Bronzeville: Modernity, Race and the Search to Belong presented at the Jean Deleage Art Gallery in Boyle Heights’s Casa 0101 Theater from April 8th to May 29th, 2022 binds together the multiple contradictions and the complexities of identity in a racialized modern society and the meaning of modernity from a Global South point of view. Five artists shared their personal relationship and their connection with the Japanese/Japanese American experience in Southern California while attempting to salvage the forgotten memory of Bronzeville. The accompanied essay by Shelley Johnson’s II for the exhibition (Assistant Researcher) poses the following question, why is the history of Bronzeville/Little Tokyo invisible and unknown? This exhibition is an act of solidarity. The hopscotch format of this essay is neither linear nor written to satisfy writing methods which reinforce liberal historical views of storytelling or sense of justice.
Johnson II unburies the African American narrative of what came to be known as Bronzeville, an African American community who took up residency in Little Tokyo in the City of Los Angeles, California during the removal of people of Japanese descent from Little Tokyo by executive order 9066 during World War II. Jim Crow laws of the south and the search for work opportunities led the Great Migration of African Americans to the west and to other parts of the country. Johnson’s II essay enables us to see how race played a role in the making and the undoing of this vibrant African American community in search of starting a new life.
The exhibition brings to our attention what is the role of modernity in the universal production and reproduction of anthropologic classifications by which people are prescribed as superior and inferior. How does western reason/Euro-centricism justify the differences? How does modernity compartmentalize (local, regional, national and globally) space and place via race. How and why does the judicial system perpetuate biases and racial categories today between people?
But first let’s do a brief examination of modernity and its role in the division of human beings (labor as well) between good and negative (human and non human). Let’s consider how modernity engages through myths, arts, culture and politics as a superior form of socially organizing (engineering) all aspect of life on a global scale. The organizing of the world through a European lens soon after joined by U.S and other western countries begins to formulate in the 15th century with the violent encounter with Abya Yala (The American continent). This violence continues to this day.
Modernity and Race
In Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano writes: “America was constituted as the first space/time of a new model of power of global vocation, and both in this way and by it became the first identity of modernity.” Modernity as a model of domination is more than often confused by all spheres of western progressive thinking as a positive program. It is considered to have brought out of darkness non European civilizations.
This equivocal progressive view of modernity often forgets, excludes or is unaware of Quijano’s following observation:
“All of those turbulent processes involved a long period of the colonization of cognitive perspectives, modes of producing and giving meaning, the results of material existence, the imaginary, the universe of inter-subjective relations with the world: in short, the culture.”
The instrumental (use and discard) aspect of modernity has served very well Euro/Anglo modern states to discriminate in particularly non European people. For Latin American Indigenous Bolivian philosopher, poet and writer Rafael Segales Bautista, modernity has shaped the past as negative and the present as good. This binary relation between past (traditional) and present (New) is the myth by which today’s world social order (western globalized capitalism) continues to plant its existence as a natural process (order) in human evolution at the center as the ‘good’ civilizing program against all other methods of knowledge be it, socio-economic, cultural or political alternatives to capitalism. Bautista emphasizes what we know today as modernity is what makes possible all forms of domination. If in doubt about modernity there is more than plenty of historical evidence from the dispossessed to draw from.
Bautista also adds that racism is the means by which core modern states extract value surplus (living labor) from the Global South for its own benefit and economic development while simultaneously devaluing the life in peripheral countries (Third World/ Global South). This relation between core and periphery is the negation of the other by means of racism. The uneven economic transfer between the south and the Global North is for Bautista the surrender and transfer of sovereignty by Third World countries (Global South) to Europe, U.S, Canada, Japan, Australia, hence rich countries of the Global North. For Bautista the renouncing of material wealth (natural resources) with little or no benefit to the majority of the population in Third World countries to the Global North constitutes the maintenance of power by rich western countries against the Global South. These same rich elite nations dominate of all spheres of financial and economic institutions (transactions) all across the entire globe. It is a full blown spectrum of control over the lives of billions of people from the Global South.
For professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, Ramon Grosfoguel and editor for the Tabula Rasa a peer review biannual journal, a liberal perspective of racism is mainly seen as a problem of individual prejudice and stereotype against a particularly group. Grosfoguel argues that racism is both a structural and institutional power relation of hierarchies between groups constructed as inferior and others as superior. Modernity for Grosfoguel is what made possible capitalism and is one of the most violent civilizing programs ever known to humanity. He further adds that the way we think is how we generate relations amongst us.
Hence, power and domination under the logic of accumulation of wealth/capital is the means by which racism serves as a reserved western privilege for the exploitation of 85 percent of the world’s population; people of color of the Global South and people of color located within the parameters of the Global North. The Global North which constitutes around fifteen percent of the global population is the beneficiary of this asymmetrical binary relation of exploitation and domination of the Global South’s wealth: labor and nature.
The Return of the Japanese Community to Little Tokyo
The subtle and quick expulsion of African Americans from Little Tokyo marks what Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano describes as the different levels of coloniality, meaning what non white group is tolerable or advantageous to the Euro-Caucasians serving in positions of power and privilege in (local, regional, national and international): cultural and government institutions, urban development programs, real estate agencies and money lending entities such as banks and financial institutions. All these forms of upward mobility for whites have historically been denied to African Americans families for centuries.
In Johnson’s II essay, he makes note of the “Realizing of white property owners’ their position of power—they could effectively pick and choose which race to rent to based on arbitrary rules and personal prejudices.” Property ownership in Little Tokyo in the hands of white male men could be described as the core, while the periphery in the case of Bronzeville, it is the African American community.
The return of the Japanese and Japanese Americans to their homes and community was met with surprise. In Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of race Post –World War II Los Angeles historian Hillary Jenks notes “In addition to losing their economic security, then, Japanese Americans feared the loss of their collective position within L. A.’s complicated racial hierarchy. It seemed possible that the internment experience, and the accompanying anti-Japanese rhetoric in both the political arena and popular culture, had pushed Japanese Americans to the bottom rung of the city’s racial ladder.” Despite the shock attempts to live together lead to the creation of a multicultural space shared between African American and the Japanese community. The conviviality was short lived as observed by historian Jenks, “This “marriage of convenience” between the Japanese and African American community “would proved to be short lived, however; by the early 1950s, any sense of Bronzeville as a distinctive black community had been erased, and only the reconstituted commercial enclave of Little Tokyo remained.”
Little Tokyo was no longer the home and place the Japanese community had left during their incarceration. It was a new town settled by African Americans. According to Jenks ninety-five percent of the City of Los Angeles in the 1940s had restriction/laws barring African Americans from purchasing or renting property. Little Tokyo and areas Like Boyle Heights were the remaining five percent that had no racial covenants.
The attainment of property is a means by which wealth is built on in capitalist societies. It allowed(s) many white American families to scale up into middle class status. African Americans rank the lowest in home/property ownership in the country. The transfer of Black generational wealth scales beneath whites, Latinos and other ethnic communities.
In Race, Place and Power Professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, George Lipsitz describes white inherited wealth “Originally accumulated during eras when direct and overt discrimination in government policies, home sales, mortgage lending, education, and employment systematically channeled assets to white.” Lipsitz further adds, “Whiteness as an efficiently functioning racial cartel, whites used restrictive covenant codes, racial zoning, redlining, steering, Block busting, and mob violence between 1866 and 1948 to monopolize advantages for themselves and their descendents.”
This description reinforces Johnson’s II research of white property owners realizing the power to discriminate against Blacks in preference to Little Tokyo’s Japanese community returning from the internment camps. Little Tokyo became a racialized space contested between Blacks and Japanese controlled and manipulated by white property owners in conjunction with L.A city officials.
Lipsitz states that between 1990 and 2020, “some seven to nine trillion dollars will be inherited by the “baby boomer” generation. Almost all the money (capital) is rooted in profits made by whites from overtly discriminatory housing markets before 1968.”
