2013 Signoffs: Short Stories About A Few Remarkable Lives
Before 2013 ends, the Code Switch team pauses to remember some remarkable individuals who died this year and whose stories you might not have heard.
Looks can indeed be deceiving. If you saw cultural critic and novelist Albert Murray walking down the street, you might think you were looking at an upper-middle-class, African-American stick-in-the-mud. And you'd be two-thirds right.
Albert Lee Murray was indeed well-educated, well-heeled (and exceedingly well-dressed), and he was certainly, in today's parlance, African-American. (Emphasis on the American.) But despite the professorial tweed jackets, highly polished oxfords and his wool Trilby placed just so, Murray was no stick-in-the-mud. In fact, no less an authority than Duke Ellington once proclaimed him "the unsquarest man I know."
Murray, who died in August at 97 after a long decline, was what some people would consider an oxymoron: He was a race man, through and through, and an integrationist. In the late 1960s and early '70s, when the Black Arts movement celebrating a separate black aesthetic was powerfully influential, Murray would have none of it. Black art, he declared, is American art. Period. One of his best friends was the celebrated artist Romare Bearden, whose multiformat centered on his Southern upbringing, his adopted Harlem and American jazz. Murray believed Bearden to be the equal of any of his contemporaries, and the art world has come to agree. (A picture taken from Murray's balcony on Lennox Terrace formed one of Bearden's most famous collages, The Block.)
Murray was a classmate of Ralph Ellison's at Tuskegee Institute and after graduation spent time in the Army Air Force. Although he would go on to write a series of autobiographical novels about growing up in his Alabama home state, his time in the military isn't reflected in any of them. He just didn't have much interest, he once explained to an interviewer. That part of his life wasn't his passion. His passion, he told his interviewer, was the blues. And the blues' baby, jazz.
Murray believed that the blues and jazz are what make Americans unique, and that they sprang from the black American experience. He explained in The Devil's Music, a documentary about jazz:
Murray's vision of America was that of a country that has been immeasurably enriched in every way by the presence of people first brought here in manacles. And he believed that these various cultures are inextricably entwined. He spent much of his life analyzing jazz and the blues, and he talked in a jazz cadence, even using it as an end-of-life metaphor:
You are born, he told an interviewer at Auburn University, "and you have so many bars after this. And the more you can make it swing, when you're gone, it doesn't matter."
In this I would disagree with Mr. Murray. Because he certainly made it swing while he was here. And he's gone. And he still matters.
— Karen Grigsby Bates
One day about 10 years ago, Elizabeth Garcia had a meeting with her insurance agent and a development officer at the University of Texas. She wanted to make a gift to the university, to name the University of Texas Law School as a beneficiary of her life insurance policy.
Garcia had attended UT's law school herself. And she was 37, on her way up the ranks as a Texas lawyer. She hoped to make it possible for others like her — young folks who'd grown up in the Rio Grande Valley — to attend one of the state's best universities.
Attending UT is a pretty lofty prospect for a kid from the Valley. The region sits on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, right on Texas' southern border with Mexico. Its four counties are among the poorest in the country, and Latinos make up at least 84 percent of the population in each.
Garcia said she first stepped onto the campus around the age of 5 with her uncle. "I knew at that moment that I wanted to come to the University of Texas," she said in a video. "The next thing I knew, I was 18 years old, and I was a freshman who had set foot on campus. It was nothing but sheer excitement. And I knew I'd made it."
She said that during her sophomore year at college, her father suddenly died. "I saw my mother at the young age of 53 being a widow," said Garcia, the youngest of four kids. "So I called her, and I said I think I'm going to withdraw from my classes. And she was at my door the next day, knocking on my door. She said, 'You're not withdrawing from school. This is your dream. This is exactly what you wanted to do. And it's up to me now to make sure that you stay here.' " So Garcia remained a Longhorn.
For a woman described as "just this tiny little thing" by her close friend Rudy Colmenero, Garcia made some big ripples. After getting her J.D. from Texas Southern University, she practiced law for several years in the public sector before moving over to a private firm, where she became a partner two years ago. She sat on the board of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
In 2000, Garcia and a friend, Veronica Rivera, started an informal meeting group for local Latinas. Nora Comstock joined that group a few years later and connected it with similar meeting groups around the nation, forming Las Comadres Para Las Americas, which now counts thousands of members nationwide. Members of the group hold monthly gatherings in cities across the country and participate in national discussions about books by Latina authors.
