Historic South Central and the Blk Grrrl Book Fair

CIELO Galleries/Studios | Photo: CIELO Facebook

As 2015 begins to pick up steam, the calendar of cultural and literary events expands with each week. This week L.A. Letters spotlights an upcoming feminist book fair in Historic South Central Los Angeles, as well as the gallery space hosting the event.

The forthcoming Blk Grrl Book Fair is on March 7 and already generating a big buzz across the city. The event is set to be held at CIELO galleries/studios on Maple and 32nd Street, located in Historic South Central. The 9,000 square foot complex, located adjacent to an old Pacific Electric Railroad track, is a multifaceted art space that has hosted many gallery shows and readings over the last few years. The space is owned by the artist and community activist Skira Martinez; Cielo, which means "Sky" in Spanish, is also her middle name.

The Blk Grrrl Book Fair is the brainchild of the Inglewood writer, publisher and activist Teka-Lark Fleming. "I founded the Blk Grrrl Book Fair because I wanted a literary and visual arts event where Black people could have agency," she says. "The event is feminist, because to me if women don't have freedom, then no one will." Moreover she says, "I like literature and I just didn't understand why literature and events surrounding it couldn't look like L.A. Diversity is not that hard, just go outside."

That diversity is also evidenced in the history of the area where the event will be held. Parts of Historic South Central has been called East Adams, which has a historic connection to the Los Angeles Chinese American community dating back to the 1930s, when institutions like the Chinese Presbyterian Church, a Chinese school, a market, and the CFO Gas Station were located in the area. The epicenter was near East Adams and San Pedro. In the segregated history of Los Angeles, especially with the widespread restrictive housing covenants, this area stood out for its racial mix, with Chinese Americans, African Americans, and several immigrant groups all living together in close proximity.

According to the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC), this area came to rise because of the proximity to the City Market at 9th and San Pedro, where many Chinese American merchants were engaged in the produce business. CHSSC also notes that, "As a bedroom community for the City Market, East Adams was unique among Chinese American communities of the period, and a precursor of the Chinese American suburbs that exist in Los Angeles today."

South Central Avenue, 1939 | Photo: Fred William Carter/Los Angeles Public Library
South Central Avenue, 1939 | Photo: Fred William Carter/Los Angeles Public Library

The East Adams area overlaps with Historic South Central. CIELO's location on Maple falls within the area, which was also called the Eastside by the African American community because it was east of Main and years later, east of the 110 freeway. The area that is now officially known as Historic South Central is the district south of Washington, east of the 110, north of Vernon and west of Alameda. For Teka-Lark Fleming the location is especially important. Her grandparents grew up in the surrounding neighborhood three generations ago. "CIELO is located on the Eastside. This is truly Historical South Central in every sense," she says.

The term South Central Los Angeles first came to rise in the 1920s when Central Avenue was the hub of the city's African American community. Furthermore, there were citywide restrictive housing covenants that would only allow the Black population to live in between Alameda and Main on the East and West borders and Washington to Slauson to the north and south. Central Avenue was the main street which bisected this rectangular segment of geography. On the the southern end of Central Avenue, the term South Central came to describe the entire district. Music fans remember Central Avenue as the epicenter of West Coast Jazz for much of the 20th Century. Dozens of nightclubs lined Central from Pico to Slauson.

In recent years following the 1992 Uprisings, city officials and other neighborhood leaders have discouraged the use of the term South Central in favor of South Los Angeles, or in other parts of South L.A., they like to use specific district names like Chesterfield Square or Canterbury Knolls. Other popular districts in this general area also include Morningside Circle, Vermont Square, Athens on a Hill and of course, Watts and Leimert Park. The use of these more specific neighborhood names resulted from city officials and other civic leaders wanting to redefine the area after the Uprisings and the bleak conditions that dominated the neighborhood in the 1980s. Many felt that the longstanding connotation of South Central Los Angeles was always misrepresented in the media or considered negative by outsiders.

CIELO Galleries/Studios | Photo: CIELO Facebook
CIELO Galleries/Studios | Photo: CIELO Facebook

But not for Martinez. "I always proudly call this community South Central," she says. "We are not South L.A.; South Central is a community that won't be erased." The historic roots of the neighborhood factor into a big part of the CIELO galley mission. "More often than not, CIELO opens its doors and becomes not just a home or a work space," says Martinez, "but also a space that supports, promotes, encourages and participates in many forms of art, social justice/action and education that is free and accessible to all people."

This spirit attracted Teka-Lark Fleming to CIELO when she came up with her plan for the book fair. "The journey is as important as the destination," she says. "I was offered other spaces, but I purposely picked CIELO, because of the consciousness of the owner Skira Martinez and then she became the art curator of the Blk Grrrl Book Fair. We're alike except when she sees a blank wall she fills it with color, and when I see a blank wall, I fill it with words." For Fleming the location in South Central is especially important; her grandparents grew up in the surrounding neighborhood three generations ago. "This is truly Historical South Central in every sense," she says.

