Oakland Makes Everything Black, Blacker

Bobby Seale, chairman of the Black Panther Party, addresses a rally outside the party headquarters Aug. 13, 1971, in Oakland, Calif.
Photo: AP Photo
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.

There’s a spirit here that takes anything and makes it blacker than it was before. Shit, after you read this, you’re going to be blacker, too.

Oakland, Calif., took the wheel and made the first black motorcycle club, The East Bay Dragons. Oakland took the book and made a home for the longest standing black-owned bookstore in the nation, Marcus Books.

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Oakland even makes people blacker when they come here.

Have you ever heard the 1974 recording of Marvin Gaye at the Oakland Coliseum? That joint sounds blacker than anything he’s ever done. C’mon, have you heard Jamie Foxx’s 2002 standup special, I Might Need Security? That spirit took him back to Africa on stage and the audience went with him.

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It’s no wonder why Sen. Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign here a few weeks ago. She wanted to revisit her roots and get a fresh helping of this black-ass Oakland spirit.

That same divine ebony power once led a guy named Huey and another named Bobby, two kids from Oakland, to take the image of a black panther and use it as they saw fit. It’s like they said, “Hey, you SNCC folks down in Lowndes County, Ala., are using this image to register voters? Cool, well, we’re going to take it back to Oakland, register voters and some.”

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The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, formed in Oakland, Calif., in October 1966, was so black they fed the youth, provided transportation to the elderly, and worked to combat Sickle Cell in the hood by opening free clinics. They were so black they met with leaders from other countries, organized people in prison, and published their own newspaper. I said, they were so black they messed around and created a grade school where Maya Angelou, Richard Pryor and Coretta Scott King all came to speak to the children at one point or another.

J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI said, “The Black Panther Party, without question, represents the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”

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That black.

Actress Kellita Smith was a student at the Black Panther School. She’s seen here interviewing Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton:

Before the party’s reign concluded, they cemented their legacy in imagery that lives on to this day. Just this past weekend, the Guardian published a collection from photographer Pirkle Jones showing the black and white photos of elegant afros, sunglasses and fly leather jackets; further evidence that Oakland took the color black and made it blacker.

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So, yeah, I read the essays about the other very black places. Bless y’all hearts.

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But the BPP had chapters in just about every Chocolate City you could name. In total, they had chapters in over 30 cities domestically and had a presence in a handful of countries. Come on man, y’all talking about blackness and no one mentioned the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense?

A few of y’all even talked about Wakanda in y’all essays, but didn’t give a proper nod of acknowledgement to the one city they chose to visit, let alone give a tip of the cap to the director of the film, Ryan Coogler, who has roots in Oakland.

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Have you ever heard Coogler talk? Oakland takes the black English vernacular and makes is blacker.

We literally created Ebonics. In 1996, the Oakland School Board recognized Ebonics as a dialect of the English language. They had to. Track the etymology of the slang you speak, see how much leads back to the Town’s streets. And when you find the answer, don’t be a hater, because then you’ll further prove my point; seeing as “hater”—or “playa hater”—is a term The Luniz popularized on their 1995 album Operation Stackola (the same album that featured “I Got 5 on It”), which dropped two years before Biggie Smalls published his rendition of a song for the haters.

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Another rapper from East Oakland you might’ve heard of, Too $hort, he single-handedly took a five letter word and made misogyny blacker (for better or for worse). I mean, he’s also a cornerstone in the independent rap game, but that goes without saying.

Speaking of the rap game, there’s always that argument about where Tupac is from. Man, look, I’m just going to say this: The fictitious death of Brenda, of “Brenda’s Got a Baby” fame, was reported in the Oakland Tribune (check the video). Pac got beat by Oakland Police Department officers after being stopped for jaywalking—and he sued their asses for $10 million (he reportedly settled for $42,000). The kicker? Years later the mayor of Oakland would make Pac’s birthday Tupac Day in the Town.

