For years, the Los Angeles Times has overlooked the vibrancy of BLACK L.A.
A new portrait series by the paper lets
the community speak for itself.
BLACK L.A. IS ALL AROUND US
You might feel it on an afternoon drive down Angeles Vista Boulevard, the sun streaming through swaying palm trees above View Park. You might feel it on a wonderfully regular Saturday afternoon on somebody’s front lawn, music booming, food grilling, friends rejoicing. Or you might feel it on a Sunday in Leimert Park, the drums, the vibe and the vendors all blending together to tell one story — the beauty of Black Los Angeles.
Of course, that beauty expands far beyond the roughly trapezoidal group of neighborhoods that were redlined into South-Central and later rebranded as South L.A. On any given night, that beauty might manifest at a sold-out show at the Roxy, breathless crowds anxiously awaiting a performance from a hometown hero like rapper Blxst. It might appear at one of the monthly flea markets showcasing Black artists, designers, chefs and vendors, such as the immensely popular Black Market Flea or Black on the Block. Or that beauty might sprawl onto the beach and into the ocean on a Sunday afternoon, thanks in large part to communities like Ebony Beach Club and Intrsxtn who are staking their claim in surf culture.
“We bring such history to every place we go,” said Michael J. Fisher, senior pastor of Greater Zion Church Family in Compton. “We bring a culinary aspect, we bring the arts, we bring dancing, we’re gonna bring the energy, poetry.”
That history wouldn’t be complete, however, without mentioning the external oppression which has plagued the community since its inception. At times, festering issues of police brutality, racism and inequality have bubbled over through fiery uprisings, such as the 1992 L.A. riots. More often, though, it’s an undercurrent of “discontentment” masquerading as everyday life — the growing food desert in South L.A., the skyrocketing rents displacing the people left behind in the great “bandemic” — the art of making money creatively during lockdown — or the uncomfortable feeling many experience in L.A.’s ritzier areas; at best described as invisibility, and at worst, unwarranted suspicion.
“When I come into a place, if I’m wearing a certain type of attire, I have to work extra hard to make someone think I’m not going to do something to them,” said Mark “Jacket” Junius, a barber in Leimert Park. “Who wants to always go somewhere and have to convince somebody they’re not up to no good?”
Through it all, however, the community has persevered. Ahead of Juneteenth, the Los Angeles Times presents “Behold” — a portrait series giving space for the people who have been overlooked in the media to tell their own stories.
“Black is beautiful because it is a survivor,” said Roger Q. Mason, a playwright and performer whose work has been featured on Broadway. “We have experienced — certainly in the last 400 years, and arguably before — systematic attempts to render us inhuman, invisible, worthless, disenfranchised. Yet somehow, we have not only survived, but our cultural expressions have become part of the mainstream dialogue; sometimes acknowledged, but many times not.”
BUSINESS ON THE BLOCK
Where would we be without our businesses?
They feed us, clothe us, bring us together and provide a hub for the conversations that can shape our future. Historically, they haven’t always received the support they need to thrive, however, paving the way for prying developers to accelerate gentrification by snatching up community cornerstones.
“A lot of the things that made me feel good about the area are gone now,” said Amerylus Ann Cooper, founder of Project 43 and a lifelong Crenshaw resident. “We don’t make our kids love our businesses. When the father dies, the mother tries to take over the business, and she’ll run it for a while. But as soon as the mother dies, the kid says, ‘let’s get rid of it.’”
Sitting in a lawn chair
in front of his store, longtime business
owner SIKA DWIMFO has had a front-row seat to history in Leimert
Park Village. Better
known by his mononym, Sika has been a cornerstone in Leimert Park for nearly 30 years and has witnessed the changing demographics and rapid gentrification that threatens the identity of a cherished Black community.
In recent years, however, that mind-set is starting to change. Entrepreneurs such as the late Nipsey Hussle returned the idea of ownership to the forefront, while a growing desire to keep Black dollars in the community have bolstered their support. Combine the two, and you have a close-knit community supporting businesses such as Post & Beam, the irreplaceable restaurant in Baldwin Hills.
“Living in South L.A., it doesn’t feel as distant as other areas,” said John Cleveland, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Roni. “The business community here is one of the coolest that I’ve been around. “I’m so honored to be a part of it. All the business owners in South L.A., we know each other, we patronize each other’s businesses, we live close by, we see them when we’re going to the grocery store.
