I was pregnant with my daughter in April of 1992 when the police officers in the Rodney King beating were acquitted and the riots erupted in Los Angeles. I was a student then, and between my classes and work my husband and I would watch the news at every chance we could get.
Although I was 24 at the time, sadly it was my first exposure to the racial tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans. At that time, there was only one Korean grocery store in our entire state and whatever tensions might have been between our tiny Korean American population and the African American population were, for me, entirely unknown.
Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be a volunteer faciliator for our YWCA’s “It’s Time To Talk” forums. Over a thousand people attended the luncheon, where we sat in tables of 10 and had a dialogue about race and the impact of race on our personal lives and communities. At each table was a facilitator.
Our keynote speaker was Anna Deavere Smith, and I had heard of her as an actor, but was unaware of her film, Twilight: Los Angeles, in which Deavere Smith portrays people she met and interviewed in the aftermath of the LA Riots. Deavere Smith performed a few of the characters from her film for our participants.
One of the characters is a Korean American store owner whose business was torched during the riots. Her performance brought me to tears. It is amazing how Deavere Smith can get so into the characters that you begin to believe she IS that person. Deavere Smith quotes Cornell West’s distinction between optimism and hope; optimism is “based on the notion that there’s enough evidence that allows us to think that things are going to be better.” But hope – hope is saying, “it doesn’t look good at all – so we’re going to make a leap of faith and create new possibilities based on new visions and allow us to engage in heroic actions against the odds.”
Deavere Smith also uses the metaphor of “Safe Houses,” saying that we as people tend to congregate in “safe houses” of people who think and look and act like us. She encourages us to step out of those “safe houses” and once we do, we are transformed and can never return.
I am a huge believer in art as a political and transformative action. Watching Ms. Deavere Smith’s performance yesterday brought a humanity and personal connection that all the repeated CNN clips of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots did not. Of course, I was horrified at the time, like millions of others in our country. But it was all so far away for me – and because I was so emotionally and geographically distanced, in a way it seemed like a movie about a riot instead of a real, live disaster.
I ordered Twilight: Los Angeles and plan to watch it with my kids. I want them to understand how important the LA Riots were in our country’s history since they were not there to see it. They will learn about this time in history in school; but will they listen to the voices of those who were there? At 13, my daughter has a fairly mature concept of racial tensions and racial relations for her age and I think this film will help educate her even more. I want my children to be willing to step outside of their safe houses. And in thinking about Cornell West’s quote, I too want to help my children have hope – not just blind optimism that leads to a passively waiting for things to get better – but the kind of hope that leads to actions as a personal agent of change.
For an interview with Anna Deavere Smith, check out this online video podcast here.
Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/.