Oakland, California (TFC) – With the recent 50th anniversary of the march on Selma; Alabama riding shotgun with multiple instances of civil rights violations saturating the media in Ferguson, New York City, and several others; a nation polarized on the state of race-relations fumbles aimlessly through episodes of historical amnesia as minorities strive to come to terms with what it means to be second-class citizens in the most prosperous nation in the world. Attending a forum on ‘Race, Culture and Violence’ at my university on behalf of a ‘History of Peace and Non-Violent Action’ philosophy class, I wondered what I would hear.
The spacious, breezy portion of the new student building was stocked full of students in various states of awareness. Some appearing lost in arbitrary points of space and time, notching in their heads another chance at an extra credit presentation; allowing much earned breathing room at the end of a semester in which a few points could make all the difference between the triumph and tragedy of coveted GPA’s predicting success or failure in life.
Others, perhaps, were enjoying a slightly more palpable thread of anticipation. Maybe this arbitrary experience, advertised on clusters of bulletin boards dotting the campus in indiscriminate batches, would be a time when a morsel of inspiration would flood notions that participating in one’s education outside the prospect of a grade, would unfurl a story to change one’s life: By propagating illumination to answers on fundamental questions of life and death – through the redemption of love realized. Not a bad thing to look back upon when sending in those loan payments, as you gaze at that framed 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper dictating your academic merits.
When the mocha-tinged, bald headed man enters the room, it is to an anticipatory silence, having been caught up in traffic on the way to the presentation, he is privy to the attention span of a room full of tech-savvy post-teenagers bored before he even began. The forum on “Race, Culture and Violence” is a story he has spent the better part of his life telling and re-telling, and it never gets old.
Donald Lacey is a jovial, easy going gentleman who embraced the crowd with the humanitarian grace of someone who obviously enjoys being around people. Mr. Lacey gives off a strength of character exemplified in his regaling of the personal circumstances which led him to his calling in life, bringing his personal tragedy of violence among the species to light, and the journey from the ink-jet crevice of darkness from which such inspiration was bred.
“Usually, the first thing I tell people I’m speaking to is, not to worry, I’m not a terrorist.” Opening his bit with this anecdote was reflected in the confused chuckles and nervous glances appropriated to what such a statement elicits when spoken to a crowd peppered with the ghosts of the post-911 generation.
“No, seriously, that’s the way I usually had to approach people I was speaking to, that is, before I cut my hair and beard. I used to look like a cross between a Beatnik and Fidel Castro with the length and type of hairstyle I used to sport.”
This pertaining to a non-Caucasian persuasion has led him to assorted epiphanies, of why, for example, when sitting next to a woman in an airplane, as all are awash in the creaking, monotone silence of hundreds of people packed to the gills in a synthetic cylinder capable of featherless flight, he would be witness to this comment to a hapless stewardess:
“Um, excuse me, ma’am?”
“This gentleman is obviously Middle-Eastern, can I move?”
As these things are bound to work out, when the lack of another seat failed to rear its plastic head, Lacey and his uncomfortable neighbor were left to strike up a conversation, of which the woman then had eased up considerably. The two of them then had spent the remainder of the flight engaged in the common practice of what the species are designed to do: commune and connect.
“Now you know all human beings are from Mesopotamia, right? It’s where folk’s first orchestrated a communal-survival, there among the rustling-reeds of the Tigris and Euphrates, it’s one of the few things science and religion agree on.”
With this began his story, which at times brought the room to a standstill in its theme of tragedy reborn, of a parental narrative of redemption weaving through a cacophonous pain unimagined; the unnatural death of a child and the subsequent journey to find meaning in such a wanton act of total disregard for what the sanctity of life entails.
Growing up in Oakland in the 70’s
As a child, Donald Lacey became prescient that the fear a good spanking instilled reflected a healthy respect for authority, not a debilitating fear meant to induce paranoia and shame, just a sound warning that breaking the rules meant a “good butt-whipping,” something to be avoided at all costs.
In realizing this, it was how he framed his memories of childhood, playing outside all day with his friends, trying like the feathered murmur of the birds which soared above his outstretched fingertips, grazing days in the journey, all too aware of the lightning-quick slaps to the behind his loving mother imparted when and if he strayed from the rules, which were meant to keep him safe.
The juxtaposition of his mother performing her maternal duties and the culture of violence that defined and refined his childhood journey growing up in the inner-city of Oakland, California in the 1960’s, was the cornerstone of his existence; describing the systematic violence so prevalent-that there was literally a “Horse-drawn carriage for the drug kingpin to ride in.” The image always reminded him what flavor of life was in store for those that did not, or would not, find an alternative out of the ghetto.
The Black Panthers were a staple in Lacey’s journey through adolescence, the black berets a proud alternative to the homogenized frequencies of poverty racked violence and perpetual shame that it accompanied. He was fortified through these experiences, learning that the premise of the American Dream was a multi-hued palace of hazy, ethical practices, a two-tiered tyranny enacted by competing governing and corporate bodies; a systematic poverty as a means of subjugation meant that laws broken by the law makers was the rule de norm, which nurtured acquiescence to a history of undaunted, and unbridled racism. This stereotyped worldview lay waste to many of the neighborhood children, loomed large in the form of rogue cops and cold hearted gangsters whose most innocent victims they were all to ready to embrace.
