BY EMILY WILSON
In his sunny apartment near Lake Merritt, decorated with posters of Donna Summer and the Black Panther Party, Jerry Thompson is putting a Pointer Sisters album on the stereo. He still has three copies of That’s a Plenty, the record that changed his life. “Look how worn out it is,” he says.
When Thompson first heard the Oakland-based singers as a little boy in New Jersey, he decided to move here. In fact, he wanted to be Anita Pointer.
“To this day I put the music on and lose myself in the spirit and soul of these women,” he says. “They became like my sisters to me. As a very young kid I longed to live in a town where I could actually cross paths with them.”
When June Pointer died in 2005, Thompson felt like he’d lost a member of his family. He wanted to do something to honor her, so he decided to work on a project he’d been thinking about for a while—a book about the African-American musicians, painters, writers and dancers who have come out of Oakland or spent time here. Thompson asked visual artist Duane Deterville to help with the project. The two spent months going through records and photographs in the African American Museum and Library in downtown Oakland identifying artists to interview for their recently published book Black Artists in Oakland, just released by local history publisher Arcadia.
The book reads like a genealogy for the city’s black cultural history, a story that doesn’t end with, but leads to, the burgeoning renaissance of black artists in Oakland. The book celebrates what Thompson calls “an invisible force field” that nurtures creative work—be it art, music or dance—on the edges of a city that also struggles with crime and poverty.
Deterville is a military brat who grew up all over the world. When he came to Oakland to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts, he knew this was where he wanted to live and make art. Working on the book was his way to let people here know about all the talent in their backyard.
“Oakland is an African diasporic crossroads, and this is a special place where a lot of world-class artists come to visit,” he says. “Nina Simone came here at one point and James Baldwin had an apartment down by the Lake. I think that they come here because they can interact with world-class artists, artists of their caliber, but not have all the star glitz that you might have in L.A. or New York.”
Deterville says the city has always had different pockets of creativity: West Oakland with Slim Jenkins’ Nightclub and Esther’s Orbit Room; downtown with the historic Sweet’s Ballroom and black-owned Joyce Gordon Gallery; in the Lake Merritt area with the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, known for hosting master drummers and dancers.
“Oakland is very much a black community and that’s what’s built its richness over the years,” says Deterville. “There are all these people here who came from Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana and brought all these different cultural things with them, like their food and the different styles of music.”
Deterville points to writer, artist and musician Marcel Diallo as someone who is building a “renaissance” on Pine Street in West Oakland. Diallo has opened four new businesses in the area, known as the Lower Bottoms: a performance space called the Black New World; a botanica and African art gallery called Nganga Diallo’s House of Common Sense; a cafe called the Black Dot; and a collective art gallery called the Cornelia Bell Gallery.
Diallo, who lives at 9th and Wood, right around the corner from the Black New World, wants to rebuild a thriving cultural district here. Surrounded by the masks and sculptures at Nganga Diallo’s House of Common Sense, Diallo talks about how art can help rebuild community. If you try and organize in traditional ways, you can get a lot of backlash, he says, but artists are allowed to say what they want.
“If you just say, ‘Well, I’m just an artist. I’m just a poet with an opinion.’ A poet with an opinion can say anything he wants because he’s just a poet. He’s just rambling. We’re not politicians trying to win an election,” says Diallo. “We’re just out here as artists, forging new territory and doing what we want to do on our own terms.”
Diallo and people like him are creating cultural institutions that bring life back to the neighborhood, says Reginald Lockett, a writer and teacher at San Jose State. There are several pictures of Lockett in Black Artists in Oakland, both by himself and with the Word Wind Chorus, an ensemble of performing writers. Eating cinnamon toast and drinking coffee at the Black Dot Cafe, Lockett recalls growing up in this neighborhood, and hearing his mother’s stories about how the migration of African-American people moving from the rural South to the cities changed the area. He agrees with Deterville, saying it’s the mix of black cultures here that makes Oakland unique. “This [city] has a history and a culture and a legacy that is as great as say Harlem, South Side of Chicago, Atlanta,” he says. “West Oakland has made an impact.”
Like those other great American cities, Oakland has its own rhythm. Lockett says he hears a distinct language in West Oakland and he celebrates that in his poetry such as “West Oakland Archeology” in his latest book Random History Lessons.
