The day I arrived in Los Angeles, I was the Mixed blood Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz with dreams of being a writer. I’d just graduated high school and before my country Kalamazoo dust, a soft, filmy sheen, was lost from my face, I was caught up in an act that transformed my identity: one of the biggest L.A. earthquakes hit. I write about this in my memoir, Black Indian, but that afternoon, October 17, 1987, I stood in the tremoring doorway of my Beverly Hills hotel thinking, “Welcome to L.A., kid.” But I wasn’t afraid.
I recognized the nature of things shifting.
I didn’t run.
And thereafter my L.A. unfolded like this at every step, in a series of clandestine encounters with the landscape, people, music, indigenous ceremonies, with poets, and of course, the Pacific Ocean, the place that became my touchstone over the years which I always returned to for her salty kiss.
Once overwhelming, I quickly adapted to L.A.’s rich plethora of races, ethnicities and nationalities: the Indigenous American Indians and Mexicans; African Americans with deep migration roots in South Central, Pasadena and the Inland Empire; hard-working White, African, West Indian and Asian immigrants who came for education, for survival, for love, for a better life or to make money to send to their families back home. As a writer for the LA Weekly, I met celebrities on red carpets. Living in Inglewood, I rode the bus with unsheltered people. I inadvertently hung out with gang bangers before I knew what that word meant because they played basketball at a park where I walked at night because I missed Kalamazoo. The gloss and grit of L.A., the crippling traffic, gunshots in the dark night, the poets, musicians and artists of The World Stage Performance Gallery in Leimert Park, the mountains and deserts, my West L.A. College Ethiopian and Caribbean friends, the service worker marches that shut down major intersections, the gala affairs and museums, the Rodney King insurrection that ripped a hole in our universe, and of course, most recently COVID, that decimated and simultaneously forced us to see each other, all created my emotional, spiritual, mental and artistic landscape.
My poem I transformed into a short film, We Are All Angels, written in isolation during the COVID shutdown, attempts to capture all of the above. It represents my transplant journey to Los Angeles, my growth and maturation, my choices and interactions, and how I came to not simply love but long for the things that make this place its flawed, gorgeous, egregious, liminal, haunted, authentic self.
The first song I sing (and end the video with) is a song I wrote with the intention of causing inquiry and curiosity within the listener regarding my race, my ethnicity, my origins and my experiences as a Black woman, and as a Mixed blood (or multiracial person) in America. It's also an expression of what it means to be a creative, to be a poet, someone who gets to define themselves and their own identity with song and language.
The second song I sing is a Grass Dance song, one of many, which was traditionally sung by the American Indian Plains tribes when it's the gathering season or Pow Wow season. Grass Dancers, usually only men, would dance to this song to “beat down” or "clear a path" in the high grass for a summer season of gatherings. To my understanding, it's not a word song that belongs to one nation or tribe, yet it's an intonation song using syllables or vocables. I learned this song on my first drum, Four Rivers, and as a woman with the drum, I was given permission to sing this song by the Drumkeeper, Bob Jondreau, an Anishinaabe/Ojibwe elder and chief. Our nations still sing this song at Pow Wows, and other songs that represent our cultural practices, to keep these kinds of traditions alive. I sang this song before my poem as a tribute to California Indians, to show our overarching culture and to metaphorically "clear a path" for the poem itself.
This is my L.A.—I formed friendships here: I formed community here. I learned cultural practices, traditions and songs and history that informed and influenced my life and my work. I’ve done ceremony here. I’ve grown up here. No matter how many earthquakes tilted the earth beneath my feet, I did not run and I’m writing a second memoir to capture more of these experiences because that’s what I do—write to understand the shifting of things. Like all writers with novels, collections of poetry and memoirs-in-progress, definitely like Dorothy, I am still spinning, still weaving my life’s tale in this place, in this incredible city I call home.
Daughter of Mixed bloods, USC Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities Fellow and a Department of Cultural Affairs City of Los Angeles (COLA) Master Artist Fellow, Shonda Buchanan is the author of five books, including the award-winning memoir, Black Indian.
An award-winning poet, fiction, nonfiction writer and educator, Buchanan is the recipient of the Brody Arts Fellowship from the California Community Foundation, a Big Read grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, several Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grants, the Denise L. Scott and Frank Sullivan Awards and an Eloise Klein-Healy Scholarship. She is also a Sundance Institute Writing Arts fellow, a PEN Center Emerging Voices fellow and a Jentel Artist Residency fellow. Finalist for the 2021 Mississippi Review poetry contest, her memoir, Black Indian, won the 2020 Indie New Generation Book Award and was chosen by PBS NewsHour as a "top 20 books to read" to learn about institutional racism. Black Indian begins the saga of her family’s migration stories of Free People of Color communities exploring identity, ethnicity, landscape and loss. Her first collection of poetry, Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? was nominated for the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the Library of Virginia Book Awards.