Lacey himself experienced these social travesties firsthand: Being stopped by two white police officers at the age of seven for riding his bike on the sidewalk and when reprieved for not having a license to operate one, was an utter stark contrast to any attempt to hide their lack of true concern for his safety, occurring right after the young Lacey had witnessed the body of a murdered man in the local Laundromat, an occurrence that left that intangible, mercurial taste of a true-to-the-marrow, spooked-to-the-core moment that haunts him to this very day.
These events led to a life narrative defined by these experiences, and to the extent to which the infamous “Freeway Rick Ross” being part of his teenage mythos (a man who was responsible for helping introduce freebase cocaine to LA and Oakland) and according to journalistic lore, had been sanctioned by the CIA in order to funnel profits to contras in Nicaragua fighting the Sandinista regime (and of Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra fame).
These events coalesced in the wake of Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘war on drugs,’ with these initial creaks and groans of the current, prison-industrial complex (in which 75% of African-American males rot in prisons for non-violent, drug-related offenses) further was buoyed by instances of cops on the take terrorizing the community and further adding to the stigma of inner-cities being the literal epicenters of perpetual chaotic-cauldrons, spilling out all that is wrong in modern society.
Into this murky séance of human depravity came a thread of light, whose details although forever stitched in that place of turmoil, anchored in him the strongest hope that one day his newborn daughter would find a means to get out of the ghetto, and would impart some sort of resolution through the utter chaos of a dreary existence.
Life Finds a Method to the Madness
Donald Lacey’s daughter was born on January 24, 1981 in a somewhat dilapidated sedan doing 75 miles per hour on the 580 freeway in Richmond, California. He somehow held one hand to the steering wheel and one to his baby-girl’s protruding head, guiding both baby and machine to a place of relative safety, navigating through the various fallopian-thoroughfares of life to the best of his ability the only way to survive. The name LoEshe means “Love-Life” in Ibo-Nigerian, and it signaled in Lacey’s life a complete union of purpose and faith brought concurrent through the absolute love for his baby daughter.
Growing up as her father in spite of circumstances beyond her control, she gave off the avid sparks of the nobler traits of the species, serving as a ‘conflict-resolution-mediator’ in high school, and upon the loss of a beloved classmate to the all too familiar dregs of violence, approached her father in wanting to create a youth-based organization in which she would serve as playwright in presenting relevant topics of the day to her friends and classmates, following in dad’s footsteps as a socially consummate artist.
As Donald Lacey continued his own journey out of the ghetto, excelling as an stand-up comic, playwright, and media producer, it seemed as if he would craft an existence outside of the demographics allotted to him. The statistics and demographic predictions, the bureaucratic projections were staved off as life finds a way, even for the dis-enfranchised, the debauched, the dis-enamored and forgotten. Life seeped through the crevices of expectations and banality as he lived his life and loved his family as the species is engineered to do.
Then came the call, as he was about to go on stage, that his daughter had been felled by a stray bullet meant for another, as she was on her way to cash her first paycheck, a freshly minted body on the existential assembly line of modern society.
Darkness coveted all angles of reason, there was no way out, no way to struggle against the tide of averages-of the life expectancies becoming young African-Americans living in the inner cities of America.
It was when former Black Panther leader, Geronimo Pratt, called him from prison that day to ask him what needed to be done in order to deal with her death, that he realized the depth of where he was willing to plunge to in order to sate that anger, that incorrigible blood-lust whispering demon threatening to destroy what was left of his world.
Then the words of his 101 year old grandmother rang in his echoing, raging heart:
“What the devil meant for evil, god is gonna turn for good.” That godless day-complete with cryptic message, saved him from committing that same violence, receiving the call that his daughter had been murdered on her way to cash her first paycheck just as he was to go on stage at the Improv in LA as a stand-up comedian becacme the pivotal cornerstone of his sanity. LoEshe had been the victim of the violence that had trailed his time on Earth: Witness to it all his life growing up, but it would not define him, would not control him, and would not be the ultimate gift of his daughter to the rest of the world.
Every year the “Love-Light Foundation” marches through the streets were LoEshe’ Adanma (daughter of beauty) was killed. Orchestrating gun buy-back programs, soldering community ties with its Arts and Media Training Academy, after-school programs and, of course, live theatre. Donald Lacey has been invited to the White House, and LoveLife week was observed on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2000. His work as an artist reflecting society has turned into a burgeoning and respected career. In his art, Lacey whips up that age old synthesis of comedy and tragedy into a pertinent mix of truth, terror and laughter. Thus his art and the Love-Light Foundation give Lacey, a man whose butter-blissed radiance was as infectious as the raw empathy inherent in his every gesture, whose pure breath and range a testament to the human condition, something to smile about.