By Daniel Voll
This is the life story of Jelani Stewart, Ten years ago, in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts, American society ruptured in South Central Los Angeles, resulting in the worst riots in our nation’s modern history. Ten years later, the people are still poor, there’s not enough work, and the gang violence is bad and getting worse. One other thing hasn’t changed in South Central: Little boys still grow up there. This is the story of South Central since the riots. who came into this world as his city burned.
The black circus is dark and smoky and magic. And it is loud and it is black. The ringleader, Casual Cal, is black, and he’s got a black midget sidekick, and the trapeze artist is black and the guy on stilts is black and the guy who vaults thirty feet high and flips and lands on a tiny chair perched in the air is black and the magician is black and the showgirl he makes vanish and who reappears in the tiger cage is black. The audience is black, too, and at the moment, to a person, all two thousand are going completely nuts, especially Jelani Stewart, who is not quite ten years old.
Look at this boy, Jelani. He’s about to have a heart attack, y’all! He screams, No! No! No! as the girl contortionist from Africa bends over backward, curving her spine back, back, back until her perfect brown face is between her thighs and she is smiling up into the audience and rolling her eyes. Jelani grabs his cousin Kiana’s hand. Oh, my gosh!
Casual Cal pumps the crowd. “I say, Big Top, you say . . .”
“Circus!” Jelani shouts, leaning his head back, staring into the heavens of the circus tent. It’s like it’s not real! A family is up there on the high wire riding bicycles without nets. The deejay is spinning, and it is loud! I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes. . . . Mommy . . . what’s poppin’ tonight?
Jelani’s been waiting all year for the UniverSoul Circus to come back to Los Angeles. For one thing, he gets to eat cotton candy and nobody says a thing about cavities. For another thing, all of the people who matter the most are here. There’s LaTonya, his mom, who loves him beyond words; Nana and Paw-Paw, who let him play on their computer at home; his seventy-five-year-old great-grandmother, Elouise, who raised seven kids in Watts and South Central; his auntie LaTrice and his uncle Tommy, who works at the airport, and his other cousins Tarik, Karlie, Karol, and Tommy Jr. The big-top tent is up across from a cemetery in the parking lot of the Hollywood Park racetrack. Paw-Paw sprung for ringside seats at $18.50 a pop.
Paw-Paw has a round, bearded face, short dreadlocks springing off his head, wire-rim glasses, and an earring. His name is Cornelius Reffegee, and he’s LaTonya’s stepdad. He is forty-nine years old and has been married to Pat, LaTonya’s mom, for fifteen years.