Outside Black and White Liquors, near the Oakland-Emeryville border.
At the beginning of the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois observes that many of the white people he encounters long to ask him and other Black people one question: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
All over Oakland, I have encountered Black men who live a significant part of their lives on the street. Some are homeless, but a lot of these brothers hang out on the street because they have nowhere else to go during the day. For some, their living situation is awkward, uncomfortable, or unwelcoming; and for many, especially the previously incarcerated, it is nearly impossible to find work.
As I’ve moved through this series of drawings, I’ve begun to pay more attention to these brothers, and to really see them when I encounter them. More importantly, I watch how people watch them. I see most people looking through them or around them, though some react to them with fear and discomfort (if the passers by are not Black) or with simple disappointment (if they are Black).
My encounters with the brothers on the streets have had an interesting impact. 100 years after Du Bois first spoke about the curious circumstance of being perceived as a “problem,” I am not only reminded that his famous question still applies, but I am brought face-to-face with the uncomfortable truth that sometimes I, a Black person myself, am the one who is asking.