The conversation of Bronzeville and its making could not come without a history of challenges. Crime and illegal activities surfaced amongst the new residents as pointed out by journalist and researcher Martha Nakagawa during one of four conversations on Bronzeville/Little Tokyo at Casa 0101 Theater. Living conditions were not the best for African Americans. Many lived in overcrowded apartments with little or no medical services.
For Liptzs “racialized spaces ultimately hurts everyone, it creates expensive and dangerous concentration of poverty, pollution, disease, and crime. […] It encourages environmentally unsound patterns of development and transportation disperses population inefficiently. It helps produce the anti-social behavior that it purports to prevent.”
In racialized spaces, space and place for the most part are arranged by ethnic identification and to an extent include class affiliation which perpetuate modernity’s racial divide between poor/working class neighborhoods and fluent/wealthy spaces.
After a long struggle in 1988 Japanese survivors of the incarceration camps would be granted reparations of 20,000 each. According to a report by Brookings Institute 2020, “Black Americans are the only group that has not received reparations for the state-sanctioned racial discrimination, while slavery afforded some whites families the ability to accrue tremendous wealth.”
The Exhibit at Casa 0101 Jean Deleage Art Gallery
Bronzeville as a Black music cultural center and to an extent the multicultural community of Boyle Heights during World War II reflects, “How racialized spaces produce both solidarities of sameness and dynamics of differences.” Lipsitz points out “African American expressive culture has functioned as both a symptom and a critique of the nexus that links race and space” as was the lived experience in Bronzeville/ Little Tokyo for African Americans and people of Japanese descent Post World War II.
In the exhibition, Chicana Artist Sandra Vista would make the same acknowledgement as Lipsitz in her exhibiting collages (2022). Vista pays homage while making visible two great jazz musicians, Charlie Parker and the emerging talented musician during the 1940s, Miles Davis both whom played at Bronzeville’s/Little Tokyo Finale Club during World War II. In her third work, Titled ‘’Chop Suey’ Vista addresses stereotypes and bias assumptions about none white cultural signifiers by writing into her art piece Chop Suey. The immediate assumption is to associate Chop Suey as an Asian Cuisine. According to Vista, Chop Suey is an American created dish.
Artists Laura V. Rodriguez and Aydee Martinez would both address the tragic historical episode of the incarceration of the Japanese community by the U.S government in their paintings (2022). Rodriguez titles her work the ‘Great Betrayal’. In the painting a Japanese American child holds a severed teddy bear confined behind barbwire in reference to the Child’s second class status. In Martinez’s painting ‘The Spirit Perseveres’
an isolated cherry blossom tree blooms with a strange flower (Fruit). There are no beautiful blooms except what resembles price tags suspending from the ends of bare branches. The color landscape in Martinez’s painting is of the U.S. flag. The blue sky is unstable. It is warped and endless. It waves like a falling cloth. The red swirls like melted red wax on a scorched desert land. Both Rodriguez and Martinez seem to be addressing the myth of democracy and justice in a capitalist society.
In Bryan Ida’s portrait (ink on paper) of his teenage father (2021), his father stares away from the camera. A moment of uncertainty is preserved in the gaze. The image is inspired by a real black and white image of his teenage father taken by Dorothea Lange in the 1940s. Lange would be hired by the U.S government to document the evacuation and incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. The art piece is made of small and large text that highlights the portrait. What seems like coiled tight hand scribbles upon a closer encounter is the full text of the California Alien Land Law of 1913 text prohibiting Japanese farmers from owning agricultural land or possessing long term leases over it. Alien as a derogative term continues to be used to this day.
This essay does not exclude acknowledging westernized people of color in positions of power exercising the same core values of exploitation, domination and coloniality embedded in modern- capitalist societies against non white communities in the Global North and the Global South. Much less does this essay ignore the level of coloniality amongst people of color manifesting colonial biases and myths. If anything the attempt is to configure a way to realize how we all contribute to the myth of modernity. Yes, the very same system that oppresses, discriminates and destroys physically, emotionally, and psychologically human lives. While some are rewarded with stable opportunities of comfortable lifestyles millions must do with little or nothing.
