When Black Was a Color

Esther and Al, a lovely married couple that helped us with the housework and odd jobs, were my introduction to racism

My mom, with four kids and a workaholic husband, occasionally conceded she was not Superwoman and called in a lovely married couple that helped her with the housework and odd jobs.

North Hollywood in the early '60s was whiter than white and Esther and Al Allen were the only people of color we had ever met, aside from the conductors and dining car waiters on the Super Chief—the train that took us across America to Canada every summer to visit my mom's family.

Not a week goes by, almost 60 years later, that I don't think of them. Of course they are long dead. They must have been in their 50s when they worked for us. I can still see the wiry gray hair at Esther's temples and Al's white curls cut close to his head when I close my eyes.

With hands the size of baseball mitts, Al looked like Big Sam, the field hand at Tara in "Gone With the Wind," a film I wouldn't see until I was 14. He had the easy smile, gentle countenance and open heart of Big Sam. We loved him.

When Esther and Al pulled up in their old Ford truck, my sisters and I would jump on Al and climb him like a tree. He could hold all three of us in his arms at once. We'd shout with happiness when he threw us up in the air, catching us easily in his arms.

Sitting side by side in the back of his old truck, I'd study his hands, running my tiny white fingers over his dark skin, calloused and cracked but with surprisingly soft pink palms. He could throw an old couch or an ugly end table into the back of that truck with those hands like he was tossing in pieces of firewood.

Where Al was big, Esther was slight. An elegant woman with the energy of someone much younger, Esther was friendly and talkative. She and my mom chattered away for hours while washing floors and doing laundry. My biggest regret is I didn't listen. I wish I knew what they talked about—the slim 33-year-old white woman from Canada and the old black grandma from Illinois—what common ground they found amongst such different backgrounds.

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When I look back, my happiest memory of Esther and Al is the delicious feeling of non-judgment. We knew they were Negroes because people called them that, but we didn't make that distinction. We also had no knowledge of segregation, being so young. And since racism is learned behavior and our parents weren't racists, people were people.

I was 7 when I had my first encounter with racism. A neighborhood kid called me a WOP. (My family is Italian.) When I asked my mom what that meant, she said, "It means Bruce is a jerk. And you can tell him I said so."

My first glimpse of systemic racism was during the Watts riots that erupted in August 1965, the day after my 12th birthday.

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Watching the riots unfold on TV was something new. A few years later, we would watch the Vietnam War in the same way—every night on the six o'clock news. I can still see the footage of the flag-draped coffins of the young men sent back home for burial. They don't do that anymore.

The evening of the first day of the riots, my family crowded onto the couch in front of the TV set. We watched the beatings, fires, looting and shootings—all the anger and the ugliness that had simmered for years, decades, centuries—happen in real time over four tragic days.

It seemed to take place somewhere far, far away but it wasn't far at all. Maybe 20 miles? We knew it only as the place we drove by on the way to Disneyland.

"Esther and Al live in Compton," my mom said.

"Where's that?" I asked.

"South of downtown," my dad said. " You're watching history being made here, kids."

My dad was right, it was historic. But now, after a lifetime of witnessing countless uprisings year after year after year, and everything—the dead fathers, mothers and children, the same never-ending bloodshed and racism—I think about Esther and Al. What did they really think of us? Did they love us as much as we loved them or did they suffer the white woman's charity because they had to? I choose to think it was love.

A few days after the riot ended, my mom called Esther. The phone rang and rang but no one answered. She called every day for weeks until one day someone finally answered.

"This number has been disconnected," a voice said.

It was a recorded message.

We never saw Esther and Al again. I've pored through the list of the people who died in that riot and they aren't on it. Neither are any of their family members.

I like to think they moved somewhere peaceful. I imagine them growing old together with dignity, surrounded and loved by people who appreciated their goodness. But where? Where could they have gone? If you know of such a place, please, could you tell me how to get there?

Tags: friendship