by Jervey Tervalon
THE LITERARY WORK
Other lives are intertwined with those of two black high school students who are preparing for drastically different futures.
Jervey Tervalon’s family moved from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Los Angeles, California, when he was four years old. They settled among other working- and middle-class black families in a community-oriented, predominantly black neighborhood a mile west of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. In high school, Jervey tried his hand at writing horror and kung fu stories as well as poetry. He finished his first novel, Understand This, when he was in his early thirties, basing it on his experiences as a student and an English teacher in the inner city.
Inner-city poverty core
Researchers have identified an inner-city poverty core of about 105 square miles in the Los Angeles area (Scott and Brown, p. 7). Along with other areas in the poverty core are South Central, Watts, and parts of Compton, for example. Despite its specific meaning, the term “South Central” is sometimes used loosely to refer to the poverty core as a whole. The largest populations in the poverty core are Latino (62 percent) and African American (22 percent), with African Americans predominant in some of the over 280 tracts, or neighborhoods, that comprise the core.
Most blacks in the poverty core live in single-family homes that are one or two stories tall, but apartment-style project housing shelters some of the poorest residents. In response to an overall increase in violent crime, many homeowners have taken precautions like installing bars on their windows and fencing their yards. Simple pleasures that most people take for granted—sitting on the front porch, going for a jog, letting children play outside—are denied residents who fear street violence, break-ins, and harassment by police.
In the novel, the comforts enjoyed by people who live on the Westside are contrasted with the harsher reality in South Central. A young black man named François makes the following observations on a trip to an apartment complex on the Westside, just twenty minutes from his home:
Five-story apartment buildings on both sides and in the center where we’re walking, hot tubs and pools and brick ponds, cool and blue in front of each building. Ahead I see tennis courts. It’s like Disneyland. We pass two white people soaking in a hot tub, their conversation dies as we get close. Must scare them like hell. Pay all that money to live behind twenty-foot walls and they still got to see us.
(Understand This, p. 17)
The tension in this encounter recalls the riots and looting that ravaged Los Angeles in the spring of 1992. Unrest and rebellion were specific names given to the response provoked when a jury acquitted four white police officers charged with civil rights violations, despite a videotape that showed them taunting and severely beating black motorist Rodney King, who lay motionless on the ground. Seventy-two hours of rioting followed the verdict.
The riots brought a rush of attention to inner-city problems like police brutality, unemployment and falling incomes, inadequate business investment, substandard schooling, and hostility between different ethnic groups. Suddenly it became common knowledge outside of South Central that its residents resented the presence of a liquor store on every corner and the absence or scarcity of banks, offices, shopping malls, and other businesses capable of creating jobs and generating revenue that would remain in the community. News programs and talk shows spent weeks discussing how the same problems and hopelessness that had prompted the Watts riots in 1965 seemed to have persisted almost unchanged.
Many people worked to improve the crisis-like conditions in South Central and the surrounding areas. Local church leaders and House Representative Maxine Waters had devoted themselves to addressing local problems for decades already. At this point, the challenge was also taken up by young people, such as the members of the South Central/Watts chapter of Americorps. President Bill Clinton’s nationwide Americorps program was designed to encourage higher education through stipends and put young people to work in new and pre-existing local programs. In the South Central/Watts area, black and Latino Americorps members in their late teens and early twenties made full-time, nine-month commitments to serve their community through health education, tutoring, gardening, and violence prevention projects.
“It’s like a war out there,” thought Ter-valon after one of his favorite students was shot to death and another suffered a nervous breakdown, also the result of a shooting (Tervalon in McLellan, p. 2). In the novel, at least two characters are murdered, and others are shot or threatened; many of them have accepted the role that violence plays in gang- and drug-related activities.
Around the time of the novel, Los Angeles’s black and Latino youth ran a considerably higher risk of becoming homicide victims than young whites did. One study revealed that the overall homicide rate among blacks was roughly nine times higher than that of whites, while the rate among Latinos was about four times higher than that of whites. A 1993 study showed that homicide was in fact the leading cause of death among the city’s young black men and women. It was furthermore found that more than 90 percent of these killings were committed with firearms, the weaponry used in the novel.
