Tag: African Americans


State of Being: Envisioning California

Lynell George

“I could remember everything about California, but I couldn’t feel it. I tried to get my mind to remember something I could feel about it, but it was no use. It was gone. All of it.”
—Richard Hallas from You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up1

Gold Underneath the Street 

For months now, I’ve been at the time-bending task of emptying out my family home, breaking down history as if it were a set.

It’s my childhood home, not the first, but the one we inhabited the longest. Moving through rooms, closets, and overstuffed drawers, I’ve unearthed all manner of lost treasures: pocket watches, maps, deeds to homes long razed. This house, I realize, became a nest—not just ours—but one made up of artifacts of generations of family members: Bibles and Sunday hats, old wallets still filled with gasoline “Charg-a-Plates” and oxidized pocket change, a cache of antique cameras still spooled with film, and a river of photographs documenting their journey west.

A few weeks back, making my way through the old kitchen, I put my hand in the dark recesses of a cabinet stacked with crystal water goblets, luncheon plates, and not one but two ornate turkey platters to find the most fragile porcelain teacup and saucer—once white with scalloped edges, a hand-painted small cluster of oranges at center. Beneath the fruit, in plainspoken yet fine-brushstrokes, unscroll the letters “C-A-L-I-F-O-R-N-I-A.” Whose tiny cup was this? My grandmother’s? My great aunt? My mother’s? Who purchased this souvenir? Who thought to save it? To protect it? I wondered. How had it survived so long, so dusty and delicate?


Loved ones brought home souvenirs like this almost translucent cup, to place on their shelves among their finest. To think that this memento perhaps made two journeys, from here to home and then here again. Was it a memento or a goal—or both?

Strange, it now seems in reflection, but my first understanding of California—the California of my mind—the one summoned most vividly in words, music, or visual artifacts—was the product of those who arrived from elsewhere. My African American forebears were pulled to this place by a myriad of desires—opportunity, weather, freedom, peace of mind. I lived in their myth. My personal narrative of—and connection to—place begins with those circumstances that brought my family here; the inspiration—or kindling—was the California of their imagination.

I’ve shuffled those projections and fanned them out on the table of my memory. They fit easily alongside my pop-culture-influenced impressions of the West: those early twentieth-century slapstick comedies shot on streets dotted with palm and pepper trees; then too, the out-of-the-side-of-the-mouth voice-over assessments of the raw deal and busted dreams Los Angeles was sure to serve you. Add to it the disgruntled Bohemian’s longing—a restlessness for which the West, particularly the rugged Central and Northern Coast, might be the only antidote—all of these scenarios, often told through the prism of a transplant’s vision of the West (boomers and speculators and dreamers), East Coast by way of Europe, Midwest by way of the South—to the edge of the Earth’s last promise. That gossamer tenor sax of Stan Getz, bending like a breeze, the one that so many consider the signature of West Coast Cool School jazz, was just like my father, Pennsylvania-born.

I grew up on those shadows. Those slapstick shorts were filmed on the Culver City streets where I played. I read stacks of those hard-boiled paperbacks—Detective Marlowe and his descendants—that taught me not to trust Los Angeles even though I might yet become transfixed by it. I found myself pulled into the courtyards and avenues invoked by the California Scene painters—the bright astringent midday light and the fire skies that come as the sun slips away—and for all of my real frustrations with what Los Angeles has become, I am undeniably the daughter of noir and the jasmine-scented current of West Coast jazz.


What that means is that I early-on had to come to some sort of peace with what it is and what it’s not, both the fatalism and the optimism. How California is perceived by the native, what it looks like—beyond movies and postcards and books—is a process of combining. You move tiles around, understanding at all times that there may be, and often are, gaps.

It’s a hand-me-down coping mechanism. My migrant forebears had expectations; some of which were fulfilled: jobs and homes, secured. The region’s beauty was undeniable when they first landed here in the late 1940s. Even my blind great-grandmother, if asked, would extol, “It’s always beautiful here.” I wondered how that beauty must have registered inside her. Was it the happiness of her children? Was there something that coursed through her that didn’t need visual input? Some indescribable scent, the sun on her skin? I’ve found a photo of her in a prim dark blouse standing beneath a heavy, shaggy palm tree, her dark aviators shielding her ruined eyes, her smile, beatific.

My maternal forebears, Louisianans, came west and then split off. Half went north to the Bay Area, Oakland; the other bent south to Los Angeles—each to be near a busy railroad hub that brought my uncles the good fortune of hard but steady work as Pullman porters. How they perceived it, I could hear it in my Uncle Harvey’s voice, the way he sank into the word, the name itself like an incantation, “Cal-ee-forn-ya.” They all stretched out its music, made it their own: You know, baby, there was gold under the streets.

What my relatives ascertained in real time and experience is where the actual story begins—the great uncle who vanished (dead or missing, we never learned); restrictive housing covenants that dictated where you could rent or buy; circumscribed dreams. This “paradise,” by all accounts, held up only in its external natural promise—the weather, the flora, the vistas. The rest? It could be worked around.

And it was. The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.

That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet.

As I moved out of my teens and into my twenties, I understood that seam—this place—as negative space, that area between two visible knowns. It was a trick of perception, in a sense it became an empty room to fill. If what has been promised doesn’t exist, or what my forebears came to find fell short, then what did they encounter? What is it that we celebrate, what is that we think of as home?

my eyes capture the purple reach of hollywood’s hills
the gold eye of sun mounting the east
the gray anguished arms of avenue

i will never leave here
—Wanda Coleman, Prisoner of Los Angeles2

A handful of years ago, I taught a class about Los Angeles. It was part history, part literature, part writing workshop. My goal was to encourage students to shake free of old notions of Los Angeles and to begin to define the region for themselves. For one of the assignments, I gave them the task of thinking about what visual imagery helped define “place” for them. “If you close your eyes and think about Los Angeles, what is it you see?” I nudged them to think beyond cliché—which meant no beach parties, no red carpet fantasies—but what did the real LA they daily interacted with mean to them? What shape did it take? How did they know when they were “home”? Even by the end of the semester, after we had been thinking deeply about place, beyond spinner-rack postcards and episodes of TMZ celebrity stalking, they struggled mightily, to the point that some panicked. Resorting to late-night emails, eleventh-hour office visits, they would confess they had no ideas. No ideas beyond what they were fed—ocean, palm trees, Hollywood, like a prayer or mantra—a safe spot to land. Was it that they didn’t feel confident enough to call it for themselves? Or did the region still seem to be so amorphous that they still couldn’t corral feeling into words? “The most photographed but least remembered city in the world,” as Norman M. Klein has famously remarked about Los Angeles, but it was more. Even with all of the assignments and assistance, what struck me the most was how hard some of them fought it, the very thought of stepping out into it, describing and defining it for themselves.

