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Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities

(New York University Press; US: 1 Apr 2010)

It was as true in 1781 as it is today: the city of Los Angeles as much an idea as a municipality. When it was established that year, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles Del Rio de Porciuncula was already foreshadowing its future as a vibrant, polyglot, world-class city, with a population whose ethnic mix prefigured the L.A. of today.


But the journey of L.A.’s black citizens was one and the same as with the drive for influence and self-determination by black Americans elsewhere in America, with the same challenges and setbacks. To some extent, the story of black Los Angeles has been rife with bad press. Long considered marginalized in the historically tragic enclaves of Watts and South Central, black Angelenos have faced enduring misconceptions of who and what they are. The popular imagination has mentally locked L.A.’s black community in those two districts—and similarly fastened on the riots in Watts (1965) and South Central (1992) as defining a stratum of West Coast American life that’s deeper and wider than a few spasms of urban upheaval can suggest.


A book like Black Los Angeles could be expected to slice and dice the events and trends of recent turbulent years. It’s a deeper, better work of scholarship that wades into the history of this city, some of that history hundreds of years old, as a way of making sense of not just the present but the future as well. This wide sweep of Los Angeles history, and the role that black Americans played in its evolution at every level, is what sets this collection of supple, trenchant essays apart.


The book, edited by the directors of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles, begins with the disproving of a myth. The California we’ve come to look on as a contemporary expression of the multiracial experience has its roots deep in the past.


Although there has long been recognition of the mixed Spanish, African and Native American origins of the first settlers in Los Angeles, there also has been a tendency for scholars to downplay the influence of their African and Native American roots, instead dwelling on their assimilation into the region’s Spanish heritage. ...


The role of African settlers in Los Angeles isn’t just conjecture. The book includes a table of the names of the original settlers—the pobladores, more than half of whom had at least some African ancestry.


The families intermingled early and often:


... [T]here was little distance between poblador families. Mulattoes, Spaniards, mestizos, and indios (except the local Indians) tended to intermingle and marry with little restrictions in colonial Los Angeles.


With the eventual Westward Migration came settlers from the East Coast and the antebellum South, who brought with them a shift in the racial equation, one that reinforced the distinctions of skin color that are this nation’s sad legacy.


But the foundations of a society were already well established. After the Civil War, black Angelenos achieved a limited power base. Their numbers were small; essayist Paul Robinson notes that blacks numbered just .006 percent of the city’s population by 1880, due to the growth of the surrounding county. Still, the ground was laid for a potent stratum of black America as Los Angeles made the pivot from an agrarian economy to an industrial one.


With the exodus from the South to the West Coast in the 1940s and 1950s, blacks made their own westward migration, going to this new territory in vast numbers in search of a better life than was possible in the Jim Crow South. The book explores how these black Angelenos shaped, and were shaped by, the impact of culture, geography, and the rise of Los Angeles as linchpin of the entertainment industry.


Reginald Chapple examines the rise of the Central Avenue business district as the entrepreneurial artery of black L.A.; how the spirit of “the avenue” expanded to other areas; and how the Supreme Court’s prohibition of restrictive housing pacts (in which white homeowners could only sell to other whites) led to black residential expansion elsewhere in the city—as dramatic an urban reinvention as any that occurred in the American South.


Essayist Dionne Bennett looks hard at the media’s tireless (and often tiresome) misperception of life in South Central, typified by sitcoms and movies that purported to show, to varying degrees of success, what it’s really like in “the ’hood”.


South Central has never merely existed; it has been invented and imagined, erased and resurrected through an intersection of competing names, narratives, images, and geographic spaces, some real and some merely represented.


Examining the “problematic ease with which media discourses uncritically [shift] back and forth between the history and the fantasy of South Central ...”,  Bennett documents how that elasticity of perception has filtered down to us in different ways, from the daring anti-establishment liberation of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song to the one-dimensional hilarity of black life in TV series like Sanford and Son and What’s Happening! to the gritty poetic realism of John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood.


Scholar Mignon R. Moore delves into the experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered black Angelenos forced to contend with the painful disjunctions of heritage and sexuality. Homophobic attitudes among many black residents—attitudes anchored in the social bedrock of the black church—have been complicated by the fear of physical danger. Or worse still, by indifference from others in the black community: “When trying to decide how open to be about their sexuality, black LGBT people often fear the community’s apathy toward the threats they face”, Moore writes.


Other essays explore other aspects of the black L.A. experience: the lives of black actors and entertainment professionals working to find a place in Hollywood, the ultimate company town; the rise of outsourcing and the resulting fierce competition with Latinos for jobs in contemporary L.A.; the disproportionate presence of environmental hazards in black neighborhoods; the cultural impact of SOLAR, the black-owned record label hailed as “the Motown of the 1980s”; the role of urban ills and racial bias in creating black street gangs as far back as the ‘40s.


Black Los Angeles, the exhaustively-footnoted product of eight years of research by these scholars at UCLA and other institutions, is a thorough study of a largely-unexplored dimension of urban American history. With its tables, maps and period photos, it’s a vivid portrait of the evolution of a city and its unsung ancestors.


Like City of Quartz (1990), Mike Davis’ groundbreaking social history of Los Angeles, Black Los Angeles examines where the myth and the reality of Los Angeles diverge. Where Davis’ focus is largely on the broad modern-day fault lines of class, income, and religion, the new book of essays provides a rich perspective of a smaller slice of the city’s population and what makes it tick and breathe.


In this weave of scholarly essays, a less celebrated Los Angeles comes to light, a place of people long thought to be walk-on players in the city’s history, people whose DNA in the region—socially, culturally, and literally—indicates a full starring role.

Rating:

Michael E. Ross writes frequently on the arts, race matters, politics and American culture. He has worked as a reporter, critic and editor at various news organizations, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and msnbc.com. He blogs on politics and media at Short Sharp Shock. American Bandwidth, a book of essays and blog posts spanning the 2004 presidential election and the dawn of the Obama administration, was published by Authorhouse in October 2009.


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