The media and many statistical records sometimes assume that homicides and lesser crimes committed by minorities in the inner city are gang-related even when they are not. Gang violence does in fact account for a significant share of crime, but none of the murders in Understand This is gang-related. Still the largest Los Angeles gangs—the Bloods and the Crips—make their presence felt in the novel by wearing gang colors. This practice is consistent with real life: Bloods wear red, and Crips wear blue, in the style of Mexican immigrant gang members who used to wear blue bandannas.
The spring of 1992 witnessed an unusual and welcome development: a gang truce negotiated in meetings between Crips and Bloods. Gang leaders met behind closed doors and reached an agreement, despite the frustration of having their peaceful meetings broken up by police on a regular basis. The truce resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of drive-by shootings, but it did not prevent all gang-related violence, since some factions of the two gangs were unwilling to accept the truce. The fact that a unity movement came together at all is remarkable, given that an estimated 219 Crip gangs and 84 Blood gangs existed, each with its own leadership, rules, and interests. As the months passed, however, those participating in the truce were frustrated by the fact that the media seemed to focus on violations of the truce rather than the positive impact it was having. At the same time, many had expected that the government would recognize their efforts and come through with educational, economic, and recreational opportunities as an alternative to gang activity or at least as a show of good faith. But no such recognition was forthcoming, and the failure brought deep disillusionment. One young man described the failure:
These brothers have done the part that society asked them to do. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves to let such a historic event go unanswered.
(ex-gang member Fred Williams in Katz, p. 22)
In addition to gang-related aggression, among the other causes of injury and death by violence have been the need to settle personal disagreements, support drug habits, and do business as a drug dealer. Whatever the motivation, local hospital emergency rooms have received a steady stream of victims of shootings, stabbings, or similar injuries. The load placed on hospital staff members in real life helps the reader understand why Ann, a registered nurse in the novel, feels overwhelmed working in the emergency room.
Drug dealing and use
One of the ironies of life in the inner city is the fact that drug dealers often feel superior to the desperate users they supply. This reflects the self-concept many dealers have of themselves as respectable businessmen, as well as the fact that few lucrative, mentally challenging jobs exist in the inner city. The status, strategy, and financial gain involved in being a dealer attract many young people willing to take enormous risks.
DISNEYLAND VISITS THE INNER CITY
Frustration with the lack of job opportunities and corporate investment in inner-city areas contributed to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In the months following the unrest, Disneyland was one of the companies to make a good-will gesture toward inner-city youth, traveling to South Central to interview job applicants aged 17 to 22 for 200 summer jobs. Company officials were surprised when over 600 young men and women showed up. They were also surprised to see that the applicants did not match the negative images of inner-city youth usually presented by the media. “They were wonderful kids, outstanding kids,” said one spokesman. “We didn’t know they were there” (Rimer, p. 20). The jobs paid only $5.25 an hour, but one young woman voiced the applicants’ desire for any acceptable work: “A job’s a job! Disneyland’s Disneyland, It’s not like Popeye’s or McDonald’s [fast food restaurants where she had worked for the last three years]. It’s like, ‘Hey girl, how’d you get that job at Disneyland?’” (Rimer, p. 20).
Understand This presents both major and minor players on the drug scene. A relatively smalltime dealer named François reflects on the disapproval of his girlfriend Margot, his reasons for dealing, and the greed of a fellow dealer:
Margot don’t know, don’t see it or she doesn’t want to see it, what I have is because of what I do, and if I didn’t have it, if I was a scruffling, half-assed fool working at some bullshit job she wouldn’t gone out with me. My mama works hard for money. She don’t need me begging off of her. In this world you gotta get up off of it, gotta get your own, work for it and not be a fool. I’m not a fool…. Tommy’s a fool cause he needs too much. I only need a little.
(Understand This, p. 44)
The characters in the novel deal mainly in marijuana and the rock form of cocaine called crack. In the real world, law enforcement, legislators, and the court system were creating and applying tough laws to deter even the smallest drug transactions. In one highly publicized case in 1989, a twenty-two-year-old black man, Richard Winrow, was made an example of when he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for possessing just 5.5 ounces of crack. Critics complained the sentence was harsher than that given some murderers, but authorities were pleased. The Assistant U.S. Attorney and chief of the Los Angeles Gang Drug Task Force even planned to put up posters in South Central, advertising details of the young man’s case as a warning to others.
