By 1980, the year I graduated from Daniel Murphy High School and moved to the Bay Area for college, South Los Angeles and Central Los Angeles were poised for a major demographic shift. My senior year, my youngest sister’s best friend was the little boy next door whose family was from what was then still being called British Honduras, but very shortly after Belize. More Caribbean families moved into the neighborhoods, and especially Belizean families. Large waves of African American families began migrating to the Inland Empire in search of the suburban refuge and cheaper housing. Central Americans displaced by wars moved into the neighborhoods. More Mexican and Chicano families and Belizean families moved into the neighborhoods.
Older African American retirees began selling their homes to young Latino families instead of passing the property to their own children. And why shouldn’t they? Their children didn’t always want the houses, preferring Westside flats and condos, suburban satellites or Atlanta to the central city. These children of middle class and working class parents who owned their own homes grew up in a milieu that valued escape, escaping the ghetto, the inner city, crime, decay, and other Black people. Success became measured by the ability to “make it out,” to move away from a predominantly Black neighborhood, by no means a simple process, complicated by the epistemic violence of white supremacy ideology.
Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, the de-valuing of Black people has been thoroughly assumed by Black people, a process Amos Wilson has called the process of social amnesia exacerbated by the ideology of individualism. Wilson writes that “…the reinforced social amnesia of the subordinated Afrikan permits him to absentmindedly, obsessively seek to assimilate; to eat with, sleep with, live among, “be just like”; to identify with captors, torturers, enslavers, lynchers and race-baiting sadistic exploiters of his eschatological finality of his being.” Wilson makes a very strong indictment, and certainly it is problematic to generalize about the myriad reasons African Americans have chosen to move away from primarily African American neighborhoods. Nonetheless, we disserve ourselves if we do not address the depth of pathology that we still live as result of assuming the dominant narratives and dominant representations of Black people and Black communities. By 2000, only the neighborhoods bounded by Washington Blvd. north, Western Blvd. east, Florence Blvd. south and La Cienega west remained a majority African American area. This area still contains a significant number of Latino and Caribbean members.
So what is the Black community, and where is it? I think the answer to both those questions is that there are several Black communities overlapping and intertwining each other. There is the traditional Black community of African Americans. There is the still growing Caribbean community. There is the significant number of Central Americans and Mexicans of African descent, like Maria who sells tamales in Jefferson Park on weekends. There are the Continental African immigrant communities and their U.S. born children and grandchildren, including the very visible Nigerian and Ethiopian and Eritrean and Ghanaian communities. There are the pockets of Afro-Brazilian families on the Westside. These communities live together, work together, send their children to school together, marry together and do indeed participate in community life together. The migration of African Americans in large numbers to the Inland Empire, a move my mother and nearly every member of that side of my family made, did not exactly make Los Angeles a less black city. It just made it a differently black city in a Los Angeles County with a large county-wide Black population.
We lived in the Jefferson Park neighborhood for 5 1/2 years. On our block, 29th Place, our neighbors were Salvadoran, Belizean, Mexican and Chicano, Jamaican, Nigerian and African American. Our first week in the neighborhood, a middle-aged Black man walking up the street stopped in front of our yard where I was raking. He greeted me, speaking with a Caribbean accent and asked me if we had just moved in, mentioning that for the most part it was a nice neighborhood. Then he said, “Look, my name is Diaz. But I want you to know that I am a Black man. If a Black man has a Spanish name, he is still a Black man. I am from Belize. You’re African American. It don’t matter, ’cause we need unity.” I agreed with him, but I was slightly surprised. I’m not quite sure why he chose to declare himself as he did. I think it may be because of the ethnic shorthand of the terms Hispanic and Latino which don’t speak to the immense diversity within Latin American countries and cultures, nor the degree to which Latin America is a thoroughly Africanized region. Perhaps he was responding to what seems to be a California tendency, a suspicion between African Americans and Latino Americans that Black and Brown folks from the Midwest and the East Coast don’t suffer and which often catches them off-guard when they move to or visit the West Coast. Whatever the case may be, Brother Diaz thought it necessary to declare his Spanish name no barrier between us. He was not less Black than me, just differently Black, and both at home together in our part of Los Angeles.
From Jefferson Park, we moved to a neighborhood in Hyde Park. Our street, Arlington Avenue, was a more African American street but still quite diverse, very much like 29th Place. We only lived on this block for a year before we moved to the western edge of the West Adams neighborhood, on Alsace Avenue. This neighborhood is more solidly Latino, but still quite diverse, with the similar mix of cultures living together. This was another block and neighborhood where I had extensive history and experience. My great-grandparents lived on Alsace the first 20 years of my life, members of the St. Agatha Catholic parish. Despite the clear change in the majority culture living in this neighborhood, I never felt like I wasn’t living in a Black community, even if most of the Black people living in the neighborhood speak less and less with a Texan or Louisianan accent, and more and more with a Mexican, Central American, Caribbean or Continental African accent.
More to come…