Knowing which way to go
Each time I set out, I glanced back toward the crossroads where I had lingered so long waiting to decide which path to take. Each time I would see that things had changed, just as Al had said they would. The other road, the one not taken, would no longer be there. “There are no paths ahead,” he would say, “it’s an open field.” Al helped me realize that our understanding of the past is changed by what we have learned; the past itself seems to change as it comes into focus. It is not changed, however; it is we who have been changed by what we have learned about our world, and about ourselves.
I was a 20-year-old kid, a West County farm boy just coming out of SRJC – with a few plays already produced, and wanting to know which way to go from there. At the time I believed my choices were simple: Berkeley or Hollywood. Either way, I knew my future was in the city, not in the countryside of Sonoma. Acceptance at Berkeley was certain because Robert Sproul was president of the entire university system, and a family friend; but there was this job offer on the light crew of a movie Hitchcock was filming nearby, called The Birds.
Al Hoskins was twice my age, married to Franzy and settled with their kids in a modest home in South Park, near the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. He was something of a community activist, and saw things that needed to be done. He was also the first black man I got to know well. I was done at SRJC and Al was done with Los Angeles – where he had been blacklisted and no longer found work in the film industry, after appearing before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) during the recent McCarthy era. He had come north, and I was heading south – and so we met.
Al had an ear for dialogue, and an eye for staging. He taught me to listen to my characters, to be curious about what they were thinking and feeling, to care about them and to be attentive before making any decision. So I asked Al for advice, which way to go; he would not tell me what to choose, though he did tell me what to do. “You’ve got to find out what’s important to you, what matters most, what you can’t betray, no matter what might happen. That’s what you must follow, wherever it takes you.”
He literally grew up with the film industry. Al wasn’t yet two years old when he was discovered and cast as Farina in the popular Our Gang silent comedies. He quickly became famous worldwide as one of the first African American movie stars. Typecast throughout his childhood, it wasn’t until he outgrew the stereotype of the cute black kid that he could begin to look for a place for himself in a rapidly changing world.
Al joined the army in 1940, and was stationed at the Presidio in Monterey when the movie star Claudette Colbert spotted him while on tour. She paused briefly to ask, “Don’t I know you?” before going on. “Why didn’t you tell her you were Farina?” a fellow soldier asked, and he replied, “Well, Farina was the name of that other guy she was thinking of… I’d rather she remembered me as I used to be.” And Al Hoskins forged on ahead in his own life, his own way.
After the war he returned to Hollywood looking for work as an actor and screenwriter, but because he had attended communist activities as a teenager he was called before the HUAC – and blacklisted. He soon left Hollywood and came north to Sonoma County, where he found work at the Sonoma State Hospital – before it was renamed SDC. His work there led him to establish the Bay Area Association of Rehabilitation Workshops later on, helping thousands of disabled people to find work. When he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Al said, “I didn’t get to do what I wanted, so I did something I could live with.”
Al let me know that, while we have no control over our circumstances, we have control over our responses to them. What we decide to do is not a matter of good choices or bad choices – they will simply be our choices. They must be made according to our most fundamental convictions, not our whims nor the opinions of anyone else. It was Al who first told me to make things happen rather than let things happen to me, and to do so carefully, caringly and daringly – and with considered integrity. Believe that what you sincerely hope for is possible, rather than doubt it.
I’ve been at many crossroads since knowing Al, and where I’ve done best is when I’ve remembered him. That spring, as I was bringing my poetry to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, my bus paused at a bus stop near City Hall. Students from Berkeley were circling the building, picketing the hearings being held there as the HUAC continued their search for communists. I left my poems on the bus and joined in, and decided to go to Berkeley – not Hollywood. I was in Berkeley 20 years, making many of my choices, until I met Maria and chose to marry her, and chose to return to raise our children where I had been raised, in the Sonoma County countryside.
The future is fan-shaped, Al told me, and we’re always at our crossroads. Each step we take, each decision we make, always opens to another field of opportunities that reach toward distant horizons. There is no path ahead of you he said, except the one you will make, one you can only recognize by looking back to where you’ve been. But don’t let that distract you from what lies undiscovered ahead and within. Leave grudges and regrets behind, he would say – and look inward, moving forward, knowing which way to go.