Apparently, waking up and walking to the Campus Center at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 9, was enough of a challenge to turn away some students because, of the 30 people that RSVP’d for the Black Tour of L.A., only 17 made it.
While sitting under the harsh morning sun was an intense wake up, it was well worth it for the excursion that followed. The Black Tour of L.A., hosted by the Black Student Association and the Office of Equity and Inclusion, provided a unique chance to connect with L.A.’s Black community through arts, culture and food.
By leaving Whittier College at 9:00 a.m., the group was able to beat the notorious L.A. traffic on the way to the first destination — the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Center. Upon arriving, the Center’s artist-in-residence, Toni Love, greeted the group and escorted them on a private tour of the multi-building facility.
The tour began with an explanation of the statue that stood over the entrance. Known as “Mother of Humanity,” this piece of art is a 16-foot-tall brass statue of a woman with cornrows standing on top of a globe. One of her hands is outstretched, holding a feather, and the other hand is open, by her side, with her palm up. There was also an impressive skate park at the Center, featuring a large mural by Ras Ammar of a child being lifted up by a community.
The Black Tour of L.A. has visited the WLCAC Center as part of its last three tours, making it a staple location — and for good reason. The site features a mixture of historic information, art, and programs for community outreach. Inside the first building was a workspace that hosts ceramics, glass blowing, and embroidery classes for the Watts community. Students’ projects were displayed in thick, acrylic cases on top of a couple large, wooden shipping crates. Most of their works were small items, like mugs, but there was also the giant mosaic palm tree that covered most of the floor. This project was a massive undertaking by students at the Center, with help from UCLA students, that took over two years to complete.
The next building held a huge, multipurpose room with black walls, a green and brown floor, and various set pieces around the room, showing its prior use as a performance and community gathering space. As the tour group made their way around the room, taking in the dozens of larger-than-life portraits on the wall, painted by Toni Love. They were serenaded by violins and other string instruments from lessons happening around the Center as the WC group toured the Center. Hanging in a corner of the room was a distorted black, plastic tree, with bodies molded into it. This statue, titled Uprooted, was made by Charles Dickson, who contributed many works to the Center.
Next to the Dickson statue was an imposing model of a slave ship, donated by Debbie Allen. The floor of the ship creaked as you entered. You look around the dark, cramped space, but little light is provided by the deep red bulbs. Then, you notice there are more people in the tight space than you thought; in addition to guests, the ship is filled with casts of enchained bodies, some of which were molded based on students of the Center. Stepping off the ship, you then enter a prison tower. Here is just one experience moving through historic modes of oppression that are displayed at the Center.
The tour was then led into a long, wide hallway with turf carpet and sand on either side of the walkway that was absolutely filled with props from wheelbarrows, to cars, and even a small house with a neon sign. The diorama started in post civil-war Reconstruction and ended in the Civil Rights era with a diner meant to replicate those iconic sites of protest. This final setting was referred to as the “Countdown to Eternity,” and transitioned into the next room, the “Hall of Shame.” The latter room was brightly-lit, with lots of small pedestals and posters on the wall showcasing the countless racist depictions of Black people that have infected American popular culture. This included toys, cook, advertisements, and other household products, like the now-discontinued Aunt Jemima syrup bottle.
The room extended and included more dioramas of a jail cell, a dining room, and a church in which the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. was being portrayed. There were also hundreds of photos on the wall of historic Black leaders, especially members of the Black Panther Party. Another interesting feature of the room was the boardroom table, which has been used as a meeting space. In the middle of the table are busts of MLK, Gandhi, Ceasar Chavez, and another civil rights leader.
The next component of the Center was an art gallery, with a variety of paintings and sculptures, as well as more information about the history of Watts and community action. Adjacent to the gallery was a room with bright red walls, covered in tally marks, with a large planter on one wall. Though the room itself is a cool meeting space, the fascinating thing about seeing it this time was the production team working in there. They were filming a series that is tentatively titled 10 Days in Watts, and is being produced by KCET to run on PBS. They were on day nine of 15 for their filming, and had just finished filming Mudtown farms. Their documentary will be debuting in February of 2023.
After leaving the WCLAC Center, the group returned to the bus for a 15-minute ride, during which Fransisco Gomez, Associate Director of the Office of Equity & Inclusion and the Brotherhood Leadership Program, handed out snacks. After the brief ride through Watts, the group arrived at Crystal’s Soul Food Cafe, a vegan restaurant that knocked everyone’s socks off. Crystals was filled with so many plants that the small journey to our picnic-style table was like moving through a rainforest. That feeling was amplified by the warmth and humidity of the room, along with the mysterious smell of an unknown oil frying. When the food came, there was an overwhelming sense of anticipation as everyone had worked up an appetite. When the food came out there was a collective sigh of relief, as the food not only tasted great — but despite being vegan — even looked and tasted familiar. The conversation while waiting for the food had gotten very lively, but once the food arrived conversation ceased and focused entirely on the food.
The final stop on the Black Tour of L.A. was a surprise. Hidden inside the scifi-esque SoFi stadium is the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, an archive of African American historical artifacts from a history of Black creativity dating back to the 17th century. The museum felt like a modern art gallery in some ways and a five-star hotel in others, yet still like a typical Black history museum. As you walked through the space you witnessed a centuries long history of Black expression and embraces of freedom, but the space itself presented a very 21st century aesthetic.
As the tour group headed back to Whittier, it was clear that, everyone enjoyed themselves. As has been the case each year, the Black Tour of L.A. is a long, and maybe even tiring excursion. But, as a chance to connect with your peers and the greater community of L.A., it is unmatched by any other events at Whittier College.
Featured Image Courtesy of The Office of Equity and Inclusion