by Brian Dunlap
In honor of Black History month (a few days late, I know), I am highlighting many of the powerful African American authors of Los Angeles literature. Their voices tap into a Los Angeles rarely portrayed, much less portrayed honestly. Nonetheless they tape in to an essential Los Angeles of a good, strong community struggling to survive among the racist realities of the LAPD and redlining that relegated most of them to the South Central/Watts neighborhoods of Los Angeles. In their writing you can hear the ancestral griot, telling their collective stories, as Kamau Kaaood has done for decades with his spoken word poetry. You can experience their witnessing that such writers as Michael Datcher in his Memoir Raising Fences does, when he first moves with his family from Indiana to South Central Los Angeles in 1977 at 10. Here he witnesses and experiences police brutality against Blacks. He was “returning from Gaffey Street Pool” with his cousin Jeff and two friends. “A white man leaped out [of the cop car], clutching a gun in both hands, arms stretched out forward and stiff…he had to squat down to line up the bridge of my nose.”
Some write proudly of the Los Angeles neighborhoods they come from. Take Pam Ward and her prose poem “Los Angeles.” In it she extols the city’s hard bitten reality through the lens of love. “Because I inhale L.A, like the smoke from a Skid Row bum” it opens. It’s this love for what Los Angeles really is, not the fantasy of Paradise consisting of great beaches, palm trees, beautiful people, perfect weather and celebrities on every corner.
These are some of the aesthetics, topics and subjects of the varied stories the African American authors of Los Angeles literature have and continue to pen. Below are some of these authors.
A mythic figure in the Southern California arts scene, Kamau Daáood is a performance poet, educator and community arts activist who is widely acknowledged as a major driving force behind Los Angeles’ black cultural renaissance. A former member of the Watts Writers Workshop, he is the subject of an award-winning documentary Life is a Saxophone, and he honed his skills as a “word musician” in the Pan-African People’s Arkestra. He is a co-founder of The World Stage, a performance space aimed to “preserve and advance the position of African American music, literature and works in the oral tradition to a local, national and international audience,” in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. His one collection of poetry spanning the length of his career, published by City Lights in 2005, is The Language of Saxophones. Booklist said of Daaood’s collection that:
“Jazz permeates the work of L.A. poet Daaood, who seeks to emulate the ringing voice of the saxophone to remind us of the primacy of breath, the great universal syncopation of inhale and exhale, of prana, the life force that sustains us all. Jazz is about expression and exploration, conversation and variation, continuity and connection. Jazz at its core is cosmic, and Daaood taps into its unifying vision in his powerfully percussive, prayerful, firmly rooted yet soaring, direct, and accessible poetry. In this slender but mighty retrospective volume covering four decades, he offers burning social critique.”
Michael Datcher, Ph. D. did his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, received his Masters from UCLA and his Ph.D in English Literature from the University of California at Riverside. He is the author of the historical novel AMERICUS and the critically-acclaimed New York Times Bestseller RAISING FENCES. Datcher is the former Executive Director of The World Stage, a literary and jazz education and performance nonprofit in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighborhood. His memoir Raising Fences is about an African American man who spent his youth committing thefts, experimenting with sex, and developing a mortal fear of the police. Like many young black men, at the heart of Michael Datcher’s childhood stood the gaping hole left by an absent father, and out of that hole grew the fervent desire to fulfill a dream that seemed almost a fantasy: to leave the streets behind, build a family, and become what he had wanted so badly—a good father.
Publishers Weekly said of his memoir, “Datcher’s story taps into a raw nerve in the black community, and [he has a] vibrant, down-to-earth voice.”
Note: Abridged from Erin Aubry Kalpan’s L.A. Times Article “Words to Live By : At the Watts Writers Workshop, poets turned social issues into fervent art. Thirty years later, language still consumes them.”
He published an autobiographical novel “Raw Dog” (Holloway House) in 1985, and a collection of poems in 1994, “Abracadabra” (Heat Press), which spans the nearly 30 years he has been writing poetry. Known among poets for his finely wrought details and ringing delivery, Priestley is a natural storyteller who can take a raucous laugh to a passionate whisper in the pause between sentences.
Priestley says no accolades will compare to hearing Ojenke read for the first time and realizing “my stuff was all wrong,” then reading with Ojenke at Soledad prison in 1970 and bringing down the toughest house he ever faced. “I write poetry to keep my head on straight,” he says. “And we all really did it because we loved it, because we had to do it,” he says about the member of the famed Watt’s Writers Workshop. “We were there to learn how to make sense of our lives.”
He is, by many of his friends’ accounts, the master poet, the man able to explode literary conceits in a single rhyme scheme, the gold standard not only for the aspiring throngs at the former Watts Writers Workshop, that filmmaker Budd Schulberg started after the Watt’s Uprising in 1965, but for younger wanna-bes looking to capture the elusive rhythms of street life in words. “But to see him perform live, draped in colorful African garb and hurling image after lyrical image like thunderbolts without a trace of a stutter, is to witness the transformative power of poetry,” says Erin Aubry Kalpan. Ojenke has never focused on publishing his material, preferring instead to “write on the hearts of the people.” That’s because he believes that poetry is primarily an oral art form; to him the spoken word is the only legitimate means to transmit poetry. A collection of his poetry was published, “The Mind is a Circular Blade” (1985), only because a friend.