An educator and a journalist for over 25 years, Shonda has freelanced for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Indian Country Today, and The International Review of African American Art and she’s published in Urban Voices: 51 Poems from 51 American Poets, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, Art Meets Literature: An Undying Love Affair, Phati’tude Literary Magazine, Red Ink, Strange Cargo: An Emerging Voices Anthology, Step into a World: A Global Anthology of New Black Literature, Arise! Magazine, Def Jam Poetry’s Bum Rush the Page, Geography of Rage: Remembering the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and Rivendell.
Reviewer of poetry manuscripts for CavanKerry Press, literary editor of Harriet Tubman Press, Buchanan has served as a judge for multiple writing contests including the Library of Virginia’s Poetry Book Awards, North Carolina Arts Council Poetry Fellowship, the George Floyd Youth Justice Poetry Contest, the Amanda Gorman Youth Poetry Contest, the Virginia Commission for the Arts Fiction Contest, the Metrorail Public Art Project Poetry Contest and the Creative Writing Youth Contest for the College Language Association.
Former board member of the Poetry Society of Virginia and Hampton Roads Writers, and founding board member of the African American Alumni Association at Loyola Marymount University, Buchanan is the vice president of the Board of Trustees for Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center. A national and international lecturer and workshop leader, she received an M.F.A. from Antioch University and a M.A. and B.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University where she teaches. In addition to her work as a literary activist, a teaching artist and a mentor for young writers, she has taught at Hampton University, William & Mary College (writer-in-residence), California State Northridge and Mt. San Antonio College.
Descendant of African nations, the Coharie, Choctaw and Eastern Band Cherokee and Europeans, Shonda lives and writes in her adopted home on Tongva and Chumash land in Los Angeles, California. For more information, follow @shondabuchanan or contact her at email@example.com or visit shondabuchanan.com.
Artist Q & A
What does "For the Love of L.A." mean to you?
For me "For the Love of L.A." means loving all the visible and invisible scars, investing in making this a better place economically, spiritually, physically, socially, artistically, and appreciating our thousands of different cultures that exist on top of each other and next to each other. It means supporting music, the literary arts, the visual arts scene, our museums like The Broad, galleries, our libraries, hair shops, bookstores, community pools. Two new pools opened in District 8! Giving young Black and Brown kids a pool in a community that hasn't had one in over a decade is the epitome of "For the Love of L.A."
What do you think the future looks like? And how do you see the arts contributing to it?
Hopeful. I wake up every day grateful to live in L.A.—
despite the hardships, despite disparity and other lacks, I'm hopeful specifically because the arts are so incredibly vibrant here. This is what the future looks like to me: a place where every Angeleno, babies to senior citizens, gets to "do" art, engage artists, experience some form of art, take free writing workshops or painting or salsa workshops, etc., to increase and enhance their lives as community members.
How do you think the work you've created reflects the time we're in?
I honestly never know if what I'm doing is good enough to really get at the core of mixed-race politics, at racial inequity, or to address issues of educational disparities between the rich and impoverished people, or any of our social ills, but that's the beauty of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction and the arts across mediums—we get to make that earnest attempt every day.
What places in Los Angeles most inspire you?
I'm so inspired by Leimert Park, which is our African village full of artists, i.e., dancers, writers, filmmakers, etc. And Esowon Bookstore but definitely the World Stage Performance Gallery there which spawned generations of writers and musicians. Other places that inspire me are Beyond Baroque in Venice, as well as Tia Chucha Bookstore in Sylmar.
Do you have any future projects that you'd like to share with us?
I'm working on a second memoir to follow up my first, Black Indian. The second memoir will look at spirituality, ceremony and relationships.
What other projects do you have in the works right now?
I'm also working on a historical novel about the Black Indian experience in America and more locally I'm writing poems for a collection about Los Angeles' founding. My goal is to explore the struggles and triumphs of the indigenous people, the migrants and the founders of L.A. Can you imagine what their lives were like, these multi-racial folks, business owners, salon keepers and settlers in pre-California Indian removal and attempts at erasure, in pre-Emancipation America, to come together to construct a city? Such audacity. Such hubris. Such hope. I can see my characters stacking bricks to build Olvera Street as I write.