Black Arts West

Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles

Black Arts West

Book Pages: 384 Illustrations: 48 illustrations Published: March 2010

Author: Daniel Widener

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Cultural Studies

From postwar efforts to end discrimination in the motion-picture industry, recording studios, and musicians’ unions, through the development of community-based arts organizations, to the creation of searing films critiquing conditions in the black working class neighborhoods of a city touting its multiculturalism—Black Arts West documents the social and political significance of African American arts activity in Los Angeles between the Second World War and the riots of 1992. Focusing on the lives and work of black writers, visual artists, musicians, and filmmakers, Daniel Widener tells how black cultural politics changed over time, and how altered political realities generated new forms of artistic and cultural expression. His narrative is filled with figures invested in the politics of black art and culture in postwar Los Angeles, including not only African American artists but also black nationalists, affluent liberal whites, elected officials, and federal bureaucrats.

Along with the politicization of black culture, Widener explores the rise of a distinctive regional Black Arts Movement. Originating in the efforts of wartime cultural activists, the movement was rooted in the black working class and characterized by struggles for artistic autonomy and improved living and working conditions for local black artists. As new ideas concerning art, racial identity, and the institutional position of African American artists emerged, dozens of new collectives appeared, from the Watts Writers Workshop, to the Inner City Cultural Center, to the New Art Jazz Ensemble. Spread across generations of artists, the Black Arts Movement in Southern California was more than the artistic affiliate of the local civil-rights or black-power efforts: it was a social movement itself. Illuminating the fundamental connections between expressive culture and political struggle, Black Arts West is a major contribution to the histories of Los Angeles, black radicalism, and avant-garde art.


“. . . [B]y complicating our understanding of the black arts movement, Black Arts West makes a significant contribution to the history of art and activism in Los Angeles and highlights the city as a landscape of possibility upon which deeply meaningful cultural battles can be fought.” — Sarah Schrank, Left History

Black Arts West is as much a work in American intellectual and social history as it is in African American cultural and political history. . . . [It] would be well-suited for an upper-division elective in African American Studies or American Studies as it uses an interdisciplinary approach to study African American history. . . . Widener's book is convincing and engaging. . . .” — Jamie J. Wilson, The History Teacher

“As an interdisciplinary study, Black Arts West helps readers gain a more complete picture of how culture and politics intersected in Los Angeles. . . . His study succeeds in providing scholars with an engaging examination of black cultural politics in postwar Los Angeles.” — LaNitra Berger, Southern California Quarterly

“This is an ambitious, far-reaching, and original work that explores the meaning and importance of black culture from the post–WWII years through the Bradley years and successfully argues for the centrality of culture to African Americans’ search for freedom. It is a book that should be read by scholars and students of African American history, cultural history, and the history of Los Angeles.” — Robert Bauman, Western Historical Quarterly

Black Arts West presents fresh, bold perspectives on race, class, power, and identity in Los Angeles. Buy a copy and dwell on it. Widener’s book will definitely get your intellectual and political juices flowing. For that and more, we are in his debt.” — Douglas Flamming, Pacific Historical Review

“[An] often-dazzling and truly interdisciplinary study. . . . What truly dazzles about Widener's book is its range of concerns and competencies: music, theater, visual arts, film, literature, social history, intellectual history, urban studies, politics, and on and on. . . . Black Arts West is an often-brilliant, certainly essential study for anyone interested in the black arts movement and, indeed, late twentieth-century U.S. cultural politics. “ — James Edward Smethurst, Journal of American History

“Drawing on a wide range of sources, including small arts journals, original and archived oral histories with artists, and archival documents related to the city's arts policy, Widener's narrative is detailed, fluid, and analytically complex. . . . One of the many strengths of Black Arts West is Widener's deft analysis of cultural texts across a range of genres. He is equally comfortable discussing the poetry of Jayne Cortez and Harry Dolan, the music of Horace Tapscott and Bobby Bradford, the visual art of John Outterbridge and Betye Saar, or the films of Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry. These artists and many others are part of the tremendous wealth of information Widener presents on black arts in Los Angeles.” — Matt Delmont, American Quarterly

“The invitation of Black Arts West is to allow the reader a historic and discursive remapping of black Los Angeles so that among the ashes and debris of its most sensational and destructive moments—the Watts Riots of 1965 and the Rodney King Uprising of 1992—we see a much more complex, dynamic, and affirmative network of creative activities that date back to the influx of blacks to this region during the Second World War. Not only does he offer a remapping of the region, but also he argues that a particular aesthetic emerged as a result of the deliberate efforts of black artists to move forward by staying put in Los Angeles.” — Nicole R. Fleetwood, Art Journal

“There is so much to recommend Daniel Widener’s Black Arts West it is hard to know where to start. . . . Widener meticulously documents the struggles of local artists and community organizations in a manner that illuminates national and even international struggles around cultural production and thus makes this book an invaluable contribution to the scholarship on postwar African American culture. It constitutes an important addition to local and regional studies of the Black Arts Movement, and to scholarly analyses of black radicalism and its relationship to African American expressive culture, the African American avant-garde, and the social movements and community organizations that created one of the most significant periods of African American artistic expression.” — Amy Abugo Ongiri, Journal of African American History

“Widener is an extremely perceptive and subtle historian. By placing jazz and visual art alongside literature and theater while also paying attention to the relationship between race and class, his work does great service to the understanding of the interrelatedness of art and politics in the postwar period.” — Joe Street, American Historical Review

“Widener is an extremely perceptive and subtle historian. By placing jazz and visual art alongside literature and theater while also paying attention to the relationship between race and class, his work does great service to the understanding of the interrelatedness of art and politics in the postwar
period.” — Joe Street American Historical Review

Black Arts West knocked my socks off. Daniel Widener’s exciting account of the ‘Watts Renaissance’ fundamentally revises our picture of contemporary L.A. art and literary scenes, and adds a crucial new chapter to the history of Black cultural radicalism during the 1960s and 1970s.” — Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles

“Daniel Widener’s study provides a much needed, basic analysis of the complex and turbulent black arts and culture scene in Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s, and the dynamic mix of politics that fueled it.” — Amiri Baraka


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Daniel Widener is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: Acts of Culture, or, Maybe the People Would Be the Times 1

Part I. Cultural Democracy in the Racial Metropolis

1. Hollywood Scuffle: The Second World War, Los Angeles, and the Politics of Wartime Representation 21

2. The Negro as Human Being? Desegregation and the Black Arts Imperative 52

3. Writing Watts: The Rise and Fall of Cultural Liberalism 90

Part II. Message from the Grassroots

4. Notes from the Underground: Free Jazz and Black Power in South Los Angeles 117

5. Studios in the Street: Creative Community and Visual Arts 153

6. The Arms of Criticism: The Cultural Politics of Urban Insurgency 187

Part III. Festivals and Funerals

7. An Intimate Enemy: Culture and the Contradictions of Bradleyism 221

8. How to Survive in South Central: Black Film as Class Critique 250

Epilogue 283

Notes 291

Works Cited 329

Index 353
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4679-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4667-8
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