The celebrated jazz scene that flourished along Central Avenue in Los Angeles during the 1940s is emblematic of what historian Douglas Flamming calls "the Paradise Lost narrative" of the black experience in Southern California. Once upon a time, the story goes, black people fled the racism, poverty and violence of the Deep South in search of the good life in Los Angeles -- they flourished briefly during World War II and then slipped into an ever-deepening despair that reached a flash point during the Watts riots.
"I have come to distrust the Paradise Lost narrative," writes Flamming in "Bound for Freedom," a masterful and moving account of the black community in Los Angeles during the first half of the 20th century. The real story is more subtle. "Regardless of the time period, the basic rights of black Angelenos always faced attack from some quarter," he explains. "Knowing they were not free enough, black Angelenos set out to change that, and therein lies the tale."
Flamming, a history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, did much of the research for "Bound for Freedom" at the Huntington Library and other California archives and libraries while on the faculty at Caltech. His book is a solid work of scholarship, but it is also urgent and intimate, lively and even endearing. The sweeping saga comes into sharp focus again and again as Flamming introduces us to real men and women whose life experiences, sometimes charming and sometimes alarming, embody the larger themes of his book.
"I have always wanted to understand," notes the author in a characteristic aside, "how real people at the corner of First and Main saw their world."
At the same time, he readily concedes that as a white observer some aspects of the black experience are simply beyond his grasp. "In the America we live in, I have come to doubt that any white person, or any nonblack person for that matter, can fully understand the African American experience," he writes. "Some doors cannot be opened." As one example of the tension that he obviously feels, Flamming devotes 10 frank pages to the question of what to call the people he writes about (and what they have called themselves), a vocabulary that ranges from "sons and daughters of Ethiopia" to "Brothers of More Color" to "Americans of African descent."
Flamming reminds us that the founding families of Los Angeles, dating back to the first Spanish settlement in the 18th century, were " 'colored' in the European sense of the word" and that "the majority were of Negro heritage, although not purely so." Still, at the time of California statehood in 1850, only a dozen or so African Americans were counted among a population of less than 2,000. The growth spurt that turned L.A. from a sleepy backwater into a boomtown in the 1880s also saw the establishment of a sizable and enduring black community. For the boosters, black and white alike, Los Angeles was "a city called heaven."
By the turn of the 20th century, the city already boasted its first black female physician, so-called race newspapers that served an African American readership, a network of "Colored Women's Clubs" and "the Forum," an influential civic association affiliated with the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that black residents of Los Angeles were "without doubt the most beautifully housed group of colored people in the United States." The neighborhood along Central Avenue, which soon became "the primary artery of black life" in the city, "was neither ghetto nor slum." Job opportunities were "limited, although usually plentiful."
All these resources, as Flamming shows us, fed the aspirations of the city's black community for "something different, something western, something free." At the same time, however, black clergy, journalists and politicians refused to ignore the undeniable racism that continued to afflict people of color. "We suffer almost anything (except lynching) right here in the beautiful land of sunshine," wrote a black woman named Louise McDonald in 1912. "You can't bathe at the beaches, eat in any first-class place, nor will the street car and sight-seeing companies sell us tickets if they can possibly help it." By 1921, newspaper headlines were warning that the Ku Klux Klan had come to California.
Flamming wants us to understand that black activism and black boosterism were embraced by the very same people. "This seeming contradiction was no contradiction at all," he writes. "As black leaders saw it, the Western Ideal could be wielded as a weapon in the cause of black civil rights." Indeed, the single sentence that best sums up "Bound for Freedom" focuses on the same curious and elusive phenomenon: "The paradox was that things got better and worse at the same time, and for the same reasons." And Flamming concludes that the past is prologue. "Los Angeles then was what most cities in the United States are now," he writes, "a sprawling, multiracial place where the rules of the game and the hierarchies of power seemed always in flux." *