“I’m not just influenced artistically by the city of Oakland. I’m inspired by it,” he says. “It inspires so much because you see so much beauty.”
Lockett remembers the area as vibrant, with black-owned businesses. Jazz and blues clubs lined 7th Street, near an office of the Union of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first black union. Lockett’s family went to church and did their shopping in the neighborhood, then watched the area decay. Sitting in this cafe, with the galleries and performance spaces right up the street, Lockett says these additions to the neighborhood give him hope.
“This is creating an oasis in the middle of all this violence and poverty,” he says.
A good example of an artist acting for her community is dancer Ruth Beckford. A picture of her, dancing, beads hanging to her waist, her arms open, the Oakland hills behind her, is on the cover of Black Artists is Oakland. Deterville thinks that picture perfectly captures the spirit of the book.
“The figure she is striking there is welcoming and elated and ecstatic,” he says. “It looks exactly like the title of the book, and it’s saying ‘Welcome, come on, take a look at this. This is really who we are.’”
Beckford has lived in her apartment near Lake Merritt for more than 40 years. It’s full of paintings she’s done, furniture she’s designed, and pillows she’s needlepointed. A jigsaw puzzle invitation from Oprah Winfrey for a party for Maya Angelou hangs in the hallway. There are pictures around the room of Beckford with celebrities such as Alfre Woodard and Loretta Devine, and a book of affirmations she wrote, Still Groovin, sits on the coffee table. Now 82 years old, Beckford uses a walker, but she still has perfect posture and a strong spirit. On her cap she wears a button that proclaims “All this and brains, too”—a gift given to her at the opening of an off-Broadway play she wrote in 1984 called ’Tis the Meaning of My Life.
Beckford, who began dancing at age three, was the first African-American member of the Orchesis Modern Dance Honor Society at the University of California, Berkeley, and founded the first recreational modern dance department in the United States at the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation in 1947. She taught there for the next 20 years, and she continues to run into her former students.
“I can go to a store today and they’ll come and say ‘You taught me when I was a little girl. I still stand up straight. I still keep my nails clean,’” she says. “My philosophy was I sucker ’em in through dance, but I’m teaching self-esteem, self-independence, and how to be free spirits.”
Along with being a dancer, teacher and author, Beckford appeared in the movies The Principal and America’s Dream. She says in Oakland, artists don’t have to fit into a mold.
“I think black artists are free to really explore and create here,” she says. “Where, say, in New York you’re either a jazz artist or you’re a this or a that. Here you can be whatever you want.”
People in Oakland have always had a lot of respect for art, Beckford says. She found that out when she started teaching dance at just 21 years old. Her family lived on what is now MacArthur Boulevard and they were a little apprehensive about her coming down to her classes at 4th and Peralta in West Oakland, an area where pimps and prostitutes hung out. It turned out they had nothing to worry about.
“I would leave my class at the New Century Center and walk up 7th Street to my next class. When I would come up the street all these guys and their women, they’d say, ‘Hey, here comes the dance lady! Can’t cuss now. Here comes the dance lady’ and they would just sort of part the waters and I would walk up 7th Street always feeling very safe and protected,” she says. “They respected that I came down there and taught their children and their sisters.”
For African people, Diallo says, there isn’t a separation between art and life. He thinks many of the sculptures in his gallery weren’t meant to be sitting in a museum.
He says the nails in the carved wooden minkisi (roughly translated from Kikongo as “things that do things”) served to seal treaties, prevent or cure illnesses and record oaths.
“You could look at each nail as a file or a deed of trust or a marriage certificate,” Diallo says.
This sense of artistic connection with the past is important, Deterville thinks, and part of the reason he wanted to work on the book is to acknowledge elder artists and grassroots artists who have had an effect not only on people here, but also on those in other countries.
A co-founder of the Sankofa Cultural Center in Oakland, Deterville says his Center has hosted an artist from Brazil, Vovó Antonia Carlos dos Santos, who said the style and culture of black Oakland in the ’70s was influential to black Brazilians.
“What art does for the community is it gives us a sense of continuity,” Deterville says. “Culture enriches people’s lives in a way that is intangible and ineffable.” Diallo agrees that art is vital for a community and can be transformative.
“That thing we call art imbues spirit,” he says. “It makes the ordinary extraordinary. It gives hope to the hopeless, brings beauty where the ugly is and allows us to get through traumatizing situations.”
