Sunday, August 21, 2016


Writer's Note: This is Part Two of my WHITE ON BLACK series. Extending the motifs illuminated in the blogs, I have made my second appearance at the Silver Lake Library, also under the umbrella title of WHITE ON BLACK .Check out LA Weekly piece. Thank you with heart and hope, Mk PS The third WHITE ON BLACK topic will be ISMS IN HOLLYWOOD and will feature my daughter, Katherine Kearns. 


My grandma Katie, while renting her one-room living space, would choreograph our ride on the buses from Ferguson to one of those glorious old downtown movie houses that showed Big Effervescent Movie Musicals. I was only 8-years old when we went to see South Pacific, splashed across the big screen in all its fabulousness; foreshadowing my future: a film that depicted unrequited love, a drag number and a moral lesson.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

I wonder how my sissy boy self responded to those lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Could I have understood the ache of “Some Enchanted Evening”? Predictably, I screeched when the butch men created campy femaleness, transforming coconuts into titties.

Even though our household echoed with the delivery of pejoratives, taking flight and landing like lethal insects, I knew—even at “seven or eight”—that the “n” word was particularly virulent. Both of my parents used the noxious word—almost always fastened to a specific reference that described a person’s behavior. This is, please believe me, no defense.

However, my father’s work often placed him in an authoritative role with black men who were trained to be subservient, but I never had the impression, not once, that my father had any degree of malice in his heart toward these men (not “boys”) of color. In his case, actions spoke more genuinely than his “casual” use of the “n-word” (remember, this was the Fifties). Yet the sound of the word made me uncomfortable; the powerful venomousness coursed through my body, making me slightly nauseous but not knowing exactly why.

Even at six years old, I distinctly remember something stirring in my being when we gathered around the television set (a temporary gag order must have been placed on the incessant name-calling) to watch Elvis Presley’s ballyhooed performance on the Ed Sullivan

Show. Although the television cameras were determined to censor Presley’s pulsating lower body, my lower body was awakening to the clarion call of sexual desire.

Zo, my traveling bud (etc), and I decided to visit Memphis on our way to see my brother, incarcerated at a Missouri federal penitentiary in Charleston, Missouri; about 150 miles between the two locations. Visiting Graceland is only one of the multitudinous treats that my bro will undoubtedly never experience, even if he does get paroled before he turns 75.

"It is a commercialized piece of real estate 
that posits itself as monumental as Mount Rushmore 
but isn’t even worthy of comparisons to Grant’s Tomb."

So Zo and I bring Graceland into the confines of the prison visiting room, letting Joe know that he is missing nothing on this overblown day-trip. It is a commercialized piece of real estate that posits itself as monumental as Mount Rushmore but isn’t even worthy of comparisons to Grant’s Tomb.

Knowing my brother’s quirkiness regarding race (in spite of his apparent shift of perception during the past decade), we avoid too much storytelling regarding the pinnacle of our visit to Memphis: the Lorraine Motel—brilliantly attached, emotionally and architecturally, to the National Civil Rights Museum—where Martin Luther King was assassinated.

After parking the rental car, Zo and I nonchalantly turn a corner and our bodies involuntarily freeze. Approximately twenty yards in front of us is the balcony where King was shot.

I try to recreate the horrific moment. He has just stepped onto the balcony to deliver a speech to support the striking sanitation workers, when a single bullet enters the right side of his face, approximately an inch to the right, and a half inch below, his mouth. His jaw is fractured as the bullet exits the lower part of his face and reenters the body in the neck area, severing vital arteries and fracturing the spine in several places, causing severe damage to the spinal column.

He tumbles to the ground in a pool of blood. Andrew Young rushes to King’s imperiled body in order to check his pulse.

The bullet came from the direction of a rooming house across the street where a man is seen escaping on foot, leaving clues to his identity. A fugitive from the Missouri State Prison, James Earl Gray is not apprehended for two months.

Never regaining consciousness, King is pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

The previous night, he delivered a sermon containing these immortal words: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain,” King said. “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

I was finishing high school when King died, focusing on my potential career as an actor. In the typical white American unconsciousness of the Kearns family, Reverend King did not get star billing. Do I remember where I was when I heard of his death? I don’t. I don’t remember being taught much about King, a pivotal player in our political/cultural arena, not even a mention in the “Current Events” aspect of our Social Studies class.

"Even though she was far more interested in The Lion King 
than Martin Luther King, I persisted..."

Honoring Martin Luther King Day, I began reading King’s historic speech to Katherine, my black adopted daughter, when she was nine or ten years old. Even though she was far more interested in The Lion King than Martin Luther King, I persisted—even insisting we go to the Martin Luther King Day parade. Surveying the crowd where her daddy was one of the few whites in a sea of many-hued black folk, she said—with so much emotion it was emotionless—“Now you know what it feels like.”