This is not uncommon. What’s particularly maddening about trying to spin a more complex vision of Southern California, to move beyond the vast projected image, is that even when you attempt to do due diligence and deal honestly as you know it, there’s a battle.


A couple of summers ago a delegation of journalists appeared from far-flung places around the globe. Part of my job as the welcome crew was to move these reporters through spaces that told different stories about LA and California in general, that would leave a deeper afterimage. Not boosterism—we were pushing for something that was substantive, bold and true. When one of the journalists looked at the list of venues—museums, concert halls, house parties, and an evening of experimental theater—he balked, “Well, what about a film studio? Aren’t we going to tour a studio?” His disappointment was both palpable and infectious. He was in California; he wanted to see what was behind the curtain, and we wanted to draw his eye to what was in plain sight but often overlooked. He didn’t just resist, but bucked. His grown-man pouting made it clear: “Give me what I want of Los Angeles; then I’ll know I’ve been there.”

Come Hither

      I got the San Francisco blues
Bluer than heaven’s gate, mate,
      I got the San Francisco blues
Bluer than blue paint,
            I better move on home
            Sleep in
                  My golden
                  Dream again
36th Chorus from Book of Blues by Jack Kerouac3

I struggle with Los Angeles. My anger or disaffection sweeps through in waves. Sometimes it catches me unaware, but most often it’s fanned by evidence of the image overtaking the real. I moved away from Los Angeles in the mid-eighties. In certain ways, it was the younger version of the LA that that visiting journalist a couple summers ago was pushing to see. I myself had grown weary of the slickness—or the elevation of such. After college, I worked for a time in a bookstore trying to figure out if I wanted to go to graduate school, or write, or who knows what; but the interactions I was having on a daily basis with customers—junior film executives, agents, wannabe movers and shakers—effectively doused what was left of my affection of LA at the time. The sharp edges and crassness deeply fractured my constructed sense of home. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, post-1984 Summer Olympics, seemed to be in the middle of another transition, ceding old notions of itself—calling it “community redevelopment” and “urban renewal.” I watched the key elements that had made up my relatives’ West—pace, space, and a certain gentility—begin to vanish. I set my sights on something with some sort of heft and nap: Northern California. I wanted to go someplace where I could, I thought, reconnect with what brought my forebears west.

I was pulled by my first glimpses. Those early impressionistic snapshots of San Francisco came from visits to relatives’ homes or our family-foursome’s up-the-coast road trips. They also came from TV and books. Again, often an outsider’s perspective—either a Quinn Martin police procedural of the seventies (The Streets of San Francisco) and, of course, much later the Beat Generation’s rhapsodizing. The voices of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso spun around my head—these bards of the new California, all transplants, too.

I was very late to Kerouac. By high school, I’d meandered through On the Road and stalled—twice. But I’d been swept up by The Subterraneans (for which he swapped East Coast for West as the story’s backdrop so that Paradise Alley became “Heavenly Lane”) and then Big Sur—that rugged, unflinching coast that Kerouac described in such mournful detail, became rooted in my memory—became my own memories. The first drive I took north as an adult with a friend, in a convertible slithering up Highway 1, was about as mortifyingly cliché as it could come: My head full of a Massachusetts-born writer’s descriptions and the tenor sax moods of a Pennsylvanian as my soundtrack—it effectively set up the scene. When we arrived at Nepenthe famished and ready for lunch, I paused to first take in that startling edge-of-the-Earth view. The universe seemed to know what I needed as confirmation: Stan “The Sound” Getz was drifting through an old bossa nova over the surround-sound stereo.

Securing an address and actually living in the Bay was an entirely different matter, of course; I’d moved to the outer Sunset which often only offered three hours of sun and a dedicated fog so thick and constant that at first I thought was rain. It was an adjustment for my Angeleno-being—an entirely different perspective of California, a bit more curated and consequently, manageable.

I didn’t have a car for the first time since I’d earned my driver’s license as a teenager. Moving about without one was both disorienting and liberating. I found my way by bus or on foot, learning the city step-by-step, stop-by-stop. San Francisco trained my eye in a different way. I’d grown up in a sunny place where often I moved past details at thirty, forty, fifty miles an hour. A scene or tableau that would come into focus for a moment and then move away from you, a streak of color and smear of sound. Here I could see things close-up. The crumbling Victorians, the noir tap rooms, with their hints of dereliction or risk. Depending on the wind, I could catch scent of the sharp brininess of the Pacific, the blast urine in BART station, the aroma of scallions, garlic, and fish in late afternoons as I turned the corner in the Richmond.


In the years before corporate coffee was on every corner in the city, the ritual of the independent coffeehouse was already well established. Strong, heated, and often full-boil conversations about politics or city life were in animated display. The best ones were theater of their own. There was an urgency and liveliness, a particular sense of chance borne out of flow and accessibility that was, at the time, more difficult to come by in Los Angeles. One image that often returns: I had been making my way up a gentle incline in North Beach on Vallejo Street to stop in Caffe Trieste when the poet Gregory Corso thundered out of the front door and into the night, eyes blazing. I knew his face from the postcards in a rack at City Lights Bookstore and the photo inserts of the books of the era I’d been living in; the face was just more anguished, the hair gray, wild like filament. When my friend arrived to join me at a small window table, I made mention that she’d missed him by mere minutes. A man seated next to us lifted a piece of paper—a stained napkin—with some ink pen scribblings: “He was just diagramming a poem. You want this?”

Oh, yes. I did. This was what I wanted—for a time: a textured life to press between pages of a book, one that looked becoming in black-and-white photographs. I wanted to live in a place that didn’t just feel and look old, but protected its aged sacred places—the stories and characters that went along with them. What a city looked like, the noise and press and chaos of them, I finally began to put it together, was the patina of presence. It started with people: How they touched, shaped, and occupied space determined the nature of “home.”

Indoor/Outdoor Living

Since the beginning, the real California has been obscured by perception, or as historian Kevin Starr observed, “at times, it seemed to be imprisoned in a myth of itself.”And when so many have come to west to find themselves—or their next self—how does a place struggle out of all of that need and expectation? “The myth that has symbolized America for the rest of the world has found its true expression here,” historian Gwendolyn Wright wrote in her introduction to the 1984 reprint of The WPA Guide to California, noting little had happened in fifty years to dim that perception, “A desire for dramatic change is at the heart of California’s appeal.”5

Place then, our sense of it, is what suffers in the blind or selfish making and remaking. We build it up and tear it down. Shoehorn expectations, and in the endeavor truth takes a beating and essence becomes much more difficult to summon.

