I ran into this gentleman during a trip to the MacArthur Blvd Everett & Jones Barbecue restaurant. He was, to use the parlance of the New York drag ball scene, giving total college boy realness, at least in terms of his outfit. Age-wise, I have a feeling he was around fifty.
I was pretty clear that he was wearing the school colors of some institution (no one would wear that much purple and black for no reason); but I could not immediately bring the name of that school to mind. Instead, when I sat down to add color to this sketch, I decided to dress him in the colors of one of my favorite college teams, the University of Tennessee Volunteers.
Why do I love UT so much? Because the UT Press has published not one, but two of my academic books, Inventing Black Women (in 2007) and Before Harlem (in 2016).
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.
Wells Fargo Bank, Fruitvale Ave., Oakland, CA
At Peter’s Kettle Corn, MacArthur Blvd.
Based on the demographics of the people I see each time I go there,* I have no choice but to conclude that kettle corn is Black Oakland’s favorite snack.
Here’s another portrait from the opening of The Black Woman is God exhibition at SOMArts, in San Francisco. Did I mentioned that roughly 1000 of the best dressed young Black tastemakers in the Bay Area turned out for this event? In my white button-down and khaki’s I felt underdressed; but I was happy to be upstaged by beautiful Black people in amazing clothes.
This guy was one of the people in the audience at a panel discussion I participated in at the San Leandro Public Library. The topic was voting rights, and my fellow panelists were Ronald Moore, Board Member of the Alameda County Paul Robeson Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California; Penny Peck, Secretary of the League of Women Voters, Eden Area; and Donald Tamaki, an attorney at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco and former executive director of the Asian Law Caucus representing Asian Americans in civil rights and poverty law. This panel took place on September 8, nearly two months to the day before the recent presidential election. I don’t usually get a chance to speak at community events like this one, and I was impressed with both the turnout and the truly warm welcome we received. While the man in this drawing was not among the people who asked questions, I did notice him nodding and taking notes during each of the panelist’s introductory statements. That felt good, too. I’m a 19th-century African American literature specialist, not an expert on voting rights. So, it’s kind of amazing that anything I said might have ended up in somebody’s notebook.
SOMA district, San Francisco.
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.