t as promised, but rather the speaker, the African-American Episcopal priest, Stephanie Spellers, spoke on “radical welcoming,” welcoming “the other” into your community, uncomfortably adapting to them rather than asking them to conform to your rules alone. She spoke while needling us that the Episcopal Church is the whitest and richest church in the US.
We left later church service – where this Hawaiian-born, Irvine-raised mulatto knew the more of the Negro spirituals being sung than his ATL-bred partner – for lunch with my Filipina ex-stepmother. She is the head of what I call my extended Southern California family; especially now that no close relatives of my nuclear family are on this coast.
At Full House Seafood in Chinatown, we celebrated the 71st birthday of the 12th of 13 children with at least four generations present. I get a little confused, but I know my four-year-old step-nephew is the uncle of the five-year-old son of my ex-stepmom’s niece’s daughter. The eldest present were the 6th child of the 13 and her white ex-military husband. The youngest was the wisest-looking one-year-old I’ve ever seen who had clear designs on my woman.
My Italian/Filipino-American step nephew chased me around with poppers for a few minutes before we shopped in Chinatown for a bamboo steamer for my mother to take back to her small town in New Hampshire. Leaving Chinatown we saw the stirrings of a potential fight between a middle-aged Latino homeless-looking man and a young tattooed Aryan-looking man. After some face-on-face hateful speech, they both eventually walked away. I don’t advise getting into the face of an angry Aryan on a Sunday in Chinatown.
We drove back to our place on the busy road in a beautiful canyon for a short break.
A couple hours later we headed down to the Leimert Park area to Bryant Temple AME Church to hear the wonderful singer, Dwight Trible do a Martin Luther King celebration concert. We arrived late, so I listened behind the window while my girlfriend went to the restroom. From where I stood I could see my reflection in the pane and a woman who would not look away from me. I don’t know if she was mentally disturbed or just disturbed by me, but looking at her face and my pale reflection made me feel extremely white even as I listened to a dreadlocked woman quote and discuss my favorite speech – the “Mountain Top” speech.
We finally took our seats.
The crowd and the band were diverse, though I often find myself scanning for cultural tourists when I’m in a majority black setting, especially a church where so many members are dressed formally. I wonder if I am with my multi-culti hippie crew when I roll in and play music or support my friends onstage.
So to bring it back to the unsuspected start: this is the radical welcome and its partner, the radical seeker. As a biracial person in an era when claiming both is an option, you have no choice but to participate in a dynamic where your existence makes some uncomfortable. If you choose to claim your whole self and ancestry, you necessarily have to put yourself in positions where you will feel uncomfortable, perhaps a cultural tourist.
The woman may have stared at me, but the community embraced me at Bryant Temple AME.
I awkwardly sit in my extended Southern California family; I even remember horrible things being said in the home my father shared with my stepmother when they were together. But we continue to show up for each other, welcoming each other into our lives easing awkwardness with familiarity and love.
I know there’s a special excitement when I show up at All Saints because I’m young and darker than a lot of the congregation. But we’re getting to know each other better all the time.
My girlfriend and I were back home by eight. We had dinner with leftovers from the crazy chicken en Español. We watched a British sci-fi television series and danced around the living room to music from a melancholy Scottish band. I felt myself radically welcoming her. It’s in relationships, political, community, and personal that we create community from chaos.
From “All/Us/We: a Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron” curated by Kevin Spicer at Highways Performance Space, Santa Monica.
This is from an event called Connecting Cultures, presented by Poets & Writers Magazine at Beyond Baroque last June. The piece itself is an excerpt of the longer piece I did for the Emmett Till Project last year at Highways in a show curated by Kevin Spicer. I also did a performance of “Three Playing Fields” for the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival this year.