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
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
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.
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. …