Racism continues to be critiqued from the parameters of the white political field between the right and left. This approach creates blind spots of knowledge that hinder a horizontal face to face conversation as equals. Any repair tools used by the white political spectrum for the past 150 years in the U.S have not succeeded in eradicating racism. Through laws and punishment is how tolerance is built against violent reactions towards people of color. These same laws of justice have justified acts of violence and the enslavement of millions by U.S and by other western countries. The judicial apparatus while protecting civil rights have also allowed for the incarceration of thousands migrant children in 2019 during the Trump administration. At one point in U.S history the separation of children by force from Native American families sending their children to assimilation/re-education camps was U.S policy. Although legislation has dented and outlawed any form of discrimination the culture of racism continues to thrive across the country in many forms and shapes.
Modern civilization continues to exercise its cruelty against others and towards it own; non people of color. The perpetual war against Native Americans, Latin America, Asia and Africa reveals the nature of a civilizing program that cannot do without war and conflict. Two world wars were fought amongst western capitalist countries (including Japan’s imperial ambition in Asia) attempting to reconfigure the control of the world’s natural/financial resources and the partitioning of Third World colonies. The waste of resources and lives sacrificed to imperial wars is rarely a serious consideration taken into account by core countries. In The case of U.S Imperialism it “Fosters division between people and nations, offering (relative) rewards to those who choose to cooperate with U.S […] while brutally punishing those who do not.” It is the price to be paid for the fueling of modernity and the lifestyles that come with it. Capitalism projected as the only surviving alternative to any other social way of organizing life is diametrically opposed to peace. It is an antagonistic ideology of death as stated by philosopher R. S. Bautista by which capitalism generates continuous crisis and tensions as a way of life and existence. Hence war is business.
Bronzeville: Modernity, Race and the Search to Belong set forth all those questions we should be asking and examining with community, our scholars and our local leaders. New categories of knowledge are urgent to help understand the world and assist in genuine transformation. It is the accumulated knowledge of the Global South that can be of most use for change. Capitalism and all its known apparatus of control has patent our experience to make us believe in a religious like act that only capitalism can save the world from barbarity despite modernity’s destructive nature. There is an urgent need to put in balance modernity’s pluses and minuses and the impact on the majority of the world’s population. Its subtle low key precise methods to persuade millions in overlooking the totalitarian variable in capitalism disguised as a diverse society is probably its most effective tool of propaganda to carry on business as usual. It is an act which creates and normalizes a culture of apathy.
Bronzeville is an unknown people’s history. It is buried beneath layers of neglect. Bronzeville would fade away with the passing of time and return to be Little Tokyo. The Japanese community would again start to rebuild its sense of place upon the recuperation of Little Tokyo.
To contain the arguments posed in this exhibit on modernity and race only to Bronzeville or to Little Tokyo is to hinder an opportunity to pry open a deep existential dialogue on how to move beyond civilizing programs that perpetuate social Darwinist like beliefs of natural superiority.
Few images are preserved of the Bronzeville era. Little efforts have been made to reach out to the general public to help trace people or relatives with testimonies or visuals who’ve passed or lived in Bronzeville’s short live history. There is no larger than life public monument dedicated to Bronzeville and its relevance to the history of the City of Los Angeles. The question is why?
 Billie Holiday was making her mark in the American musical canon due to her performance of the song “Strange Fruit”. “Strange Fruit” was written by a little-known Jewish high school literature teacher, poet, and militant communist named Abel Meeropol who went by the pen name Lewis Allan.24 Meeropol was inspired to write “Strange Fruit” in 1930 after seeing a postcard with the image of two Black men hanging from a tree after a lynching. Haunted by this image, Meeropol felt the need to act but was shocked to discover that six out of ten Euro-Americans approved of lynching at the time. (https://mronline.org/2022/05/24/a-short-history-of-the-u-s-war-against-black-musicians/)
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkT7pMQ8uJA (In minute 16 Dr. Gabore Mate` discusses the physiological impact on the health of African Americans. He also connects illnesses generated in high stress environments to neoliberal societies.
 This last paragraph is based on my conversations with the Japanese American National Museum personal invited to participate in the Bronzeville/Little Tokyo conversations that took place at Casa 0101 Theater.