The California cities that own part of my heart—San Francisco and Los Angeles—are anything but static. The Los Angeles and Bay Area that my relatives set their sights on is long gone. Sometimes though, I happen into ghosts of it—if on a drive home, heading north toward the San Gabriels on a clear day and I see the shoulder-to-shoulder rise of land that demarks the Angeles National Forest, or the socked-in coast and wild weed and pampas grass near the Pacific just as I move out built San Francisco. I can still lose my composure in the presence of the beauty that I know both I and my forebears bore witness to, together across the bend of time. But these vignettes of paradise are flashes. If we’re lucky, we glimpse them daily on a bike ride home, or while lifting groceries out of the car. They are reminders. I suppose that’s why I’m much more interested in the paradises that Californians create for themselves than boosters’ or Hollywood’s evocations of them; the neighborhoods naturally give themselves over and find humane ways to coexist.

When I speak of “paradise,” I’m not referencing elaborate McMansions built to the very edge of property lines or elaborate six-foot-high retaining walls that obscure your (and our) collective sense of place. I’m speaking of a vision of personal beauty seeking connection/interaction—maybe it’s a folk art garden full of old baby doll heads, or shards of blue glass sunk next to broken china as part of a front-yard mosaic. Maybe it’s painting your house turquoise or maybe it’s a flock of plastic pink flamingos? It might be the Virgen de Guadalupe painted on a Quik-Mart’s tamarind walls next to floating bottles of Tide and rolls of Ariel. Maybe it’s a make-shift fortune-telling kiosk in the driveway. What does peace, freedom of expression, a chance to breathe and reevaluate look like from decade-to-decade across generations?

It’s still about “space” to my mind. Not just measurable space—those miles demarcated in freeway exits—but the room to ask and play out that What If: Who might you be if you intersected with the place that might allow you to wander that question to its logical, meaningful end.

California, the best of it, is what lives and prospers in a liminal, unnamed space—somewhere between dreams, disappointments, and recalibration. It’s harder to recognize, perhaps, because it’s messy. It might look like defeat, or it might feel unfinished—or still in motion.



Meanwhile, of late, I’ve been watching my city turn into glass and steel and observing what visually individualized it, receding into a fragment of memory. Another wave pushing through, dissolving and flattening. Long-time Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith used to say, “The real LA is invisible.” It’s only becoming more so. In a conscious way, I’ve been trying to save what’s left or, perhaps more accurately, trying to see it better. My ritual has been to move out on foot early mornings, camera in hand, to find my way back home. It was a portal I had to locate, imagery that announced, “I am here” or “SOS”—plainspoken, conversational, real.

Those personalized markings—the doll-head gardens, the turquoise houses—the impressions that we make on place, the stories we tell on a window sill, the detritus we arrange in alleys, the found mannequins waving from the bungalow roof, the poems we write in dust are the conversations of place; they are the visual fodder that find their way deep inside, that later evolve into a character in a book, a line in a short story, some key and singular evocation of place. Until then, for now, I pause, raise my camera, and take the frame.

Of Saints and Sanctuaries: A Snapshot

My San Francisco shuttle driver looked as if he’d stepped out of a nineties-era Hollywood adventure flick: barrel-chested, slicked-back hair, and ink-black wraparound shades. He was a man of few words—at first. Once he’d left off every fare but me, I noted a laminated placard, stuck in his cupholder: a Robert De Niro from Taxi Driver and the words “Saint Travis” inscribed above it.

Even before this discovery, I was tipped off that he would be a necessary source to mine. Instead of zipping us through the usual downtown entryway streets, I looked, up from checking messages to see that he was dragging us through the nether regions of the Tenderloin. Rows of blue tarp and trash-bag shanties and cardboard pallets lined the filthy sidewalks—hardly the exalted California Dream. I had to wonder: Was this shortcut meant to warn, school, or discourage? We rode in conspicuous silence.

Now, van emptied, I asked him about the placard. He said it was a gift from his girlfriend. “All the cabbies and shuttle drivers have all these saints hanging from mirrors and knobs. I’m not religious, but she thought I needed some sort of saint.”

What did Saint Travis ward off? I asked.

“It’s just gotten so crazy,” he speaks to me through the slash of rectangle of the rearview mirror, as we bump along toward my hotel in North Beach.

The traffic? I guessed.

“No, the people. I also drive a cab and I just got off of a long shift and these assholes with the ‘Take me to mumble mumble.’ They don’t know where they want to go. Or they’re drunk. Or both. Where doesn’t seem to be important. Then, once we settle on a place for me to drop them, they jump out of the cab before the destination, without paying. Assholes. I took the keys and threw them at my boss—‘NO MORE.’ I mean, I’ve trained as a Navy SEAL. This shit is worse.”

Place, of course, has changed too, certainly a reflection of the people who may not sweat certain details of destination. I could see it—or the absence of it—instantly: all this glass and steel and fewer tacky surfaces and the stories that go with them. I was struck by how much more like Los Angeles San Francisco appeared at first glimpse—south of Market particularly—with lofts and condos and sleek watering holes.

I met up with my friend Shelley, my old roommate from my grad school days there. I had merely a sketch of a plan. I wanted to locate what was still recognizable, what had stowed away. I wondered if that falling-down flat off Divisadero, where another friend once lived—with the warring turntables blasting punk and opera—still stood. Or if the bus still left you off in front of a vivid liquor store—always story in motion.

Shelly and I retraced our old routes, the streets, ones closer to the ocean in the Outer Sunset. I still saw the shoulder-to-shoulder pastel houses, but inevitably, with a modernized, streamlined version interrupting the lines. In a certain way, visually, you could eavesdrop on conversations that were going on via architecture. I wondered how long this unusual mix of ragtag, working-class, aspirational, and DIY will be this way along the Great Highway.

On my final morning, we stop for coffee at Caffe Trieste, the same spot where I’d watched Gregory Corso fly out into the night. With a clutch of gray-haired men in hats and scarves lingering out front, it felt hearteningly unchanged. Protected, ducking in, I glimpsed a poster on the window. It took the wind out of me. Its dominant feature was a black-and-white image of a young Giovani ‘Papa Gianni’ Giotta, Trieste’s founder. The text advertised an upcoming memorial for Papa Gianni, that Saturday. I stood silently before the picture, looking at him behind the old counter opening day in 1956. A bar where I’d lined up weekends and evenings for a perfect cappuccino: “The first cappuccino bar on the West Coast!” as the family had long touted it. I had become enough of a regular that they’d remembered my order. For years, long after I moved away, I’d return, queue up and watch the barista pull my espresso, place the brown cup and saucer before me. I didn’t have to say a word. This, too, was home.

Even with all the buzz of gentrification that has restitched parts of North Beach, I was struck by how much of the feel—and stories—remained alive in the crevices of this place. This wasn’t Italy; it was California as seen through the prism of his Italian youth. He was extending the line—possibility—himself with it. The cafe has been a meeting room for generations of artists, muckrakers, eccentrics, and tourists; but mostly, its role has been to lend support and succor to neighborhood, struggling, and/or working-class folks like Giotta, who himself had arrived from Italy with his family penniless and at loose ends. From a singing window-washer to a business owner, this cafe had saved him—and so many others. In certain ways, it is a monument to all of that—a sanctuary.