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I mean, Pac, son of a Black Panther, notoriously got around (not even talking promiscuously, I mean, he just lived in hella different places), but he still once went on record and said, “I give all my love to Oakland, if I’ma claim somewhere, I’ma claim Oakland... everything I do, you can give it to Oakland.”

Makaveli knew the game: You gotta pay that black spirit back after it finds favor in you.

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Prior to Pac and the Panther Party, that black spirit was here when Alvin A. Coffey touched down in the 1840s. Coffey was an enslaved man who first came out to the golden state around the time gold was discovered. During his first trip to California, Coffey earned a bunch of money, but it all went to his master. But that allowed Coffey to see the game. After being sold to another master, Coffey made another trip to Cali—this time he earned enough to buy his own freedom, as well as the freedom of his wife and children too. He’d later become a member of the Society of California Pioneers, and his family eventually settled in Oakland.

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Coffey’s experience embodied a quote about American capitalism, taken from the great Oakland-based Afrikan philosopher, Marshawn Lynch: “I know I’m gon’ get got, but I’m gon’ get mine more than I get got, doe.”

That tenacity. That perseverance. That hustle. That black spirit is easily shown through our athletes.

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Beyond Dame Lillard, Andre Ward, Marcus Peters or even Gary Payton—who’s retired and still talking more shit than your uncle June Bug—we’ve got athletes. The list goes on, and on. You probably couldn’t understand how the list is this long. We must have super powers…

Have you ever seen the photo of street ball legend Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell dunking over a Chevy?

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Or the image of a young bat boy and dancer who got the nickname “Hammer”? You might’ve heard about how he took the name, made millions of dollars from hit songs, and was a hip-hop superstar before Drake, Nelly or Ja Rule. And then he boofed it all by paying for half of the Town to go on tour with him, only to be right back in the game a couple decades later, investing in tech companies and whatnot, and living well.

Black don’t crack, even when you break the bank.

Or here’s an even blacker photo for you: the image of the first black professional baseball player ever to appear on a trading card.

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In 1916, Jimmy Claxton appeared in a couple of games for the Oakland Oaks, a professional Pacific Coast League team (not Major League Baseball, but professional nonetheless). During this brief stint, there were photos taken by the Zeenut card company. Claxton, who was half-black, half-white and born in Canada, became the first person of African ancestry to appear on a pro baseball card. What makes it even better? In order to get on the team, Claxton reportedly told them he was part Native American. That lie didn’t last too long, and soon after the aforementioned photo was taken, Claxton was released from the team and they kicked his black ass out the league.

But Claxton was in the history books. Not only did he break the baseball color line decades before Jackie Robinson, he’s also one of the most profound cases of a black person lying about their Indian ancestry.

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But arguably the most notable example of Oakland taking some black and making it blacker, is Bill Russell. He was born in West Monroe, Louisiana, in 1934, which is pretty damn black. And then he moved to West Oakland, and he got hella black.

During the early 1950s, Russell was a classmate of future Major League Baseball player Vida Pinson, MLB great Frank Robinson (who recently passed), and the baseball player who kicked off this thing called free agency, Curt Flood. They were all students at McClymonds High School.

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I said, a valuable member of “The Big Red Machine,” the first African-American MLB manager, the guy who gave athletes the ability to negotiate their contracts and arguably the greatest NBA player ever (especially if we’re going by rings) were all buddies back in the day.

I can just picture them walking through West Oakland, sharing secret handshakes while dressed like the cats from Cooley High.

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And then, off the court, Russell, along with his former classmates, were all activists pushing for civil rights.

Bill Russell at McClymonds High School in Oakland
Photo: Pendarvis Harshaw
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Bill Russell is the blackest person from Oakland simply because when I introduced myself to him at McClymonds High School back in like 2013, he didn’t say his name back. Na, this dignified elder hit me with the OG quip:

“Did you catch him?” Mr. Russell asked me out of the blue.

“Who?” I replied.

“The guy who stole your razor,” he said, pointing at my long beard and laughing.

Oh, OK. Evidently Mark Curry isn’t the only comedian writing jokes out here.

