When I was a kid, my mother and I would drop my father off at the international terminal at LAX and watch him race through the automatic doors, immaculately dressed and late for his flight. He worked as a photojournalist for Newsweek magazine from the 1960s to the 1990s. An extrovert in a fedora, he would charm the life story from whomever crossed his path in the terminal, on the plane, upon landing. We would often hear stories about him missing a train in Sarajevo or arriving in Poland too late to get a hotel room. While at Newsweek, he came very close to being transferred to the Paris bureau. A move was put into the works, then overruled. One of his white colleagues, when asked, claimed that she worried the French would treat him poorly because he was Black, which she later admitted was a lie. He never really got over it.
Perhaps because he wasn’t able to move abroad, my father has recorded dozens of conversations with members of the African diaspora. It became a hobby. He interviewed Afro Germans in Berlin soon after the poet Audre Lorde encouraged young people in that community to seek each other out; the actress Marpessa Dawn, who moved to France as a young woman and costarred in the Academy Award–winning film, Black Orpheus (1959); the poet James Emanuel, pioneer of the “jazz haiku.” Sometimes this hobby overlapped with our family trips. Our vacation videos, which might begin with a shot of me as a toddler riding a carousel, would invariably cut to a half-hour-long conversation with a young man from Martinique who had made the innocent mistake of disembarking from his motorcycle in front of my father. We probably made our way to the Eiffel Tower or Trevi Fountain—I honestly can’t remember—but what I can recall is a trip to Italy in the early ’90s during which we visited a freckled woman named Daniella, a Black ballerina who had danced with Rudolf Nureyev in the late ’80s and lived with two gigantic black dogs amid an apple orchard in Assisi. The life stories he has collected, which he recites over and over again like a mantra or epic poem, are iterations of paths his life might have taken. As if by knowing them, he gets to live them all.
Al Thomas was an opera singer. I remember sitting on his rooftop patio in the early ’90s, strewn with plant vines, as the sounds of Rome traffic buzzed pleasantly below. In the staticky VHS tape that I recently digitized, Thomas wears sunglasses and a white sport jacket with an Italian soccer patch on the shoulder. His speaking voice hovers just above baritone. He toured in the 1950s with the Everyman Opera, performing Porgy and Bess in countries ranging from Russia to Venezuela, a cultural exchange funded by the U.S. State department and the Soviet Union with the express aim of softening the tensions of the Cold War. A young Maya Angelou was part of the cast. Truman Capote wrote about the Everyman Opera after traveling with them to St. Petersburg in a 1956 piece for The New Yorker called “The Muses Are Heard.” Thomas told my father he was annoyed at Capote for largely ignoring the Black cast, and for crafting, instead, an entertaining travelogue about the wardrobe and the chitchat of the wealthy, white wives—Leonore Gershwin and Wilva Breen—who had come along.