The Name Game: South L.A. or SOLA, It's Still South Central

"Welcome to South Central" | Photo: fbar/Flickr/Creative Commons

I've got an idea: Let's change the name of South Los Angeles to Beverly Hills.

Ridiculous? Of course. Besides the fact that Beverly Hills is already taken, South L.A. isn't Beverly Hills, and vice versa. Whatever you call those places, they remain what they are. Yet Eighth District councilman Bernie Parks is stumping for changing South L.A. to SOLA. This feels wrongheaded. For one thing, this would be making shorthand out of more shorthand -- South L.A. is a sanitized version of South Central, and now SOLA wants to reduce that to a quasi-acronym that conjures up not a place at all, but a logo. The real aim here is to further whittle away the association of South Central/South L.A. itself with the racial chaos of gangs, poverty, etc. Scrub it clean. Parks says it's all about progress; he and his constituents see other re-named communities that are flourishing -- NoHo, WeHo -- and wonder why their own community is "lagging behind."

That's easy: South Central lags because it's South Central. It's got nothing to do with names. WeHo and NoHo were attracting development and seeing gentrification long before they got their snappy nicknames; they were already places to be. Not so South Central. And urban cores don't need to change names to attract gentrification -- look at Harlem. Part of its success was probably due to the fact that it had a name people knew; it was already branded. Like most big-city black communities, Harlem was associated not just with urban mayhem but with a great history of black ambition that for a long time made it the cultural and intellectual capital of black America. South Central's history isn't quite that illustrious -- we didn't have a literary Renaissance, for example. But we had Central Avenue, the Eastside, and we produced luminaries like Ralph Bunche, Charlotta Bass, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus (he was from Watts, but that's long been considered part of South Central, kind of its ground zero). Saying that all these people came from SOLA just sounds bizarre. Too, the attempt to rename/rebrand South Central feels uncomfortably like an attempt to dilute black history, to soften its complicated edges, and there's entirely too much of that going around. We don't need to try and make ourselves palatable to the outside world.

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Witness what happened recently with "Finding Your Roots." Henry Louis Gates Jr., our best-known black academic, hesitated to share on his PBS program the fact that Ben Affleck has a slaveowner ancestor. According to Sony emails publicized by WikiLeaks, Gates vetted the decision with Sony (they told him to keep the info under wraps). Why would an illustrious black scholar who presumably works to illuminate history want to suppress it? Why would protecting Ben Affleck's reputation be more important than highlighting the obvious fact that slavery is intertwined with all our lives? The answer is social conditioning that even Gates isn't beyond. Slavery indicts white people, even the most liberal sorts, and while they condemn slavery they don't want it associated with them personally. Gates gets this, plus he also wants to keep his TV gig, presumably. So he edits out the slavery connection that might tarnish Affleck's image as a big Hollywood liberal and all-around good guy. Edit it out the way we tend to edit slavery out of our consciousness in general, because it's inconvenient.

I hope the Gates/Affleck slavegate flap will open up a discussion about slavery and how we have to stop reflexively editing it and start according its proper place in American history, which means our family history. We have to stop believing that it needs to be palatable. Changing the name of South Central to SOLA may seem relatively harmless, a move by the tourism board. But it's part of the same instinct to make black people and their slave legacy, which includes economically paralyzed inner cities, palatable. It's focusing on advertising when we need to be looking harder at the product. It's nice to think that the advertising focus might actually change things -- i.e., if we rename it, they will come. History has proven that wrong. Over the years we have gone from Greater L.A. to South Central to South L.A., and it's still the same place.

(For that matter, black folks have gone from being colored to Negro to black to African-American, and we're still the same people. None of the names, including the aspirational last one, have changed the nature of the crises that still challenge blacks as a group. 'African Americans,' which I always found cumbersome and somewhat inaccurate, tends to lure us into thinking that because the name accords us full-citizen status in America that we haven't experienced, we've achieved real justice. We haven't.)

While other parts of town benefit from nicknames and branding -- WeHo, NoHo, and the ethnic hotspots like Chinatown and Little Tokyo -- black people have been on the losing end of the few name changes made with them in mind. In the '80s, Compton Boulevard, which used to run from Compton west to the ocean, got re-named Marine Avenue by the more affluent, much whiter South Bay cities that literally wanted to cut themselves off from the word and its negative associations.

Talk about editing out. But in a movie town, it all makes perfect sense. But renaming South Central doesn't need a sequel. The first show made its point.

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