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.
When I first moved to Oakland, I would see groups of Black folks hanging out in front of the California Hotel. The California Hotel is a beautifully-designed historic hotel located on San Pablo Ave. Since the late 1980s, it has served as low-income housing for a largely Black clientele. The sidewalk in front of the California Hotel was a popular gathering place for residents and their friends and just about anyone else who wanted to get into some kind of impromptu conversation or transaction.
In the last few years, though, the sidewalk in front of the California Hotel has become a lot quieter. A lot of the street action that used to happen there has moved down to St. Andrews Park on the corner of San Pablo and 32nd. This is one of the smallest parks in the city of Oakland, but it’s also one of the busiest. It’s one of the most concentrated gatherings of homeless and economically marginalized Black folks in the city. Throughout the day, there is a steady stream of people from the park to the nearby convenient store and back to the park. There are also regular patrols of the area by the Oakland police.
This drawing kind of sums up the mood of a lot of people in the park. For many, hanging out there is better than being alone, but it’s difficult company in an even more difficult life. I am reminded of the the title of a 1978 short story by Lynn Schwartz. In 1985, the story would go on to become a novel of the same name. Either way though, her title, “Rough Strife,” seems to capture a lot of what I see when I drive past the park at San Pablo and 32nd.
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.
This is one of two kids I encountered during my last trip to the barber. I went to Butta Qutz on MacArthur instead of my usual Graham and Company. Both businesses have skilled barbers, but on the particular day I went to Butta Qutz, I had a spur-of-the-moment need for a cut, and I didn’t want to wait for an appointment.
This young man was sitting inside the barber shop, waiting for his friend. I have, however, chosen to depict him sitting out on the curb, since I couldn’t quite remember the layout of the inside of the shop (and I haven’t had time to go back in and look).
For my second 500 drawings I am interested in depicting those African American men that I have largely overlooked during my first 500 drawings. Among those constituencies that I am rarely depict are homeless Black men, which is kind of peculiar, because there are a number of homeless guys who I see and with whom I speak on a regular basis. This is one such person who I’ve run into a few times near the Safeway that’s across the street from the Fruitvale branch of the Oakland Public Library. We have exchanged hellos, but we’ve never actually had a conversation. I’ve never forgotten the way his too-thin frame accommodated a tucked-in sweater a bit too easily. The way the tongue of his belt hung down way past his pocket suggested that he was both dramatically underfed and dressed in the clothing of a much larger person. There is an unassuming dignity in the way he carries himself, and his gaze suggests that he’s seen more in his one lifetime than most people might encounter in three. I hope to print this drawing soon and to hand this gentleman a copy next time I’m in his area.