In addition to drug dealing, Tervalon’s novel focuses on users by including scenes of young women trading sex for a quick fix and an addict shooting a dealer at point-blank range in order to steal his supply. Needle-sharing and this kind of sexual contact had devastating consequences for real addicts, since such behavior put them at extremely high risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
Life in school
Mr. Michaels, a teacher at fictional Bolt High School in the novel, tries hard to capture his students’ attention with facts about safe sex and HIV transmission leading to the AIDS disease, for example. Since few of his students display interest in the academic curriculum, he wants to wedge in a few practical lessons when he can. The lack of interest and the disciplinary problems he encounters on a daily basis reflect a real-life lack of concern for education on the part of many students. The list of reasons is long, including poverty, deprivation, negative teacher expectations, lack of parental involvement, and a curriculum that seems unrelated to the limited opportunities students will face upon completing or abandoning school.
The underachievement of inner-city youth in school is well documented, although many students like Margot in the novel manage to keep their sights on college against all odds. Before attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, Margot takes part in a transition program like those designed to help real students from underprivileged areas deal with the fact that they have not been as well prepared for college as most other high school students.
Starting in the 1970s, “affirmative action” programs required university admissions committees to admit (and federal and state agencies to hire) a percentage of women, blacks, and other minorities in proportion to the presence of these minorities in the general population. The novel mentions affirmative action, which may have played a role in Margot’s acceptance to the university.
In the years immediately following the publication of Understand This, two new developments began to reshape the debate about what was best for black students in California’s high schools and universities. First, the constitutionality of affirmative action was called into question when the state’s voters approved a 1996 initiative banning special consideration for any person on the basis of race, gender, or other factors. At the end of that same year, the Alameda County School District provoked controversy by announcing plans to recognize the nonstandard English spoken by its black students as a language of its own, called Ebonics, and to use this form of English to engage students in learning. Questions surrounding the issue sparked national debate about how best to reach out to America’s black students, a group showing overall improvement in academic achievement but still behind by a significant margin. Furthermore, it has been confirmed that many more black youths drop out of school than whites. National statistics show only 67 percent of blacks finishing high school in contrast to 87 percent of whites (Taylor, p. 129). As many as a third of African American youths drop out before acquiring their high school diplomas.
The chapters of Understand This contain a series of overlapping observations about the same events, told from eight different points of view.
A young black man named François is the first narrator. He and his good friend, Doug, had been tossing a football on 54th Street in South Central Los Angeles until Doug’s light-skinned girlfriend Rika showed up. She and Doug are engaged in a heated argument, when she suddenly draws a gun and shoots her boyfriend twice, killing him. Though not at the scene himself, Doug’s younger brother, Ollie, suspects Rika is the assassin, but François pretends not to know who the murderer is or where Rika lives.
François confides in his girlfriend, Margot, and the second chapter is told through her eyes. A confrontational young woman, she makes François consider the possibility that Rika was high on drugs and therefore might not have planned to kill Doug. Margot engages in routine power struggles with her father and passes time in the classroom of Mr. Michaels, watching him teach and discipline his students. Ollie, for one, seems determined to cause trouble.
The perspective shifts back to François as he attempts to deal with his family, Ollie, Margot, and a drug-dealing acquaintance named Tommy. François is already a small-scale drug dealer in Los Angeles, but he is reluctant to join Tommy in cultivating a market in Santa Barbara. Still unsure what to do about Rika, he hopes that going to her house and looking her in the face will help him decide. She turns out not to be home. Haunted by thoughts of Doug’s drug use and dysfunctional relationship with Rika, François runs for miles on the beach in an effort to clear his head.
The next perspective is that of Mr. Michaels, who reflects on his permissive classroom environment and his fascination with Margot, whom he regards as “the class of a sorry act,” meaning the class act of a sorry environment (Understand This, p. 51). He feels like an outsider now, even though he grew up nearby and the students accept and like him.
