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Book Review — SPACES OF CONFLICT, SOUNDS OF SOLIDARITY: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles

SPACES OF CONFLICT, SOUNDS OF SOLIDARITY: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles. By Gaye Theresa Johnson. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2013.

In this magnificently written and researched book, Gaye Theresa Johnson offers readers a much-needed alternative to dominant narratives of conflict and division between Black and Brown communities in Southern California. Johnson advances the concept of “spatial entitlement,” in order to render visible the often overlooked, everyday acts of resistance and survival through which African Americans and Mexican Americans have carved out meaningful spaces of congregation, creativity, and community in post–World War II Los Angeles. By spatial entitlement, Johnson refers to the ways in which “marginalized communities have created new collectives based not just upon eviction and exclusion from physical places, but also on new and imaginative uses of technology, creativity, and spaces” (x). With this concept in hand, the author offers a critical historiography covering roughly seventy years of Black-Brown relations in Los Angeles.

"In this magnificently written and researched book, Gaye Theresa Johnson offers readers a much-needed alternative to dominant narratives of conflict and division between Black and Brown communities in Southern California."

“In this magnificently written and researched book, Gaye Theresa Johnson offers readers a much-needed alternative to dominant narratives of conflict and division between Black and Brown communities in Southern California.”

The five chapters that make up the book focus on spatial struggles and cultural expressions in postwar Los Angeles as a window into how marginalized communities construct meaningful spaces of belonging. Importantly, the author does not get lost in the minutia of individual struggles, however significant and captivating they may be. Instead, Johnson tacks back and forth between specific cases and larger patterns and histories to reveal a shared cultural politics between Black and Brown communities. For example, in the first chapter Johnson examines 1930s and 1940s interracial alliances through the histories of two activists—Luisa Moreno and Charlotte Bass. This chapter offers much to our understanding of mid-century working-class and anti-racist activism by focusing on two significant, yet understudied activists. Johnson develops a gender and race analysis that is sorely missing in the existing literature as she convincingly argues that the leadership and politics enacted by Bass and Moreno laid the foundation for future Black and Brown coalitions—as well as the repression of interracial spaces in the 1940s and 1950s.

With this important history in mind, Johnson goes on to highlight how African American and Mexican American youth created “sonic spaces of mutual recognition” through the production and consumption of popular music. Johnson elaborates these connections through her discussion of interracial R&B groups in the 1950s and 1960s to more recent examples of Black and Brown punk and hip-hop. These discussions open up exciting questions for researchers interested in the connections between cultural production and social movements. For example: how, if at all, are the new collectives forged through shared sonic spaces mobilized politically? Similarly, how are the subjectivities of listeners impacted by these shared soundtracks? How does the notion of spatial entitlement complement that of cultural citizenship? How are the politics of the Black and Brown punks discussed in the book connected to a genealogy of third world internationalism?

Overall, Johnson’s scholarship contributes much to our understanding of postwar American history. As a point of clarification, however, it would be useful for the reader if the author explained how she is using Brown, Mexican, Mexican American, Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino since they are used seemingly interchangeably throughout the book. A brief discussion of how these labels are used would be helpful in orienting the reader, especially given their historical and political implications.

Ultimately, Johnson’s work is refreshing in that she rejects the sensationalist accounts of Black-Brown violence that often dominates mainstream media accounts of urban race relations, while at the same time avoiding the trap of romanticizing the complicated, multilayered histories of these communities in a Los Angeles characterized by deindustrialization, defunding of social services and public education, and White flight. The result is that Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity lays fertile ground for future scholarship by offering a rich and nuanced account of the shared struggles and victories of Black and Brown communities in Los Angeles.

Maurice Rafael Magaña                                                                                      University of California, Los Angeles

This review appears in print in AMSJ 53.4 (December 2014). Available digitally @ Project Muse.

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