Oh, we’ve got some heavy hitting writers from out here, too—ask current senior culture producer at The Undefeated, Danyel Smith. She’s an Oakland native who’ll let you know how she’s carrying on the tradition of Oakland writers who took the craft and made it blacker. Like Delilah Beasley, the first black woman to be published regularly in a major newspaper. Or Pearl Stewart, the first black woman to hold the title of editor of a major daily newspaper. And then there’s Jennie Prentiss, who was essentially Jack London’s nanny and mentor. Before he started hugging trees, running with wolves and writing great American novels, he was in the church with her. No doubt that he learned a thing or two about writing from her black spirit.

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When it comes to writing, we got the answers—ask Sway. He’s from the same hood I used to run through when I was just honing my craft.

Me talking to Sway Calloway at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Photo: Ayesha Walker/ YR Media
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According to Oakland’s Ishmael Reed, who was recently featured in the New Times’ Black Writers of Our Time project, “writing is fighting.”

And Oakland’s black writing spirit is fucking furious. Not just in print, but in a flurry of forms. That spirit is written in Tony, Toni, Tone’s hits, in En Vogue’s tunes, and in Sly and the Family Stones’ songs. You can feel that spirit in Lenny Williams’ high notes, and Shiela E.’s drum solos.

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It was written into the sketches, shows and songs that appeared on SoulBeat, the black owned entertainment TV station that premiered one year before BET launched.

Hell, it’s even written in places that aren’t as nearly entertaining, like law offices. Ask Rep. Barbara Lee how it feels to be the one elected official to have voted against the Iraq war.

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Regina Jackson, head of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, and Rep. Barbara Lee with a group of young men we took to China for two weeks back in 2014.
Photo: Pendarvis Harshaw

Or ask attorney John Burris about the cases he’s argued, especially that case for Oscar Grant. That was a case that brought Johannes Mehserle, a former officer of the local public transit system, jail time. It was the first time in California history an officer of the law was found guilty of manslaughter. And just last week, that same public transit system, BART, agreed that a street not too far from where Oscar Grant was murdered should be named in Grant’s honor.

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I can’t just give credit to Burris on that one—the Town’s people, the non-profit workers, the black religious institutions, and the homies in the hood kicked off the modern form of protesting police brutality and using social media to amplify the voices of the people in the street.

This town doesn’t back down when it comes to laws and regulations. Ever heard of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters? They were the first black union recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Although founded in Chicago by A. Philip Randolph, Oakland’s C.L. Dellums played a major part in ensuring African American Pullman porters got a fair shake.

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And Dellums’ nephew, former Congressman Ron Dellums, who passed last year, helped to push anti-apartheid legislation that eventually helped get Nelson Mandela out of prison. And when Mandela got out, guess where he visited?

The Town’s black spirit greeted him with open arms.


OK, here’s the wildest example of taking something and making it blacker…

In the late 1800s, there was this guy named William Shorey, he was a whaling captain. I said he was a fucking black whaling captain. He was born in Barbados but eventually settled in West Oakland, and somewhere in there he decided he wanted to hunt the biggest creatures that humans have ever seen. He fa’sho had that black spirit in him. Just look at this regal black family photo!

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The images of Oakland from years past—doesn’t matter if the photos are from the hyphy music era, the time period around the time of World War II, or even the 1970s when Oakland played host to the inaugural event for the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame—look closely at them, they’re all evidence that there’s a spirit here that takes something and makes it blacker.

And honestly, it’s hard to understand why this phenomenon occurs.

Maybe it’s because in order to get to Oakland, for many of us, our DNA traveled from Africa, through the Middle Passage, slavery, segregation, the continental railroad, the crack epidemic, and is now facing some of the most atrocious gentrification this country has seen.

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That’s why those photos are important. One day, Oakland’s black spirit, along with Oakland’s black people, might not be here.

It’s wild how Oakland’s cultural legacy is a driving factor in attracting people to come here. But many of the actual people who created that culture, who are a part of that legacy, can’t afford to stay here.

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In many ways, Oakland is just a snapshot of the story of the United States of America, but blacker.

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