Black creativity dances through Oakland, California, like sunlight through stained glass. We all know Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film was part Wakanda, part Oakland. And we’re not Sorry to Bother You—rap artist and filmmaker Boots Riley’s film was one of the most acclaimed films of 2018. But in a city (or should we say the Town) where the homeless population is 68 percent Black, and gentrification and a wealthy tech industry have made affordable living space hard to find, then how do we keep our most innovative minds here? If Oakland is in the midst of a Black Artistic Renaissance, one fueled by local artists’ interest in technology, science, and science fiction (two Afro-futuristic legends, Ishmael Reed and Jewelle Gomez, live within 25 miles of Oakland), then how do we explore the future while preserving a historical legacy that includes the Black Panthers and social activism?
On Nov. 9, eight artists and writers whose work resounds throughout the city met at the Joyce Gordon Gallery for a conversation about the imagination, culture, and strategies for allowing speculative texts to engage real-world problems.
Roundtable participants included graphic novelist Alan Clark, author of In Search of the Black Panthers (Phantom Electrik, 2017); Jeneé Darden, journalist and author of When a Purple Rose Blooms (Nomadic Press, 2018); Michael James and Hally Bellah-Guther, AfroComicCon co-creators; Vernon Keeve, author of Southern Migrant Mixtape (Nomadic Press, 2018); Raina J. León, author of four books of poetry, including the award-winning Canticle of Idols (2008) and Boogeyman Dawn (Salmon Poetry, 2013); Dera R. Williams, co-author of Mother Wit: Stories of Mothers and Daughters (Mamm Productions, 2010) ; and Yodassa Williams, a writer and producer of the Black Girl Magic Files Storytelling podcast. Ishmael Reed, author of more than 20 books and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and Dr. Lonny Brooks, an associate professor at California State East Bay and Co-Principal Investigator for the Long Term and Futures Thinking in Education Project, joined us via email.
The Millions: Do you think Oakland is in the middle of a renaissance?
Ishmael Reed: I think that the trend among young Afro-futurist writers is exciting. Of course, I knew a lot of those people who are now icons, like Sun Ra. George Clinton bought the option to make a movie of my novel Mumbo Jumbo.
Dera Williams: I had this conversation with LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson [author and publisher of Where’s My Tiara]. We came to that conclusion—that there is a renaissance. A lot is happening art wise/literary wise with publishing, reading. This is our time. Back in the 1980s Oakland, there were Black writers and nonprofits, and some of those writers are still around. I always took for granted that there were a lot of creative people in Oakland.
Jeneé Darden: I do. I’m thinking of surrealism. I was born and raised here. It feels surreal because of gentrification. There is also homelessness… Oakland is experiencing part art renaissance, part dystopian Octavia Butler novel. So many new people moved here and are finding a voice here in Oakland. And it’s not perfect but that’s why people came to the Bay. There’s a real art boom. I’m a journalist. I cover this stuff. I cover change—I cover this surreal Octavia Butler science fiction novel.
TM: Ishmael, Dera, and Jeneé are long-term Oakland residents. Do people new to Oakland—who more recently started living or working here—feel the same way?
Raina León: I spend a lot of time walking around the Bay and thinking: where we will find refuge? How do we recognize we’re living in tumultuous times?
Butler was a prophet in so many ways. I have been in the Bay area for eight years and have organized readings and workshops throughout Oakland. I have definitely felt myself deeply connected for transformation. What does liberty look like for our communities? We’re part of an exciting but not unchallenging struggle for change—we recognize that dialogue isn’t always present. There is this power of renaissance, of artistic awakening. I recently talked with [poet] Tongo Eisen-Martin about building an art school for people of color. In the Bay, there are so many intersections and I’m really excited about the possibility of ideas and futures that can be realized.
Yodassa Williams: I moved here five years ago. My family is Jamaican. I grew up in Ohio and was alienated from my culture. I felt really set apart. I remember growing up and seeing Star Wars’s Lando and Oprah Winfrey and feeling like the love child of Lando and Oprah. [Joyous laughter.] I was raised in a rich storytelling culture. I wasn’t seeing that in the world around me… Moving here five years ago, I felt like it was a homecoming for something I had been looking at for a long time—creativity and entrepreneurialism and upfront conversations about race and discrimination. Oakland has always been a place for people to find opportunities to raise their voice. If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t have found my voice creatively… If there is a Renaissance, I came at the right time.
TM: Michael and Hally started the AfroComic Con, and Alan, you’re a graphic novelist.
Do you believe graphic arts and new media are part of the Oakland’s Renaissance?
Hally Bellah-Guther: We’ve had two AfroComic Cons, and we’re excited to be part of these endeavors. I was raised mostly in the area, and Oakland seemed desolate compared to now. But with the Art Murmur Movement, Sorry to Bother You—things are exploding with art and social movements. We started working on AfroComic Con and our mission is to help keep alive the beautiful things that are happening.
