Oakland is a whole feeling. This is what I thought when my Bart train emerged from the other side and showed me the first sights of what used to be a mythical creature. It differs profoundly from San Francisco which is strange for a New Yorker like me. Like Manhattan, Bronx and Brooklyn are all very different boroughs yet through the city and even beyond there’s a NYC spirit, a pace, a mood that I’d expect to find in a place like the Bay Area. And I was surprised that it wasn’t there. Where San Francisco seems to exist as a city of cities, Oakland seemed like a big ass neighborhood of neighborhoods.
My main objective for going to Oakland was simply to see the city, to be in a city known for its Blackness, its place as a center of liberal Blackness, Blackness as a force in a region heavily interested in immersion and erasure. My first stop off the Bart took me to the African American museum and library 659 14th St, Oakland, CA . The entirety of the second floor was dedicated to Black history in the Bay area. There were sections devoted to a specific cultural facet or period. I was emotional when I saw the vast doll display , dolls from the early 20th century till about the 1980s or so. The dolls said so much about time you know. They belonged to someone, a small Black child who lived in say 1940 and to know that this doll was once cherished by someone who may be elderly or already departed. Time is fleeting . And it says a lot about Black people as parents and caretakers, people literally fleeing to stay alive, toiling under the worst conditions, lives full of trauma and they gave their kids toys and dolls to retain some form of childlike innocence and joy. The dolls were also impactful because there was a separate exhibit that focuses on the Doll Test of the 40s when sociologists went to a Black school and asked Black kids whether they preferred white dolls or black dolls. The findings were that overwhelmingly the Black kids chose the white doll over the black doll. They also equated negative stigma with the Black doll. If ever one wanted to understand white supremacy and the ongoing legacy of Racism in this country just ask the children. I left a note in the Reactions box in which I said it would be interesting to conduct such a study nowadays and to see what the findings would be.
The rest of the floor was just as memorable. Black folks have been in the Golden state since Spanish colonization. There is a history of waves of Black folks coming to the Bay Area especially during World War 2. But there is even a significant presence in the 19th century. Those who came West seemed to have an industrious air about themselves, there was bustling Black communities on both sides of the Bay but after World War 2 Oakland reigned supreme over San Francisco as a hub in the Bay Area for Black people. It made me proud to see the exhibits and reaffirms my position of history being such a fantastic source of inspiration. People struggling and surviving and thriving. The exhibit on the Black Panthers, my heroes, encouraged/ inspired me to find the site of the first place where the party was founded, 5624 Grove street which has now become 5624 Martin Luther King. I set out from the museum and walked through the streets of Oakland. Google Maps estimated it would be like a 50 minute walk just perfect for my forever wanting to walk self.
I was grateful for how much flatter Oakland was . At least the part that I seemed to be in. The working class blocks of vast architectural styles was peak Bay Area. It shares that deserted feeling California seems to have. Very few people walk around. Everyone drives. California’s tent city culture is out of control. And as I write that I realize how loaded of a statement that is , what it implies and that whole thing of not commenting on what you’re unable to fix. I guess it’s just jarring to walk through a city in one of the richest states and see people, so many people living in tents. I grew to understand when I’d approach an overpass to expect to see huddles of tents. I walked through feeling like an intruder and a kindred spirit at once. I too, was once homeless. People who live in those kinds of conditions are reminders to me that it can happen again and you never know where it can end up. It’s so easy to judge . That said I was reinvigorated on my walk when I stopped in Marcus Bookstore. The red, black and green and it being a bookstore commanded me to enter. To support . To get a feel of a place that is definitely on the endangered list. It is radical to exist in America as a center for learning for Black folks, for us and by us. I learned from the beautiful sistas that owned the shop , that the shop was 60 years old. I was so taken by that news. And I wanted so much to kiss that ground. I can’t even begin to imagine all the kernels of education and pride and enrichment that passed through those doors. That knowledge our people desperately need to survive this camp.
I continued up MLK till I reached 5624 and saw nothing. The space looked like a mini strip mall with some restaurant and other non descript buildings but nothing declaring that this was the site of the Baddest group to ever shake up these United States, the Black Panthers. I was incredulous by this find but then again it makes sense. Cause to commemorate the Panthers would be in their mind a glorification of their hate. Cause that’s how they frame Black pride and Black self love, hate of them. It’s why the rebuttal to Black Lives Matter is All lives Matter and why calls for accountability for cops begs the “What about Black on Black crime?. I rest my case exhaled in the moment and reflected on the legacy of The Panthers. It made me feel a bit more secure in my feeling in a hood that wasn’t mine , in a city and state where I’m a stranger. It was on this site all them years ago ,Black people stood up and said : We’re people too. I continued up MLK into Berkley, did not know they bled into each other where I caught the Path train to downtown Oakland and stopped at the Original Chicken and waffle house. I got an order to go and went to the Ferry back to San Francisco. Oakland as the antidote , the rebuttal , the glue of the Bay Area. The whole region gleams with beauty and profound ugly as well. Those were my thoughts as I left Oakland and sailed to San Francisco.