The sorrow I was feeling had settled somewhere deep. I was sorry I would miss the memorial, the arias that would be sung in his memory, the old neighborhood stories that would soar. Shelley and I lingered longer than we’d intended. I wanted to pause to take a few snapshots—details—to remember this moment, but I was at a loss. Not a cup or saucer. Not the jukebox full of arias. But what? We stopped next door at Trieste’s adjacent storefront, their coffee-roasting business, and struck up a conversation with the man behind that counter. He directed our gaze toward the window, another poster of beloved Giovanni Giotta. The whole block, it seemed, was heavy in mourning. “There’s a big thing this weekend,” he told us, his body seemed limp with grief. Then he pushed two postcards—souvenirs—across the counter toward us: a blurred multiple exposure of the Caffe Trieste’s interior—the roar of activity visible and Papa Gianni, a ghost, there again before me.

The man at the counter looked up over his glasses and into middle space, and then pronounced: “That’s all we have left of poor Papa Gianni.”

I don’t want to believe him. I can’t. Because what’s circling around us—dusty and delicate but enduring—tells me something else: Papa Gianni is in these walls, in that jukebox. He’s part of the feeling of that old North Beach. Those guys standing on the street corner, keeping the story moving, aloft; the woman with the kind smile who remembers your coffee; they’ll be ghosts too, soon enough. But this old wooden monument of risk, big love, of life and acceptance is what we have left. How would I frame this shot? This feeling? Because it’s quintessentially California. I realize now why it was so difficult to capture: because California moves through you. It is vigor and spirit. If we do it right, we leave our mark on hearts and in stories and souls.

If we’re lucky, it’s ongoing.
It’s how we work with it.


All photographs by Lynell George.

1 Richard Hallas, You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up (New York: Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1938; reprint, Seattle: Dark Coast Press, 2013).

2 Wanda Coleman, “Prisoner of Los Angeles (2),” in The Geography of Home: California’s Poetry of Place, Christopher Buckley and Gary Young, eds. (Berkeley: Heyday, 1993), 36.

3 Jack Kerouac, Book of Blues (New York: Penguin, 1995), 35.

4 Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Penguin Random House, 2005), xi.

5 The WPA Guide to California: The Federal Writers Guide to 1930s California (reprint, New York: Pantheon, 1984), xv.


Lynell George is a Los Angeles–based photographer, journalist, and essayist. She has written for KCET’s Artbound, Los Angeles Times, the L.A. Weekly, and she taught journalism at Loyola Marymount University. She is the author of No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday).


Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley: Capturing Berkeley’s Colorful Diversity

Lauren Kroiz


Berkeley—The City and its People by Romare Bearden. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In 1972, the black artist and writer Romare Bearden traveled from his home in New York to spend ten days in the capital of counterculture—Berkeley, California. He visited on an official commission from the city of Berkeley to create a new artwork for its City Council Chambers. The result was the monumental work Berkeley—The City and its People, which hung for decades until the extensive seismic trouble that plagues City Hall forced its removal to a storage facility. Painted in bright colors, featuring a rainbow and a series of Berkeley’s best-known sites, the complete mural is often read as a celebration of urban harmony. A detail of Bearden’s composition remains visible in Berkeley through the city’s logo, promoting Berkeley’s civic commitment to multiculturalism and diversity on municipal property from trashcans to buildings.1

Composed of photographs montaged together and with colored papers across seven panels, it is Bearden’s largest known work on paper.It is also the first civic commission undertaken by the artist and one of the rare works Bearden created of a place with which he had no biographical connection. Nevertheless, Berkeley—The City and Its People envisions the city’s tumultuous diversity in an irreducibly complex collage that was a product of its time, rather than the symbolic logo of harmony that is more familiar to city residents today.3

Berkeley has changed dramatically since Bearden’s visit. The percentage of Berkeley’s population identifying as black has dropped from almost 25 percent in 1970 to less than 10 percent in 2010. Perhaps this demographic shift, coupled with the full mural’s removal from public view, has made it difficult to remember that Bearden’s Berkeley originated in a moment of racially charged civic conflict.

The 1971 local elections in Berkeley that lead to Bearden’s commission followed more than two years of local battles, riots, and widespread conflict on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and across the city over Free Speech, the Vietnam War, Women’s Rights, and Third World Liberation, the latter championed especially by the Black Panther Party, headquartered in nearby Oakland. Earlier that year a group known as the April Coalition united a mostly white constituency of antiwar radicals with the Berkeley Black Caucus through a single central issue: community control of the police. This demand linked minority communities whose members felt targeted by and underrepresented in the police force with students and other citizens involved in the counterculture and draft-resistance movements who had experienced bloody confrontations with the police and National Guard, particularly during protests over People’s Park that began in 1969.

Two new black city council members D’Army Bailey and Ira Simmons—both civil rights lawyers from the South—took a radical stance for black self-determination. After taking his place on the City Council, Simmons joined the City’s Civic Arts Commission, whose members called for redecorating the City Council Chambers. They wanted to replace a wide-angle photograph of the city from the Berkeley Hills and reproductions of portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with “décor more relevant to all the citizens of present day Berkeley,” including a portrait of Frederick Douglass.4

At just the moment in the fall of 1971 when Berkeley’s art commission was searching for an artist to capture the city’s diversity, UCB’s art museum was hosting an exhibition of Bearden’s work. Organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual focused on Bearden’s early paintings (1940–1942) and his later collages (1964–1971), deliberately leaving aside the abstract paintings he made in the intervening years. The exhibition’s curator, Caroll Greene, praised the ways Bearden represented rituals of life in black America to convey a shared human emotion, especially his use of collage “to express his particular cultural heritage in a universal art.”The centerpiece of the exhibition was the mural-like painting The Block, a four-by-eighteen-foot collage of photographic enlargements with bright over-painting. The work was accompanied by a tape recording of actual Harlem street noises. The dense composition based on the street outside Bearden’s studio window in New York includes varied encounters of pedestrians on the sidewalk, created from collaged pieces of black-and-white photographs that run the horizontal length of the composition (children play, a person sleeps near a stoop, a funeral procession) and colored-paper storefronts (liquor store, funeral parlor, church, barbershop, grocery) stacked with apartments and interior domestic scenes that nearly fill the vertical expanse. A small crack of bright blue tops the composition, interrupted only by an otherworldly scene of spiritual Ascension on the left, rendered on a red ground. In The Block and in his collages more generally, Bearden collapsed the public and private spaces of African American life along with spiritual practices and encounters, suggesting the multiplicity of black experiences. Art historian Kobena Mercer argues Bearden’s shift to the medium of collage allowed the artist to “disclose an understanding of African American identity as something that has itself been ‘collaged’ by the vicissitudes of modern history.” Mercer’s thoughts echo author Ralph Ellison, who suggested in 1968 that Bearden’s method used “sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals” that could also characterize African American history.6

