Back in the day, around 1986, I was a freshly minted entry level programmer in El Segundo, the aerospace capital of the Western US. From my office on the 14th floor of the Xerox Centre (home of the Golden Tale), I could see Hughes ESDG, TRW, Aerospace, Northrop and a host of other high-tech firms. Although I hung with a host of other NSBE grads, black engineers & scientists all, I had issues with uppity blackness. And so I did what comes naturally to me, I went to extremes. In my search around LA for black culture of a decidedly highbrow nature, I found myself beset by myths about Los Angeles in general.
In the Reagan era, during the War on Drugs & the Culture Wars most blackfolks, myself especially, were very concerned about our portrayals in media. We made a big fuss about the success of the Cosby Show and of Arsenio Hall. We were wrestling with monolithic portrayals of 'the' black community on television. With blacks now infiltrating MTV with the popular Yo! and Spike Lee turning movie audiences on their ear, it was a boistrous time. My favorite of course was 'Mo Better Blues'. But where was black culture on the ground in LA? Before the release of Boyz N the Hood, Colors was just about it. Though you'd have to count Shabba-Doo in Breakin' on Venice Beach too. Sheesh. Given my history with The People of the Dons and the buppie party scene I was into in the late 80s, you could imagine my consternation. Part of my rebellion was GDZ, but that's another long buppie story that ends around 1990.
With 1990 came a kind of alternate rebellion for me. I was sick and bored with being a Nordstrom's fashion plate and started in with grit of the city. My guidebook was Mike Davis' City of Quartz. Somewhere in the middle of that Davis makes a strong connection between gangs and political life - a fixation that has never quite been broken in the minds of millions, especially after Rodney King and the fall of CRASH. The oppositional pose of oppositing anything establishment was good leaven for my BAP upbringing. So I listened.
During that time I started writing my Great American Novel that was going to pit the aspirations of the white collar and blue collar paradigms of black Los Angeles. In this novel, as in life, I confronted the problems arising from gangbanging and its connection to hiphop. In particular, I addressed the fate of Wild Style Grafitti, the one aspect of hiphop that has completely been submerged and abandoned by commercialization. As a novelist, I was actively engaged in trying to recoup some authenticity of black Los Angeles that was being lost and ignored by the popularization of various trendy aspects of emergent black and hiphop culture. There were two things that utterly destroyed the prospects of my book. The first was the huge success of Boyz N The Hood (and to a lesser degree 'White Men Can't Jump'). The second was the LA Riots. But while I was doing research for the book one of the people I had to talk to was Donald Bakeer.
Bakeer, loosely speaking, is a griot. He's a man of the neighborhood, who while working in the decidely gang-plagued areas of LA, has seen hundreds of gangbangers come and go. Very little of what he knows has translated well into print, and that includes his own book 'Crips', later translated into the movie 'South Centra" The man who has done a much better job describing the black neighborhoods and kids of LA in conflict with gangs has been Jervey Tervalon, although I can only speak from the experience of one book (that made all the difference) 'Understand This'. So the controversy at the time, while I was working on my stuff, was that of the 'white interloper' Leon Bing who wrote 'Do or Die' about Monster Kody Scott. A lot has been written *since* the LA Riots and the CRASH scandal, but there was little attention in print at the time. I wanted to frame the discussion in terms of the political aspirations of black families in LA. As far as I know, it has yet to be done, and if so, it certainly hasn't changed the popular consciousness. I did Bakeer a personal favor at his request and bought and read his book instead of 'Do or Die'.
I met Bakeer at the Aquarian Bookstore where I attended seminars on the regular for a period of time. Our family was tight with the Ligons who owned and ran the bookstore from way back in the mid 60s. Alfred Ligon may be forgotten by many, but not by me. And the surviving members of the Watts Poets, (like Quincy Troupe whose contempt for Stanley Crouch was palpable) took it upon themselves to instruct me informally about the finer points of becoming a published author. In this atmosphere of black bookstore politics (and you think barbershops get crazy?) there was much talk about gangbanging. The consensus was that the political aspects of the bangers had been lost in contemporary Cripdom, but that in the days of The Avenues it was more foreward. But it wasn't only because Crips and Bloods themselves had passed to a generation of young ignorant thugs, but because the LAPD had declared a 'low level war' against black gangs. Comparisons to the Palestinian Intifada were frequent and impassioned. It was this broadly and fiercely held sentiment that bolstered the political pretensions of LA Gangsta rap. So while everybody to a person wanted very little to do with Crips and gangs in general, the whole media blackout of the real black Los Angeles (what you talkin bout Willis?) left a desparately need for expression. Any kind of expression.