Teka-Lark Fleming first became known around Southern California in the early 2000s for her clever poetry and community activism. In recent years she has been very active, especially around Inglewood where she started the newspaper, the Morningside Park Chronicle, as well as with her weekly podcast and also her service at Southwest College. Darren Cifarelli, an English professor at Southwest College, recently told me, "I look up to Teka because she does what she believes: if her community needs news, she publishes a newspaper and starts a radio show. Or, she sponsors a book fair to promote feminist writers. To bridge the gap between Los Angeles Southwest College and its local area, she started the Ground Zero reading series on campus. She's been a guest speaker in my classes and is always inspiring to both me and the students." This do-it-yourself ethos described by Cifarelli is the guiding vision behind her book fair.

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Beyond creating the event, Fleming will be in conversation with three of her favorite African-American women writers, in a segment she calls, "Jessie Redmon Fauset's Parlor Reading." The first featured author for this portion is Natashia Deon. Deon is truly a renaissance woman. She is a fiction writer, host of the popular literary venue Dirty Laundry Lit, and also was an Emerging Voices Fellow for PEN Center USA. On top of all of that, she is also an attorney, mother, and a champion of the people. For all these reasons and more, she was listed by the L.A. Weekly in 2013 as "One of L.A.'s Most Fascinating People." Most recently, she just sold her novel "Sweet Tea and Honey" to Counterpoint Press. This recent development was just announced on Publishers Marketplace earlier this week. She will be reading a selection of her work and in conversation with Fleming and two other authors.

Deon will be joined in the segment by the equally accomplished mystery writer Lisa Teasley. Teasley is a graduate of UCLA and has written three popular novels over the last 15 years. Two of her best known titles include, "Heat Signature," and "Glow in the Dark." Jerry Stahl characterized her writing by saying, "Lisa Teasley writes like the unchained love child of Norman Mailer and Nina Simone." Teasley has been widely acclaimed and given numerous readings across the country over the last decade. Her charismatic personality will make for a lively dialogue with Natashia Deon and Teka-Lark Fleming.

The third writer in dialogue with Fleming is the influential historian and professor, Donna Murch. Murch is currently a Professor at Rutgers and is the author of the well-known book, "Living for the City: Migration, Race and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California." Her work first became known from her years as a History Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Murch's next book is about the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles. She is the current director of the "Black Atlantic" and a well-respected authority on American Studies, Urbanism, African American History and Geopolitics. The discussion between Murch, Lisa Teasley, Natashia Deon and Teka-Lark Fleming promises to an illuminating segment on contemporary politics, literature and the world at large.

Blk Grrrl Book Fair | Photo: The Blk Grrrl Show Facebook
Blk Grrrl Book Fair | Photo: The Blk Grrrl Show Facebook

Another key segment of the book fair is titled "WOMYNSTORIES." The ethos of this one-hour spoken word portion will be "told by the daughters of and in the spirit of Wanda Coleman." A year and a half after she passed, Coleman remains more relevant than ever. The Watts-born Coleman grew up a few miles south of the gallery, and she will always be the undisputed Queen of Los Angeles poetry. Her towering influence sets the tone for this performance. Skira Martinez has curated a group of top notch local female poets to honor Coleman and carry on her legacy. The diverse ensemble of artists includes Edxie, Iris De Anda, Ellisa Granger, Yasmin Monet Watkins, Liliflor Art, Gia Scott-Heron, 3 Generaciones and Adrys Alvarez. Each of these women have been very active in Los Angeles poetry over the last decade. They will undoubtedly make Wanda Coleman proud. They will be on stage from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Another section of the programming, "the Julie Dash Film Fest," will include films by Black women filmmakers that encompass different sides of the history of Black women in the U.S. The segment called "Ida B. Well's Diary" will feature community organizations involved in the arts giving short performances and explaining why they do what they do. There will also be several workshops and a presentation on African-American history led by Miriam Matthews. The final segment will be an open mic called "Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider Open." This part of the program is open for participants to read a manifesto, poem, story, or song, as long as it is under three minutes or about 350 words. Fleming will be filling half the slots via email and the other half in person. Interested parties can email her to reserve a space.

The Blk Grrrl Book Fair will be an all-day event celebrating these authors and Historic South Central. The spirit of the book fair resonates with the zeitgeist of both the CIELO gallery and the greater Los Angeles literary community as a whole. The participants form a mutual admiration society, they are women writers who support one another, very much kindred with the energy of the Woman's Building of two decades ago.

Teka-Lark Fleming recently told me, "The Blk Grrrl Book Fair is about freedom through cooperation. Cooperation includes sharing. We have shared resources, connections and information to make this happen." Salute to Fleming and all of the voices collaborating together to make the dream a reality. Together they are emerging queens of L.A. Letters.

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