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The Word on the Street : In a tradition that dates back to Africa, black Americans exchange stories, views and news at informal gathering places, gleaning truth from familiar voices.


Unleashed from a nondescript storefront, where Degnan Avenue peters out into the grassy triangle that is Leimert Park, two saxophones shout a complex, free-form argument. Their emphatic cries ride just above the usual cafe chatter, in bursts and shouts contesting what booms from overhead speakers.

The source of the clamor is 5th Street Dick's, an electric meeting spot where espresso brews and conversation flies in shouts punctuated by broad gestures.

Sometimes live, sometimes mere memory crackling from vinyl, the playlist passes down a brief study of jazz--from bop to hard bop, post bop and beyond--while the clientele gathers the neighborhood "T", the "talk."

A varied display of customers, all but one black, takes advantage of a pause: A mother with a restless 5-year-old sips herb tea from a paper cup and chats with a young man in a beige crocheted skull cap, who is flipping the pages of a slim philosophy text. Two mustachioed zoot suiters with broad-brimmed, cream-colored fedoras, out of a dream, flank the entrance like graduated bookends. Shaka Camara, a neighboring shopkeeper, floats by in flowing robes and sandals, pounding out a message on a small drum tucked beneath his left arm.

For about a year now, the site has been a welcome place for people of any stripe or passion to express themselves. 5th Street regular, actor and former Downbeat magazine contributor Peter Sheridan drops by for the poetry, the jazz, the company--but mostly, he admits, for the buzz.

"We talk about the future of the neighborhood, of the city," he assures. "It's not superficial talk."

Continuing a long tradition, 5th Street Dick's falls into venerable, comfortable company as a prime community hang--a source for news, scoops or rumor, but most importantly "real deal" analysis and the "411."

Many blacks have long sought that second source to confirm the headlines or flesh out what passed like a dream in a brief sound bite over the airwaves. Because of a tentative relationship with most media and other mainstream information arteries (advertising or publicity), blacks have generally trusted modes of communication and sources that are intimate and long enduring.

The tradition's cornerstones have been well-trafficked, loud and lively barbershops; the Saturday morning grand tales spilled over the roar of bonnet dryers at full-service beauty salons; over-the-counter catch-up at the corner Mom and Pop; whispers over coffee and tea cakes in someone's sunny kitchen; Friday night bid whist or domino marathons; chitchat following Wednesday night prayer meetings.

Passing stories, news and analysis orally isn't a tradition exclusive to African-American culture. Everyone has his or her stories, an appointed time and space for spilling them. But for many blacks, oral testimonies are the sole repository of the precious details, the place where the history is locked tight and hidden from harm.

From the African griot sharing generations of lore around a fire and pre-Emancipation drum and dance gatherings in New Orleans' Congo Square, to the promised land spit-shine of the Northern barbershop and, finally, to the most recent blip in the party-line evolution--a video cafe aimed at mining African culture--blacks have conjured creative alternatives for communication.

The ritual of sharing stories, allegories, warnings, histories and sometimes rumors at an appointed time and place has historically been a way of rallying support, asserting pride and passing the culture without benefit of the drum.

A Distrust of the Media

For generations, black stories were seldom told: Never headline news, seldom back-page filler. Community concerns and issues remained "family business," lest the problems might trickle out, seeping beyond the boundaries to affect a larger world.

Black-owned community newspapers took up some slack. But if you wanted to find out about the family next door who moved away under the cloak of darkness or about hints circulating of a highway that would cut through your flower bed or parlor, one visited a favorite gathering place and listened to a wise voice, rich with familiar turns of phrase, like the twists of a road that conjured home.

"There is an African proverb," says Emma Pullen, an L.A. writer-filmmaker and former journalist. " 'The lion will always lose as long as man writes the book.' The truth of an event depends on frame of reference."

Of late, Pullen's creative projects involve excavating voices from the past. "We have to rely on the histories, stories that are passed down to us," she says.

Years of media disregard and the resulting isolation has bred distrust, she says. The result: Most electronic and print news sources for many blacks remain dubious information arteries and not necessarily primary information sources.

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