Month: January 2009

What Black Community, Which Black Community? Part Two

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.

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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.

Hollywood Utopian
Hollywood Utopian

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.

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Afromexicana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Hail, hail Nigeria

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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.

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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.

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La Reina de Los Angeles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More to come…

What Black Community? Which Black Community? Part One

For a decade, since the mid 1990s, commentators on Los Angeles have often reported the disappearance of the city’s Black community.  That being said, Black people are visible all over Los Angeles.  These people speak several languages.  They are native Angelenos, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of migrants from the Southern United States, particularly Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.  They also come from South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the African Continent. They come from Asia and the Pacific.  Some work as domestics and day workers.  Others work as mechanics and bus drivers.  Still others work as receptionists, mail carriers, security guards, police and firefighters, dental assistants, merchants, and shopkeepers.  Some work as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, athletes, sports and entertainment agents, financial advisors, realtors and management executives.  Some work in the underground economy.  These folks make up a very diverse group, and this diversity of background and station makes commentary on a unitary Black community difficult if not ill advised.

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This diversity of language, national background, occupation and class prompts the opinion that a Black community may no longer exist in this most diverse, most multi-ethnic of cities. So we should be clear what the phrase “Black community” signifies, and whether it is really disappearing.  I don’t really believe that the Black Community has disappeared; nor is it disappearing.  It has changed dramatically, has splintered even.  But it is here and is identifiable nonetheless.  It exists because its members say it exists.  It exists because its members recognize each other, even if others do not recognize them.  And its members participate in the cultural events that seek to reinforce these connections.  Perhaps the annual African Marketplace and Cultural Fair every August best exemplifies this institutionalizing of the relations among the various Black ethnicities of Southern California.

My children, their mother and I have lived and worked in Los Angeles continuously for eleven years now, their first residency in Los Angeles, my second.  I am one of the native Angelenos.  I grew up in this city in the 1960s and the 1970s.  When my family, my children and their mother from the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area, joined me in Los Angeles, we lived in the Jefferson Park neighborhood.  Thirty years ago, Jefferson Park was still largely African American.  Sixty years ago, my oldest friend’s mother went to school and church at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Jefferson Park.  Fifty years ago, it was a neighborhood that my father lived in as a teenager (During the same years, the mid-1950s, my mother’s family moved from the Eastside, east of Central Avenue, to the Temple-Echo Park neighborhood).  My father’s younger brother died in the neighborhood, hit by a truck on Cimarron on his way to the community market.  Family oral history says that he was angry, not paying close enough attention.  He was thirteen.  The building still stands, and it still houses a community market.  My children and I regularly patronized the market.  We have a living history there.

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My  father’s aunts lived in the neighborhood.  They lived as part of a community of immigrants from New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), who settled in the area of South Los Angeles now bounded by four freeways: the 110 freeway to the east, the 105 freeway to the south and parallel to Imperial Highway although at the time the freeway didn’t exist, the 405 freeway to the west, and the 10 freeway to the north.

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Southwest and South L.A.

These NOLA immigrants effectively tried to reproduce New Orleans in Los Angeles.  My Aunt Loretta McRoyal  and my Uncle Willie, who moved to Los Angeles in 1959, explained that California, and especially Los Angeles offered opportunities for work in several industries.  They could not envision the future they wanted for themselves and their children if they stayed in New Orleans.  But they missed home horribly.  Nearly fifties years later, they still embody “not-here to stay” as New Orleans is still “home” in their conversations. They and other NOLA immigrants lived close to each other around the twelve Roman Catholic parishes within the boundaries of the four freeways.

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They created the institutions and practices that attempted to  recreate what finally could not be recreated, founding business to supply “authentic New Orleans products.”

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Through a network of social organizations, Les Bon Temps Clubs and church related organizations like the Knights of St. Peter Claver, the community was able to provide social support for families facing difficulties in Los Angeles and New Orleans.  These fundraisers would take the form of masquerade balls, church carnivals, Mardi Gras balls, fish fries and baking contests. Besides their function as mechanisms to maintain and support social relations within this community, these fundraisers also served an important role in allowing poor and working class families to save face.  Government assistance was looked down on; thus, these routine fundraising events allowed families to save face.

 

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Sometimes the fundraising took place in less formalized setting, but was no less ritualized.  Let me offer an example.  When my father died in 1980, each of the four evenings leading to his Friday morning funeral consisted of my family and friends bringing food and drinks and company to out house.  These were not somber events.  The evenings were loud, raucous and joyous.  People cried over their beers and whiskeys and crab legs and chicken and rice.  And they told stories about my father, his youth in New Orleans and adventures in Los Angeles.  At the end of each evening, including after the rosary and the funeral, my grandmother presented my mother with a large pickle jar, the kind that used to be in butcher shops and local markets, filled with bills of various denominations.

