Montclair writer’s ‘Girlz ‘n the Hood’ dishes about Compton in the 1970s

Sarah Gordon was not, shall we say, a conventional mother. She had 11 children, and by seven men. She was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, except when she wasn’t. And she had an arsenal of guns in a trunk, as well as a pistol in her bra for emergency use. (Sometimes trouble finds you.)

She wasn’t particularly verbal in her love for her children. If she wrote a letter to daughter Mary, she would sign off, “Your mother, Sarah Gordon.”

That was just natural reserve, according to Mary, now Mary Hill-Wagner.

“You don’t have to slob all over people with your love. You can demonstrate your love,” Hill-Wagner says. “She was not a huggy, kissy person. It was something deeper than ‘I love you.’”

The Montclair woman has just published a memoir about her childhood. “Girlz ‘n the Hood: A Memoir of Mama in South Central Los Angeles” is the title.

And how is it, by the way, that that obvious answer title to the 1991 movie has, aside from a Megan Thee Stallion song, been so rarely been used? Maybe it’s because women so rarely get their due.

“There are all these books and movies about boys — ‘Boyz n the Hood,’ ‘Straight Outta Compton’ — but there was nothing about the girls,” Hill-Wagner says.

She adds: “I added the subtitle because I wanted my mother to be the focus.”

Her book is an easy, compelling read. Absurd real-life incidents abound. In their cheap apartment building, the upstairs toilet falls through the ceiling onto the family’s toilet. Thankfully neither was in use at the time.

Descriptions are short and colorful. One neighbor, Hill-Wagner writes, “looked like a jigsaw puzzle that had been put together from several different boxes.”

Hill-Wagner spent 15 years writing for newspapers, from vanished community papers like the Simi Valley Enterprise and the Anaheim Bulletin to the crime desk at the Las Vegas Sun. Maybe that background accounts for her direct, punchy style.

We set up to meet at a coffeehouse in Montclair. At my request, she brings a photo of her mother. It’s a blown-up graduation portrait from Compton Community College of Sarah, the first in her family to graduate from college. During our conversation, Sarah gazes at us benevolently.

“Girlz” has a blurb from poet Nikki Giovanni, who calls it “a wonderful, warm memoir that helps us put together a critical piece of L.A.  A wonderful read.”

“I could have cried,” Hill-Wagner says. “It was at that moment I thought, I’m a writer.”

As a girl in the 1970s, Hill-Wagner, now 57, liked to listen to adult conversations, sometimes by eavesdropping. That habit, along with diaries she kept from ages 12-15 and a good memory, help her reconstruct scenes and conversation, although she admits some of it is by necessity invented.

If there’s a hero of this tale, it’s her mother. During one lean period, she loaded her rifle and hunted in a nearby field for rabbits.

Plopping two cottontails on her kitchen counter, Sarah skinned and dressed them before setting them to stew with vegetables from her garden. When her children, horrified, initially said they wouldn’t eat it, she replied with a sigh: “I don’t know how I done raised such pansy-ass brats.” The finished stew smelled so good, they dug in with gusto.

Sarah Gordon, left, and daughter Mary in 1982 on graduation day from Compton High, where Mary was valedictorian. Sarah is the focus of Mary Hill-Wagner’s book, “Girlz ‘n the Hood: A Memoir of Mama in South Central Los Angeles.” (Courtesy Mary Hill-Wagner)

Sarah taught Mary to read on her lap from the Bible and comics. She encouraged Mary’s individualism. And she was a rebel in her own way, telling Mary not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in class but rather to stand silently in the back, and arguing with a history teacher of Mary’s who wouldn’t admit the Founders were slave owners.

In the supermarket’s produce section, Sarah one day told Mary they wouldn’t buy grapes because they needed to honor the boycott by the United Farmworkers. “They’re the new slaves,” her mother explained.

The children were scared of her at times, baffled by her at others. But they knew she was on their side.

“We were little soldiers and she was our general,” Hill-Wagner says with a chuckle.

She’d thought of telling this story ever since college, when she wrote about her mother to fulfill an essay assignment on the person she admired most. In middle age, she reread her mother’s letters, “laughing and laughing,” and began a childhood memoir she called “As the Ghetto Turns,” focusing on the soap opera elements.

A mentor asked her the probing question of why she was writing it, and that led to the focus on her mother and sisters.

With welfare checks, babies out of wedlock, absent fathers and copious examples of poor life choices, there’s plenty here for social conservatives to tut-tut over.

Hill-Wagner says the story is about poverty, struggle and her mother’s efforts to feed and protect her children. Her mother almost always had a job, either as a nurse or a maid.

“The fathers, they’re not the point,” Hill-Wagner says. “Despite what the world throws at Black women and girls, we hold up the world. Those fathers didn’t stick around. She did.”

Her mother died in 1990 at age 53. “That ghetto life was hard,” Hill-Wagner says. “It’s hard on a person.”

She’ll read from her book and sign copies at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, at Barnes & Noble at Montclair Place and at 2 p.m. Oct. 24 at Book Carnival in Orange.

Hill-Wagner, who holds a doctorate from the University of North Carolina and has taught at USC, has lived in Montclair the past six years with her husband.

“It’s a nice bougie neighborhood,” she says with a smile. “Everybody mows their lawns. There are no shootings. It’s very pleasant. Montclair is no South Central Los Angeles, let me tell you.”


Wednesday is National Coffee Day. According to the personal finance site WalletHub, Portland, Oregon has America’s most coffee and tea manufacturers per square root of population (0.0211). That number is, gulp, “42.2 times more than in Riverside and San Bernardino, the cities with the fewest” (0.0005). The Inland Empire, roasted on National Coffee Day.

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, three bitter brews. Email, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.