My autobiography part I

A Life From Two Perspectives

People think that they must satisfy countless social, religious, and personal groups. Countless friends and family individuals.

They are wrong. There are only two people you have to please in your life.

This is about how I learned that. And how I came to please them.


My dad, Emory Barnes, died March 8, 1995, when I was in my early fourties.

I remember standing at his deathbed in San Jose, California. He had deteriorated greatly, the cancer eating him until he no longer resembled the handsome singer who had performed with Nat King Cole, who I’d actually watched record the back-up vocals for “Rambling Rose.”

No, he looked more like the Cryptkeeper now, wheezing his life out through a plastic tube.

I knew that I could deal with this one of two ways: I could turn away, in fear and denial, or I could take this as the very last gift my father could give me. The reminder that this is where life ends. We’re doing a dance, a long dance between the cradle and the grave. And it seems to me that the very best we can do with life is face that.

Writer Harlan Ellison said that “success is to bring into existence, in adult terms, our childhood dreams.” I think that’s part of it. The other part is to remember that life ends, and to ask what are the deepest, most important values we will hold there at the end. There is plenty of evidence for what we find most valuable, at the end. Then, we must align the two. To find some way to link our childhood dreams with our deathbed values. And then . . . to dance along the tightrope all the days in-between, with passion and without regret.


I was born at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, March 1, 1952. My earliest memories are pretty typical. Riding a Ferris wheel, breaking a milk bottle on our front porch at 2110 West View St. in Los Angeles. . . . I may have been about five years old.

Kissing a girl through the crib bars at my day care. Pretty common memories.

Then there was a disturbing thread: remembering traveling cross-country with my family. My mother, Eva, was quite light skinned and could easily have “passed” for white. Mom, my sister, Joyce, and I were eating in a restaurant someplace in the Midwest. We were driving to Kalamazoo, Michigan to visit my grandparents. My father was taking care of some business with the car—perhaps changing the oil, gassing up. . . . I don’t remember.

What I do remember is that when he entered the restaurant, the owners suddenly seemed to realize that we were a black family. They told us we would have to leave. Pay for the food, and leave, without finishing it. I remember my dad’s humiliated expression, my mother trying to shush and comfort us. And my confusion, not understanding why this was happening to us.


I remember driving through Battle Creek, Michigan, and getting free cereals from Kellogg, who kept their corporate offices there. I remember deer coming up to my grandparent’s back door, and how sweet and kind my grandmother Barnes was.

But more than anything, I remember that restaurant, and the day I learned there were two Americas.

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