Glorifying the Lion: Telling the Other Side of L.A.’s History

“Until the lion tells his side of the story, the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This African proverb, which I first encountered in the work of the esteemed Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic Chinua Achebe, is central to my approach as a historian and museum curator. I particularly try to keep it in mind whenever I am excavating, reclaiming, and recentering the local community’s perspectives and narratives about the history of Los Angeles and the American West.

As a public historian and scholar, I have spent a great deal of time spotlighting historical examples of the “lion” narrative. This is especially true when it comes to the methodological approach known as community curation. There are two notable examples from my own curatorial career. The first is “No Justice, No Peace: L.A. 1992,” a 2017 exhibition at the California African American Museum marking the 25th anniversary of the 1992 uprising. More recent is the “Collecting Community History Initiative: The West During COVID-19,” an initiative I led in 2020 at the Autry Museum of the American West.

The “No Justice, No Peace” exhibition looked not just at 1992 but revisited crucial episodes in Los Angeles and American history stretching back a full century. These pivotal moments included the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 as well as the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative achievements, which shaped African American expectations for equality in the 1960s only to be blunted by the reality of unequal housing practices and discrimination in the post-war decades. The exhibition also highlighted the unjust treatment and oppressive conditions created by law enforcement’s overwhelming presence in Black communities. These conditions set the stage for the worst civil rebellion the country had seen to date: the Watts Rebellion of 1965.

The exhibition looked closely at the legacy of Tom Bradley, who served from 1973 to 1993 as L.A.’s first Black mayor. During the middle years of Bradley’s tenure, communities of color in Los Angeles negotiated a tense relationship with law enforcement during the so-called War on Drugs overseen by the Reagan Administration. That tension, over time, became a compounding animosity towards law enforcement that seeped into the 1990s. The ultimate result, following the acquittal of the four officers who brutalized Rodney King, was the 1992 uprising.

Also displayed were powerful photographs, videos, historical documents, posters, flyers, and other ephemera. The most significant of these materials, rich in context and educational value, were drawn from the collections of the Los Angeles Public Library, the library at Cal State University Dominguez Hills, and the City Archives and Records Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Most important of all, the exhibition grew from consultations with community members alive during many of the historical periods in question, incorporating their oral histories and artifacts. We heard from the Reverend Chip Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church and the families of Latasha Harlins and Rodney King, among many others. This approach was specifically designed to reclaim the valuable historical narratives of African American community history in Los Angeles.

This is the kind of exhibition-making that we are referring to when we talk about community curation, a methodological approach that attempts to make museums and their collections more responsive to and inclusive of the diverse communities that surround them. It begins with the participation of communities of color seldom involved in the decision-making process in museums. It also works to center voices and perspectives that are traditionally not heard because of historical erasure.

In 2020, after joining the Autry Museum of the American West as the Associate Curator of Western History, I applied a similarly community-centered approach in working preserve a record of the COVID-19 pandemic, in what became the Collecting Community History Initiative (CCHI): The West During COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, my Autry colleagues and I noticed how quickly, and profoundly, COVID-19 was changing the daily lives of American citizens. Along with isolation came newfound resilience: we noted that despite being physically apart, communities persisted and flourished through creative forms of sharing, from oral histories online to family recipes and the creation of masks designed not just to keep their wearers safe but to reflect individual and community culture.

Since launching the CCHI, we have digitally collected hundreds of submissions spanning communities across the American West. We also broadened the initiative to include the Black Lives Matter Protests and electoral campaigns as they played out across the region in 2020. This allowed us to capture the momentum of the racial justice movement of the past year – led by activists on the ground after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others—and the historical significance of California’s first Black Senator, Kamala Harris, joining Joseph R. Biden’s ticket and ultimately becoming the nation’s first female, and first Black and South Asian, vice president. Incorporating these materials has allowed us to tell a more diverse and inclusive story of the American West.

These efforts have reminded me of one important lesson above all: that centering community history is a way of revealing the breadth of our democracy—and the glory of our community’s resilience and survival. Thus the lion may live to hear the story told from his point of view after all.