“SOUTH L.A. IS SO RICH WITH CULTURE AND CREATIVITY BECAUSE WE ARE BIRTHED FROM THE SPIRIT OF FREEDOM SEEKERS.”RONI, JOHN & MILES CLEVELAND owners of Post & Beam
Outside looking in, it looks like this big picture, but when you live in Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, it’s a small world.”
SOUND OF THE WEST
Life moves at a certain tempo in Los Angeles, and the music does too.
It’s relaxed enough for the sandy beaches and soaring palm trees, but still turnt up enough to boogie. Over the years, we’ve seen generations of artists put their spin on it; G-funk, Jerkin’ and Traffic Music, among countless other subgenres. But no matter the style, it always finds a way back to that bouncy, 100 beats per minute tempo.
“Snoop Dogg,” said Jayson Cash, a rapper from Carson, when asked about the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of West Coast music. “As a kid, you don’t even know what you’re experiencing, but you feel it. You get older, and you realize what you were feeling as a kid. There’s so much sentimental value in music. It takes me back to being in the jumper as a kid.”
It’s another childhood memory that’s ingrained into Cash’s memory, though: the time he saw the legendary DJ Quik at his own middle school in Hawthorne.
“BLACK COMMUNITY IS WITHIN US; WE HAVE A RELATABILITY THAT IS UNMATCHED. WE CREATE UNITY AND UNDERSTANDING THROUGH CREATIVE EXPRESSION.”DEON WILLIAMS JR. & TORIN THOMAS musician and artist
“We had a music program, and his daughter went to the school,” Cash said. “I remember DJ Quik pulled up in a red Maserati, and I said ‘Oh my God, it’s DJ Quik!’ I couldn’t believe someone I was listening to on the radio was maneuvering through the same streets as me.”
RIDING A NEW WAVE
You can’t sum up the richness of Black L.A. into a few neat words.
There are skaters, nurses and writers; massage therapists, professors and first responders, to name just a few.
Historically, however, that image has been cut down to a monolith. For years, Hollywood and the media neglected the nuances of the community, choosing instead to parachute in at the first sign of negativity and turn a blind eye to everything else.
“IT’S A BLESSING TO BE THRIVING IN THE CITY WHERE THERE IS SPACE FOR BLACK CULTURE.”MARLANA TUCKER “MARLEY” model, mom and entrepreneur
“I remember growing up, my first ideas of L.A. were South-Central, Compton, and it was just gangs, gangs, gangs,” said Jessa Williams, who grew up in Cleveland. “There’s Hollywood — this idyllic, glam and glitzy thing — and then this underbelly of L.A. that’s always been associated with danger and poverty. But if you’re not white, and you see that portrayal, you take it with a grain of salt.”
After moving to Los Angeles in 2019, however, she was able to look behind the curtain and see the city for what it was — a place for “dreamers and doers,” where she could craft the type of life she wanted. She found her niche on a surfboard off the California coast, and started her own organization called Intrsxtn, working to bring more Black people to the beach and provide a haven for those who feel at home on the water.
“Surfing is so white and male-dominated,” she said. “I just want other Black girls and women of color to know that the beautiful ocean, amazing coastline and all the beaches is here for us too.”
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Whether it’s the fight for quality education, the battle for better healthcare or the movement to own more commercial and residential real estate, activism has long been sewn into the fabric of Black Angelenos.
One of the most critical battles today is the struggle for better food in South-Central. There already weren’t a lot of healthful options below the 10 Freeway, and when the Ralphs on Crenshaw Boulevard and Slauson Avenue closed during the pandemic — in the wake of a mandated $5-an-hour “hero pay” increase for its employees — the gaping hole was ripped even wider.
Even before Ralphs shut its doors, however, Olympia Auset was working to fix the problem. After going vegan while studying at Howard University, she returned to Los Angeles and grew increasingly dissatisfied at the shabby state of grocery shopping in her backyard.
When COVID was
ravaging Black L.A., TSEGA HABTE stepped into action. As a
longtime activist and organizer Habte set up several COVID-19 vaccination clinics in South L.A., helping to produce a model for vaccination outreach.
“I am here dedicated to make sure Eritreans, Ethiopians and all other Black and brown people get vaccinated.”
She started hosting dinners for her friends, to talk about the barriers keeping them from eating healthy. As interest grew, she moved to a bigger house, where more friends could buy groceries and start to change their eating habits. When that succeeded, they took it to Leimert, setting up shop outside KAOS Network and bringing the produce straight to the community.
