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.
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.
This is a portrait from an overnight trip I made with my fabulous partner to Rancho Cordova, a small community outside of Sacramento. The area felt both rural and suburban, at the same time. I had the feeling it was mostly a community of 9-to-5 working folks, because the sidewalks were empty, and even the Starbucks was mostly deserted. It was nothing like San Francisco, where shops and cafes are full at all hours of the day.
Of the people I did encounter, few of them were Black, and so I felt compelled to draw at least a couple of the Black people I did see. I started my day at Brookfield’s, the kind of classic, old school family restaurants that attracts classic, old school patrons.
These old gentlemen were hanging out in front of a West Oakland barbershop , commenting to each other on everyone who passed by.
Spotted through the front window, the Hive Cafe, Oakland, CA.
Hive Cafe, Oakland, California.
This is another portrait from my June 2015 SoleSpace opening. This gentleman and his wife attended my artist’s talk, and they purchased several prints. His wife is also an artist. Look for her in my next series of portraits. I’ll be sharing a little more about that as I move toward drawing #1001.
Waiting in the ticket line at the Brooklyn Museum, April 2015.
Laurel Bookstore, downtown Oakland.
It’s time to talk about Black people and aging. About 10 years ago, a white woman approached me at a party and, after asking me my age, explained to me that she could never tell how old Black people were; so, she was reluctant to guess my age, for fear of insulting me.
It’s a running joke among both Black and non-Black folks alike that people of African descent age much more slowly than their white counterparts. I have frequently co-signed this belief, often quote the familiar adage that, “Black don’t crack.”
When I really think about it, though, I’m not sure if it’s that Black people age more slowly than white folks or that most Americans–including an awful lot of us Black folks–see so many more white people than Black people (in real life, on TV, in movies, et cetera), that our ideas about what a certain age should look like are based on using white people’s aging patterns as a baseline.
Something about that makes me a little sad–and a little ashamed. When I marvel at how “young” one or another Black middle-aged or old person looks, am simply confirming that I am so immersed in the whiteness of this nation that I can’t even correctly guess Black people’s ages anymore? I sure hope not.
Still, though, I have to tell you that the brother in this drawing–who I know to be at least 80 years old–looked really good for his age. My barber pointed him out to me, telling me that he didn’t know how old this man was, but that the man’s son was in his sixties; and he didn’t have any gray hair.
Black don’t crack.