Brian Sheffield interviews poet Chris Siders on colorism, South Central LA, and his experiences living in Monterey

Sheffield: Starting off, how long have you been writing and reciting poetry?

Siders: I’ve been writing poetry since 2009. December 2009 to be specific. My mentor at my old high school — he’s a Los Angeles historian and poet, goes by Mike the Poet — he was teaching poetry and journalism at my school at View Park Prep and gave me a huge bag of underground rap CDs. Atmosphere and MURS. From there, I just fell in love with writing and poetry. And I just took it from there.

Sheffield: That’s what’s up. Was this here in Monterey or was that — where are you originally from by the way?

Siders: I’m from Los Angeles.

Sheffield: And this was back in Los Angeles?

Siders: Yeah, at View Park High School, off the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson.

Sheffield: And what brought you up here in Monterey?

Siders: Honestly, I applied for CSU Long Beach, and I didn’t get in. I was interested in their creative writing program. And my second school was Monterey Bay, CSU Monterey Bay. Also, far away from home, and just a brand-new experience being away from LA in general. My parents always told me about people that never leave the block in South Central. And it’s just interesting. They don’t know anything beyond Los Angeles. Not even Hollywood. Not even Downtown. Then just, different parts of the whole county. Just their block. So just kinda felt it was very important to gain lessons from going to different places, and experiences.

Sheffield: Okay, and how did you feel about the education that you were getting over at CSUMB, while you attended there.

Siders: It was really interesting. When… my freshman year, I was undeclared. I wasn’t entirely too sure what I wanted to do. I just know that I’m a creative. And I gave my old friend at the time a poetry book I kept, and I was writing in it every day. He read some poems and was like, “Yo this is dope, you should go to an open mic and perform.” I wasn’t too sure about it because I got rejected by Brave New Voices from HBO, I got rejected from Get Lit Words all in the same year. These are like huge, major groups in Los Angeles, so it kinda felt like my dreams were shot down before I even got started. However, I went to an open mic, the rest was history. Folks really loved what I had to say. Granted, it was a love poem, I wasn’t talking about anything serious. But everybody just kept motivating me.

Sheffield: But I mean, love poems are some of the most impactful poetry. That’s really coming from the heart about another person.

Siders: Definitely. It’s just a little interesting, I guess.

Sheffield: Do you feel like love poems have a cliché about them that make them really silly?

Siders: I think in my experience, — because I submitted some love pieces to publications, and they were like, “oh this is like too cliché or too lovey-dovey.” So, I guess that kinda skewed my view of love poems. I haven’t written a love poem in years. Last one I wrote was two years ago. I used to write a lot of love poems actually. I’ve been focused on other topics and whatnot. But, going back to the education at CSUMB, having great professors like Deb Busman, Maria Villasenor, all encouraged me to really branch out and the community itself, just talking to folks from different identities and different intersectionalities. I didn’t get that in Los Angeles. My middle and high school was 99.8% black. So, I was only around black folks. So, coming up here, it was a whole culture shock. An entirely new world. It was definitely an interesting experience here. […] Yeah, and in Los Angeles, I had a lot of experiences with that. A lot of the kids that I went to school with, they felt the need to claim a gang, like “Rollin 60 Crips, or Grape Street Watts,” it’s more of a sense of belonging. A majority of the students I went to school with, they didn’t have both parents in the household. Let alone, even one. Some cases they had a grandmother, or a grandfather, or were adopted. And I was very privileged and fortunate enough to have both parents in my household. It’s just searching for that peace and that love that’s just not there in Los Angeles. Everything is, like, so harsh. The conditions are so fucked up. I remember almost literally every other week in high school our school was on lockdown because the bank down the street was getting robbed, or there was a fight where someone was getting jumped on the corner. We had security guards at our school. If you were to see an image of how the school looked — and still looks like this to this day — it literally looks like a prison yard. We don’t have a cafeteria, it’s just two buildings, a parking lot, and some lunch tables on the outside. And like, two basketball courts. That’s it. Even how the students were treated, we wasn’t allowed to listen to music on campus, before, during, or after school. We couldn’t walk off campus to get food at the Louisiana Fried Chicken on the corner, and there were several incidents where the police had suspicions that students was carrying drugs and then they’d bring in the K-9 unit and everybody would have to stand outside in the hallway, facing the lockers, and then we were standing outside for the majority of the period, not getting our education in. The conditions are just baffling. There was an incident where the school’s CEO Michael Piscal, a white man who talked a lot about uplifting black communities and children ran off with the school’s funding. He gambled it away in Las Vegas and was never found again. Last I heard he just got out of prison. He put everyone in danger. We already cut art and music programs at school. The students and Mike The Poet created a community. We held a poetry lounge every day at lunch time. I brought my boombox and we held rap cyphers. We held it in a classroom under Mike’s supervision so we won’t get in trouble for playing music. We needed platforms for us to express because we didn’t have shit on campus that would support us. As for myself, I did get caught up in it, being a dark skinned individual, experiencing colorism. Here’s an interesting story. There was a white student that attended my school. We never had a white student, ever. Me and her was cool. We built a connection. Until one day, after school, she was on the bus and she called me. And she said, “Chris, I’m scared.” I said, “What you scared about?” And she said, “There’s a black man on the bus. I’m scared.” I’m like, “There’s a black man on the bus? This is a predominantly black neighborhood.” Basically, she had this image in her head that all black men are monsters and hyper masculine. We’re not hyper masculine by choice. It’s just the conditions. […]

