I’m a native New Yorker, but I came of age in Pasadena. Although I attended Cal State Long Beach (B.A., 1983) and UCLA (Ph.D., 1987), the encounters most responsible for the kind of intellectual I became — that is to say, a scholar of radical black politics and art — occurred off campus.
240 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, 90802 — Acres of Books: The place smelled of old wood, sawdust, and must. The lint-covered ceiling fans barely stirred the air. And while the building was massive, the six-and-a half miles of wooden shelving was stacked so close together — often nailed to apple crates — that every nook and cranny felt both claustrophobic and precarious. For an 18-year-old kid like me, however, the space felt intimate and magical. I lingered in the “Black Studies” section, discovering books by W. E. B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis, Amiri Baraka, Nathan Huggins, Toni Cade Bambara, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, John Hope Franklin, Zora Neale Hurston, Chancellor Williams, Gerda Lerner, Kwame Nkrumah, Herbert Aptheker, and many others for as little as 25 to 50 cents apiece. During the three years I attended Long Beach State, I probably spent a quarter of my financial aid and weekly wages at that store. The dividend was a personal library exceeding 1,000 volumes at age 21. I still own most of those books.
(Photograph by 72Dino.)
1414 S. Redondo Blvd., Los Angeles, 90019 — Onaje’s Cultural Tea House: One night in 1984, the trumpet player Eric Wright took me to a jam session at this storefront that felt like a living room. Woody “Onaje” Murray served fruit juice and tea himself, sometimes moving effortlessly between the counter and his vibes. I don’t recall ever seeing alcohol. It reminded me of the loft scene in New York — everything was natural, organic, and homegrown, including the music. It was a genuine shrine to free black music during the late 1970s and early 1980s, prefiguring Leimert Park’s The World Stage.
Flora Vista St. between Eucalyptus Ave. and Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower, 90706 — I walked this row of tiny, poorly constructed houses and trailer homes populated mainly by Latinx working people nearly everyday for weeks when I visited my fiancée’s place at the Cornuta Pines apartment complex. Diedra and I were sophomores at Long Beach State, but because she lived with her mother and sister, sleeping over was not exactly an option. She walked me to the driveway each night and we’d linger until 9:00, which left me about five or six minutes to get to Bellflower Blvd. to catch the last bus to Long Beach. One drizzly night in September, the bright lights of a helicopter and two Lakewood Sheriff patrol cars interrupted my regular jaunt. At first, I didn’t think all that commotion was for me. So I kept hustling to my bus until I saw my silhouette stretch down the block and heard an amplified voice shout, “Drop the package and put your hands on top of your head, enclosing your fingers! Don’t turn around!” Package? My briefcase was all I had, so I set it down carefully and complied. Seconds later, the force of a nightstick to my fingers and head brought me to the ground, my face crushed against the damp pavement, arms twisted, a knee pressed on my back. I demanded an explanation. His answer was simple and direct: “You ran, nigger! Criminals run.” They dumped all my books in a shallow pothole half-filled with muddy rainwater. And just as quickly as they had descended, they jumped in their cars and drove off, leaving me in the middle of the street. The small crowd that had gathered on the sidewalks and lawns came streaming into the street to help me up and collect my soggy papers and books.
My formal complaint to the Lakewood Sheriff yielded nothing. The history of state-sanctioned racial violence and resistance to it became one of my scholarly and political obsessions.
2230 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, 90057 — MacArthur Park: For more than half a century, this park has been the staging ground for anti-war protests, civil rights and labor marches, women’s rights demonstrations, and May Day rallies. On August 5, 1984, I became part of that tradition when I joined close to 5,000 people in a march for disarmament, jobs, and an end to U.S. imperialism abroad and police brutality at home. The event was called “Survival Day ’84.” We protested Chief Darryl Gates and the LAPD for the spate of black fatalities at the hands of police — either by bullet or chokehold. The short march down Wilshire Blvd. from City Hall culminated in a beautiful rally in the park, with speeches and performances by the UFW’s Dolores Huerta, Daniel Ellsberg, Reverend Cecil Murray, South African poet Dennis Brutus, singer Bonnie Raitt, Nicaraguan Olympic athlete Sylvio Vallecillo, and many more. I’ll never forget looking out onto this enormous, enthusiastic, multiracial and multi-generational crowd, and thinking: “This is L.A.! This is our future and we’re going to win! Venceremos!” Thirty-four years later, even in the age of Trump, I still believe it.
Robin D.G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA and the author of, among other books, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (Free Press, 1994), Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997), Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002), Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), and Africa Speaks, America Answers!: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012).