Unlike other cities, notably New York, blacks lived all over LA, and all the black neighborhoods were not alike. While Spike Lee's Brooklyn was getting media sunshine, all we had, before Singleton's bomb, was Arsenio Hall and he was from Cleveland. So if NWA hadn't come straight outta Compton, we would have invented it. Anything to get the message out. One particular message that needed getting out was how stupid policies of Police Chief Darryl Gates had turned the black middle class against him. During the 80s, he deployed the infamous 'batterram' against crack houses, and he deployed gang sweeps against black kids who wore gang colors. Anyone who reads Streetgangs thoroughly recognizes that with over 100 different Crip sets alone in LA County, there is not a major league sports team whose colors haven't been appropriated. The result was the arrest and detention of hundreds of ordinary kids with a incredibly paltry criminal booking rate of 2%. The reaction was explosive and the resentment was thorough and long-lasting. While few people know about the 2% booking rate on gang-sweeps, everybody knows 'Fuck the Police'. Thus began the reduction of a cogent political process to the jackleg ministrations of the Coalition of the Damned today 15 years later.
I have my doubts that better writers are still belaboring the point, there being so much more in the world, even in the black images world, to write about. Yet in those days the connection between black expression, the readiness to get any word out over the volume of glamour-puss writers like Bing, and black street life was at a high pitch. There were so many stereotypes to overcome, and during the culture wars before the triumph of multiculturalism the stakes were much higher.
I have unburdened myself of a need and a desire to write grandiose novels as large as black Los Angeles, though I still think I might do Jordan Crossing when I retire from this computer career. Maybe I should rename it Crenshaw. But I wonder if a substantial number of writers who would write about blackfolks in Los Angeles have unburdened themselves. What I see consistently here in the blogosphere about Tookie is that some liberal white writer fell in love with Tookie and basically started the whole Tookie Movement. Was it Venise Wagner at Mother Jones who inflenced Mario Fehr? Who knows? Clearly some of the same distortions about who Crips are and what black LA is like persist through these years and have charged with myth what might otherwise be a relatively inconsequential execution.
Hollywood is in this, and their appetite for the violent dram of gangsta life reflects America's own. That may come at the expense of the truth, or at least a likeable story of black LA. Certainly 'Devil in a Blue Dress' isn't truth, but it's a story I'd rather see about black LA than Boyz. The Mouse in that story, portrayed by Don Cheadle, is nothing like Tookie's partner Mouse, but was a killer nonetheless. Someday we might look back on some comical portrayal of Tookie in a retro movie about 70s black Los Angeles, but today it's no fantasy. Today is no time to romanticize the 'politics' of gangbanging. Gangs have stood in too long for symbols of the real people who live in 'Southcentral' that myriad area made sociopolitically fascinating by the lefty work and imagination of Mike Davis. It's time to break through the myths and the mystique.
Once again, the victims of this mystique, or perhaps I should say the targets of this obsession, are black youth. Are we to believe that they are so preoccupied and fascinated by the media inflation of Tookie that his influence is real? Whose fault is it if Tookie's word on the futility of gang-life beats out the word of socially responsible people? I knew better than to take drugs as a kid, but the State of California insured that my classroom had a huge color poster of every kind of hallucinagenic, amphetamine, barbituate, narcotic and psychotropic agent known to mankind. If Tookie can have a positive influence, perhaps he should do it in full media post-mortem glory like Yul Brynner did. Saying 'I'm dead now, and gang life is what killed me'. But all of us who survive need to remind ourselves that our job is not to punt to the likes of Tookie, but to stand up for what we know to be right and true.