All must die. When my grandfather died, in the fall of last year, at the age of ninety-four, I realized for the first time just how much he shaped my understanding of America, and even more so of California—with its promise of sunshine, beautiful people, dashed origins and rebirth from their ashes. My grandfather was as much a product of the state he hailed from, Louisiana, as he was the state where he found refuge, California.
He was born during a flood. He learned carpentry as a young boy, because how else could his family live way out there in the woods as three generations of free black people unless they knew how to build their own homes? From his people he learned to avoid snakes, dark water, and empty roads. As a young man, he watched two of his uncles ride off into the woods, never to be seen again. And when it seemed like it was his time to go the way of the ghost—as so many black boys do, despite having been told to say yes, sir, and keep their dignity so low to the ground and small that almost nobody can see it—my grandfather fought back. He refused to obey the man who told him to jump from that bridge into the bayou, or else. He couldn’t swim, so my grandfather kicked that man’s ass and invented a third option: Los Angeles.
They used to say that the little LA (Louisiana) had a direct line to the big LA (Los Angeles). That sooner or later, if you wanted to dream big, live free, and watch the stars, you went west and left everything behind. So that is what he did: he left. He left his blind mother, his fiddle-playing father, his eleven siblings and their small island in the swamps, and went west. When my grandmother joined him in California and didn’t think she could raise their child out there, he let her leave, too. My grandfather wanted to be a man more than anything. To him, California was the only place where he could do that.
LA was a black Shangri-La—all Marcel waves, the art deco lights of the boulevards, Okeh race records, and limber legs kicking up from pretty dancers in the nightclubs along Rosecrans. In California, my grandfather encountered and experienced things he couldn’t have imagined. On a whim, one day he walked into a store and purchased his first suit. Years later, he purchased a nice car—a cream-colored Oldsmobile convertible. These were things that he had never done before, and in Louisiana they would have required a great deal of planning, if not subterfuge. If the South was about bondage, here we are talking about freedom. If the South was a blues song—fated to sing of bad loads, failures, devils and the divine, cotillions, lost lovers and love lost, lynchings, cotton fields like Elysiums, magnolia trees dreary with heavy ivory bulbs, and the sweet stink of cedar—then the city of Los Angeles was a place that sounded like jazz. He met exotic girl thieves who taught him tennis but stole his quarters (earnings from his other pastimes: poker and the horse races at Hollywood Park) from the floor of his car when he drove them home. He commuted to Anaheim to work construction on a theme park that seemed to be made of magic. To earn his keep, he helped his brother build an addition on his house. At his funeral, his niece recalled a night when he went to bed bone weary from all of this work, and, when the entire house began to shake and the clapboard floors rolled like waves, my grandfather, equal parts fearless and exhausted, just pulled the covers over his head and told them that he promised to hold on tight. He would see them in the morning. That was how he passed his first major earthquake.
My grandfather liked to look on the bright side. Even when I visited him in Los Angeles for one of the last times, he insisted things weren’t so bad. He was eking out a living on the money we sent and social security. My mother asked him to come east to stay with us, but he refused. He had lived in this building for almost fifty years, but now the upstairs neighbors were what he called “young bloods,” guys who threatened to shoot him when he complained about their noise. The landlord wanted him out to raise the rent; he needed more money for the place. All my grandfather had were a few worn tracksuits and his rusted golf clubs. No one needed an eighty-year-old carpenter, no matter how clever he was: he’d worked hard but had made next to nothing.
California had once been fertile ground for him, but in the end it, too, was bound to the country that had long seen him and us as subservient human beings. But my grandfather preferred not to focus on that sort of thing. On that last visit, though, I pushed my grandfather to tell me about his life in Los Angeles. Gradually, our conversation turned to Watts, to the riots, when people took to the streets, sick of smiling, tired of waiting for the promised land, angry at being over-policed by officers more invested in preserving the half-lives of property—refrigerators, stores, and businesses—than they were in ensuring justice and liberty for all. My grandfather had been there for all of it.
On the first two days, he had hidden under his bed. He had known trouble once, on that bridge back home, and, now older and wiser, he didn’t want any more. So he locked himself in and crawled under the bed, hoping it would run its course. But it did not.
On the third day, he turned on his radio. He opened his door and smelled fire—hungry and consuming.
It was sometime on the fourth day or fifth day that he got his ladder and went up to his roof. He used to tell my sister and me, when we made decisions that he deemed reckless—moving to Brazil, insisting on dating bad men, dropping out of college—that he did this so that his thoughts and concerns would be closer to God. On that day in 1965, he did it to see.
On that day, having heard no word from his friends and family, he found himself wondrously free and once again unafraid of death. So he sat there on his Spanish-tiled roof and watched the next generation burn to the ground the city that he loved so much.
You just watched? I asked him. Why?
Why? Don’t you see me? I’m old. So old I was old even then. And I already knew that in this life all you have to be is the sort of person who, if you encounter a bear, the bear moves.
He could tell I wanted more. That this time I didn’t want aphorism, I wanted an answer. So he obliged me as he always did. With a sigh.
That is to say: You gotta be strong. You gotta be brave. For me, being strong was staying dry and outta that swamp. For those kids coming up after me in Watts, there wasn’t no bridge; there was a fire. A fire that burned for six days and even when they put it out that fire let the world know they were no longer afraid. Not of any old thing. Not even death.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum,Transition, and Rolling Stone. Her profile of Dave Chappelle for the Believer, “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” was a finalist for the 2014 National Magazine Award. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine. And she lives in New York City.
Dedicated to—those in Watts now and fifty years ago, to those who are brave, and to Robert L. Sanders, who was born August 25, 1919 in Louisiana, who died on October 18, 2013 in California, and who remained absolutely fearless in the interim.