“I am forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace the stranger whom they maligned so long. ”
— James Baldwin
I SPENT a little time a few weeks ago interviewing photographer Warren Hill for show he was preparing for featuring his work celebrating community organizing and the power of collective voices.
Though it is visual representation of community building, Hill’s work is at its core about listening: Getting to know a place is about getting to know the people who inhabit it, who have shaped and tended it when others have looked away.
To really see Los Angeles — its many working parts, its vivid tapestry — starts with listening.
As I mentioned in my remarks on Saturday afternoon: “His lens asks open-ended, ‘how-and-why’ questions that allow his subjects the space to fill in the frame. He’s not imposing a narrative but allowing his subject’s the space to articulate delicate shadings and implications of their own situation.”
Hill will be at the Central Library Wednesday afternoon talking about his work for Photographer’s Eye: “Power and Persistence: Grassroots Activists and Musicians in L.A.” Click here for more information.
You can see the photographs in person until June 26th Venice Arts.
Claudia Rankine via KCET
Just before I hopped out of town for a brief pause, I was able to speak to writer Claudia Rankine about her book Citizen: An American Lyric and the staged version that will be up at the Fountain Theatre here in L.A. until October 11.
Here’s a snip from the intro:
On the American “stage” — within mainstream media and in public discourse — the discussion of race and racism is often defined by spectacle: an event that we can collectively point to that plays out on our screens, large and small. It might be the grievous roll call of black lives cut short by raw acts of violence; or it might take shape in next week’s headlines — a bungled arrest or denial of dignity — that eerily mirrors incidents of three generations ago.
While those high-profile, super-charged moments are indeed odious and shameful, they are indicative of a deeper malady affecting the American psyche, writer Claudia Rankine argues in her most recent book, “Citizen: An American Lyric.”
Often, Rankine notes, these high-profile conflagrations — New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin — are viewed with confusion or are categorized as aberration by those who don’t move through life with black skin. For those who navigate daily through fraught territory, the belief or assumption that racism is largely “behind us” is both a powerful articulation of privilege and a violent act of erasure.
To read the interview in full click here.
James Rojas – Urban Planner & Community Activist (photo by Lynell George)
GREAT URBAN walkabout on Saturday with James Rojas who led about a dozen of us through Boyle Heights into East L.A. Rojas, an urban planner and community activist, gave us generous samples of Latino Urbanism — a specific refashioning of built landscape.
“Street vendors, plazas, and benches are all part of the Latin American streetscape. Traditional Latin American homes extend to the property line, and the street is often used as a semi-public, semi-private space where residents set up small businesses, socialize, watch children at play, and otherwise engage the community.
To create a similar sense of belonging within an Anglo-American context, Latinos use their bodies to reinvent the street.”
We looked at how people refashion and mark place and make it their own. We wandered by front yards turned into plazas. We explored upon gardens, shrines, murals and garage-adjacent altars. Christmas is still in full bloom; it’s just tucked away off the main drag. I was most taken by the thread of improvisation winding through block by block. Streets that are made for walking with goods and signage at eye-level. Re-purposed gas stations, vacant lots and front porches transformed into impromptu meeting places.
Community in this sense truly feels like community — lives linked together, shaped by one another.
Big thanks to wonderful Victoria for letting me know about it. I’m always re-energized seeing L.A. through a different set of eyes.
So grateful to you to James Rojas!
(mosaic images by Lynell George)
“Dream” — Avalon Boulevard, Los Angeles 2014
Martin Luther King, Jr. — January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968
LIKE MANY yesterday, I got sucked in to taking this New York Times interactive quiz which afterward produces a map explaining the origins of your accent/dialect. My results were surprising — as they pointed to my parents origins and not the place I grew up — here in Los Angeles. It makes sense though how speech, word-choice and idiom are deeply influenced by home environment.
You can navigate here to take the quiz. Right now it takes a while for the map to come up due to high-traffic … as I said, I got sucked in — it’s an absorbing journey back home.
“The secret of his greatness does not lie in his voice or his presence or his manner, though it has something to do with all these; nor does it lie in his verbal range or felicity, which are not striking; nor does he have any capacity for those stunning, demagogic flights of the imagination which bring an audience cheering to its feet. The secret lies, I think, in his intimate knowledge of the people he is addressing, be they black or white, and in the forthrightness with which he speaks of those things which hurt and baffle them. He does not offer any easy comfort and this keeps his hearers absolutely tense. He allows them their self-respect—indeed, he insists on it.”
— James Baldwin on Martin Luther King from Harpers, 1961
photo: MLK at Cow Palace, SF 1964
I JUST stumbled upon this interview — a coincidental boon since a book I’m reviewing deals with much of this subject matter and will give me a way to frame the piece.
The link is an audio conversation: James Baldwin speaking with Studs Terkel about writing his novel Another Country and the then just-published collection of essays “Nobody Knows My Name and the process of reconnecting with the voices of his youth — the “things I saw and felt” as a child.
Baldwin explains how cut-off from himself he felt both in the States, and later in Europe where he had travelled to begin writing the book. Listening to records while writing in the icy white of Switzerland, he tells Terkel, didn’t just help him to reanimate home — but to understand something about a long, steady process of devaluation he had been experiencing all of his life.
“I realized it was a cadence, a beat, …. it was a question of the beat really … and Bessie had ‘beat’… I played Bessie everyday. …. A lot of the book is in dialogue, I corrected things according to what I was able to hear when Bessie sang and when James P. Johnson plays. It’s that tone, that sound — it’s within me.”
This epiphany sets him on a road to consider other things “lost” or obscured of elided. It’s both poignant and powerful, his revelations, all told in his very own unmistakable cadence:
All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it’s a terrible,terrible thing to be….And in order to survive this you really have to dig down deep into yourself and recreate yourself really according to no image which yet exists in America . You have to decide who you are and force the world to deal with you and not this idea of you.
MY NEW piece is up/in the new issue of Slake! Help support long-form journalism. It’s the long pause that nourishes.
There’s a little preview here. This piece actually grew out of a series of posts that started last year here on this blog.