A Talk With Brenda Stevenson

GCC's One Book program brings acclaimed author to talk about the impetus for the L.A. Riots

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Alexander Sampson

Harlins presents photos of the L.A. Riots.

Marian Sahakyan, Managing Editor

One gunshot. A 15-year-old girl. A contested murder. A killer who walked free. And a story that missed the headlines.

This one’s about Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl living in South Central Los Angeles, who was shot and killed by a Korean immigrant shopkeeper, Soon Ja Du. After a small dispute in Du’s liquor store over a bottle of orange juice and whether or not the girl was planning to pay for it, Harlins turned around to leave, but unfortunately never made it out. She was shot in the head. She died with $2 in her hand.

The story of Harlins touched the hearts of many and, expectedly, triggered the disobedient and violent uprising of an entire people, starting the Los Angeles Riots of 1992.

Though her case became very known within African Americans, it is evident that very few people outside of the community actually remember her name. Her story became overshadowed by the beating of Rodney King, and we as a nation recognized King as the face of this entire movement.

It’s a thing that society does, stigmatize. King was the big black guy, who did not want to listen to the police. That’s what they wanted to see, so they forgot the entire story of the young woman who went to the store for orange juice, but never came back.

To move forward the forgotten story, Brenda Stevenson, an award-winning author and UCLA professor, spent 20 years of her life researching and writing the book, “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins,” which hit the bookstands in 2013.

Since the publishing of the book, it has received a lot of attention and love. Glendale Community College was not one to stay behind, as they chose this human interest story, for the One Book 2018 program.

By purchasing unlimited license to the book, the GCC library hopes to bring more cultural knowledge to campus.

After her Keynote speech, Stevenson sat down with El Vaquero staff to discuss the struggles of being an educated African-American woman in the Rodney King era, her career at UCLA, racial stigma and more.

What is your background?

Well, I am originally from Virginia and I grew up in an area that was under racial parting. When I was growing up, everything was separate, races were separate. We could not use the same water fountains, or use the same bathrooms, or the churches or the movie theaters or the restaurants. Where you lived was completely segregated. I grew up with always the notion of racial difference and racial hostility that existed in the world. My parents raised us to believe that all people are created equal under God.

What inspired you to write this book?

My family comes from the South, my mother’s family still lives in the land in which they had been enslaved. That’s what I think what inspired me to write the book. My mother would tell me sometimes horrific, sometimes beautiful stories about our ancestors in the South and it just captured my imagination and planted a seed.

How did growing up in an area of racial conflict help shape who you are now? Did it make you better or bitter?

I come from a really Christian family and I’m very much invested in my Christianity, and I like to teach people and I think a lot of the time when we come across a difficulty, it’s mostly because of people just not knowing any better. They’re just being taught things, the way their society explains things or the way that the media exploits racial difference.

How do you make others more culturally aware?

I feel really blessed to come to a community college and to work at a state university where I get lots of students in my classroom where we can explore these kinds of issues. I think that people aren’t really born some kind of way. They’re socialized. They’re taught to be racist. They’re taught to be sexist. And I think that the opportunity to teach people to understand the roots for this.

What is your mission as a professor?

My main responsibility as a faculty is to help young people acquire their dreams. To help them on the way to get what they want out of their lives. I do want to help people understand the racial conflict in this country and globally and where that comes from.

Why UCLA?

One of the reasons why I was attracted to UCLA to teach was because they had a large African-American student body.

How did your book come about?

I was drawn into this story because I had just moved to Los Angeles and I kind of just saw it unfold. I was trying to understand this new place I’m living, why is this so different from the East Coast?

It took 20 years for me to write the book, because first of all I was trained to look more at the slavery or the Deep South, to look at women in the United States.

I wasn’t trained to look at Jewish women or Korean women, which had a big importance in this case. I had to go back and learn all of this. Learn about immigration in other ways.

I had to learn about when women got in as judges, as lawyers. I had to learn about urban life.

Were there any setbacks during this period?

Life happens. I had my baby, my child was being raised. I was being chair of the department at UCLA. I was publishing in my other field, which is really slavery. I was writing articles and editing things. So it was taking me a really long time to finish this book. I had to decide. I had to stop being an administrator, so I gave up being chair and I had to give up a lot of other things in order to finish the book.

How did it feel to be an educated African American woman when your community was viewed so negatively?

When you’re on the East Coast, you always hear about laid-back L.A. It had the most diversity in the country at the time. I was taken back when this happened. It was something that was happening all over the country. I had to wrap my mind around it.

 

Marian Sahakyan can be reached at [email protected]