She was not the only one who could deliver a good punchline. Maintaining the mantle of Kearns’ storytelling, we have “colored” (so to speak) this folklore for audience reaction (so laugh if you want to):

“Is that your baby?” some dingbat woman asked me, standing in line at the grocery store. “No, I’m babysitting for Diana Ross,” I deadpanned. “Where’s Mommy?” was a common query, marked by extreme thoughtlessness in spite of the questioner’s theatrically furrowed brow. “I’m her Mommy,” I deadpanned with a bit of an edge. Finally, one busybody who had seen too many television pilots, asked, “Are you her nanny?” I was finally at a loss for words.

“I’m black,” she proclaimed with a tone of discovery—half kidding, the other half plaintively serious—over long distance lines from Bournemouth, England, where she was in her first year of college in 2013; her first year in a truly diverse setting during a critical time for most twenty year olds when identity and ideology begin to take shape.

Ironically, her personal discovery has accompanied an America increasingly out of control with a tone of racial unrest that feels terror-based. After Trayvon was shot, it seems like the sound of gunfire—much of it aimed at black people, inexorably shot by white cops—has not ceased, resulting in a relentless numbness for me: the ineluctable 24/7 numbness of being the parent of a black child.

It is imperative for me is to be vigilant to the emotional cues that come with the numbness that pervades my black child. Because even though Katherine is about to turn twenty-two, she is my black child. Even though she can orchestrate (and pay) for a trip—by herself—that traversed a section of the Midwest, she is my black child.

When she insisted on being dropped off curbside at the airport, Zo and I complied. And as Katherine slung a backpack over her shoulder, with a sense of her father’s bravado, she gave us those de rigueur airport hugs and kisses, then disappeared into the crowd.

My black child disappeared into the crowd. My anxiety was no different than when I dropped her off for her first day of kindergarten. Rules at the progressive school she attended were not to be disregarded; we had been instructed to deposit our kids, providing a simple hug but be careful not to fuel the potential of our children’s dependence.

My black little girl went to kindergarten (with predominantly white “peers”). I drove away crying, knowing that the “goodbyes” would begin mounting and I would be, like it or not, letting go (a phrase I’d like to bury). I don’t know how many goodbyes separated the first day of kindergarten and the wrenching experience of leaving her in England to pursue her studies after high school.

Katherine had returned to America in time for Mike Brown’s death, significantly occurring in a part of the country she had actually visited; a place untarnished became a scene of horror that she, along with the rest of the world, saw immortalized over and over on every news outlet that existed: Ferguson became iconic during the amount of time that Brown’s body was frying on the street in the blistering August sun.

Brown’s death is what began the discourse, and continues to energize our father-daughter relationship, virtually on a daily basis; his murder, the country’s mood and my daughter’s stimulating response has resulted in my conscious commitment to travel this vibrant black cultural road, encompassing its bumpy past and its precarious future, alongside her. Katherine is my guide, my teacher, and what she endures, and what all black people endure, informs my morality.

If I cannot find my way into the interior life that she battles? If I cannot empathize with her unique place in the world she inhabits, I will have failed her—as a father, as a human being.

Race has begun to dominate my palette as I—with worn-down energy playing opposite accelerated passion—dedicate my artistic construct and my public position, to the black lives that matter. And my daughter holds my hand and whispers truths in my ear.

 "Ferguson became iconic during the amount of time that 
Brown’s body  was frying on the street in the blistering August sun."

During decades spent in service to the GLBT lives that matter and the AIDS deaths that matter, racial consciousness was largely treated like a distant cousin when it likely should have been looked at as a sibling. I have begun to adjust my allegiances, as I complete my sixth decade on this exhilarating social justice train, in art and in life.

And while I may not be able to move mountains, I will determinedly look over towering purple mountaintops as my daughter points—with reticence but also with hope—toward the Promised Land.

We, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. 

Friday, August 5, 2016


This blog and its follow up next week appear in conjunction with a CONVERSATION (not a lecture, not a performance) that I'm conducting at the Silver Lake Library on August 13 @ 3:00 PM. Open to the public. Mk

Part One

The city of Ferguson meant Grandma Katie, the sole presence in my stricken childhood who made me feel okay about my gawky self; not only “okay” but of value, worthy. Grandma Katie made me feel loved. Ferguson = Grandma Katie = love.

My daughter, Katherine, was about to turn twenty (her day of birth, separated only by one, from her great grandmother’s) when Ferguson became as famous as Paris but without the allure of romance and sophistication.

Katherine wraps herself in photographs of the Kearns’ family, dating back before her daddy was born; and, oh, how my girl loves to hear stories—whether hilariously off-kilter and often off-color or the stuff of real tragedy.

Grandma Katie (my daughter’s namesake, if you didn’t already guess) lived in Ferguson in the early Sixties. And I’d visit her as often as I could. She rented a room in the house of a middle-class family; this disturbed my daughter; she couldn’t reconcile that a woman who raised five boys, singlehandedly, would be relegated to one-room in a virtual stranger’s home.

Daddy,” she pleaded, on one of our earlier excursions to Ferguson and environs, “tell me about the time she caught your uncle tying his teddy bear to the railroad tracks.” We began visiting my brother, behind bars in the nearby county of Charleston where he is doing time on a murder charge, shortly after 911.

