Monday, March 26, 2007

Zoot Suit Riots

Originally uploaded by Taxi Lady Joann.
I finally learned the truth about the Zoot Suits. A wonderful book appeared at the library—a book I would never have discovered on my own—called The Great Black Way. It’s a history of African-American Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Author R.J. Smith’s main point is that a second Harlem Renaissance took place in black L.A. during the war years—an echo of the first, but initiated from the bottom up.

If Harlem’s renaissance was a flowering of letters and arts, Smith says (and I don’t agree with his conclusion here), the performance of Black beauty was always for white needs. By way of contrast, the flowering of Black culture in Los Angeles during the 40’s was accidental and low-class, and couldn’t have cared less about white opinion.

It was led by peasants from the Deep South throwing off Jim Crow’s mental shackles in a state where Mr. Crow only lived in the shadows. Even as white L.A. maintained rigid racial lines where wealth was concerned (real estate, union labor etc.), Black self-expression was tolerated to a degree unheard of in the South. In other words, African Americans had the space to express themselves in the street, but not in their choice of career or housing.

In such a world, a man could wear flamboyant clothes in L.A., and many people pouring into the city came from places where anything but grungy work clothes was considered a provocation. The climate was right for Zoot Suits.

There was nothing useful about these suits. They were all show, and no substance. Zoot Suits were for looking cool in the street.

During the early 40s, black and Mexican youth of Los Angeles spent untold sums on Zoot Suits, drawing the anger of their parents and of many white people alike—people who understood the message of street disrespect.

So in 1942 white sailors stationed in L.A. staged a series of race riots, in which they went out into black and Mexican neighborhoods, assaulting kids who were wearing the suits. It all cumulated when several neighborhoods banded together and gave the sailors a beating. These were the Zoot Suit riots.


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