Los Angeles: Past and Present

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 8:45 AM - 10:15 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Asian American; Borderlands; Business and Economy; Crime and Violence; Public History and Memory; Race; Visual and Performing Arts; West

Papers Presented

A Tale of Two Ballerinas: African American Dance in the Los Angeles Borderscape

When Misty Copeland became the first African American woman to be named principal dancer of the American Ballet Theater in 2015, she built on a history of Black ballerinas in Los Angeles who overcame multiple obstacles to achieve their dream of classical dance. This paper, which would be ideal for a multidisciplinary panel on the arts in twentieth-century US, considers two African American ballerinas who thrived within the borderscape of Los Angeles: Bernice Harrison and Misty Copeland. Harrison was the first African American prima ballerina of a longstanding Black ballet troupe, the First Negro Classic Ballet (FNCB, 1946-1958), whereas Misty Copeland began her career in the 1990s, building on the pioneering trail of Harrison. The purpose of the paper is to demonstrate how two Black female ballet dancers had to overcome resistance, and confront stereotypes of Black bodies, in a typically white art form. As home to a long history of Black and Latinx migrants and immigrants, Los Angeles was ideal for the FNCB, which personified this interethnic community during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning as a solely African American dance troupe, it soon comprised Black, Latinx, white women and men, binary and non-binary, thereby defying traditional portrayals of what ballet performers should look like and perform as. One of the FNCB dancers, Marion Spencer, recalled hearing that ‘‘black women were not built for ballet,’’ and such stereotypes led to almost nonexistent hiring of African Americans to dance in professional ballet companies. Although historians often claim that Janet Collins was the nation’s first Black prima ballerina with the New York Metropolitan Opera company in 1952, the prima ballerina of the FNCB, Bernice Harrison, preceded Collins by six years. Similarly, Misty Copeland confronted numerous obstacles to becoming the leading African American ballerina of her era. Beginning ballet in San Pedro, she moved in with her ballet coach, Cynthia Bradley, to focus on perfecting her talent. After winning first place at the Los Angeles Music Center in March 1998, she began studying at the Lauridsen Ballet Center in Torrance. This training gave her the foundation to move to New York to become the principal dancer of the ABT. The careers of both Harrison and Copeland provide us with cultural examples within the Los Angeles borderscape, a term that performance artists Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes created in 1999 and that urban theorists, historians, sociologists, and others have subsequently applied to explain the complex racial and ethnic environments of cities as well as countries. We can thus think of the borderscape not simply as representing physical borders but also cultural borders: ones of resistance as much as cooperation. Los Angeles offers an ideal example to apply this concept in cultural work. The paper concludes that if the Los Angeles borderscape is a site of creative endeavor for those trying to create a more just and equal society, then two women, Bernice Harrison and Misty Copeland, personify that ideal in the field of classical dance.

Presented By
Kenneth Hearne Marcus, University of La Verne

LA 1984: The Olympics, neoliberalism, and the entrepreneurial LAPD.

This paper discusses the transformation of the LAPD which occurred in preparation for the city’s 1984 Olympic Games. It argues that the force used the Games to encase itself from threats to its budget and remit by turning itself into an entrepreneurial, quasi-statist entity. In doing so, the paper ties together the globalising economy with a distinctly local context, showing that the LAPD represented the local experience of increasingly global ideologies and structures: a public entity with statist powers and responsibilities, but with a corporate, capitalist mindset. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were the first to be funded entirely by private capital. The Games occurred at a time of crisis for the Olympic movement, which was reeling from the horror of Munich ’72, the financial catastrophe of Montreal ’76, and the western boycott of Moscow ’80. It was also an era of new international terrorism, in which states reconfigured their policing and security apparatus to meet this threat. The reputation of the LAPD had been battered by scandals and ongoing accusations of racism at a time in which state and federal funding for public services was contracting on all fronts. LA’84, then, was a lifeline for the LAPD and its bullish Chief Daryl Gates: the perfect opportunity to guarantee the future of his LAPD, to remind everyone exactly why the police should command a massive budget, and to expand the department’s martial infrastructure and surveillance capabilities. Olympic organisers found themselves in the unique, unconstitutional position of privately paying for police services. Olympic organisers and the LAPD established a public-private partnership, a common means of funding social policies in cities under increasingly neoliberal conditions. The 1984 Olympics was a transformative moment for the LAPD, equipping it with a new arsenal of military-grade equipment and rehabilitating it in the minds of city legislators. More than this, however, the Games marked the entrepreneurial transformation of the LAPD into a quasi-statist, quasi-corporate organisation. In paying privately for the Games, organisers and the LAPD became enmeshed in a global web of weapons, technology, and capital which relied on racialised understandings of threats in order to maintain the central function of any capitalist enterprise: growth. As had occurred with many of the LAPD’s other innovations, the entrepreneurial policing model soon spread nationally. Moreover, the LAPD used its new Olympic arsenal and technological capabilities to wage the “war on drugs”, turning inwards against the city’s poor and racialised inhabitants who, in 1992, responded with the most destructive civil unrest in US history. The planning for Olympic security and the transformation of the LAPD it entailed was a key and under-studied element in the history of policing and the reconfiguration of the state under neoliberal, racial capitalism.

