Community, Culture, And Black Experience

Recently published books feature fresh perspectives on black history


TO WAKE THE NATIONS: RACE IN THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LITERATURE By Eric J. Sundquist, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 705 pp., $29.95.


THERE is such a flow of books by, for, and about African-Americans these days that just about any issue from any time period is discussed in paperback or hardcover. Three new books lifted from the stream are noteworthy. Unknown Los Angeles

With an admirable, tough grace, Lynell George writes about a different kind of black Los Angeles - not the city reduced by the mainstream press and movies to a smeared wall along the freeway. In that kind of Los Angeles, people are virtually as anonymous as the freeway; beyond the cement, all gangs are the same, all drug deals and killings are done for the same senseless reasons month after month. The myth that little of value is fostered in black Los Angeles becomes so huge it is institutionalized.

But George, a writer for LA Weekly, profiles black Angelenos (and a few others) who quietly work, live, and create as if a community project, a church or a neighborhood school, and even a poem are there to nurture the concept of individuality, as well as any individual who comes along. The 25 or so hard-working people she writes about in "No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels" measure worth the old-fashioned way, by how much they serve their fellow men and women.

Levi Kingston, for instance, a jaunty but tenacious community organizer and activist for 20 years, is so well-known and respected in an area bordering the University of Southern California that a fellow worker says of him, "The essence of Levi, when it comes right down to it, is that he'll put bread on your table and he won't have any."

George does the same for the reader. If you are white, black, or some wonderful color in between, and the press accounts of riotous Los Angeles scare the beejeebies out of you, OK, she says, meet V.G. Guinses, or Leon Watkins, or Anyim Palmer. George knows the other Los Angeles is still out there, but this trio is laboring on the front lines of hope.

George says the first two, whose efforts are chronically underfunded, have programs that try to surprise tough kids with some doses of self-worth, jobs, and schooling, all designed to help them make the break from gangs.

And Dr. Palmer, the all-purpose principal and founder of "the fastest growing black independent school in Los Angeles" says surprisingly, "I was very fortunate to have gone to the old-type segregated schools. My teachers loved me. They saw me as an extension of themselves, and they probably would have committed mass suicide had I graduated from school not being able to read and write."

The clarity of George's writing style, even as she blends local history and the eyewitness account, is much like a beam of soft light. Wherever it falls in black Los Angeles, particularly in her short essays at the back of the book, she is a rare journalistic illuminator of larger humanity and ideas. Los Angeles needs her. Cultural intersections

In the world of black literature and music springing out of predominately white American culture, Eric Sundquist is fascinated with the resulting intersections in "To Wake The Nations: Race in The Making of American Literature."

Ranging over these intersections in folklore, vernacular culture, revolutionary ideology, the role of music in black culture, and historical time-frames such as Reconstruction, Sundquist first agrees with black novelist Zora Neale Hurston: "The exchange and re-exchange of ideas between groups," are what shapes civilization, he writes.

Then he goes to work to prove his point, a lucid voice, not at all too serious, but wanting the reader to understand - like it or not - that the United States is a biracial culture.

For instance, consider the "cakewalk," a Sunday dance performed by slaves who dressed up in "hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around."

Sundquist quotes a former slave, Shepard Edmonds, on what the cakewalk meant to blacks. The slaves "did a takeoff on the high manners of the folks in the `big house,' but their masters, who gathered around to watch the fun, missed the point."

The point was satire, burlesque, "liberating caricature," as Sundquist calls it. Other researchers connect the cakewalk to the African circle dance and the slaves ring shout (which was part of a 1913 all-black Broadway revue, "The Darktown Follies").

Eventually, the cakewalk became so popular, writes Sundquist, that in the mid-1890s national championships were held in New York's Madison Square Garden. John Philip Sousa introduced the cakewalk at the Paris Exposition in 1900.

But assimilation and ambiguity set in. Cakewalk music took on a slight military ring. The cakewalk was criticized as a "sex dance," and when danced by whites in high society, it became a link to jazz dancing in the early 20th century. Although Sundquist doesn't suggest it, maybe even modern break-dancing could be traced to the cakewalk.

More literate examples of this kind of black-and-white cross-pollination in books and music thread through the three main sections in the book. The last focuses on the writings of W.E.B. Dubois, particularly a discussion of the importance of "The Sorrow Songs," or spirituals. Were they really black in origin, or musically polyglot?

Despite occasional riffs of density, Sundquist's writing glides along, blending the academic tone with a conversational timbre. His arguments are developed with brilliant comprehensiveness, which no doubt will be challenged at some points by other academics, but can be milked by the lay reader for any number of insights into the origins of American culture. Changing family patterns

How strong is the black family today? Andrew Billingsley, writing in "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families," looks at the historical evolution of black families and concludes that black family strength today lies in its ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Alternating between analysis, facts, and short profiles of successful black people under different living arrangements, Billingsley has a kind of thudding abruptness to the development of his ideas. Often missing is value judgment - not in the sense of condemnation or approval of differing family arrangements, but rather in raising the question, is this the way it should continue to be?

On the one hand, he seems to be asserting that blacks have their own definition of family - much more informal than whites or other groups - and yet he says, "the value placed on marriage is still so strong that a majority of African-American youths and adults want to be married."

Yet later he writes that "both black men and women have been avoiding or abandoning marriage in record numbers during recent years. But this is more a shift in the marriage relation than in the family."

At one point he refers to an "intergenerational kinship unit," and seems to define it as people living in different places who once lived together with some part of a family. One guesses that different kinds of roots develop with this arrangement, or is it no roots at all?

In essence, Billingsley offers readers everything they wanted to know about black families, nuclear, extended, and augmented. He concludes that the functioning of families, white or black, is determined by large-scale societal forces. If whites are more resistant to society's destructive forces, he says, "it is because they are more privileged and protected."

What provides spiritual as well as community roots for black families is the changing black church. Today a black person walks through church doors as much for personal salvation as for social salvation. Billingsley details the work of a dozen churches with extraordinary community out-reach programs.

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