“Doing the dishes, Grandma Katie was looking out the kitchen window,” I tell my daughter for the umpteenth time, “knowing it was time for the train to come coursing through town when she had to ascertain her boys’ whereabouts. There was little John, busily tying his teddy bear to the railroad tracks, glancing in the direction of the oncoming choo-choo. Panicking, she ran from their small house, yelling at the top of her lungs as she approached her calmly focused son, almost finished with his dramatic task.

“’Boy, what are you doing?’ she asked, grabbing him and the imperiled little stuffed animal. ‘Mommy,’ he said, in a reasonable voice of compassion: ‘I’m just checking to see if my teddy bear will bleed.’”

I swear I see blood on the Ferguson street. I can smell it, almost taste it. There is an odd marking on the asphalt, rectangular in shape, that measures approximately eight feet by four feet, proclaiming the exact spot where Michael Brown’s body remains in a pool of blood—“beet red,” according to one witness—for four hours plus in the sweltering heat on August 9, 2014. The boy’s body receives at least six bullets, the first four strike him in the right arm and shoulder and the last two in the head. Darren Wilson performs the coup de grace by aiming the final bullet into the top of Brown’s head; to make sure he is indubitably dead.
Nearly two years have elapsed but I am compelled to revisit those events, envision them, maybe even feel them, standing in the unforgiving sunshine with Brian Clarke, my friend from our shared days at Normandy High School (Mike Brown’s Alma Mater as well). 
Brian and I buy a teddy bear at Target, blessed by a very young black saleswoman when we tell her where we’re taking the little creature). We expect to find a heap of items that conjured Mike, but I would later learn that his father, unable to deal with the constant public reminder of his son’s death, removed the memorial on what would have been Mike’s nineteenth birthday.
 Looking at the spot where Mike lost his life, I try to imagine the visceral churning of his mother when she arrives at the scene. “I stormed up and down the sidewalk,” she says. In her book (Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil), Leslie McSpadden] writes: “‘Where is he? Where's the one who did this to my child?’ I got closer to one of them whose face had a permanent scowl carved into it. He stood over me. ‘Ya'll muthafuckas gonna have to answer to this,’ I challenged, looking up at him, square in the eye like I was every bit of the giant he was. 
"’Well, we some good motherfuckers,’" he growled, then threw up his middle finger.” 

Katherine was ten when I—amidst puzzled responses from various factions in my life—allowed her to decide whether or not she wanted to visit her uncle in prison. Understandably, she was indecisive. I had explained the harsh realities: the scary sounds of buzzers and the threatening sounds of metallic doors slamming shut; I told her about the visiting room itself, detailing some of the fervent complexities she would likely observe. She decided to remain in the car with a dear friend who had driven us from St Louis.
 "...Wilson performs the coup de grace by aiming the final bullet into the top of Brown’s head; to make sure he is indubitably dead."
“It’s totally okay, sweetie,” I said, hugging her tightly before I marched up to join the line that was forming outside.

Within a few moments, I glanced at the parking lot to see my little girl, bravely running toward me with her considerable ferocity. “I changed my mind, Daddy,” she whispered.

Katherine has since accompanied me on yearly visits, building a bond with my brother—in the confines of a prison visiting room—that is perhaps the most potent evolution of a black-white relationship I have ever witnessed. My brother has had redneck-racist leanings since I can remember, unabashedly expressed; the volume on that aspect of his personality—an aspect of all our personalities, I believe—has reduced mightily.

The young woman he proudly calls his niece—although they are related not by blood but by love and understanding and empathy—has affected her uncle’s deeply entrenched prejudices. In momentary exchanges, also transpiring in the emotionally-charged visiting room, I have also perceived his increasingly fraternal comfort with Black co-prisoners.

When Michael Brown life’s was take by a cop, I asked Katherine if she remembered going to the Ferguson Farmer’s Market (a decade prior)—to see Brian, my high school buddy, do his popular one-man band performance.

“I think I pointed out the bus stop where I got off when I came to visit Grandma Katie,” I reminded her. Of course she remembered that Ferguson, prior to it becoming a city that is permanently part of America’s blighted history; a city that birthed Black Lives Matter, a city that she will now remember to tell her grandchildren about.
 "...perhaps the most potent evolution of a black-white relationship that I have ever witnessed."
Katherine had recently trekked from the West Coast to the Midwest, for two days, both of them spent visiting her uncle—on her own, logistically and financially.

A few weeks later—on the day that the remaining accused cops were officially crowned blameless in the murder of Freddie Gray—my brother expressed his “fear” during one of our periodic phone calls; fear for Katherine’s safety. “I worry about her,” he said.

My brother and I avoid the words “black” or “cop” or “Trump” or “liberal” or “Democrat” or “Republican” but those, and dozens of other words, are the unspoken underpinnings of our private thoughts, and the thoughts of many conflicted family members, that are electrifying the phone lines of America.

“This thing that has happened over the years, this family we’ve created, the three of us,” he says, “It’s…it’s…”

Like a miner searching for gold, his mind grasps/rejects/grasps, determined to deliver the right word. And he does: “…beautiful.”