Statues and sculptures sit outside Nganga Diallo’s House of Common Sense, and Diallo thinks they bring energy to the neighborhood. He has organized parades in West Oakland featuring both the New Orleans–based Hot 8 Brass Band as well as the Mardi Gras black Indians.
Asked about the future of black art in Oakland, Diallo says he would like to see artists look to their roots.
“We need to embrace ourselves and not be afraid to be black,” he says. “What’s important is blackness because where does light emerge? Light emerges from the darkness. What’s the universe when you close your eyes and you go to sleep? It’s the blackness.”
Oakland painter Donald Greene shares Diallo’s vision of a city flooded with sculpture, performance and music.
“I just always had a feeling that this is the place where my gift from God would take flight and possibly inspire others. This was my field to plow,” he says. “It’s fertile ground here. There’s some kind of Oaktown gravitational pull, I swear.”
Art can change your mood, motivate you, and brighten up drab urban areas, says Greene, a painter in his late sixties. In leather pants and silver bracelets that clink when he gestures, Greene sits next to the koi pond at the Oakland Museum, one of his favorite spots because it’s calming and serene. It’s wonderful, he says, to have turtles and birds and fish in the middle of the city.
“It’s a vital place to come and sit up on the wall and think and contemplate, make decisions, clear your head,” Greene says. “So you change your attitude and your behavior about whatever is sort of pounding you in the head at the time.”
That’s the way Greene feels about Oakland. Even with all the hustle and bustle, he finds peace here.
“It’s the country-ness of Oakland in an urban city setting,” he says. “I don’t care how modern Oakland gets, it still has that out-of-San Francisco, out-of-New York, out-of-L.A. feeling. Once you come home, you feel as though you’re on your ranch.”
For artist Woody Johnson, Oakland’s value is in its urban grit and metropolitan potential.
“You can see almost anything in terms of art,” he says. “There are down home, nitty-gritty self-educated artists here and a lot of highly educated artists, and the art here is ethnically influenced by everyone.”
Johnson, who is identified in Black Artists in Oakland as a “beloved educator, artist, sculptor and printmaker,” says artists come to Oakland for great weather, cheaper rent than San Francisco, and the possibility for an exchange of ideas.
He points to the proximity of universities in the East Bay and San Francisco and art schools like the California College of the Arts. “Plus there are people from everywhere. On any given day I can be on the BART train and hear five different languages,” says Johnson. “There’s a lot of new, innovative stuff coming out of here.”
Johnson, along with many of the artists in the book, has taught art to young people. Many say it is the responsibility of an artist to give back.
Thompson hopes the book, along with documenting what has happened in Oakland in the past, can inspire a new generation of artists here. He is planning to go into the schools with some of the artists featured in the book to give talks and workshops and let young people know that being an artist is within their grasp.
“We’re going to show these young kids that there is a history of folks who have gone the path and opened up some of these doors for them,” he says. “They don’t have to be afraid, nor do they have to wait for someone to say it’s OK to be an artist.”
Emily Wilson is a freelance radio and print reporter. She also teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.
Ode to Oakland: Reginald Lockett, a writer and teacher at San Jose State, is featured in the new book Black Artists in Oakland written by Jerry Thompson (center). Woody Johnson (right) is an Oakland sculptor, printmaker and educator who is also celebrated in the book, which punctures the myth of Oakland as dispirited and violence-torn. “Welcome, come on, take a look at this,” says author and artist Duane Deterville of the book. “This is really who we are.” Photo by Pat Mazzera.
Dancer Ruth Beckford, on the cover of Duane Deterville and Jerry Thompson’s book, is “welcoming and elated and ecstatic,” Deterville says.
Artistic imperative: Marcel Diallo, a West Oakland artist and gallery owner, and Duane Deterville, artist and author, stand by a Deterville drawing. Photo by Adeeba Deterville.
Still Groovin’: Now 82, dancer Ruth Beckford was the first black member of U.C. Berkeley’s Orchesis Modern Dance Honor Society. She later founded the nation’s first municipal modern dance program, in Oakland, where she taught for 20 years. Photo by Pat Mazzera.
Sharing the art: Artist Reginald Lockett signs Black Artists in Oakland for students at Oakland’s Westlake Middle School during the school’s literacy night. Photo by Pat Mazzera.