Sunshine or Noir?

April 25-26, 2020

In his landmark book about Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis begins with the question “Sunshine or Noir?” and this is a question that haunts Los Angeles, and I expect haunts my students: why did you ask us to read Mike Davis? For those who aren’t familiar with Davis, his writing style might be described as a machine gun burst of facts, references, and obscure mentions he assumes you are familiar with.

So, why did I as them to do this to my poor students? Well, I thought we would be in the classroom where I could walk them through Davis’s brilliant plan in this chapter, a plan to organize LA History in the arts and philosophy both chronologically and by political and philosophical and artistic means…but due to Covid 19, we are not in class. I hoped it would all come together and make sense because I actually used Davis to organize and select our readings for this class. Instead my students are left on their own to make sense of Davis, or to just get what they can, and in the case of Davis, some of that is fairly delicious, like the connections between science and cults in our unique LA basin mixing pot.

            But tonight, some way into this new world of teaching online and wiping down my groceries, I would prefer to reflect on Davis’s central questions: Sunshine or Noir? Light or Dark? Not just Los Angeles, but all of us, right now. This is unquestionably a dark time. There are at this moment  (Saturday, April 25) 53, 928 folks who died from this virus in the US, and many people suspect that is an undercount. 1, 651 Angelenos have lost their lives. This is a dark time…but is Los Angeles light or dark?

            In 1932, another dark time, David Alfaro Siqueiros was commissioned to paint a mural in the tourist/cultural/historical center of Olvera Street (complicated history, there, but more properly known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles). His mural, “American Tropical” depicts a Mexican Indian Christ crucified with an American eagle atop the cross. Maybe the original title will help: “Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism.” I was thinking about this mural as I was reading Mike Davis, and sure enough, Davis dropped it in. The history of Los Angeles is dark in many ways. We cannot deny that nor should we. My students have already read about the Native populations, and how Ramona was misunderstood when it sought to demonstrate that original tragedy, but then we moved on through the story of the Japanese internment camps and the Watts uprisings in Nina Revoyr’s novel Southland. In other classes I have taught On Gold Mountain, Lisa See’s fascinating personal history of the Chinese population in L.A, which features the Chinese Exclusion Act, arguably the most important US government document revealing anti-immigrant intentions. And what of the other people, people just like you and me, who faced discrimination and racism in this city? How have the other non-white populations fared?  As Davis points out, what of the history of working folks in LA, a notoriously non-Union town?

            After Siqueiros finished his mural, the folks who arranged for it almost immediately whitewashed it, and I would like to suggest that is not an accidental term. They literally covered it in white paint, and it didn’t re-emerge until 2010 (https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/laplaza/2010/09/america-tropical-mural-siquieros-los-angeles.html). It is worth noting that Siqueiros was deported, too. So, that information makes the next part of this post more complicated.

            In the mornings, early in the mornings, we have been walking the dog, the puppy monster, although he is supposed to be a dog now as he is a year old and counting. We walk the neighborhood, and we discover things we didn’t know about, like the Arroyo Vista Estates and the valleys and hills and valleys near Figueroa. In this virus time, walking with my mask, my husband, and my puppy monster, I have had lots of time to reflect. One of the things I reflect on most is privilege.  We are so very lucky—I am still working, my husband is still working, and we have a home and food. But I know that our story is the story of white people in Los Angeles, the story of privilege.

            On those early morning walks, I take heart from the pictures on the sidewalk, the neighbors and children reaching out to each other, and yet I wonder whether or not this is yet another form of that privilege, that power, that comfort. I don’t know. It makes me feel better, like we are “all in this together” as the Mayor insists, but are we? I try to be a good person, to tip anyone who delivers anything, to make masks for those who need them, but I wonder whether or not I am simply lured into a false sense of security by seeing that children are still coloring, that people care for one another…

            And then at the same time, I also feel that Los Angeles has pulled together to get through this, just as I felt when I went to the massive protests in 2016/2017. I heard the voices of all the women at the Women’s March rising into the air pressed against the wall in Pershing Square, and oddly enough, I thought of Mike Davis. Yes, really. At the end of his chapter he closes with asking whether the “Anglos” will lose, and whether or not a multicultural city will be born, arguing that “[…] when Los Angeles’s street cultures rub together in the right way, they emit light of unusual warmth and clarity” (Davis 88).  That’s what I like to think of as I walk: generators of a new tomorrow, maybe the kids and adults making the signs and sidewalk art, maybe just the cleaner air, maybe all of us working together for a better life? It seems impossible, and yes, I know I am hopelessly romantic and likely guilty of whitewashing and gentrifying even this moment, but it still seems to me that hope is better than fear.

 And I have plenty of fear, and I realize that having the freedom to re-read Mike Davis and pontificate is exactly a sign of my privilege, so I would like to thank every single person who works on the frontlines, at Kaiser, or any medical center, at Starbucks, at Vons or Super King or Food For Less or Trader Joes or Costco, or for the city or to deliver packages, and thanks to those who stay home and get through this as best we can. Los Angeles has the capacity for light, and I know this because I have seen it time and time again, but we cannot paper over the suffering, the noir, and the reality of our history. But I ask you if you are reading this to try to do what F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. That’s where I’m at right now: trying to function, trying to see the light and support it and never forgetting the casualties of the dark.

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