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Life on the avenue

Cecil Brown, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, is the author of the nonfiction book, "Stagolee Shot Billy," the novel, "I, Stagolee" and the forthcoming "Dude, Where's My Black Studies Department."

COME, let’s stroll. Let us stroll to a different time and place -- Los Angeles’ Central Avenue during its heyday in the 1940s.

Our guide is a flaneur, one RJ Smith, an urban stroller, a white man who has a deep affinity for African Americans and their culture. Few know this avenue as well as Smith, and he is so passionate that when he writes about it he has the musicality of a jazz man.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 11, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Central Avenue: In the June 18 Book Review, the title of RJ Smith’s new book was listed incorrectly as “The Great Black Way: L.A.'s Central Avenue in the 1940s and the Lost Negro Renaissance.” The title is “The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 13, 2006 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Central Avenue: In the June 18 Book Review, the title of RJ Smith’s new book was listed incorrectly as “The Great Black Way: L.A.'s Central Avenue in the 1940s and the Lost Negro Renaissance.” The title is “The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s and the Lost African American Renaissance.”

In his new book, “The Great Black Way,” Smith adopts the French flaneur guise to introduce us to Los Angeles’ historic African American boulevard as he imagines it existed then. Step off the train at Union Station, he implores, and walk a few blocks south to 1st Street, where the journey begins. “Central Avenue was like a river, like the Amazon or the Nile,” he says (quoting musician Clifford Solomon), “and downtown was the mouth.”

Our guide takes us down Central Avenue to Watts and finally to Carson. We learn about the Elks Hotel at 34th Street and about Club Alabam. Next to it was the famed Dunbar Hotel, where boxing champ Joe Louis, pianist Billy Strayhorn and chanteuse Billie Holiday stayed.

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In a rich aside, he reminds us that in the 1940s segregation was the law of the land. In Los Angeles, where W.E.B. DuBois famously said things were better for African Americans than in other cities, even pet cemeteries were segregated.

Blacks had begun migrating to Los Angeles during the early 1900s, and many of them were Pullman porters or other railroad workers. They congregated in the neighborhoods along Central Avenue, which was flourishing as a center for African American music and entertainment by the 1920s.

By the time the U.S. entered World War II, Smith writes, “Black status had fully emerged before the eyes of white Los Angeles, and with it came open discrimination.” City council districts were drawn to divide black political power, black students were segregated, and the LAPD declared that no white cop should take orders from a black person. The police “brutally established order up and down the street, invading homes, shooting suspects in the back.” Restaurants put up “No Negroes” signs. Blacks could not use public swimming pools, bowling alleys, boxing rings, ice rinks and ballrooms.

Segregation was bitter, but it produced some beautiful and powerful results in L.A.

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As Smith strolls along Central Avenue, he introduces us to the people who would become power brokers. We meet John Kinloch, editor of the California Eagle, wearing a green zoot suit. Born and raised in Harlem, Kinloch came out of the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic flowering that was supported by upper-class blacks but never reached the average black man and woman. For Kinloch, Los Angeles represented a new start for blacks struggling to free themselves from second-class citizenship. Kinloch turned his aunt’s newspaper into a mouthpiece for black empowerment. He reached out to other like-minded people, such as the Rev. Clayton D. Russell, pastor of the People’s Independent Church of Christ. Together, they used pulpit, press and radio to rally blacks to political power.

We meet Eddie Anderson -- “Rochester” on Jack Benny’s radio program. Born in Oakland to a vaudeville family, he became the symbolic mayor of Central Avenue. The community scrutinized the show so closely, Smith writes, that when Anderson’s Rochester called Benny “Boss,” not “Sir,” it was viewed “as a step forward -- one man speaking directly to another.”

Smith writes with insight about another Central Avenue figure, Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, the last of the blackface comics. For Markham, blackface was a symbol of comic art, a mask that let him “distance” himself from the character he was playing. As a member of the new generation, Kinloch begged Markham not to wear blackface when he performed at the Lincoln Theater, the avenue’s biggest venue. Markham complied -- and this effectively ended his career.

