NO CRYSTAL STAIR: AFRICAN-AMERICANS IN THE CITY OF ANGELS By Lynell George, Verso, 243 pp., $24.95.
TO WAKE THE NATIONS: RACE IN THE MAKING OF AMERICAN LITERATURE By Eric J. Sundquist, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 705 pp., $29.95.
CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER: THE ENDURING LEGACY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN FAMILIES By Andrew Billingsley, Simon & Schuster, 446 pp., $27.50.
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 …