It was Berkeley Art Museum director Peter Selz who recommended Bearden to the city’s Civic Arts Commission. In the early 1970s, Selz had briefly formed a “Committee for Afro-American Art” composed of black artists living in Berkeley to advise the museum on acquisitions and exhibitions. The group consisted of three artists in their thirties: Raymond Saunders, then professor of art at California State University, Hayward; Russell T. Gordon, who taught in the UCB art department; and UCB master’s student David Bradford. Selz also arranged a matching grant with the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided half of Bearden’s $16,000 City Hall commission fee. Along with Selz’s committee, Bailey and Simmons backed the idea of commissioning a black artist to represent Berkeley. Promising a gallery in City Hall to show diverse local artists, the City Council voted unanimously to hire Bearden to represent Berkeley and its citizens.

However, even before Bearden’s mural was installed the progressive coalition had fallen apart, largely along racial lines. Bailey and Simmons clashed repeatedly with others on the council, particularly over the rights of women and students, and Bailey became the subject of an unprecedented and ultimately successful recall election. It was during this “stormy” time that Bearden visited Berkeley, at the invitation of Bailey and Simmons.


The Block by Romare Bearden. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Correspondence and local coverage of Bearden’s mural during the months between his visit in spring 1972 and the final work’s installation suggest divergent understandings of the artist’s intentions. In a letter to Bearden, councilmember Ira Simmons identified himself as both council delegate to the Civic Art Commission and a member of the Black Arts Committee. He praised the plan Bearden had sent, explaining “we as representatives of the Black community are thoroughly satisfied with your proposed sketch for the mural to be completed in the chambers of the Berkeley City Hall. We feel that you have adequately expressed Black people’s status and involvement in the Berkeley community.” However, Simmons warned, “Unfortunately, there is an element within the [Berkeley] community that would see fit to abridge this essential artist’s right, i.e. the right of freedom of expression. Many of these persons are motivated by racist and selfish interests.” He enclosed an article from the Berkeley Citizens United (BCU) Bulletin, a conservative monthly newsletter, to support his point.

Berkeley Citizens United expressed concerns about Bearden’s mural that suggest just how radical Berkeley’s choice of the black artist seemed in 1972. The periodical covered Bearden twice in that year, once in June soon after the artist’s visit and again in September. Both articles noted that the communist newspaper People’s Weekly World had celebrated the commission, praising the social concern demonstrated in Bearden’s art. The first conservative account noted Bearden’s visits to minority communities during his tour, omitting his wide-ranging travels across the University and in the affluent white neighborhoods of the Berkeley Hills, before announcing, “We shudder! Imagine the filth, the degradation of Telegraph Ave., immortalized in a mural that every person attending the City Council meetings would have to look at!”The second article, the one Simmons likely sent to Bearden, speculated “We can’t condemn the mural until it is finished, but from the descriptions of Bearden’s ‘specially relevant’ works, we fear that we may get a collage of Black Panthers waving clenched fists, filthy tent hovels at People’s Park, street revolutionaries tearing down the fence [at People’s Park], drug addicts lying stoned on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley Communists waving the Viet Cong flag, Berkeley barbarians rampaging through the streets, looting, smashing, burning.”The newsletter argued artwork should instead express a pleasant and timeless image of the city. Berkeley Citizens United praised the large photograph of Berkeley in the city council meeting room, calling implicitly for a view that distanced those attending council meetings from the disparate lived realities of the urban sphere.

When Bearden’s mural was finally unveiled, BCU never published a reaction to it, suggesting they found the final mural less distasteful than they had expected. Turning to examine Berkeley–The City and Its People, we can see that, rather than foreground the contemporary sites and symbols of dissent registered in Black Power, counterculture, and Third World liberation as BCU worried, Bearden represented Berkeley to its citizens by layering representations of people and landmarks, past and present, in photography, paint and colored papers. Bearden’s sprawling composition was intended to be viewed from a distance. Hanging on the chamber wall above and behind the city councilmembers, it presented a chaotic vision of the city’s diversity with the disjunctive medium of collage. With crisply cut, flatly layered photographs and colored fields (rather than items torn or folded, for example), the black-and-white ground of the photograph creates equivalences between persons and groups. For example, Ohlone Native Americans and early white settlers on bottom right suggest an early moment of intercultural contact, while just above them across center from right to left we find university graduates and football players whose identity is obscured by their turned backs. These groups are followed by a study circle of five collaged students, including the features of a white woman and man, a black man, and another two men of indeterminate ethnicity, and a white man. Next to this group, the heads of a racially diverse group of mostly female activists with open shouting mouths are interspersed with arms and hands raised in the various versions of a peace sign. Finally, masked and costumed participants in a Lunar New Year parade, give way to local religious leaders (including Buddhist and Catholic) and everyday citizens. As these examples demonstrate, Bearden’s composition alternates between constructing scenes that highlight the cooperation of individuals of various ethnic groups and denying easy or fixed identification in racial terms. Bursts of local color, such as red in the rose on far left, across faces in the center, and in flat shapes of graduation caps and stoles on the right, lead the eye back through the mural linking disparate places and individuals.

Like the indexical aerial photograph of Berkeley it replaced, Bearden’s mural depicts the city from the hills out toward the bay evading the visual mastery of a bird’s eye view and taking a more abstract relationship to geography and history. For example, the bay in the upper third includes a freighter, a sixteenth-century galleon flying a Spanish flag with a pasted white paper wake, a nineteenth-century brig topped by an American flag, and a cluster of recreational sailboats on the far right. These historical moments are punctuated by boldly colored designs: abstracted doves, a rainbow with a setting sun, and esoteric symbols including the half eye and circular design in center. Would viewers have understood or recognized all of Bearden’s references? The lower two-thirds of the composition have a density that transforms the university town of Berkeley into a densely packed locale like Bearden’s native Harlem, pictured in The Block. Identifying places and faces in the tumult might make those attending council meetings feel like experts on their community, while not recognizing others or seeing architecture and individuals newly constellated could encourage citizens to consider their involvement in the wider reaches of Berkeley. In the ruptures and odd collisions, they might see difference and varied viewpoints as constitutive of their community rather than threatening its harmony.

Berkeley residents remarked on the play between the “symbolic” and the “particular” facilitated by Bearden’s use of photography and collage. As one period newspaper reported “Photographs of real people are used to typify students, workers, teachers, and citizens. But the blown-up photographs of these real people have features from other faces collaged to them, so that individual noses and eyes find themselves on other faces.”10 Presenting a layered composition with specific geographic anchors, Bearden’s collage nonetheless performed the destabilizing work of collage on both individual and group identity.