Presented By
Rob Alex Fitt, University of Birmingham, UK

“Settling the Ghosts of Old Chinatown: Violence and the Ta Chiu Festival in 19th-Century Los Angeles”

In 2021, the City of Los Angeles marked the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Anti-Chinese Massacre, a watershed event in which white and Mexican vigilantes lynched eighteen Chinese men and boys and plundered their immigrant community. White settler reminiscences long shaped how Angelenos remembered what observers dubbed “the night of horrors.” Less understood among scholarly and public audiences are the collective memories of Chinese immigrants to Los Angeles. Despite their erasure from official accountings, Chinese Angelenos responded to racial violence and xenophobia with public rituals of mourning and healing in the aftermath. Beginning in 1872, residents of Los Angeles’s Chinatown opened their neighborhood for the Ta Chiu festival, a triennial rite of renewal with roots in Taoist philosophy. This paper will examine how Chinese Angelenos revived centuries-old wisdom to repair the traumas of 1871. I argue that festival architects and participants put down roots in Los Angeles by taking up space to grieve and to remember. Documented in newspapers, photographs, and memoirs, the ritual complicated white settlers’ efforts to racialize Chinese immigrants as unassimilable and subservient. Over time, Ta Chiu helped practitioners fortify their attachments to their changing neighborhood, demonstrated their civic strength in the face of bloodshed and white supremacy, and rebalanced brittle ties of kinship with the spirit world. As contemporary Angelenos work to memorialize the massacre, this paper will contemplate what we can learn from these ancestral practices and how they might shape our ongoing efforts to commemorate histories of violence in the American West and combat anti-Asian racism.

Presented By
Laura A. Dominguez, University of Southern California

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Merry A. Ovnick, Editor of the Southern California Quarterly

Presenter: Laura A. Dominguez, University of Southern California
Laura Dominguez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Southern California, where she studies race and heritage conservation in the American West. Her dissertation examines the making and unmaking of settler histories, memory sites, and heritage practices in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Los Angeles. She explores how different generations and groups of Angelenos reckoned with the past through place, enacting a reparative landscape that resisted white settler efforts to erase Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities from land and story. Born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Laura holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in historic preservation from USC. She previously served as Communications and Programs Manager for San Francisco Heritage and Preservation Manager for the Los Angeles Conservancy. An advocate for preservation justice and equity, she is also a founding board member of Latinos in Heritage Conservation and chairs its Education & Programs Committee. From 2019-2021, she was a member of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group and has conducted research for its 1871 Anti-Chinese Massacre Memorial Steering Committee. Laura is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the USC Mellon Humanities & the University of the Future Ph.D. Fellowship; Del Amo Doctoral Fellowship; Diversity, Inclusion and Access Fellowship; and Lois W. Banner Award. Her work has appeared in the Western Historical Quarterly, Journal of American History, California History, and Lost L.A.

Presenter: Rob Alex Fitt, University of Birmingham, UK
Rob Alex Fitt is a PhD candidate in US history at the University of Birmingham, UK. His doctoral thesis uses the 1984 LA Olympics as a window on neoliberal culture: an ideological and institutional architecture with which to accelerate the privatisation of American life, ensuring the continuance of racial capitalism under conditions of multi-racial democracy. It reimagines the history of late twentieth-century capitalism not as the work of nation-state actors like Reagan or Thatcher, but instead, as a locally contingent process of manufacturing or imposing consent to global capitalism on street corners.

Presenter: Kenneth Hearne Marcus, University of La Verne
Kenneth Marcus is a Professor of History at the University of La Verne, where he teaches courses in European and American history, world history, and history methods. He earned his B.A. in history at the University of California, Berkeley; an M.B.A. from the École Supérieure de Commerce de Paris, France; and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Cambridge, UK. He specializes in the field of 20th century U.S. cultural history and has published four books: Schoenberg and Hollywood Modernism (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Musical Metropolis: Los Angeles and the Creation of a Music Culture, 1880-1940 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), and The Politics of Power: Elites of an Early Modern State in Germany (Philipp von Zabern, 2000) as well as an edited collection of writings by his mother, Laura Marcus, titled Inside the Caltech Community (Collegiate Press, 2019). Dr. Marcus has published over 50 articles, encyclopedia entries, and book reviews. His articles have appeared in The Pacific Historical Review, Southern California Quarterly, American Music, Journal of African American History, California History, Journal of the Society of American Music, History Compass, Journal of the West, The Sixteenth Century Journal, and German History.

Dr. Marcus has worked in a variety of multimedia, notably as a performer and composer on guitar, keyboards and vocals for recordings of music for the classroom, and as a producer of two collections of historical recordings: Musical Metropolis: Los Angeles and the Creation of a Music Culture, 1880-1940 compiled by Grammy Award-winner Lance Bowling, and Music of California and the West by the Arias Troubadours. Dr. Marcus served as historian and co-producer of two mini-documentaries, The Arias Troubadours: A Musical Dynasty, which aired on PBS, and The Ramona Pageant: Myth, History and Community. He recorded a podcast, “Public Health and the Memory of Internment” on WWII Japanese-American internment camps for the OAH Podcast series, Intervals, which aired on July 7, 2021.

He is the recipient of two Fulbright awards: Fulbright Senior Fellow in Cultural Studies at the International Research Center for Cultural Studies in Vienna, Austria in 2021-22 and Fulbright Senior Professor in American Culture at Leiden University, the Netherlands in 2013. He was an NEH Fellow at The Huntington Library in summer 2008 and a Research Fellow at The Huntington Library in the summers of 2002 and 2001. Other grants he has received for his research include an NEH Summer Seminar at Stanford University and an NEH Summer Institute at The Huntington Library, awards from the James Irvine Foundation and the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation, and a fellowship at the Institut für Europäische Geschichte in Mainz, Germany. He is past-Director of the International Studies Institute at the University of La Verne (2002-13), Chair of the International Studies program (2013-19), and President of the Historical Society of Southern California (2014-17). Dr. Marcus was Section Editor, 20th and 21st Century North America, for the online journal, History Compass (published by Wiley-Blackwell Press) from 2007 to 2016.