Sheffield: Following your education at CSUMB, what other kind of work were you doing in the community, in the interim of all of this happening?

Siders: I was mainly doing creative writing workshops. I taught at the Chinatown Learning Center in Salinas a few times, mainly trying to also get artists more, I guess in tune with their work, and for them to believe in themselves, and that everybody has a unique story to tell. Everybody brings something different to the table, everybody doesn’t think the same. So, I tried to bring them up whenever I performed at different places, or if I featured and whatnot. Also, I did workshops with individuals in the prison system at Soledad Correctional Facility for a couple years, with this program called Success Stories, and was led by Richie Reseda. He actually had a documentary on CNN called The Feminist in Cell Block Y, and we were just kinda breaking down the harmful effects of patriarchy and domestic violence. I directed a play called “A Race Through Time” created by another CSUMB Alumni Antoinette Anderson. She asked me to join on as a director to present conversations surrounding the treatment of black people in America through the years. She even let me write a few scenes for the show. Me and a few community members created a campus proclamation, to combat the rise in hate crimes on campus during the 2016 presidential election. I was honestly just really doing whatever I can with the tools that I have and the gifts that were given to me by the most high. So, yeah, also on the CSUMB campus, I actually tried to make sure that I purposely didn’t get too involved with groups. I made sure to do my projects by myself because they have their own set of rules on how they do things and I don’t wanna get caught up in their rules and their drama. So, if there was an event I wanted to do, I’d just try to find a way to put it on myself. […]

Sheffield: So Seaside, before it became incorporated as an actual city, was originally a pretty significant black settlement. I know CSUMB is technically located in Seaside and Fort Ord at the same time. There’s actually this really wonderful article on blackpast.org — “Race and Color in a California Coastal Community: the Seaside Story.” And it talks a lot about how in Post World War II, out here in Seaside, you had a lot of soldiers out in Fort Ord, which was a little bit of an experiment. You had white and black soldiers being trained out there, and then you had their wives and mothers building a large political presence in Seaside, getting particularly black, latino, and asian people elected in office, building equal homes and stuff like that. Do you feel like CSUMB is aware of this history? Do you feel like they make any attempt to try to incorporate that aspect of that complicated racial history of Seaside in their education, considering they’re located in Seaside?