Bearden’s mural for the city could be read—or misread—in varied ways. One newspaper noted the figure at the bottom center of the composition, a black woman holding a young boy, “probably alludes to the black poor in Berkeley, but her image is one of strength and determination, not sullenness or hopelessness.”11 Nothing about the woman’s image indicates class. She is collaged behind a photograph of the Niehaus Villa, an opulent Victorian landmark in southwestern Berkeley built in 1889 by a wealthy Prussian immigrant mill owner and located in the 1970s in a portion of the city predominately housing African American residents. The roofline of the home obstructs part of the woman’s cheek, but frames the direct stare of her eyes, a geographic and formal link suggestive of a layered, nuanced, and potentially ruptured relationships of past and present, race and place, class and power. Rather than the raised black fist, Vietcong flag, or any of the other symbols conservatives including Berkeley Citizens United had feared, Bearden’s mural remained open to varied understandings of the community’s “strength.”

This complex layering of potential meanings extends to the portion of the mural that became Berkeley’s logo, a section that Bearden described as the “four races of mankind and blueprint for a better world.”12 The city’s logo was created in the 1980s in order to “reflect the sexual and racial diversity” of the city in an easily reproducible image.13 Simplifying the design by eliminating the blueprint, the logo creates a static image that recalls early “science” that divided humanity into four essential races, usually hierarchized from white to black.14 However, the logo also has formal links with Soviet propaganda for international workers and 1960s decolonialization movements, for example the poster of Viktor Koretsky, which Bearden may or may not have seen directly. 15 These images circulated in Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Africa, as well as in the United States among the communist, socialist, and Third World movements that were present in New York (where Bearden likely encountered them) and in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The layered profiles in Bearden’s mural offer multiple readings of race relations, but his inclusion of the blueprint suggest an ongoing process. This vision of the hard work of achieving equitable diversity has been effaced in the city’s static logo.


This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), suggesting that human beings can be separated into four major groups.

A 1972 letter from the Arts Commission to Bearden celebrated his sketch for its “apparent contradiction.” The work, they remarked, achieved “a very happy feeling…in spite of the strife which it indicates and which is so much a part of Berkeley.” This optimistic tone in the face of conflict could have a “unifying influence” by helping all who attend city meetings “feel that it is worthwhile being a Berkeley citizen in spite of or because of this strife.”16 This letter makes clear that, despite the rainbow-colored harmony of Bearden’s mural visible at first glance, Berkeley was historically marked by dissention and civic chaos. By the time the work was installed in Berkeley’s City Hall, Bailey, who had been instrumental in bringing Bearden to Berkeley, had been recalled from office. Although the National Bar Association among others opposed the special recall election in August 1973, the vote forced Bailey (and two years later Simmons) out of Berkeley politics.17 In retrospect, the aesthetics of Bearden’s collage were uniquely suited to represent the breaks, ruptures, and hopeful strife of the profoundly contested landscape of the city.

Bearden ignored the one suggestion offered by the Arts Commission. They urged the artist to reduce the number of local sites in the mural to achieve the “simple forcefulness” that characterized his images of Harlem. They suggested that he might have misunderstood his commission to require that “so many of Berkeley’s features need to be incorporated.” Bearden persisted with including sites and many types of people from across the city, rather than reducing his image to focus on the city’s black neighborhood, on a single street as in The Block, or one unified scene. Rather than see the chaotic composition as a series of clichés about a California city inventoried by a New York artist to satisfy locals, Bearden’s disregard of the suggestion to simplify underscores the intriguing, productive ways Berkeley differs from his prior work. Bearden’s characteristic depictions of African American experience that stirred universal emotion gives way in Berkeley to an even messier picture of an entire diverse city, rendered with the ruptures and breaks of collage. The complicated history of Bearden’s commission and the complexity of the monumental image itself points to the ways the collage refuses to be a symbol of unity. Berkeley–The City and Its People creates a moving portrayal of urban diversity precisely by accommodating breaks, ruptures, difference, and disagreement, layering references to the ongoing (and sometimes dissonant) efforts of many individuals and groups across the city’s space and history to live with each other.

In 2016, with longtime residents having been pushed out by rising rents and housing prices, is the multilayered Berkeley (and Bay Area) that Bearden represented gone? Locked away today in climate-controlled art storage, Bearden’s 1973 mural may indeed be a time capsule of a long-gone historic moment. If so, the artwork serves as a tool, something of a blueprint, for a better future in California. As we struggle with complex issues of gentrification and urban displacement across the Bay Area, Bearden’s vision belongs in City Hall as a backdrop for government action. Bearden created Berkeley not in a perfect period of unity and equality between blacks and whites in the city, but in a fractious and fleeting moment. In addition to the dramatic decline in the percentage of black Berkeleyans between 1970 and 2010, statistics show the percentage of city’s population identifying as white also dropped since 1970, with the increasing presence of census categories of Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and those belonging to two or more races—a trend mirrored across California.18 Bearden’s mural may not represent this shift or our present moment, but it refracts them to suggest how we might live together now.

Bearden’s Berkeley envisions how the California city is built from and on shifting histories of encounter and settlement by many groups with different backgrounds, interests, and beliefs. The nonnarrative mural implies history is not always a story of progress, but its contours may help us to see possibilities for the present and suggest a path to more equity and inclusion in the future. The ability of our eyes to make meaning from the collage’s cuts and juxtapositions point to ways we might also make meaning from the irreducible differences among us, as individuals and as groups. Looking closely at Berkeley–The City and Its People, through the rainbow and doves, Bearden forces us to recognize that the promise of equity and diversity comes with friction and difficulty as it forces us to make sense of the world anew. Ultimately, Bearden’s mural resonates in the present by suggest that it is only through this ongoing work of assembling the incongruent that we will devise a blueprint to a better urban future together.


City of Berkeley logo.


When Berkeley briefly introduced a new logo in the early 1990s, the city employee newsletter reported that the Bearden-inspired one remained in circulation because it was “distinctly Berkeley with all its diversity.” Michael Caplan and Norma Hennessey, Berkeley Matters, 9 July 1993, Berkeley History Room clipping files, Berkeley Public Library.

Correspondence and primary source materials indicate this visit occurred in 1972, a year earlier than the date given in Rocío Aranda-Alvarado and Sarah Kennel with Carmenita Higginbotham, “Romare Bearden: A Chronology,” in Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden (Washington: National Gallery of Art in association with Harry H. Abrams, New York, 2003), 231.

“D’Army Bailey: ‘If You’re in a Minority, You Have to Be Rough,’” The Daily Californian, 23 July 1973.

