We have now settled in Leimert Park. We live at the heart of what remains of the only majority African American neighborhood in the city, and it too contains a rich ethnic, cultural and class diversity. Leimert Park is an attractive neighborhood with architectural variety, lovely, well maintained yards, ethnic restaurants and coffee houses and a cultural and artistic core centered on Degnan Boulevard in the heart of the Village. Just this past October 2008 in this neighborhood, the Taste of Soul Festival saw 75,000 African Americans and others gather nearby on Crenshaw Boulevard. The October 18th Los Angeles Sentinel reports that this festival may have been the largest gathering of primarily Black people in Los Angeles history.
I am certain that some folks traveled from the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, the Inland Empire -my uncle and his family for example- and from Orange and Ventura Counties, and maybe Kern County. However, that so many Black folks from Los Angeles proper, my notion of proper, and the immediately adjacent communities- Inglewood, Carson, Compton, Long Beach- gathered here for the festival demonstrates the great and significant number of African Americans that still live and work and struggle in Los Angeles. We are not a monolith, but no people or nation is a monolith and without its internal contradictions. But we are not a vanishing community, which is to say we are not a vanishing and thus insignificant social, cultural and political force in Los Angeles or the state of California even as we are transforming community. Why then have we been subjected to repeated reports of our disappearance and subsequent diminishing of especially political clout? That’s probably an unfair question because there are several answers. I, here, offer one.
Regular assertions of Black disappearance and irrelevancy have the cumulative effect of rendering the community, or the communities, invisible in the public imagination despite the observable presence of Black folks in the city, in every part of the city, and thus ease Black political marginalization. The assertions of our invisibility make us invisible. Invisible people need no advocacy. Invisible people form no constituency. Thus their mainstream political representatives become marginalized, their issues ignored, their legislative sway minimized. Invisible people do not exist, nor do their issues. They can then be reduced to interlopers into the political process, dinosaurs of old style civil rights activism, victimization pimps and hustlers, irrelevant cultural nationalists, and free agent individuals who just “happen to be black.” Highly visible “invisible” people become objects of resentment and scorn. They deserve what they get. If the police beat them or shoot them, even if these are caught on video or the Black persons treated so are minors, it doesn’t matter. The police are seen as justified, over and over again. If these people are understood to be invisible, then efforts to disappear them are both explicitly and tacitly supported. And that brings me to perhaps the most invisible African American community in the city that isn’t behind bars, the Downtown Los Angeles community.
According to L.A.CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network), one particular migration of African Americans has not been to the outlying areas of the county or to adjacent counties, but has occurred within the city, from South Los Angeles to the Downtown area. African Americans are grossly overrepresented among the homeless throughout the region. This is acutely the case in central Los Angeles. This is not a community composed only of veterans, former prisoners, dumped mentally ill patients, runaways and men and women with substance abuse problems. Increasingly, families swell the number of homeless. Yet, this too is misleading because many of the African Americans now living downtown are not homeless. Individuals, couples and families have been living in the old hotels that still line Los Angeles Street and Seventh Street and Skid Row. They have been there since the nineties. Their presence downtown amplifies the problem of affordable housing in the city as these working class and underemployed Black folks have been priced out of the rental properties in South Los Angeles and Southwest Los Angeles, as these neighborhoods like many neighborhoods that had been ignored and neglected have now become sites of gentrification. And now gentrification has moved Downtown.
As city planners and private developers continue to reform and recast Downtown as an upscale, hipster friendly, artsy, urban center, working class folks, African Americans and others, are again being priced out of the neighborhood. Furthermore, LAPD have been more aggressively policing the area. The tactic is consistent with Chief Bratton’s Broken Windows policy, the official effort to “clean up the streets” by aggressively enforcing laws against “quality of life” crimes like vandalism, acts that can easily characterized as public nuisances as much as crimes. We have gone from stops, tickets and arrests for Driving-while-Black to stops, tickets and arrests for Walking-while-Black. L.A.CAN reports that African Americans in the neighborhood are being cited for dumping the ashes from their cigarettes, fined accordingly, and when unable to pay the fines, jailed. The effect is an ethnic cleansing of Downtown. And because these people are invisible Black people, the violations go unnoticed and unchallenged except by those community activists who refuse marginalization, like L.A.CAN. But where is their Councilperson? Where is Mayor Villaraigosa whose electoral victory was cemented by the Black vote in the last mayoral election? Doesn’t he know a new election is just weeks away? As of now, they are on the side of the developers.
We need a new Black politics in the city, a new understanding of what sort of Black city Los Angeles is. We must continue to recognize each other and reach across our cultural differences and struggle for a better city, a more humane city for all its residents. Our children attend the public schools. Our adults compete for jobs. Our families struggle to negotiate crime and police. Our families enjoy the parks. We share these neighborhoods. We cannot accept a vision of Los Angeles that erases us. The story of the founders can teach us much. The overwhelming majority of the original families who founded the Pueblo in 1781 were African descent Mexicans, indeed 26 of the 46 (Goode 11).
The monument at Olvera Street records this fact. Yet, their African reality has been subsumed into their Mexican-ness. They have been rendered invisible, a process intensified by the ideology of mestizaje framing most discourse on ethnicity concerning Latin America generally and Mexico specifically (Cuevas).
Let’s explicitly restore them to our historical consciousness. Let us restore ourselves, whatever our first language or country and region of origin, to political relevancy. We are not invisible, and we will not be made invisible. There has never been a Los Angeles without Black people. Black Los Angeles has always been fundamental to Los Angeles, whatever the movements of its people, those coming and those going.
Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Cuevas, Marco Polo Hernandez. African Mexicans and the Discourse of Modern Nation.
Boulder: University Press of America, 2004.
Goode, Kenneth G. California’s Black Pioneers: A Brief Historical Survey.
Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, Publishers, 1973.
L. A. Community Action Network. <http://www.cangress.org>.
Wilson, Amos N. The Falsification of Afrikan Consciousness: Eurocentric History,
Psychiatry and the Politics of White Supremacy. New York: Afrikan World InfoSystems, 1993.