Last night, America relived a bit of its past as FX’s “The People vs O.J. Simpson” came to its infamous final–and inevitable–conclusion.
It was mid-June of 1994. Not yet 13 years-old, I lay on my Abuela’s couch in the living room of her one bedroom apartment. It was hot, almost sweltering, alleviated only somewhat by the open sliding door to her ninth story terrace overlooking her neighbors and city sidewalk below. There, my family and I gathered around Abuela’s seemingly ancient television set. From within that little enclave in the Bronx, we watched–captivated–as one of the greatest athletic heroes of our time tore through an LA highway in that infamous white Ford Bronco, furiously tailed by LAPD. Confused by the images unfolding before me, I looked to the adults for some sort of explanation. Abuela, completely encompassed within the confines of a generation and culture so distant from my own, still recognized the budding questions in my eyes. She calmly looked at me and said, “It’s these American girls. They go off with whoever they want, and they break their man’s heart.”
Something about that statement did not sit quite right with me.
Nonetheless, I watched as America watched, trying to make sense of what would later become yet another modern story of a hero’s hubris and ultimate downfall. Still, Abuela’s words stung me. It was the “American” girl’s fault? What did she do? What did he do?
My mind instantly flashed back to an earlier memory. I can’t quite remember how old I was, but I do know it was before my sister was born. It was Saturday (or perhaps a Sunday), as I happily strolled the food court of the White Plains Galleria with my parents. As we approached a tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome African-American man with his arm slung around a petite and glamorous young blond woman, a man quietly pushed me aside and made his way to the couple. “Excuse me! I’m sorry to bother you, I’m just such a big fan…” the balding forty-something rambled. My dad, a byproduct of America’s ultimate project in suburbia–Levittown, Long Island–knowingly murmured under his breath, “A lot of women don’t like to see that?”
“See what?” I quickly interjected, my youthful curiosity taking over once again.
He sighed patiently, then continued. “That man is a professional football player, he plays for the Giants. Many women don’t like to see a successful African American man with a white woman. They see it as a betrayal.”
I was dumbfounded. How could that possibly be? Having grown up the product of a multi-racial couple myself, I quickly became angered.
“But why?” I demanded. My question was met with silence.
So I asked again. “But why?”
Still met with silence.
Trying earnestly to make connections between that particular memory and the Ford Bronco on the screen, my almost 13 year-old self watched quietly.
It would be over a year later when the verdict came in.
Even now, when watching a retelling such as “The People”, or viewing actual footage of the public’s reaction, the memory of that October day still sits with me. You see, I was a freshman in high school, recently enrolled in a rather diverse Bronx Catholic school. I wasn’t watching the reactions from my local news station. There was no camera catching an audience reaction in Midtown, juxtaposed then with one in Spanish Harlem. My teenage classmates were the ones reacting, right before my eyes, and all groups were represented at that school.
The unexpected thing about the Bronx is this: in many ways it is a very segregated and racially divided geographical region. Most outsiders recognize it as a home for struggling people just trying to make ends meet, but in actuality this is not entirely accurate. Neighborhood lines are clearly drawn by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic standing. And although communities have become more accepting in our present day, such was not necessarily the case in 1995. Issues of race, gender, and social class permeated throughout the borough, and were most certainly evident in my school that day.Upon airing the live verdict, halls echoed with cries of “The Juice is loose!” by my classmates of color, intermingled with the mostly white student body screams of outrage and disgust. I wasn’t exactly fully cognizant of what was unfolding before me, and it would be decades later while watching FX’s series that the memories would come back. Now with them clearly in my present mind, I recognize the internal conflict people of our nation continue to experience–for some on a daily basis.
To the writers, cast, directors, producers, and everyone in any remote way connected with “The People vs O.J. Simpson”, thank you for shining a light on this. Thank you for helping me understand something that my teenage self couldn’t quite grapple with. Whether exploring Marcia Clark and her battle with institutionalized misogyny, Christopher Darden and his search for justice in spite of racial divides, or even Johnnie Cochran and his jury-becomes-Hollywood-sideshow performance (yet earnest belief in racial equality) you have kept the talk over such issues alive. And for that, I’m grateful.