Standing in front of Gomes Tire and Auto, at the corner of International and 50th St., Oakland, CA.
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.
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.
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.
I crossed paths with this brother at Farmer Joe’s Market, where he was narrating his way through the produce section. He wasn’t talking to himself; he was sharing his opinion on the price, the quality, and the uses of all the fruits and vegetables with whoever seemed willing to listen. I smiled and nodded politely as he picked up a large red bell pepper and said to me, “Now that’s what I call a vegetable!” Around the corner, I saw him waving a bundle of lemongrass at an elderly couple, saying, ” This is good with everything. You wouldn’t think so, but it is.” As I moved into the dairy section, I could still hear him behind me, telling someone that he’d always thought cauliflower looked like brains.