Unfortunately for Ollie, whose perspective next dominates the story, a high-rolling drug wholesaler named Cowboy telephones and demands the Mercedes belonging to Ollie’s dead brother, Doug, as payment for a $20,000 debt that Doug had left behind. Ollie refuses. He searches for Rika and tries to take over Doug’s drug business, with limited success. Later, Cowboy’s men ambush and severely beat him, and he is rushed to the hospital by his sister, Sally.
The novel continues from the point of view of François’s mother Ann, a nurse who has seen plenty of gang-related injuries and deaths at the hospital where she works. “This isn’t no way to live,” she thinks to herself, “seeing more and more Françoises in the emergency room in various states of dying” (Understand This, p. 80). Her pride in her responsible young daughter, Mary, is counterbalanced by her worry over her son. The three of them attend Doug’s funeral, where François spots Rika watching from a distance.
The next chapter opens with Rika at the cemetery and at home, talking to Doug in her mind. She is frequently high, and her inner monologue reveals an ongoing desire to taunt the boyfriend she killed. At one point, Rika starts to trade sex for crack, but she shoots and robs the dealer instead. She is pregnant with Doug’s baby and determined to destroy it by smoking crack. Her family tries to get her professional help, but she runs away.
In a chapter narrated by François, he and Margot argue about whether or not they should have a baby and discuss the fact that she will soon leave to attend college in Santa Cruz. Aware that Margot disapproves of the business he does with Tommy, he feels ambivalent about being involved in drug dealing and seems to despise Tommy and Ollie’s conduct as dealers.
Margot takes a week-long trip to Santa Cruz in order to participate in a transition program and familiarize herself with the area. She has considerable trouble relating to anyone, including the black students she meets, and is convinced college life will be miserable. Her return to Los Angeles disappoints her too: the fact that François does not meet her at the airport means he has gone to Santa Barbara with Tommy against her wishes.
Tommy continues the story in Santa Barbara. He is sure that dealing drugs provided by Cowboy and getting together with white women is the life for him. François could not be less enthusiastic, and he finally decides to quit the partnership and go home. The whole venture ends in disaster when one of Tommy’s women makes off with $30,000. Tommy flees north after telling Cowboy that François stole the money.
A chapter narrated by Ann begins with the police’s arresting François late one night in front of their house. Her son seems paranoid since returning from Santa Barbara, and Ann has taken steps toward moving the family to Atlanta. François is released, but he does not discuss his problems.
The perspective shifts to the teacher Mr. Michaels again: Ann’s coaxing has convinced him to try to talk with her son. François says little, but he does express interest in driving Margot to Mr. Michaels’s upcoming wedding, and she consents.
In the next chapter, François tells how he seeks out Cowboy and sets the record straight about what happened in Santa Barbara. François starts working for Cowboy at a check-cashing store that he runs in addition to his drug-wholesaling business. Later François and Margot drive to Santa Barbara for Mr. Michaels’s wedding and spend the night together, probably for the last time.
The next chapter is told from the point of view of Sally, the sister of Ollie and Doug. While feeding homeless people at her church, she sees Rika and realizes that Doug must be responsible for the pregnancy. Sally enlists the aid of Ann in an effort to help Rika with prenatal care. François drives Sally and Ann to the shelter where Rika now lives so that they can take her to a hospital. Ollie has followed them, and before he sees Rika he starts screaming and waving a gun at François, with whom he has had a falling out earlier in the story. At one point, the gun goes flying, and Rika slowly picks it up and shoots Ollie to death.
Mr. Michaels, who has quit his teaching job and become a law student, catches up on local news through Margot six months later. Michaels learns of Ollie’s death and observes François sitting on the front porch with Rika’s baby.
A mind for business
One of the background characters in Understand This offers a troubling example of a young black man who has succeeded despite the limits typically placed on young black men’s potential in the inner city. He is Cowboy, the wholesale drug dealer who looms above the novel’s other dealers in wealth, status, and power.
When Cowboy’s knees gave out after two semesters of playing sports at a university, one traditional avenue to success for young black men closed to him. He left the university and became a businessman in the most profitable business in his community: drug dealing. By the time the reader meets him, he has developed the talents and strategies common to any high-powered, law-abiding executive. He surrounds himself with intelligent, hardworking people, whose respect and loyalty he commands. In dealing with his employees, Cowboy rewards the professionalism and ethical behavior displayed by François, while rebuking Tommy for his incompetence and unreliability. He is a shrewd judge of human nature and skilled in testing the character of his subordinates. His barren office and conservative approach to entering the drug market in Santa Barbara attest to his ability to manage money and make wise business decisions.