Charles Shere, “Berkeley Unveils Portrait of a City and Its People,” Oakland Tribune, 13 Jan 1974, 26EN. Others coverage of the mural includes Thomas Albright, “Berkeley’s Life Style: Impressive New Mural,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 January 1974, 40; and Mary Ellen Perry, “On the Art Scene,” San Francisco Post, 4 May 1972, 4. For suggestion of Douglas, see Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 13 January 1972, 3. All minutes available at http://www.cityofberkeley.info/recordsonline.

“Advance Fact Sheet: Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual,” The Museum of Modern Art, Press Release, 10 February 1971. Available at: http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/press_archives/1970s/1971.

Kobena Mercer, “Romare Bearden, 1964: Collage as Kunstwollen,” Cosmopolitan Modernisms, Kobena Mercer, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 125.

Ira T. Simmons [on behalf of the Black Arts Committee] to Romare Bearden, 3 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“An Unorthodox Mural for Berkeley Council Chambers,” Berkeley Citizen United Bulletin 8, no. 6, June 1972, 6.

“Berkeley Mural,” Berkeley Citizen United Bulletin 8, no. 8, September 1972, 1–2.

Shere, “Berkeley Unveils…,” 26EN.

Shere, “Berkeley Unveils…,” 26EN.

Bearden’s description of the mural is available at http://berkeleyplaques.org/e-plaque/city-logo/.

Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 14 October 1980, 7.

This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), who argued that human beings could be separated into four major groups, becoming one of the first to argue for making racial distinctions on physical characteristics. Augustine Fouillée, Le Tour De La France Par Deux Enfants (Paris, 1900 [first edition 1877]), 188.

Thanks to Anneka Lennsen for this suggestion.

William Clifford, President, Civic Art Commission, and Ira Simmons to Bearden, 17 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Bailey left the city for his hometown of Memphis where he eventually founded the National Civil Rights Museum.

Census data available at http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/.

Lauren Kroiz is assistant professor of twentieth century American art at University of California, Berkeley. She is particularly interested in race and ethnic studies, and the relationships between regionalism, nationalism, and globalism.


Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 2016



Read the latest from Boom California, Volume 6, Number 3, Fall 2016.  All articles from this issue are free and open to read.


From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton

The Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this fall in California
Boom Staff

What Are the Urban Humanities?
Anthony Cascardi, Michael Dear

Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner
A manifesto
Dana Cuff, Jennifer Wolch

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita

Practicing the Future
Exercises in immanent speculation
Jonathan Crisman

The 43
Remembering Ayotzinapa
Maricela Becerra, Lucy Seena K. Lin, Gus Wendel

Monumental Hydraulics
Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the water temples of San Francisco
Rafael Tiffany, Susan Moffat

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley
Capturing Berkeley’s colorful diversity
Lauren Kroiz

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff
Mike Davis

The Battle of the Bulb
Nature, culture and art at a San Francisco Bay landfill
Susan Moffat

Waves of Data
Illuminating pathways with San Leandro Lights
Greg Niemeyer

Hanging Out with Cyclists
Noam Shoked

Seeking Literary Justice

La Caja Mágica in Boyle Heights
Maricela Becerra, Cat Callaghan, Will Davis, Grace Ko, Benjamin Kolder, Alejandro Ramirez Mendez

Neither Here Nor There
Engaging Mexico City and Los Angeles
Dana Cuff, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Learning the City
Developing new networks of understanding

Jonathan Banfill, Angélica Becerra, Jeannette Mundy

The Inside-Out Museum/The Inside-Out University
A Conversation
Walter Hood, Shannon Jackson

Urban Humanities Pedagogy

The classroom, education, and New Humanities
Jonathan Banfill, Todd Presner, Maite Zubiaurre


The Road to Private Prison Divestment

by Anthony Williams

Inside the University of California student campaign

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

My first encounter with the Afrikan Black Coalition—the largest California-wide Black youth organization, with chapters on fifteen University of California and California State University campuses—was at its January 2015 annual conference at the University of California, Irvine. I was one of forty delegates from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined more than 600 Black students from California’s public universities attending the conference. The Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend event was full of introductions, workshops, caucuses, dancing, and food. It was one of the first times in my twenty-six years of life that I had been surrounded by that many Black people, and I did not know what to do with myself. Blackness is not monolithic: in skin tone, physical build, personality, and presentation, our diversity was wonderfully evident at the conference.

Each year the conference is held on a different campus; but given the demographics of the University of California system, such a large gathering of Black students always attracts undue attention. Merely existing as a Black person can be an isolating experience, particularly when UC campuses maintain a less than 4 percent Black student body1. While we enjoyed each other’s company, we also felt under perpetual surveillance by non-Black students, campus visitors, and campus police. While grabbing In-N-Out during dinner, we were stared at; while walking the campus UC Irvine, students pointed out an increased police presence; at the hotel we felt like unwelcomed guests. This constant policing of Blackness was a reminder that our work to improve the deplorable admission and retention rates of Black students is far from complete. At UC Berkeley, my alma mater, I was one of 911 Black undergraduate students enrolled in Fall 2015 out of a total of 27,496,2 making up 3.3% of the total student population. To combat this isolation, the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) connects the work Black students do on campuses to the wider struggle that people of African descent experience throughout the world, not just in North America. I felt compelled to do more for fellow Black folks as I entered my final year of undergraduate education at Cal, and joined the Afrikan Black Coalition as a writer that summer.


Members of the Afrikan Black Coalition in February 2016. Photograph by Charlene Macharia.

The year 2015 marked one year since the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, five years since the “accidental” murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit, and six years since the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland. The budding #BlackLivesMatter campaign brought to public prominence—for the first time for many Americans—the link between mass incarceration and the brutal overpolicing of Black communities across the United States. That same year, the Afrikan Black Coalition—led by ABC Political Director Yoel Haile, a University of California, Santa Barbara, alumnus and University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy master’s of public policy graduate—launched a campaign to educate staff and students on the mass incarceration of Black people. As an organization fighting for Black liberation, we want to abolish the prison industrial complex. We want political prisoners released; we want private prisons gone; and, ultimately, we want to live in a world without prisons. ABC seeks the abolition of all forms of slavery in their entirety, and we believe that begins by recognizing that prisons are a form of legal slavery.

United States history proves helpful for animating this argument for prison abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified 6 December 1865 and is often celebrated as the end of American slavery. Yet the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The caveat, “except as punishment for a crime,” suggests that the Amendment never intended slavery to end necessarily, but rather for it to merely mutate into something more easily countenanced—or ignored—by the public. In his study of the California prison industrial complex, calling this “the sedimentations of slavery,” Brady Heiner identifies California’s situation, with convict labor producing significant profit for prisons, as a functional substitute for the plantation.3 Bryan Stevenson has made this argument on a more popular level, highlighting that American slavery has evolved, with the racializing of criminality effectively becoming an extension of chattel slavery, chain gangs, and the convict leasing system that was meant to maintain cheap labor by treating Black people as less than human.

