As summer enters mid-August, there has been no shortage of literary inspiration to draw from. This week L.A. Letters reviews three books that were recently published. From a meditation on what it means to be a happy Black man, the folklore of the freeway, to the glory days of the Lakers, the following three books each equally present a new perspective on well-known topics.
The Black Man of Happiness by Peter J. Harris
Written by Peter J. Harris, one of the most prominent voices from Leimert Park, over the last 20 years, "The Black Man of Happiness" is a nearly 350-page tome that includes 20 powerful essays interspersed with a few poetic interludes. Harris asks the simple question, "What is a happy Black man?" Before he defines this in a myriad of ways, he also identifies the obstacles that get in the way. Harris not only debunks negative stereotypes of the African-American man, he empowers readers with his frank discussion about being a son, father, stepfather, grandfather, creating brotherhood with his gay colleague and transcending his youngest daughter's rape by her Black stepfather. Written in a literary style that merges heartfelt sincerity, raw honesty, and humor, there is much inspiration in these pages.
Over the last 30 years Harris has moved from Baltimore, Washington D.C., the Bay Area, and then to Los Angeles. More than anything he is driven by the idea of healing energy. He writes about liberating oneself from their fears while still being very much in tune with reality no matter how tragic circumstances can be. As he writes, "I'm basically a dude who's looking for the love in a situation. The turn from the tragic to exhale of common humanity." His candid essays leave no stone unturned whether he's talking about struggles with his son, his early divorce or his own complex relationship with his father.
The essays are also driven by a powerful musicality. The tempo rides between a jazzy backbeat and the soulful pathos of one of his favorite groups, Earth, Wind and Fire. He describes how their music helped him find his purpose as an educator and writer. He says, "When I started my cultural work, the group's humane music was an invitation to find my voice beyond requisite riff-rifling of Baraka and other Name Poets of the '60s. I sought a creative oscillation that tapped and valued my predilection for generosity, common ground, and the creation of spheres, sanity and ongoing victories. I tuned my vibe to music that made me want to hum along in the sky and dance in the sunlight."
He also offers alternative solutions for troubled teens and young men that transcend cliché. He writes, "Create even more innovative ways for men and boys to embrace their own imaginative inner resources, especially in the face of challenging social circumstances. At minimum, creating healthy futures for themselves will require that men cultivate and maintain hope, vision, curiosity, and hunger, while simultaneously mastering their technical and educational basics demanded by a digitally-driven, high-velocity society." The combination of hope and reality that defines this book is part of why it is so important. Throughout July and August, Harris has been giving frequent public readings of the book in venues like the World Stage and Traxx at Union Station. On August 30 he will be appearing at the Pasadena Playhouse with musician and playwright David Crittendon.
The Folklore of the Freeway by Eric Avila
America's interstate highway program that was initiated in the 1950s is known for being one of the only major government plans to have ever received unanimous bipartisan support. In his book "Folklore of the Freeway," UCLA Professor and urban planner Eric Avila reveals how the massive construction of America's freeways destroyed countless communities and ripped apart the urban fabric of cities across the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, this volume connects politics, art, and public protest within the context of urban planning.
Avila contrasts the invisible freeway revolts in places like Baltimore, Boyle Heights, New Orleans, and Minnesota, with the publicized freeway protests that happened in Beverly Hills and the Lower East Side. As most students of urban planning know, the activists in Beverly Hills and the Lower East Side were able to stop the freeways from being constructed in their neighborhoods, whereas activists in the aforementioned cities were unable to stop the freeways from carving up their local streets. In spite of the damage done to these areas by the interstate system, the author shows how the efforts and resistance taken by locals in these cities to fight the freeways helped cement their identity and build community even in the face of destructive public policy.
Avila writes, "This book strives to listen to what inner-city people think about the freeways that fracture their communities and to open our senses to what is seen and heard in the shadows of the freeway, in the communities exempt from the dominant narrative of the freeway revolt." He not only reveals the winners and losers, he also shows how communities used art as a means of protest.
He spotlights the artists in San Diego's Barrio Logan and how they used the damage created by the new highway to take their neighborhood back. He recounts the creation of Chicano Park below the Coronado Bridge, and how Chicano artists in San Diego repurposed the initial destruction of their neighborhood to construct a powerful site of identity through public murals. He continues this theme by describing the rise of the mural movement in Boyle Heights and the influence of Chicano artists like Frank Romero, David Botello, and Carlos Almaraz. Many Angelenos know that Boyle Heights was carved up by six different freeways during the 1950s and early 1960s. Avila shows how this activated Eastside artists, and eventually made Boyle Heights' ground zero for the mural movement.
Avila writes, "Botello and Romero present the Eastside point of view, grounded in individual inspiration and imagination but also in the historical coordinates of community formation, displacement and relocation, infrastructural development, and planning policy." Avila also cites the protest poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and her meditations on the destruction of her San Jose neighborhood because of the expressway. "The Folklore of the Freeway" fuses art and public policy in a graceful narrative. City scholars, art historians and future urban planners will find many lessons in Avila's work.
Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakes Dynasty of the 1980s by Jef Pearlman
This book is one that diehard Laker fans may not want to ever put down. Author Jeff Pearlman offers over 400 pages on the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Showtime era Los Angeles Lakers. Beyond celebrating their on-court success and the five championships they won over the decade, Pearlman goes year by year from 1979 when Magic Johnson was first drafted, all the way until 1991 when Magic retired and announced that he was HIV positive. Pearlman tells both little known and forgotten stories such as the first head coach of the Magic era, Jack McKinney, the man he says was the first architect of the Showtime era Lakers. Pearlman writes, "Under McKinney's guidance, the team ran whenever possible, often pushing the ball forward without waiting for a play to be called or a coach to shout out instructions." McKinney had a tragic bicycle accident early on in Magic's rookie year and this lead to Paul Westhead becoming the interim head coach and the team even winning the championship later that year. Pearlman reveals how McKinney's vision in 1979 foreshadowed the team's philosophy for the next decade even though McKinney was not around to enjoy the results.
Pearlman offers extensive profiles on Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, Jamal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, Norm Nixon, James Worthy, Kurt Rambis, and Byron Scott among others. In addition to showing why each of these men were so great, he also reveals each of their demons. Magic receives the most positive treatment, but there is still some forgotten stories shared like how Magic convinced Dr. Buss to fire Paul Westhead to make way for Pat Riley in 1981. The author also reveals the testy nature of Abdul-Jabbar and how he contrasted with the gregarious personality of Magic. He writes, "Magic didn't calm down. He refused to, and whether Abdul-Jabbar liked it or not, the rookie was taking him along for the ride." Though Abdul-Jabbar initially resisted Magic's effervescence, their winning record gradually bridged the gap.
Pearlman also covers the debauchery and hedonism of the early 1980s in the NBA, especially the after-hours action that took place in both the Forum Club and at the Laker after game parties. Some of the stories might be shocking for some; nonetheless the book remains grounded in basketball and the author does an excellent job giving the play by play of each season whether it's the three championship series against the Philadelphia 76ers, the fierce championship rivalry between the Lakers and the Celtics, and the later years battling the Detroit Pistons. The book is loaded with details and untold stories. The portrait presented is a complete picture that pulls no punches. Published by Gotham Books, this volume is a definitive account of the Los Angeles Lakers at the height of their powers.
Salute to these four authors for composing their respective important works. They join the pantheon of mythmakers in the topography of L.A. Letters.