Looking back, Cowboy realizes that no one saw potential in him and muses that it took time for him to come around and make something of himself. In François, he recognizes, “the kinda brother who gets it together when he’s little older,” adding, “I was like that but nobody could see” (Understand This, p. 171). The result was that Cowboy set about applying his talents illegally, doing damage to his community in the process. From his point of view, the realistic alternative was a dull minimum-wage job in a local fast-food restaurant.
Sources and writing
Jervey Tervalon based Understand This on his own experiences in Los Angeles, where he attended and taught high school. One of his students was shot to death after basketball practice by gang members who had mistaken him for someone else. Another suffered a nervous breakdown after his cousin was murdered. And Tervalon could not forget the scene that a friend had witnessed and told him about years earlier, while Tervalon was enrolled at Dorsey High School: during an argument in the street, a boy’s girlfriend had shot him in the face after he slapped her. These actions find parallels in the murders and other violent incidents in the novel, as well as the characters’ feelings about killing.
There are similarities between the English teacher in Understand This and the novelist himself. Suffering from burnout yet reluctant to leave his job, the fictional Mr. Michaels resembles Tervalon in the late 1980s at the end of five years of teaching at Locke High School in South Central. Both eventually moved on to graduate school.
The inspiration for the novel came primarily from the lives of Tervalon’s students and the author’s desire to portray the psychology that might be behind their actions. As he saw it, society usually overlooked the suffering that lay beneath the tough exterior presented by many of these young people. He returned to an unsatisfactory first draft of Understand This while attending a graduate writing workshop at the University of California at Irvine. Told that his characters did not talk like real blacks, Tervalon resolved to revise his manuscript and make the dialogue truer to that spoken in Los Angeles. He explained later that when he read from the new passages, the other students in the writing workshop, who were white, “didn’t understand a lot of the dialogue, but they liked it. And I liked that reaction: They were sort of intimidated by it, so I continued to write at a pretty quick pace” (Tervalon in McLellan, p. 2). He finished the novel while in the writing program. Once the manuscript was given to an agent, it sold within three weeks.
Hailed as a gritty and powerful novel, Understand This offered readers a compelling story told from several points of view not commonly included in discussions about the inner city. Critics pointed out that the type of events in the novel had been portrayed in fiction before, yet Tervalon’s treatment of characters marked the novel as a bold, unusual look at modern urban life. One reviewer appreciated the novel’s authenticity in the following terms:
Tervalon takes his audience beyond the violence to a place viewers of Black inner-city films and readers of books about Black inner-city life rarely get to go: Through the crack, crime and craziness that overwhelms much of today’s writing about the inner city and obscures what life is really like there.
(Monroe, p. 61)
Other reviewers shared this sentiment, praising the novel’s multidimensional characters and recognizing the insight and integrity needed to present them so sensitively and honestly.
Katz, Jessie. “Violence Punctuates Truce between Bloods and Crips.” Los Angeles Times (September 13, 1992): sec. A, pp. 1, 20, 22.
McLellan, Dennis. “‘It’s Like a War Out There’: Teacher-Novelist Gives an Eloquent, Gritty Voice to the Struggles of Black Youth in Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times (April 4, 1994): sec. E, p. 2.
Monroe, Sylvester. “‘Understand This’ Explores Tough Life and Death Choices.” Emerge 5, no. 6 (March 1994): 61.
Rimer, Sara. “Job Opportunities Bring Out Young People (and Their Idealism) in Riot Area.” The New York Times (June 18, 1992): sec. A, p. 20.
Scott, Allen J., and E. Richard Brown, eds. South Central Los Angeles: Anatomy of an Urban Crisis. Los Angeles: Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies. Working Paper No. 6., June 1993.
Smith, Anna Deavere. Twilight: Los Angeles 1992. New York: Anchor, Doubleday, 1994.
Taylor, Ronald L., ed. African-American Youth: Their Social and Economic Status in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1995.
Tervalon, Jervey. Understand This. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1994.