Back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s Ojenke would often perform his work accompanied by the great jazz pianist Horace Tapscott and his Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra.
Note: Abridged from The Poetry Foundation Website
Poet and writer Wanda Coleman was a blatantly humanist artist who won much critical acclaim for her unusually prescient and often innovative work, but who struggled to make a living from her craft. As a result Coleman supported her family by waiting tables and typing, among other jobs. With twelve books of collected writings published by the small Black Sparrow Press by 2001, as well as numerous other publications, she has created a body of work that is first of all focused on racism and that, secondly, ponders the “outcast” status of living below the poverty line in California, specifically her birthplace Los Angeles, and the southwestern United States. Anger, unhappiness, hate, and violence are often intrinsic to the themes of her stories and poems. Her subjects are often controversial and her tone unapologetic.
While working days, at night and on weekends she developed her craft by attending various writing workshops in and around Los Angeles, some springing up in the aftermath of the Watts Riots (August 1965) and encouraging what has become known as “at risk youth”; they included playwright Frank Greenwood’s Saturday workshop, novelist Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop, Studio Watts, and Beyond Baroque. Her poetry collection “Mercurochrome: New Poems” was nominated for a 2001 National Book Award, bust lost out to Alan Dugan’s, “Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry.”
Some of Coleman’s other notable books are: “Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems and Stories” (1991) and “Bathwater Wine” (1998).
Pearl Sharp creates cultural art for the eye, ear and heart. The Evening News-Essays And Commentaries From NPR And Other Clouds (2015) is a collection of her pieces broadcast on NPR and other media. Part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s in New York City, S. Pearl studied with esteemed novelist John Oliver Killens, wrote her first play and first collection of poetry. As Daphne Muse, Writer, Social Commentator and poet says of Sharp’s The Evening News-Essays And Commentaries From NPR And Other Clouds:“S. Pearl’s powerful Old School voice translates fluidly across the generations and continues to resonate fiercely from L.A. to Baltimore and Alabama to Africa. Her historical insights, wit and vision are clearly reflected in timely pieces like “Hair Hysteria,” “Immigration Schizophrenia,” “Memo to the President-Elect” and “The Step-Up Dads.” You won’t want to miss a word.”
An L.A. native and UCLA graduate, Ward is a recipient of a California Arts Council Fellow in Literature and New Letters Literary Award. She has had her poetry published in Scream When you Burn, Grand Passion, Calyx, Catch the Fire, and Voices from Leimert Park. Pam operates her own graphic design studio, Ward Graphics as well as runs her own publishing house, Short Dress Press. She has had short stories printed in The Best American Erotica, Men We Cherish, and Gynomite. As an artist-in-resident for the City of Los Angeles and the City of Manhattan Beach, Pam also served as a board member for Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Foundation and has worked for many community arts and social/health organizations, including Black Women for Wellness, Summit on Gang Violence and Art Center College of Design. She is also a longtime stalwart of the World Stage. Her poems include vivid images and intimate knowledge of Los Angeles as seen in her prose poem “Los Angeles:”
Because I grew up at 54th and Crenshaw, a million miles from O-Jay’s glove but a stone’s throw from Ray Charles’ View Park door.
Billy Burgos is a Graphic Designer/Illustrator/Poet originally from Belize, Central America. Billy grew in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where he still resides. He is an active member of The Anansi Writer’s Workshop and a mainstay in the local L.A. poetry scene. His first collection of poetry titled Eulogy to an Unknown Tree was published by Writ Large Press. He has read as such L.A. literary institutions as Beyond Baroque and The World Stage. Burgos has said on The Rumpus about his writing process, “Where I write is not as important now as the state of mind that I am writing in. I don’t own a pretty mahogany desk or a bright room with a great view. My writing room is the city of Los Angeles and its colorful people that I meet on a daily basis.”
Beatty is a 1980 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California and grew up in West Los Angeles. In his 2015 Booker Prize winning novel The Sellout, Beatty chronicles an urban farmer who tries to spearhead a revitalization of slavery and segregation in a fictional Los Angeles neighborhood. Evelyn McDonnell said in the L.A. Review of Books that “Beatty may well be the most bitingly incisive chronicler of Los Angeles society of the last quarter-century. Beatty’s prose attentively follows bus routes from Compton to Venice to Malibu like a native Angeleño who is home on the city’s streets — even though he no longer lives in the city of his birth, but New York. Even Beatty’s break out book The White Boy Shuffle is set in Los Angeles, this time the West Los Angeles he knows best. It’s a coming-of-age tale about Gunnar Kaufman, an awkward, black surfer bum’s search for identity.
Other African American Writers of Los Angeles Literature
Robin Coste Lewis
Octavia E. Butler
Erin Aubry Kaplan
Peter J. Harris