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Rhythm of the street


Los Angeles, CA — Music has always fascinated RJ Smith, so when he moved to Los Angeles from New York in 1990, it was only natural for him to go looking for info on where the music was.

“I was vaguely aware of Central Avenue in its musical context. I went to the library and went to the book store to look for something (else) in that direction. At that time, there was nothing out there,” recalled Smith a former senior editor at Los Angeles Magazine as well as music critic for The Village Voice, GQ, Details, Spin and Vibe.

Necessity being the father of invention in this case, Smith said he decided to write the book he wanted to read. Once he started doing the research, he was hooked.

“When I started to talk to people and read the press of the era, it became clear that music was a crucial part of the story, but it was only part of it. There was so much beyond music–there was art, popular culture, and an early civil rights movement going in L.A. that for whatever reason had not been noticed.”

Realizing that he could not write the entire story in one book, Smith decided to concentrate on a single decade–the 1940s.

“So much happened in the war years. The Avenoo just came alive–the business life, the cultural life seems to be as vivid as ever in the years during the war and right after. By the end of the decade, Blacks were challenging restrictive covenants in court, and for the first time in L.A. history, they were able to live in different parts of the city that they were barred from before.”

As Smith sifted through tons of research and more than 100 interviews with people who lived in L.A. during the time, a timely reminder from his wife that he was supposed to be writing about a single decade kept him in focus, and nine years after he began researching (in 2006) he finished his book, The Great Black Way: L.A. in the 1940s, and the Los Angeles African American Renaissance.

On Monday, Smith will give the 2009 Pat Eliet Memorial Lecture beginning at 7 p.m. in the Loker Student Union at Cal State Dominguez Hills and will talk about his book and the Central Avenue community.

“I will give some of the overall history of the Avenoo, and since the (it) is so close to campus, it’s very important in American history. I will tell people about the role it played, and how (what happened there) affects your life in all kinds of ways you don’t think about–from the music we listen to, to the entertainers and comedians we laugh at. Then I want to play some music I like.”

One of the things Smith believes will surprise some people is the involvement of L.A. Blacks in a West Coast civil rights movement that was centered ( in part) around the ship yard down at the harbor.

” . . . It was Double V Movement among African Americans, which meant African Americans were fighting for victory overseas and they also wanted victory over their oppressors here at home.”

Smith said this Double V movement was a fight to integrate the defense plants, aviation factories and ship yards around the Southland.

The Great Black Way was Smith’s first book, and he is now in the process of working on a biography of James Brown.

The Cal State Dominguez lecture is sponsored by the school’s English department, the University Honors program and the College of Arts and Humanities. The campus is located at 1000 E. Victoria St. in Carson, and the Loker Student Union is at the center of campus.

Campus parking is $4, and information is available by contacting the English Department at (310) 243-3322.