Michael James: I’m a long-time Oaklander, born and raised. I lived in East Oakland and went to school in Berkeley. It’s nice to see the Renaissance kind of explode with Art Murmur [which showcases Oakland’s arts galleries]. I hear people say, “I came here to express myself through art.” For me, it’s important to see Oakland’s photography, the storytelling, books, and movies made here about Oakland culture. My mom went to school with Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton and other Black Panthers, so I think it’s always been here—people have been telling their stories. With comic book festivals, kids didn’t see images of themselves and felt left out… Growing up, I also didn’t see images of myself. As creators, we do a lot on our own, and a lot has happened in 15 years.
Alan Clark: I’ve been looking at other renaissances in the past and came to these conclusions: Within our culture, we see past eras where a particular personality has been expressed: with Atlanta, it was the “Black Mecca,” D.C. has been called the “Chocolate City.” Each city has a different personality trait, and for Oakland, that personality trait is rebellion… I’m not from here (I lived in Atlanta) but I’ve been studying the Black Panthers and Black migration patterns. So I’m thinking about this term “renaissance”—what specific qualities made the Harlem Renaissance vibrant? The renaissance may be short-lived in the Bay Area because Proposition 10 was defeated and artists cannot afford to live here. If you can’t make something of market value, you cannot exist. And people will make you poor if you decide to challenge this. This is the question: How do we as a Black creative entity survive?
Vernon Keeve: I guess what I feel is hopeful we’re still in the Bay, though rent protections were voted down. I’m nervous about a renaissance—it’s going to take a lot more activism, with artists going to the streets fighting like we’ve never fought before… I’m also studying Great Migrations and the migrations of Black people. How do we tell stories and keep stories alive? I see the ways Black and Brown students get stories from parents and home culture. There are a lot of stories that need to be heard.
TM: People in Oakland seem particularly interested in Afro-futurism. Is it part of our renaissance?
Lonny Brooks: I and this renaissance reflect and share a dream—to ensure that long oppressed racial minority and diverse voices can articulate themselves in the futures imagined… It’s not the color of our skin that matters as much as the articulation and content of the varieties of cultural imaginations, along with the rainbow hues of our queer allies included.
Williams: Most of my art is dedicated to liberating and empowering the mind… For me, Afro-futurism is the hope for African culture to thrive and survive and be part of the future. We have to be able to be agents of change.
Bellah-Guther: Everything you just said is one of our projects with Afro-futurism. I consider myself as a supporter and an ally. We’re trying to make a community where everyone is stronger and not competitive against each other.
James: We want to make sure everyone has a voice. We want to share and make that happen. This is the only place where you can get this kind of diversity and inclusion. People have been asking us to take AfroComic Con here, to take it there, and people have been welcoming and creating new opportunities. We need the support of everyone. You feel support when you give support.
Darden: With Black Panther, there is a pain when the movie ends. With Wakanda, I wanted to be there. That movie can inspire people. You may see more Black scientists because of that film—that’s what happened with Star Trek. You can see the hope and the future and this can create change. It is creating change.
Keeve: My dad was in one of the first audiences for the Star Trek show. My father told me, “I went from watching Star Trek to seeing it actually happen.” You bring up what could happen because of Black Panther—if we keep writing the Afro-future, we keep having it.
Reed: I think that celebrity Afro-futurists should tour the country with Black astrophysicists and other scientists. The Jim Crow media would have you believe that the only careers open to Black kids are pimping and athletics.
León: We have to create in defiance of our disappearance. What does it look like for us to thrive? To be marvelous? It’s a kind of science, a kind of magic—a blending of the two. Our bodies are vessels for energy. When we write, we reach toward actualization.
Clark: Science fiction writer Octavia Butler does not get her recognition; we gave her dues and recognition too late. But her ideas were from a Black woman’s perspective. And most of what we appreciate of Afro-futurism is a white label of a Black presence in sci-fi. If the characters we applaud and who become part of the Black canon are the creations of white people, then Afro-futurism becomes an appropriation of white-extended thought. So we have nothing. Not even our own imaginations. And we can’t afford where we live… There are more people now than ever who think of themselves as creative. We need to make our own imaginative arts. And we can do better about connecting the Black art community.
TM: Do we have community here?
Keeve: We know some of the same people. I’ve been in the Oakland literary scene for years, with a reading series, and people actively participate. I think we should come up with a listserv that connects artists and writers of color. I want to tear down walls.
Williams: We can do more to connect Black artists, to write and learn about each other’s events.
Brooks: My colleague Ian Pollock and I created the Minority Reports as a model for forecasting Afro-futures. In our forecasting pedagogy, we ask students from marginalized working-class communities to reimagine their social, media and digital spaces into the year 2054—the imagined year for the film Minority Report.
TM: Any final thoughts about Oakland?
Darden: Oakland is not new! It has always been “in.” This place has been here since Stein said “there is no there there” in the 1930s.
Oakland Art Murmur Image: Flickr/Cathrine Lindblom Gunasekara