Editor’s Note: This story is part of The Times’ Behold special photo project, which shines a spotlight on Black LA through images and her own words in honor of Juneteenth. To view the entire project, visit latimes.com/behold
Pastor Michael T. Fisher recalls the first time he felt seen in the mainstream media.
The year was 2012, and his beloved Greater Zion Church Family youth pastor, Oscar Duncan, had just been shot dead while trying to speak to a gang member in Venice. Fisher recalls asking the Santa Monica Police Department to further investigate the murder and reaching out to the media to break the story.
Accustomed to his calls falling on deaf ears, editors and reporters deemed his tireless work to elevate Compton too trivial to single out. But suddenly, after a black life ended in senseless murder, they found the time to pick up the phone.
“That was 10 years of mine in the game doing so many positive things for the city of Compton,” Fisher said. “I remember asking the news agencies to come and report on what we are doing for the children. But the only time they reacted was if it was something negative.”
“I remember preparing to be bitter about it and say that’s why I don’t mess with you guys,” he continued. “But I said no, let them keep coming out and if I have enough influence I will create a big enough platform and get them to report the positive things. And in the end that is exactly what happened.”
However, Fisher’s story isn’t unique — and that’s part of the problem. Among other problems, this reduced and heavily filtered picture of black life in Los Angeles has left many feeling unseen and underappreciated in many areas in and around the city they call home.
“When I come to Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Signal Hill, Orange County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County — and I name all of those on purpose — it’s so unfortunate that white America can say we’ve come this far.” long way, but when I go to those cities, they tell me I shouldn’t be there,” Fisher said. “I don’t feel accepted in many of the areas I mentioned. They want so badly to ask, ‘How did you get up here?’ ”
Jacket Rashad, a barber at Brimberry Barber and Beauty Salon in Leimert Park, has similar stories. He recalls spending nine months in solitary confinement in an Ohio jail and reappearing in 2001 to hear he was being transferred to Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, he’d gotten off the plane at LAX, his body in a new place, but his mind still stuck in that hole.
For a while life was a blur; After regaining his freedom, he battled homelessness and heartache in search of his niche. Caught in a mental rut without the stability to ground himself, he slipped into “invisibility” despite best efforts to work his way up and provide for his children.
“If you’re a black person, with a kind of decency about yourself — you speak well, you dress decently — no one judges you,” Rashad said. “But you become invisible when you have mental health issues like I have. I suffer from severe bipolar disorder. I got help, but I became invisible in this society because I didn’t show myself the way society wanted me to look. Dirty, musty, crusty looking… I was ignored and I ended up getting tired of my mental toughness.”
Fisher and Rashad don’t blame the media entirely for this incomplete picture of Black LA, but they agree it plays an outsized role. It’s also affected them in different ways — for Rashad, the constant barrage of images depicting crime and violence has damaged his own self-image, while Fisher has found that negative media coverage makes it harder for non-black people to understand him to see as humans.
“They have at least 80% to do with how we’re portrayed,” Fisher said. “Every time they choose to call someone from south LA a thug, every time they choose to describe the ‘angry black man or woman,’ or portray us as animals and attackers, that becomes a stereotype maintain. Every time they throw crime into Compton’s backyard, where it literally happened in unincorporated Los Angeles, it adds to the Compton cliché.”
For Honey Blu, an artist and barista at Hot and Cool Cafe, expecting the media to fully cover Black LA’s depth is a futile effort. Raised between Long Beach and South-Central, she rooted herself in the language of the resistance and found her place while attending Renaissance High School for the Arts. During her junior year, she would bury herself in the library and read Autobiography of Assata Shakur and documentaries like “The black power mixtape.”
These days, she’s more interested in building the existing black-owned Los Angeles stores; like them Burning Spear newspaper (which she proofreads) than petitioning the mainstream media to publish every single story. Still, she is aware of the role mainstream media plays in shaping people’s perspective of Black LA, particularly those whose only gateway to that community might be through this filtered lens.
“I would always argue that the media could do a better job of portraying Black LA on a larger scale,” she said. “However, the goal is not to always rely on the media, but to use it to convey why black people and African people need to build their own media systems so that we have platforms where it’s easier to tell our own story .”
Lacking this large-scale visibility, Blu turned inward and sought out her own community to feel herself truly seen. While a student at El Camino College in 2019, she made frequent pilgrimages north to Pocket LA, an open mic in Culver City (before moving to Los Angeles) that gave aspiring artists a chance to perform in a place that feels like felt at home.
It wasn’t easy at first. But over time she opened up in the presence of like-minded artists – she not only saw herself, but felt free to express herself and her art in a space deliberately designed to be safe.
“At the time, I had a little bit of social anxiety, and in that place, I challenged myself to get out of my comfort zone and overcome that anxiety,” Blu said. “I would go alone because I felt so seen and so open.”
This idea of intentionality also plays a big part in how Natasha Smith feels seen. A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia, Smith has always had a fascination with the water and has been taking biweekly trips to the ocean since she was 5 years old. Growing up she had many friends who surfed but said they never took up the invitation to paddle alongside them unless she was interested or able.
It wasn’t until she visited California on a business trip that she first took classes, and while she wasn’t an instant prodigy, she fell in love with it. Eventually she moved to LA and lived in her van, finding that while the water wasn’t always the friendliest for black people, groups like the Ebony Beach Club provide the necessary visibility.
“One of the reasons we have these warm feelings is because there’s safety in numbers,” she said. “So if we get these bribes together and get everyone on the beach, then the beach feels warm too.”
For Rashad, however, that warmth always comes from Leimert Park. Even when he didn’t feel welcome in the Los Angeles area, he found solace in the village and made the connections that helped him pick up the pieces and find his place in the city.
“I don’t feel like I need to go anywhere else in the world to experience that kind of magic,” he said. “Since the day I came here, I’ve always felt complete. I developed my musical talents, I brought my children here. I’ve seen adjustments in religion, I’ve had so many elders give me advice. I have acquired family.”
Rashad also recalls the first time he felt seen in Los Angeles.
“It was last year when I pulled up my boots to be a street barber,” he said. “It took 20 years, but it was worth it. I’m standing in a hair salon talking to the LA Times.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-06-19/for-many-black-angelenos-being-seen-is-still-half-the-fight For many Black Angelenos, being seen is still half the fight