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HATS **TW: Murder**

21 November 2022:


My Grandpa on my mother's side of the family's, name is Bobby, but his grandchildren (myself included) call him Papa. Papa is 82 years old, from Point Blank Texas (a very small town outside of Houston) and has spent the majority of his adult life working for the city of Los Angeles, California. He spent time painting houses, but his primary profession was as a custodian. My mom told me how when she was a child Papa would take her and her older sister with him to some of his jobs to clean houses and businesses. My mom said to me, "I don't ever remember Daddy having less than two to three jobs at a time." She also told me how she made it a priority for me and my brother and sister to have a childhood where we didn’t have to work to support the household income. That we could use our childhood for play and developing ourselves academically to prepare for our future as adults.


When I first joined the Air Force, I started gifting my family members with souvenirs from the various bases I worked at or places I traveled to. One of my earliest Christmas gifts to Papa back in 2014 was a simple ball cap with an Air Force logo on it. Papa isn’t one to make use of or even utilize gifts that his children or grandchildren give him but I guess he decided to give the hat I gave him a shot.


About a year later I heard from my Aunt that he would like me to get him some more of "those Hats" because "people treat him good" when he wears it. I didn’t quite know what that meant but I had no issue getting him more hats from the Air Force and any other government organizations I worked with.


On this recent trip back to the states, when Papa arrived to the house he was wearing one of the AF hats I had gotten him. The tip of the bill of the hat was worn out and the threading was pealing off! I had never seen a hat so worn. My gift for him for this visit was an "I love Seoul" hat. He was excited. My grandma (we call her Granny), told me, "He REALLY loves those hats. People are just SO NICE to him and treat him so much better. They thank him, are polite, strike up conversation, etc." I laughed. Apparently, this is his experience each time he wears them, which explains how the hats are worn to a state of falling apart.

The first week of this month my family stayed with Michael and I in San Antonio for a week then flew back home to CA. A few days after they returned, Papa called me and told me how much he and Granny enjoyed the trip and spending time with us. He then told me how he wore his I LOVE SEOUL hat out and, in his words, "I went to the store and this Korean lady was SO NICE to me, she was SOOOOO NICE to me." I laughed, told him to keep wearing the hat and more Korean people will be nice. We chatted some more. I told him I loved him and said our see-you-later’s.


As soon as I got off the phone with Papa, his words replayed in my mind. "This Korean lady was SO nice to me" is what he told me. I couldn’t help but think of the stories my mom shared with me of how growing up during the 70's and early 80's, the Korean store owners in Los Angeles would follow her so much in their stores out of skepticism that she would steal, that she stopped going into them. I thought of the 1991 murder of 15-year-old African American Latasha Harlin by Korean American grocer Soon Ja Du, who accused Harlin’s of stealing orange juice then shot her in the back of the head and killed her. While Soon Ja Du was convicted, she didn’t serve any jail time. I thought of Papa's younger brother Billy who was murdered in their home state of Texas by Klansmen. "They lynched him." Papa told me. "They shot him and strung him up." When I asked Papa if the KKK men that killed him were arrested or jailed he said "Pssh, Naw".


As funny as the "HATs" stories are they really made me think. The way my grandparents described them was almost like a form of magic. The hats made a NIGHT and DAY difference in how people viewed and furthermore treated my grandpa. All the hats displayed were an organization or place that "others" were familiar with. Or trusted. Felt connected to and possibly felt safe with. The connection was so strong that people made a measurable difference in how they treated my 82-year-old Black Man Grandpa. People were friendly to him. Respected him. Thanked him "for his service". Papa had been serving the city of Los Angeles the majority of his life as a janitor but NEVER got that kind of gratitude from others. People SAW my grandpa in a POSITIVE light when he wore those hats. The concept of strangers being "nice" to him was foreign to him before that.


Back in 2020 after the George Floyd murder, during Sq discussions, two of the Airmen (one a Captain at the time and the other a Technical Sergeant) both black men, shared experiences of being pulled over by police officers, how they kept a full uniform visible in the backseat of their car so that if pulled over, police or "others" would see them as less of a threat. Both of them also shared how with each PCS they would carefully research and calculate driving routes in order to avoid cities that are unjust to Black people. Another Black Airmen who also was a man was brought to tears saying, "why do I have to be a threat... I try to be softer and extra friendly so others won’t see me that way, but WHY.DO.I have to be seen as a threat?" Their stories were both shocking, familiar and devastating. Although I am a black woman, this was not my experience. But even though it was not my own, it didn’t take away from the reality that each of them lived in; the experiences that each of them lived through. I believed and imagined everything they said, and my heart broke for them and empathized with them.

82 years old and it takes a "Hat" for my Papa to be treated with some consistent care and humanity from fellow citizens. One of my therapists told me how Los Angeles was/is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. There's so much history as to why that is and the practices are NOT exclusive to LA; it’s all over. It angers me that objects like orange juice or "hats" are valued and trusted more than human beings. Why can't one’s humanness be enough? What other things do people wear or do or not wear or don't do, to be seen and treated with dignity and respect?


Every time I visit Papa he is showing me a new concoction for healing the body. Last time it was salt, this time it's consumption of aloe vera. His healing techniques always make me laugh. But maybe that’s what we all need to learn how to trust each other and "treat each other good". Leaning in and doing the very hard, honest, uncomfortable INWARD work in healing ourselves in order to heal our external communal world.

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