Skip to content

L.A.s Cultural Griots: preserving, promoting and protecting


“We are heirs and custodians of a great legacy. We must bear the glory and burden of that legacy.”— Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and civil rights leader.

Los Angeles’ cultural diversity is what distinguishes it from most international cities. But many African Americans are concerned that their cultural influence on the city’s history is undervalued.
While the Black cultural griots continue to remind Angelenos of their cultural roots, their expectation is to provide some clarity, to the descendants of Africans as well as other immigrants who don’t always understand their commonalties. These griots are the cultural caretakers, and they are vital, because unlike other ethnic groups, Blacks were denied access to their ancestry.
Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach, creator of Kwanzaa and obvious cultural griot, says the conversation about the African impact on our culture should begin with the positives.

“If we are going to leave a legacy worthy of the name Africa, we must reaffirm the best of what it means and speak our special cultural truth to the world,” says Karenga.

As one of the founders of the Black studies program at CSULB, Karenga, has a rather unique characterization of culture. He defines it as “the totality of thought and practice by which a people creates, sustains, celebrates, and introduces itself to humanity.”

Like Karenga, Cecil Fergerson, founder of the Federation of Black Art History, says it is the responsibility of people like him to continue to tell the African American story.

Known as “the godfather of African American art” in Los Angeles, Fergerson explains his passion for Black history perhaps stems from the deprivation of this perspective he experienced going to school in Los Angeles.

“We cannot let our history be forgotten. The way we can prevent this is through the spoken word,” says Fergerson.

Still, the roots of the African American cultural contributions must be preserved for community access, as well as promoting, researching, interpreting and disseminating information to continue its legacy. In Los Angeles, one of the key places that job falls to is the California African American Museum (CAAM). For 33 years, the museum has served the greater Los Angeles area as a cultural meeting center.

Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the CAAM, is unyielding about the museum’s role.
“We want a place that Black people feel ownership (of), and empowered to tell our story and stories of other people but from our perspective,” says Jefferson. She adds, “Museums like CAAM become our home, our temples, and more importantly it is neutral secular. Other people can come (here to) explore and find out how connected to us they are. We need this museum more than ever because now that we have African American museums we can dig deeper into our stories.”

The movie and television industry’s unwillingness to recognize the full spectrum of African culture via the products created and distributed is a continuing source of frustration within the Black community, as is, the underrepresentation of Blacks in critical roles. The Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) has made an attempt to fill this void by showcasing a broad spectrum of Black films. And particular attention is given to those works that reinforce positive images and help to destroy negative stereotypes.

Ayuko Babu, executive director and PAFF co-founder, says he is compelled as a Black cultural griot, to carry the stories of Black people, and try to give the people a vision of themselves.

“We believe film and art can lead to better understanding and foster communication between peoples of diverse cultures, races, and lifestyles,” says Babu. “While at the same time, serve as a vehicle to initiate dialogue on the important issues of our times.”

Babu explained that the Pan African Film Festival was established because Black films were rarely featured at film festivals anywhere.

“While Cannes hosts only two Black films, we find 130 every year,” says Babu. He adds that because of the slave trade there is a little bit of Black people’s stories all over the planet.

Established in 1992, this year’s Pan African Film Festival will feature 121 films from 31 countries. The festival will be held at Culver Plaza Theater, 9919 Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, and scheduled to run from February 16 -23.

Despite the fact that the City of Los Angeles was established primarily by people of African decent, South Central Los Angeles (historical home to L.A.’s Black community) is rarely thought of as a cultural designation. But for 22 years, the African Marketplace and Cultural Faire created an annual destination for people to come and celebrate the African Diaspora. Each year hundreds of thousands of people were treated to a colorful combination of music, food, fashion, memorabilia, literature, art, and history presented by people from throughout the dispersed African people.

According to James Burks, director of special projects for the City of Los Angeles and creator of the African Marketplace, the event was designed to smooth tensions heightened between different ethnic groups because of lack of exposure, education and dialogue.

It was to impact several areas including galvanizing the African Diaspora community because the Black community was not engaged with each other. It also had to be sustainable and change the mindset of African Americans throughout the city.

“The marketplace was home to every single culture,” says Burks. “It was about the influence of Africa on other cultures. More than 35 percent of those who attended were non-Black. We had gotten past all of the media stereotypes about South Los Angeles. We created an annual destination for people to come and celebrate.”

As the demographics of Los Angeles continue to change and despite its tangled roots and origins, the Black cultural griots are certain about their role.

“We all have a passion to preserve and perpetuate the culture of Black people as well as others,” says Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Tower Art Center, who believes that to achieve this goal will take an unyielding desire to bridge age and ethnic barriers. Relationships are important particularly in underserved communities.

Hooks went on to add, “We must engage the community.”

She also explains that young Black people need to see that they have a rich heritage.
As Los Angeles continues to be among the pre-eminent destinations of the world, the Black narrative will always be an important necessity to remind and educate the population of its African origins. Subsequently, while Los Angeles remains the nation’s second-most-populous city, a cultural generation gap is emerging.

“If we get people to understand how intertwined we are then we won’t become extinct,” says Jefferson.

Moreover, the cultural caretakers understand how critical it is to educate a younger generation about the contributions of African Americans to Los Angeles.

Fergerson acknowledges, “there are many stories our kids don’t hear about. I am always open to young people who are interested in the culture of African Americans.”

Karenga is also optimistic. “I hope that future generations would look at our efforts and appreciate them. We worked with what we had and made the best of it and carried a tradition that existed before us.”