RJ Smith’s The Great Black Way will open some eyes about the bygone cultural explosion of L.A.’s Central Avenue. From his classic first line — “Los Angeles is the capital of forgetting” — to his final musical metaphor, Smith consistently achieves what few writers on the subject have even attempted: perspective. And he does it with imagination and grace.
Up to now, you wouldn’t have been spanked if you thought Central Avenue was all about music — most previous examinations have arrived from the bandstand POV. Lois Shelton’s 1986 film documentary Ernie Andrews: Blues for Central Avenue undammed a slowly growing flow of Central info through a singer’s story. Under the guidance of Steven Isoardi, UCLA has built up a huge resource of knowledge with its oral-history program, partially distilled in the 1998 University of California Press book Central Avenue Sounds, where Clora Bryant, Gerald Wilson, Jack Kelson and other musicians tell the tale. If you see a panel on the subject at a university, on TV or at the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival, nearly all the speakers will be players, with windman Buddy Collette often the ageless, tireless spokeshero. The Central lens has widened only in the past couple of years, as Smith acknowledges, through the publication of two UC Press books by Josh Sides and Douglas Flamming.
Smith, a former arts editor of this paper, labored over The Great Black Way for eight years, and the love shows; he spoke with many, dove into the archives, listened to the sounds. The tsunami of information, most of it previously uncollated, could’ve swamped him. He channeled it, though, with two powerful tools.
The first is structure. Any community is a stew, and Central Avenue boiled as crazily as any; the trick is to locate the defining ingredients. Though the scene had been thriving for decades before, Smith focuses on the crucial ’40s era of wartime employment, immigration and racial revolt, and wraps his narratives around key characters who precipitated changes in politics, religion and culture. These people applied the leverage that helped black Americans, 80 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, finally begin to get free, and the true drama of the situation shines through in Smith’s words. It’s an action story. And it’s exciting stuff.
Smith holds a particular affection for John Kinloch, a journalist arrived from the East (like the author) who became the smart-ass teenage spark plug of the California Eagle. Kinloch had advice about “How to Win Peckerwoods and Influence Ofays” like, “Ask for donations to our struggling institutions,” and, “Make little jokes about your last crap game,” but he was more than a humorist. He was a genuine agitator who saw that the accommodating posture of the previous generation’s black leadership wasn’t getting the Model T out of the civil-rights mud. And when the World War II lines were drawn, he struggled with the decision but finally elected not only to enlist but to risk the European frontlines; he felt he couldn’t fight racists at home if he wasn’t willing to fight racists abroad. Kinloch is like a wisecracking Strider who arises at significant points in Smith’s almost novelistic narrative to personalize and focus the themes.
Chester Himes, author of If He Hollers Let Him Go,is another Smith favorite. A former jailbird turned literary gadfly, Himes was a testy sonofabitch whose hammerings on the doors of fame went largely unanswered. The neglect was occasioned not by his personality or any lack of talent, though, but by his acid eye for the unpleasant realities of race conflict. “The ignorance of the Negro is no longer as funny as the Negro thinks it is,” he wrote in one theater review; “it is not even funny to the white folks anymore.” But in terms of career, the white world was not yet ready for Sambo to relinquish the stage. At least not to Himes.
Housing discrimination, though, was ready to fall, and Smith charts that evolution through the activities of Loren Miller. Miller was a journalist and a communist. He was also an attorney — one who disliked the formalities of the courtroom, but who found there a forum where he could hoist the black flag while coincidentally earning a meager living from the fees of his penniless clients. Miller always insisted that restrictive housing covenants were unconstitutional, and he and other lawyers nationwide made the point in boldface when their argument prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948. Smith hilariously weaves in the saga of how the novelty hit “Open the Door, Richard” became an improbable rallying cry for fair housing. That’s how he looks at Central Avenue: Law, business, politics and art were constantly jostling one another, and he stands back far enough to see that they developed not in a laboratory but on the street — or in this case, the avenue.
Style is Smith’s second power tool. He begins with a fevered tour of the neighborhood, his language vivid, bordering on scary — excess at the dubious service of enthusiasm. For the long haul, though, he measures his rhythm, splashing his prose lightly with puns and color: “The zoot changed the very fabric of the world”; “The Pentecostal experience lived between minds and texts, and was found between hearts and God.” Overall, he comes off understated; his language doesn’t try to compete with the real-life violence, chaos and determination he’s describing.
One thing that must be said about Smith: He’s no Tinker Bell. Where others might wax ecstatic about the poetic idealism of it all, he’s careful to underline that these were human beings just struggling to get by. The author or musician might also be a shipyard worker or a vacuum-cleaner salesman, and that was okay. The club entrepreneur or hotelier might have felt a kinship with his Little Tokyo neighbor, but when the Japanese were packed off to Manzanar, he was quick to squat in the vacated territory and rename it Bronzeville. No tears; the sufferings of the present could only seem light compared to the slavery of the past.
More than anything else, The Great Black Way is about the break from slavery. Railway porters had a strong hand in it, and so did oppressed sailors, gay ministers, jiving comedians, and musicians passing for Indian and Mexican. What a cast, reaching for the stars and slogging through sewage. Transitions are always the most interesting parts of history.?
THE GREAT BLACK WAY: L.A.’s Central Avenue in the 1940s and the Lost Negro Renaissance | by RJ SMITH | Public Affairs | 400 pages | $27 hardcover