I enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:
Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)
I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust. Smith seems to have taken the point.
Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?
“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)
another on the role of Central Avenue:
“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)
There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.
Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)
Before it runs into the white wall…
Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)
Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.
You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:
Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)
Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.
There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:
The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)
Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.
Maybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age — is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.
A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:
I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)
Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…
There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?
There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:
In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)
He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:
By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)
All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.
A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:
At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)
William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables. All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.
I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.
“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn
They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)