Column: The Things You Learn When You Put Your Life on Videotape By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday May 10, 2005

In Michelle Carter’s Writing in the Public Context class at San Francisco State, it isn’t enough that I have spent an hour a week for 13 weeks walking with my housemate, Willie, down to Doug’s B.B.Q. and back, snapping photographs along the way, transferring them onto my computer and sending them off to my fellow classmates. I have to come up with a final project that includes a 15-minute presentation in front of the class. This assignment has worried me since the start of the semester.  

My original project premise was to explore racism in America. Of course this topic proved far too broad, and so I reworked it to be an exploration of racism in Oakland. Also too big a subject, I tweaked it into a story about race relationships on my walk with Willie. But even that proved overwhelming as it included businesses and churches, homelessness and substance abuse, poverty, gentrification, barbeque and headcheese. I needed to narrow things down more.  

Fortunately, my friend Joell came to my rescue. For years she has been working on an oral history project for the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust. Joell interviews and videotapes 80-plus year old residents of the Central Valley who tell her about what life used to be like along the San Joaquin River before the advent of dams, housing projects, and strip malls. Her friendly demeanor and non-judgmental attitude make her a perfect documentarian.  

I changed my premise again, this time to exploring racism inside my home. Joell volunteered to make a film of me interviewing the people who live in my house and help with my husband’s care. Ralph and I have been cohabitating with African Americans, Asians and Hispanics on and off since his accident in 1994. Our current roommates, Willie and Andrea, grew up in Los Angeles, but they have roots that go back to Tennessee, Mississippi, and the American South before the Civil War.  

For the most part we have gotten along, although there have been many ups and downs. Sharing a bathroom with Andrea and all things related to her hair hasn’t been easy, and sharing a refrigerator with Willie has proven problematic. Food items I plan on eating disappear before I have a chance to eat them. We have had to make many adjustments and compromises. 

When I told Andrea and Willie that Joell was coming to film them, they were noncommittal. I worried that Joell would show up and my housemates would shut their bedroom doors and turn up the volume on their television sets. But, in fact, when the camera started rolling, they came alive. Willie, who had claimed he didn’t like to talk about himself, talked non-stop and continued to chat after the film ran out. Andrea, who said she needed to pull herself together before being photographed, took off her everyday raggedy housecoat and slipped into a skintight camouflage-print dress. “Hood-wear,” she explained, though it appeared she might at any minute be shipping off to Iraq to entertain the troops.  

In front of the camera Willie and Andrea morphed into KTVU Channel 3’s Dennis Richmond and Leslie Griffith. They explained to Joell and me the politics of the neighborhood, do’s and don’ts that included watching out for undercover cops and folks who were up to no good.  

After an hour Joell announced that she was almost out of tape. “Anything else you want to say before I turn off the camera?” she asked. 

“Willie needs to speak up for himself and develop a better sense of self-esteem,” stated Andrea. 

“Drea needs to stop bein’ so bossy and clean up after herself in the bathroom,” said Willie. 

“Suzy needs to do somethin’ about her hair before she goes out in public,” said Andrea. 

“That’s for damn sure,” agreed Willie. “Otherwise everything is cool around here. Ain’t no racial tension, just a few problems with gettin’ time in the bathroom and findin’ somethin’ to eat in the fridge.”