Siders: I do believe that they know the history of Seaside. However, I feel like they refuse to acknowledge it. There were a lot of talks during my last year of school about changing the name of CSU Monterey Bay to CSU Seaside. I heard rumblings here and there. The culture of CSUMB has always been just “sweep it under the rug.” There’ve been so many racial discrimination lawsuits, million dollar racial discrimination lawsuits, swept under the rug. Incidents of teachers in the classrooms spewing disgusting microaggressions at students. There was even an incident where a teacher called on a student and called them “Africa,” a black student… yeah, fucking bizarre. It’s not only CSUMB; It’s this whole damn county. I kinda feel that, and it circles right back to virtue signaling, this whole performative thing of like, “Hey look at me, I’m doing the work.” Because a lot of the activists out here that I know are white. And I kinda feel that they do the work to satisfy that white guilt. And I’ve seen it so many times. People would go on stage and say, “Yes, I have white privilege, I do this and that,” Yeah, we know you’re white.  We know you have privilege. There’s no need to make this proclamation or declaration that you’re this. We see it. However, they’re just not being upfront about where the intentions lie.

Chris Siders performing with Streaming Hope

Siders: Monterey is such an interesting place. I spoke to another activist and what he told me was that this county is a microcosm of the world. Everything that’s outside this bubble happens in here, just in small different pockets. Yeah, you got nice places like Carmel, but extremely racist. Then you got dangerous pockets in Salinas and Seaside. Just the last time I was up here in June, I heard about some kids pulling drive-by shootings in broad daylight. It’s just wild. There’s so much going on and I feel like no one really pays attention as to what’s happening here. […] In Monterey, I definitely see the tension. I see the tension a lot. Being a student activist talking to my black friends, we’d always talk about white privilege and like the frustrations as to like, “dang why can’t they just see this, like this is so frustrating.” Even when the Donald Trump election popped off, I had a friend who ended up becoming a Trump supporter. He didn’t tell anybody until he got elected.  So then I wasn’t his only black friend. The majority of the circle was black except his girlfriend who’s white. And a lot of my friends were like, “I tried talking to him but he’s just not getting it.” He’s from Fresno, he grew up on a farm. His point of view from when I tried to talk to him, it was like talking to a brick wall. But his perspective was, “I got it out the mud, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, I did x, y, and z. And like, I don’t understand why certain people, different groups, can’t do the same thing.” The thing he fails to understand is the odds have always been stacked against us since day one. Like, I could literally walk down the street right now and possibly get pulled over by a cop, or a white woman could look at me and just say, ”Oh you’re harassing me, I’m gonna call the police,” and my life can be in danger at any given moment. And that’s my reality. That’s not his reality, he’s a white man. I kinda feel like a lot of folks in this county just don’t fucking get it. 

Sheffield: Do you have any final thoughts about all of this?

Siders: I kinda feel that, yeah, as a black activist, I kinda feel that there’s a lot of beauty and joy in the world. For many black activists out there, I really feel that we just tend to forget joy is the biggest revolution that you can possibly have and create. It’s not our fault some of us can’t see beauty. It’s hard to see. The thing of being alive in a country where everything is meant to kill you and you’re still here. And I’m pretty sure, in like, for example, in these rap songs and these hip hop songs, we talk about making it to 18,  21, 30, is a big accomplishment because it is. You mean to tell me surviving gang violence, suriving racism, homophobia, fucking MAGA people, blue lives matter people, protesting against our lives on a daily basis and deteriorating our mental and emotional well being, even the classism and our financial stability just always being in danger — as a kid, before I even moved up to college, my house got foreclosed by the bank because our landlord gambled away our money. Our rent money was gambled away. By the grace of god, we found another place, luckily. If we didn’t find another place, we would’ve been on the street. And so, again, we’re still here when everything is meant to kill us, and that’s a blessing!

Chris Siders graduated from CSU Monterey Bay with a B.A. in Human Communications with a concentration in Creative Writing and Social Action. His involvement with the MENding Monologues production as a director led him to become an ally organizing events such as One Billion RisingSlut Walk with Title IX at CSUMB. He administered feminism workshops at Soledad Correctional Facility with Richie Reseda, who was featured on CNN’s “The Feminist on Cellblock Y.”. Siders performed alongside poets such as Rudy Francisco, Shihan The Poet, and graced stages such as Dominican University, UC Santa Barbara, Washington State University and many more.

Brian Sheffield is a performance poet based out of the central coast in California. He is co-founder of Mad Gleam Press, a French-American small press. He is also co-editor of POST(blank) and an editor with the Boukra Collective. He has performed and been published internationally, among predominantly independent circles.