In the sixty years since the death of the uncle I never had a chance to meet but whose baseball trophy from Denker Park I still cherish, the neighborhood remained largely African American, though many families, including parts of my own, began moving further south past Slauson, Florence, Manchester and Century, and west into the Crenshaw area and the Exposition area.  Other families, with rising incomes, moved a little north and/or west into the Pico and San Vicente and Mid City and West Adams and Palms neighborhoods.  Inglewood began to change complexion.  By the mid 1970s, families began to trickle into the Inland Empire and the Palmdale-Lancaster area.  These families were the forerunners of the allegedly disappearing Black community.  And that is instructive.

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The IE

I call this instructive because it speaks to the limits of the language of race in the general discourse on Los Angeles’s ethnic communities.   Black community is used interchangeably with African American community.  It is true that African Americans occupy fewer neighborhoods as a majority community, but that has only made Los Angeles differently black.  The African American population did decrease by nearly 15 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to U. S. census data.  Those numbers reflect the second wave of out migration.

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To be continued…

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Hiatus

I have been on hiatus for a long time.  And during all that time, the world has continued to crumble.   I have to admit, sometimes I think that we would indeed be better off to let it go.  It might be the only way to save ourselves, to save the planet.  Capitalism is in crisis, and world governments are scrambling to save it.  Unemployment rises exponentially.  People are losing their homes.  A new wave of foreclosures heads down the pike.  No one can afford healthcare.  No one has any money.  All this makes one want to go away, get away from it all, but there’s nowhere to go because the crumble crumbles everywhere. 

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What are we trying to save?  People are desperate not to be thrown on the street.  We fear for our children, what they may be reduced to if we can not continue to provide the middle class standard of living held up as the only standard of living worthy of struggle, of work.  We worry over being unable to maintain our car notes, insurance payments, credit card bills.  We worry that we won’t keep our good credit ratings.  We worry about losing our creature comforts, and the gadgets that entertain us and make life convenient.  We worry about the state of our industrialized infrastructures.  Will our cities and states be able to maintain the water treatment and delivery systems that have been so key the development of every historical state and certainly to the sanitary conditions necessary for public health?  Will the electrical grid continue to lengthen the day endlessly?  We worry that all these marks of modern development will soon be lost to all but a super rich minority.  Of course, it has always been a minority who has enjoyed the benefits of modernity.  The suffering majority struggle in obscurity, scratching a living out of their bodies, and their children’s bodies, as best they can, in too many places picking at the rot on garbage dumps for some salvageable excess the rich have discarded.  

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We are right to worry.  If the auto industry fails, millions of people will be destitute.  Already the U.S. economy is hemorrhaging jobs.  We can expect petty crimes to rise as more and more people take desperate measures to keep babies fed.  The world will become more dangerous than it already is on any given day.  The world will become a little sadder than it is on any given day. 

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 It’s already happening, a few more women and men on the track, on boulevards and avenues that don’t ordinarily see women and men selling favors. 

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More people are buying guns. 

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What are we trying to save?  In the best of times under capitalism, millions of people are impoverished.  Impoverish is an active verb.  It is something one does to another. The world’s governments, the G8, or 20 or G whatever, scramble to save a system that impoverishes populations, degrades the environment, compromises democratic processes, reduces persons to units of labor and consumption, poisons the air, and chokes the planet with trash by design.  They struggle to save a system that confuses itself with freedom as it creates inequality.  None of them show imagination. 

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Maybe it’s time to reconsider exactly what we are trying to save and at what costs.  Maybe we should reconsider the attachment to personal wealth and the value of the clamor to reach the top of a dung heap and begin to think about what it means to participate in a common wealth.  Perhaps we can consider the possibilities of worker owned and run industries, factories that build trains instead of cars, farms that serve local areas and grow seasonal crops, energy plants that use sun and wind.  Perhaps we can take the promise of green economics seriously. 

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Perhaps we can catch up with the recreational practices of people and go ahead and decriminalize marijuana for recreational use, make it a taxable crop and an industrial crop that can help transform Global South economies.  Perhaps political leadership can act like leadership and overcome its obeisance to the insurance industry’s interests and implement single payer coverage.  Perhaps we can reconsider the lifestyle that we have been sold for something that encourages us to spend more time with each other rather than with our electronics, even those electronics that allow us to communicate. 

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Maybe we all need to take a hiatus from consumerism and war.  The planet could stand a break.  At any rate, I’m happy to be back in cyberspace.