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In Sunday books: A new anthology speaks volumes on black L.A.

A uniquely Southern California take on the African American experience uncovers deep insights.

August 08, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

When Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramón tell people that Los Angeles has the second largest black population of any U.S. county, the usual response is raised eyebrows and blank stares.

"They're shocked," says Hunt, a sociology professor and director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. "Most people say, 'No, you're making that up, that can't be true.'" In fact, Hunt says, only Cook County in Illinois, which takes in a large swath of metropolitan Chicago, is home to more black Americans.

The list of things that most people, including many Angelenos, don't know about black L.A. could fill a book. So Hunt and Ramón, the Bunche Center's assistant director, decided to put one together: "Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities," just published by New York University Press.

The book brings together the research interests of what Hunt describes as an "all-star team" of contributors, most but not all of them academics with strong California connections. Comprising 17 short to medium-length essays, it pivots from data-rich analyses of how the black community's 20th century demographic center gradually has shifted from Central Avenue to Leimert Park, to interview-driven, anecdotal accounts of the rise and decline of Venice's Oakwood neighborhood and a revealing chronicle of the black-owned SOLAR (Sounds of Los Angeles Records), a late '70s-early '80s R&B hit-making machine for groups including the Whispers, Shalamar and Klymaxx.

It also includes multidisciplinary, L.A.-centric essays on incarceration's impact on black families, the relationships between gay African Americans and their religious communities, and the ethnic-minority admissions policies of UCLA, among other thorny topics.

More than half a dozen years in the making, the roughly 430-page volume is believed to be the first such project of its kind. Despite its formidable size, the authors say, L.A.'s black population has been relatively under-analyzed in comparison with New York, Chicago and other northeastern and Midwestern centers of black population..

Part of the reason, Hunt and Ramón say, is that Los Angeles in certain key respects doesn't fit the nation's dominant "race" narrative. To begin with, L.A.'s founders were mixed-ethnic Spanish colonial settlers, not white New England Puritans or Southern slaves and slave-holders, so the city's ethno-demographic profile differed sharply from that of the United States east of the Mississippi River. Just as significantly, the city's major growth spurts occurred decades after the Civil War. The large numbers of blacks who migrated to Los Angeles after World War II arrived in a city whose ethnic contours were in some ways already well-defined.

"Black people never really threatened to be like a majority or a plurality of the population here, in the same way they do in some of these other American cities that have been studied," Hunt says.

To some observers, L.A.'s singularity offered blacks a plausible chance at a better life. When the legendary author and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois visited the city in the early 1900s, he recommended it to black migrants precisely because he saw it as an anomaly, a rare enclave where African Americans might be relatively free of the economic constraints and racist violence of the Jim Crow South.

"There was always this perception that L.A. was kind of like the oddball," Hunt says.

Yet "Black Los Angeles" makes the case that, today, L.A.'s black population offers many crucial insights into the lives of African Americans in general.

"Everyone talks about Harlem of course because of the Harlem Renaissance and what was happening during the period," Hunt says. "But we argue that as the 20th century progressed, L.A. really becomes like the new Harlem in terms of setting the terms on which people talk about black America."

Gerald Horne, a history professor at the University of Houston, said in an interview that the new book advances an evolving understanding of L.A. "as the northern-most capital of Latin America," a metropolis whose identity owes a great deal to its ethnically and culturally hybrid origins. Horne, the author of a book about the 1965 Watts riots and a participant in a May 25 UCLA symposium tied to the publication of "Black Los Angeles," says that the new book points to the need for more works that "give Southern California its due" in the nation's historical narrative.

One particular focus of "Black Los Angeles" is how Hollywood and the area's major news media have constructed images and ideas of black Los Angeles that have reverberated around the world. Hunt acknowledges that his own views of black L.A. were heavily molded by Hollywood until he moved here to attend USC as a student in the early 1980s.

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