They didn’t have a tent, decorations or even their own table to display the food. But they still sold out on the first day.
“The biggest, biggest, biggest lie they tell is that Black and brown people don’t want to eat healthy, and that’s why there’s no healthy food,” said Auset, who grew up in South-Central. “We’ve been here six years now, we wouldn’t still be here if there wasn’t interest. People literally hit us up from all over the country, asking ‘can you bring this here, can you do this here.’”
“WHAT BONDS ME TO THE BLACK COMMUNITY IN LOS ANGELES IS THE MEMORIES THAT I HAVE OF WHAT IT ONCE WAS AND THE BELIEF OF WHAT IT CAN BE MOVING FORWARD IF WE CAN JUST HOLD ON TO IT.”QUEEN (NYEMA SAWYER) community organizer
TAKE IT TO CHURCH
There’s a warmth in the church that you can’t find anywhere else.
The Sunday morning ritual extends beyond the borders of Los Angeles. Maybe you were one of the kids upset you had to wake up at 7 a.m. on your weekend to put on your nicest shirt — or maybe you were their parent making sure they’re sitting upright each morning in the pews. Or maybe you sang and played an instrument in the church, igniting your musical career and forming the foundation of your artistry. Or maybe you’re like Michael J.T. Fisher, who felt so moved by it all that he took up his father’s mantle as a pastor.
Back when Compton was a mostly white suburb southeast of downtown Los Angeles, Pastor Fisher’s father built the Greater Zion Church Family — the first Black Baptist church in the area.
“My dad was an African American version of Billy Graham,” Fisher said. “Our church was packed. It’s that typical foot-stomping, hand-clapping, mothers-fanning, big hats that catch the holy spirit and dance the holy dance. It was a good time, exciting.”
Fisher took over the church at age 25, bringing his father’s energy to the pulpit every Sunday. His eyes are toward God, but his feet are in Compton; if all he does is bring more souls to heaven, he doesn’t feel he’s done enough.
“God has placed the church in the community to help the community … I grew up understanding that my assignment as a preacher was to not just talk about heaven, but to bring heaven to us for those that are struggling.”
Every Sunday at Church is special, but church on Easter Sunday is special.
At First African Methodist Episcopal Church it’s a full-blown celebration; bright colors, joyous faces and packed pews all gathered to celebrate Jesus’ rise from the dead.
Founded in 1872, First A.M.E. is one of the largest churches in Los Angeles, boasting a congregation of more than 20,000 members.
Senior Minister “J” Edgar Boyd has helmed the church since 2012, bringing more than 54 years of ministry experience to the pulpit.
PARIS TATE, SHARON ASHER, ALEX & KAREN BROWN, MICHAEL WHITE, ALBERT NIXON, TONY SCOTT, CARRIE ALLEN, DORIS BURSEY, GREGORY LINER, DEBORAH MACLIN, LINDA WEBB, REVEREND ADRIAN GOODRICH, PASTOR EDGAR BOYD
Roger Q. Mason was born into poetry.
Few cities have inspired more art than Los Angeles. The magic of L.A. lures artists and creatives from around the country, but for those who have called it home since birth, it’s an innate connection.
Roger Q. Mason was one such poet who joined the lineage almost as soon as he could walk. While kindergartners were singing “Wheels on the Bus,” the Santa Monica native was reciting the words of Langston Hughes, steeping himself in knowledge while experiencing the power of Black thought firsthand.
“My grandmother, her name was Doxie Darling, House Mason,” he said. “When I was growing up in the late ’80s and ’90s, I would go to her various clubs and recite poetry or read Black thought pieces before the ladies who lunch. I was 4, 5, 6 years old putting on a holy show.”
Mason’s Los Angeles does not exist without the theater. His plays are inspired by his ancestors, and he wants all Black Angelenos to understand their own history the same way he does.
“What makes me proud to be from Los Angeles and particularly Black Los Angeles is the gift of carrying on the legacy of the cultural pioneers who’ve come before me,” he said. “Members of my family who have used their bodies, their minds and their money to make the city a fair, diverse and equitable place. And I know I carry the legacy of their fight, and the obligation to keep fighting for what’s right in this world.”
“IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW WE ARE NOT THE BEGINNING NOR THE END OF THE STORY.”AYUKO BABU activist and founder of Pan African Film Festival