A few years ago, Garcia moved back to the Valley to live with her aging mother.
In May, Garcia went to Austin to attend a Kentucky Derby party hosted by Colmenero's law firm. Later that night, she had a serious fall along a creek downtown. She died shortly afterward from her injuries, at the age of 48.
So Garcia's gift to the University of Texas has manifested much sooner than anyone expected. Possibly as early as next year, a bilingual student from the Rio Grande Valley will attend UT's law school, thanks in part to the Elizabeth M. Garcia Endowed Presidential Scholarship.
— Matt Thompson
Masud Mehran lived the American dream.
Born in Tehran in 1920, he left Iran for America at age 24 with his first wife, settling in New York, where he later graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University.
But his future wasn't in working the land. Instead, he developed it, building thousands of homes in California's East Bay community of Livermore.
The Sunset Development Co., which he founded in 1951, later converted a 585-acre orchard into an office park in San Ramon, Calif., helping to transform the San Francisco suburb (once derided as "San Remote," according to the Contra Costa Times) into a crossroads for commerce. Chevron, AT&T, General Electric and more than 500 other companies now call the Bishop Ranch Business Park home.
Real estate development became the family business. Mehran's son Alexander now runs the company, along with Mehran's grandson, Alexander Mehran Jr., who serves as senior vice president. But Mehran continued to advise on leasing and new development strategies even during his final years.
"He wasn't one to stop and smell the roses. He was very involved in our business right up until the end," says Alexander Jr.
The younger Mehran adds that his grandfather, who died in November after a short illness, was a proud American and "in love" with his adopted country. After graduating from Cornell, he traveled to all 48 contiguous states before deciding to settle his family in Northern California.
"There were many things about America he loved — the beauty, the people, the mixed culture, the acceptance of people from all different backgrounds," Mehran says. "But the most important thing to him was that it provided him the opportunity to live life the way he wanted to and be free."
— Hansi Lo Wang
As the most prominent African-American poet of Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman leaves behind sizable shoes — and a sizable archive.
"It's huge! We have between 50 to 100 boxes in storage," says her husband, the poet Austin Straus, speaking by telephone from a stuffed garage. "She was a writer for more than 40 years, so she left a trail."
An award-winning writer and finalist for the National Book Award, Coleman, who died at age 67 in November after a long illness, also leaves a legacy that "compelled attention to racism and hatred," according to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, which described her as LA's "unofficial poet laureate."
"The way she transformed her private rage into public art was really the essence of her," says Straus, who co-wrote a collection of poems about marriage with Coleman set for release in April.
Born to working-class parents and raised in Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood, Coleman often drew from her struggles as a black woman in her poetry, which touched on themes of identity, love and daily life in LA.
"She changed the perception of LA with her work. And because of her anger at racism, she transcended LA," Straus says. "Her rage as an artist is understood everywhere because everywhere there are people who are being discriminated against. And they understand that terrible feeling of being dehumanized."
Although best known for her poetry, Coleman also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and even for the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives, for which she won a Daytime Emmy for writing in 1976. As a critic for the Los Angeles Times, she notably deemed Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven, the 2002 follow-up to Angelou's celebrated autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a "sloppily written fake."
"Fear was just not part of her psychological makeup, at least as far as I could tell," says poet and friend Suzanne Lummis.
Richard Modiano, director of Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center in Venice, Calif., where Coleman often gave readings of her work, describes the impact of Coleman's absence from the literary scene as "tremendous."
Recalling William Wordsworth's description of poetry's origins as "emotion recollected in tranquillity," Modiano says Coleman's writing was an exception.
"She was not tranquil. She was burning," he says, "And she carried that energy into her work, and that work touched readers all over the world."
Coleman's fierce energy was on display in her poem "Closing Time." She wrote about a waitress locking up a diner each night:
At Trinity & Santa Barbara
The last clunker on the blacktop is mine
...It's so clear. So desert cold.
... my knuckles are raw from
Washings of countertops, my fists jammed against the
Linings of my empty denim pockets scrounging warmth,
... the stomp of high-stacked heels dare eyes
imagined. I can't contain my laughter or my hurt
and they crack the sky above the wet neon
no arrival no return.
— Hansi Lo Wang