If you go to the Peet’s Coffee on Fruitvale, right across from Farmer Joe’s Market, you will probably see this brother. You’ll see him holding court at a corner table, surrounded by people listening intently to his theories of hidden global networks and wide-reaching social change.
After noticing him for more than a year, I finally approached him and ask him if I could do a portrait. We didn’t speak for more than 10 minutes, but it was one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in a while.
The man in this drawing told me I should refer to him as American Sultan, Dr. Bey. Dr. Bey is an unrepentant conspiracy theorist. But while most conspiracy theorists I’ve encountered lean toward the negative, Dr. Bey has an optimistic vision to share. He believes that recent events—like the activism surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the changes in the Congress, and shifts in leadership and migration worldwide–are ushering in a new era of positive social transformation. In our relatively brief conversation, Dr. Bey told a tale that wove the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton, the waves of migrants leaving North Africa, and the leadership of Germany and France into a sweeping vision of a coming golden age; and he did all of this at a time when the most optimistic and progressive thinkers have lost all sense of hope.
Since I spoke with Dr. Bey, I’ve returned to Peet’s coffee several times. He’s always there, wearing his fez and surrounded by a diverse group of admirers. As curious as I am to hear his theory of the moment, I am usually in a hurry; and to really have the true Dr. Bey experience, you need to take your time.
This is a portrait of Bay Area African American artist Courageous. One of the most talented and prolific artists I’ve ever encountered, Courageous works in paint, sculpture, pencil, and even furniture making. It seems that every time I see one of his new works, it reveals another medium or subject in which he has achieved artistic excellence.
Check out his Mesart website for an overview of his work. Click through the portfolio pages, and linger for a while. The works on this site provide just a glimpse of Courageous’s range, but you’ll clearly see that this is an artist who embraces risk, who has carefully honed his technique, and whose love of Blackness knows no bounds.
Another attendee at a Comic Art Museum draw-in event held at the Museum of the African Diaspora.
An attendee at a Comic Art Museum draw-in event held at the Museum of the African Diaspora.
At Jim’s Coffee Shop, 2333 Lincoln Ave., Alameda, CA.
At Jim’s, early weekday mornings belong to old men. During breakfast, they fill the counter one at a time, and they file into the booths along the wall in small groups of two or three. Some of the men sit silently, speaking only to the servers, but some talk and laugh with each other.
Mornings at Jim’s are like happy hour for old men of the East Bay. Their breakfasts are long and leisurely, with plenty of refills on coffee and extra water for tea. They come early for the food and drinks, and stay late for the company.
I love doing portraits of the peopleI see at Oakland’s main post office. It’s one of those places where you can encounter a true cross-section of the Black residents of the city. This drawing was months in the making. I did the outline sketch in Decemer 2015; but I didn’t get around to adding color and a background until last week.
The man in this drawing was easily the tallest person in a long line customers that extended almost to the door; he was also, the most striking. He was under-dressed for the weather, in short sleeves and no jacket; and he handled the two large cardboard boxes he’d come to mail like they were nearly weightless. Among the rest of us tired-looking, box-lugging folks, he positively emanated energy and life.
In creating the drawings in this series, I’ve had to think a lot about male beauty, and especially Black male beauty. I’ve given a lot of thought to question of what makes a man beautiful, above and beyond physical qualities like symmetry or an impressive hairline (think Grey’s Anatomy). I think the Post Office patron in this drawing exemplified the substance of male beauty–confidence, effortlessness, energy, and comfort in your own skin.
Did I mention that I’ve spent the last several years trying to become an expert on Buffalo chicken wings? My path to achieving this involved setting out to eat Buffalo wings at 50 different restaurants. (Some time, this week or next, I will finally have achieved that goal.)
Becoming an expert on Buffalo wings means also becoming something of an expert on sports bars and sports-themed restaurants. I’ve eaten at sports bars and restaurants from coast to coast. Highlights include the Old Town Bar and Restaurant in Manhattan, NY; Champs in State College, PA; Ricky’s Sports Theater in San Leandro, CA; and High Tops in San Francisco.
While each of these restaurants is unique, High Tops is the newest the four, and it’s the only one that caters to a gay clientele. Located in the Castro Neighborhood of San Francisco, it has some of the best bar food I’ve ever eaten. It also has some of the most athletic-looking customers I’ve ever seen at a sports bar.
The man in this drawing stood out, not because he was any more or less muscular and well-groomed than the rest, but because he was Black, in a bar with relatively few Black people of any sex or gender. Then again, the Castro is a neighborhood with relatively few Black people of any sex or gender; but I always forget that, until I’m in the area.
This is the portrait of a sometimes homeless gentleman I saw outside the Piedmont Grocery, in Oakland, CA. He was try to sell his small pile of Street Sheet newspapers, but he wasn’t having much luck.
James Baldwin has an amazing quote about old black men, from his essay, “Letter from the South”:
An old black man in Atlanta looked into my eyes and directed me into my first segregated bus. His eyes seemed to say that what I was feeling he had been feeling, at much higher pressure, all his life. But my eyes would never see the hell his eyes had seen. And this hell was, simply, that he had never in his life owned anything, not his wife, not his house, not his child, which could not, at any instant, be taken from him by the power of white people. And for the rest of the time that I was in the South I watched the eyes of old black men.
I ran into the subject of this portrait at Dr. Comics and Mr. Games, on Piedmont Ave. We didn’t actually speak, but we passed each other several times in the aisles and acknowledged each other in the way that Black people do when they encounter each other in unexpected places (with a smile and “the nod“).
I didn’t know much about this fellow shopper, but I could see in his eyes an abiding hope and openness to possibility, tempered by an awareness of the kinds of hurts the world can visit upon young Black men. I’ve met young Black people in whose eyes there is the sadness, anger, and distrust that comes from having experienced those hurts first hand; but the young man in this picture appeared to have been, from the most part, sheltered from that level of bigotry. In his eyes there was both the hope he would never have to confront other people’s hatred of Black men and the fear of what might happen if he did.
Sweet Bar Cafe, Broadway, Oakland, CA.