In 1941, Duke Ellington produced the musical “Jump for Joy” in Los Angeles, a production that featured the song “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Everything changed on Central Avenue.

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Blacks responded by demanding jobs and the right to fight for their country. To commemorate their efforts, they came up with the “Double V,” a sign of victory against fascism abroad and against racism at home.

Chester Himes, a black writer not embraced by the Harlem Renaissance movement, arrived in L.A. in 1941 to work in the defense plants and left disillusioned in 1945. It was his experience with racism in the plants that informed his brilliant 1945 novel, “If He Hollers Let Him Go.” Two characters in his later detective novels were based on black detectives who worked on Central Avenue. One reportedly beat a black woman so badly that weeks later she was still hospitalized, unable to testify against him.

On March 1, 1942, Gen. John L. DeWitt sent thousands of people of Japanese ancestry to the internment camp at Manzanar, Calif. Many from Central Avenue’s Little Tokyo were forced to leave their houses, which were then taken over by blacks. Soon African Americans opened jazz clubs in the area, which became known as “Bronzeville.” The most famous was Shepp’s Playhouse, where bebopper Charlie Parker held court. It quickly became the hotspot for white stars such as Judy Garland.

Pentecostalism took root in nearby Azusa Street. The biggest church, pastored by William J. Seymour, crossed races -- “color line washed away in the blood.” It was a syncretism of Christianity and West African religion passed down through the oral tradition of the plantations. By adding guitars, banjos and tambourines, the services of this church paved the way for rhythm and blues. We meet Bulee “Slim” Gaillard, a jive talker and jazz improviser who performed his new mixture of rhymed patter, a forerunner of hip-hop, in Seymour’s church. Born in Detroit in 1916, Gaillard was an adventurer and clown who became the toast of Hollywood.

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At the end of the 1940s, another newspaperman, Loren Miller, campaigned against property owners and agents who refused to sell to nonwhites. The result was a gradual easing of segregation’s grip on Central Avenue.

If racism and segregation produced unique institutions, like the jazz clubs where West Coast bebop was first played, they also led to law enforcement cracking down on some high-profile blacks. The treatment of the great blues singer Holiday attests to that. Even the white manager she trusted most, Joe Glaser, also Louis Armstrong’s manager, let her down. Claiming that he wanted only to get Holiday medical care for heroin addiction, he cooperated with government agents to get her convicted of a felony. This made it impossible for her to get well-paying work. When she went to England, she was surprised that heroin addiction was viewed there as a medical problem, and addicts were allowed to seek help from doctors. Americans viewed addicts as criminals.

Holiday’s life story is a personal version of Central Avenue and a microcosm of the segregated avenues of America. From the time of her first arrest until her death, her life was controlled by segregation. She had been a maid and a prostitute in real life, and those were the roles she played in motion pictures. The unwritten laws of Hollywood reflected society’s racism; Holiday was trapped by both.

The literary establishment was not far behind in exploiting Holiday. Her reputed 1956 autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which is being reissued next month, is told by a white ghostwriter, William Dufty. Like Smith in “The Great Black Way,” Dufty adopted a vivid, slangy, idiomatic language, which may be appropriate for his topic. But he gives that voice to Holiday.

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Dufty was a journalist who cobbled together his previously published newspaper articles on Holiday. He concentrated on anecdotes of drug use and arrests, and implications of lesbianism. Apparently, Holiday never read the book. She said she regretted that he had relied so much on sensational material. The sad truth is that Holiday never expressed herself in a book. “Lady Sings the Blues” is brilliantly written, but it is not the voice that comes out in her music. She put her pain into the profundity of such songs as “Strange Fruit” and “God Bless the Child.”

Central Avenue no longer exists -- except as a memory, or in the great jazz music created there. But when you see an African American man, woman or child in L.A., you may well be looking at a survivor of our segregated past. Central Avenue still lives -- in all of us.


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