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‘Empire,’ Watts Riots are hot topics at Leimert Park Book Fair

BALDWIN HILLS — Thousands of avid readers crowded into the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Aug. 1 to celebrate the black community’s “literary legacy, heritage, words and stories” at the ninth annual Leimert Park Village Book Fair.

Highlights on the main stage included panel discussions on hip hop music, the 1965 Watts Riots, and the popular Fox TV drama “Empire.”

More than 200 emerging and established authors were on hand to discuss and promote their books, including science fantasy writer Leslie Ann Moore, poet Gerald Jones, L.A. Police Commissioner Paula Madison and novelists Gary Phillips and Attica Locke.

Acclaimed author-documentary filmmaker S. Pearl Sharp received a shout out from the podium as she sat in on a panel discussion.

Locke, author of the best-selling “The Cutting Season” and one of the writers for “Empire,” said the fair validates what black writers are doing.

“It’s a form of connection with other people and is very meaningful and successful,” she said.

Screenwriter and comic book creator Tony Puryear and his wife, actress Erika Alexander, pose for a picture for a fan at his booth at the Leimert Park Village Book Fair Aug. 3. (Photo by Cynthia Gibson)
Screenwriter and comic book creator Tony Puryear and his wife, actress Erika Alexander, pose for a picture for a fan at his booth at the Leimert Park Village Book Fair Aug. 3. (Photo by Cynthia Gibson)

Author and screenwriter Tananarive Due moderated the panel on “Empire, “calling it “the most creative work on TV. It took off like a rocket.”

“Empire” has broken viewership records, garnered an international audience, and defied the stereotype that the show would appeal to blacks only.

It explores African-American wealth, social class, family and sexuality and is considered groundbreaking, with award-winning African-American show-runner and director Shonda Rhimes and a team of accomplished black writers: Locke, Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, JaNeika and JaSheika James and Carlito Rodriguez.

Academy Award winner Lee Daniels is the co-creator, director and an executive producer of the show.

“It is a different perspective that’s never been seen on television,” JaNeika James said.

Haywood predicted that it will influence TV programming in the next three to five years with similar shows and programming.

“Hollywood’s attitude was ‘they can’t sell that,’ Haywood said, meaning shows with black casts or in which blacks played leading roles.  “‘Empire,’ ‘Scandal’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder’ are exceptions to that rule,” he added. “There would be no ‘Empire’ without Shonda Rhimes. She paved the way and made it possible.”

On the bridge overlooking Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, a panel of Watts natives and activists reflected on the 1965 Watts Riot.

Attorney J. Stanley Sanders described returning to Watts just in time to see it erupt in flames. He responded, in part, by co-founding the Watts Summer Festival, the oldest African-American cultural festival in the country.

Tim Watkins, president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, recalled a personal memory that opened his eyes to a new reality.

“On the day that the revolt broke out, we did not know what was going on, we just knew we needed to be safe and stay close to home,” Watkins said. “That evening, I was in my front yard with my parents. We heard the tires of a sheriff’s car screeching at the corner and a scream at a guy to put his hands against the wall. They frisked him. The officer took a few steps back, shot the man in the back, jumped in the car and screeched off. When I saw that, it changed my perception forever.

“I had always been taught to respect and trust law enforcement because in elementary school, they told us stories about the police finding lost children and helping people find their way home,” Watkins added.

“I am now 62 years old. … I see this happening over and over again. It is a lesson and a history of broken promises.”

The panel, moderated by Starlett Quarles, host of the local radio talk show “Dialogue,” also included historian, art collector and philanthropist Bernard Kinsey, Cal State Northridge professor Johnie Scott and Watts resident Dee Pitcher, whose father was shot during the riots.

Quarles questioned the panel on the current climate in which unarmed black men are being shot by police.

The panel agreed that the conditions in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere are similar to the situation in L.A. in 1992 and 1965.

Police brutality, unemployment, and socioeconomic conditions were cited as factors in the riots.

Scott said, “in so many ways, the situation mirrors what we see happening everyday, today. I am surprised, given what took place … 50 years ago, that we have not lit up today.”

Kinsey said, “We can look back, but we should be looking forward to what we are going to do to make our communities better.”

He suggested the larger community connect with one another to collectively solve problems and said President Barack Obama should issue an executive order demanding the nation’s police departments report use of force statistics by race.

Sanders recommended a three-year moratorium on enforcing all drug laws and reading the “New Jim Crow” as a prescription for change.

Scott suggested a revolution in the classroom to raise the poor reading and math skills of high school graduates.

Pitcher recommended erasing the stigma associated with Watts and restoring community pride.

A view from above of the lower level of the Leimert Park Village Book Fair at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Aug. 1 shows a variety of booths and displays that attracted hundreds of book lovers to the mall. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)
A view from above of the lower level of the Leimert Park Village Book Fair at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Aug. 1 shows a variety of booths and displays that attracted hundreds of book lovers to the mall. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)