Incarceration, like enslavement, is a temporary condition that is often extended and exacerbated by housing discrimination, occupational discrimination, social stigma, and disenfranchisement after release. Private prisons and those who invest in them seek to profit from this grotesque state of affairs. They represent only a small portion of mass incarceration in the United States, but they are the portion that is the most symptomatic of the American justice system. University of Wisconsin School of Business Professor Anita Mukherjee reviewed data from private prisons in Mississippi—where California has sent inmates to ease overcrowding in its own state prisons—and found that, though they are advertised as money-saving ventures for the states that house them, “prisoners in private facilities had an increase in their sentence of 4 to 7 percent, which equaled 60 to 90 days for the average prisoner.”4 At $50 per bed occupied, sixty days adds around $3,000 per prisoner without any guarantee of fair treatment. It’s a system that must be fed constantly not just with taxpayers’ money, but with taxpayers’ bodies.

For these reasons, the Afrikan Black Coalition hopes to see a world without private prisons—and eventually all prisons—so we started where we had presence and, as students, leverage: the University of California. Based on research by Enlace, the Afrikan Black Coalition began an investigation into the connection between the University of California and private prisons.5 We focused on three of the largest private prison corporations: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Geo Group, and G4S. Through conversations with the University of California’s Chief Investment Officer, Jadgeep Bachher, Afrikan Black Coalition members began a campaign of phone calls and emails to put pressure on the university to determine exactly how much the UC invested in the three corporations. Initially, we were stonewalled; so, we filed a public records act request to obtain the necessary information, but Bachher provided the information before we received the records in response to our official request.


Anthony Williams. Photograph by Jasmine Curtis.

As a coalition of nine UC campuses, we released a statement in November 2015 that exposed for the first time that the University of California was supporting the three largest private prison operators with $25 million in investments using student and taxpayer money. During that same month, all nine UC chapters of Afrikan Black Coalition voted unanimously to demand an end to these investments immediately. This vote was in support of an internal document, the Prison Divestment Resolution, which spelled out eight demands. The primary demand was simple: divest the $25 million sum in CCA, the Geo Group, and G4S.

After two meetings with high-ranking UC officials, Yoel Haile, Terron Wilkerson (UCSB alumnus), and I had our first meeting with the Chief Investment Officer, Jagdeep Bachher in December. We made the moral and ethical case for the UC to stop investing in private prisons based on evidence compiled by researchers across the country, including the Responsible Endowments Coalition. I shared the experiences of my older cousin, who is in his mid-thirties and has spent half of his life in prison. He made mistakes—and it is important that he be accountable for his actions—but it’s also important to recognize the way the system of mass incarceration disenfranchises him outside of prison, even after he has served his time and experienced the abuse he faced inside of prison.

In arguing that divesting from private prisons was an imperative, not an option, we were pleasantly surprised when Bachher told us that he agreed and wanted to partner with us to reach our goal. In the days that followed, we met repeatedly with University of California representatives but received no guarantee of divestment. As we waited for the CIO to follow through, we published the campaign demands on the ABC blog. As the director of communications for the campaign, I sent hundreds of emails and made dozens of phone calls to drum up press coverage on the university’s investment into private prisons to make sure that public pressure would keep the CIO and the UC true to their word. Finally, in our second and final meeting with Bachher, he informed us that the University of California would sell the shares by 31 December 2015. There could be no greater holiday gift for ABC and me than a fulfilled promise from Bachher, who had kept his word. On 17 December, we issued a press release about the unanimous vote for prison divestment. The day after that, our most triumphant win yet—prison divestment—occurred. It was an important victory for our campaign and for a simple moral truth: no one should profit from the suffering of others—but it was only a first step.


Photograph by Jasmine Curtis.

The Afrikan Black Coalition is still campaigning. We spoke at the February 2016 UC Regents Committee on Investments meeting and the March 2016 UC Regents meeting about the university divesting its shares of Wells Fargo. The University of California has publicly stated that they do not intend to sell their shares in Wells Fargo.6 Wells Fargo, however, is a major lender for private prison corporations and has a history of discriminatory lending lawsuits.7 Although Jagdeep Baccher issued an April 2016 memorandum informing UC foundations that they sold their holdings in private prisons, the Afrikan Black Coalition is still awaiting quarterly investment reports from him, as we have requested. The sum that was invested in private prisons has not been reinvested in education and companies that are owned or controlled by the formerly incarcerated, also as we requested. Finally, the Afrikan Black Coalition still seeks for the UC regents to create a Socially Responsible Investment Committee, with representatives of the Afrikan Black Coalition and UC Students Association, that actively researches whether future corporations the UC invests in are held to ethical standards.

Yet even with these unresolved concerns, I often think back to a particular moment in our first meeting with Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Baccher. I was skeptical when he offered to partner with us. Although the University of California has not officially declared divestment from private prisons “as a matter of policy,” and $25 million of an almost $100 billion UC investment profile is small in relative terms, it is still a major organizational win. And for a student like me—Black, queer, with formerly incarcerated family members—the support from fellow Black students, staff, and a high-ranking UC official felt enormous. When I stepped onto UC Irvine’s campus over a year ago for my first conference, I had no idea that my efforts could have such an impact. We made it clear that to invest in private prisons is to invest in the enslavement and dehumanization of Black, brown, and migrant lives. Our Black existence is not disposable, our university degrees do not make us any better than incarcerated individuals, and we are making it plain that all Black Lives Matter.


Photograph by Jasmine Curtis.




3. Brady Heiner, “Excavating the Sedimentations of Slavery: The Unfinished Project of American Abolition,” Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, Geoffrey Adelsberg, Lisa Guenther, and Scott Zeman, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 13–42.


5. Enlace is an organization that calls itself “a strategic alliance of low-wage worker centers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and in the U.S.” They were vital to the success of our campaign, and they also supported activists and students at Columbia University who successfully campaigned for their school to divest from private prisons. They were the first private university to do so.


7. “Banking on Immigrant Detention: Wells Fargo’s Ties to the Private Prison Industry,”http://public-accountability.org/2012/09/banking-on-immigrant-detention/.


Manifesting Destiny

by Tony Gleaton

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

Being An Illustrated History Of Lesser Known Facts And Occurrences Utilizing Text and Landscapes Chronicling The African Diaspora In The Territories West of the Ninety-Sixth Meridian In The Sovereign Lands of Mexico, The United States, and the Dominion of Canada From The Years 1528 To 1918.

Manifesting Destiny, a photographic work in progress, seeks to balance aesthetic considerations with pedagogical concerns in its historical examination of African-descended people in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. This project is an effort to seek historical redress against the notion that Africans in North America, both enslaved and free, owed their historical beginnings and foothold on this continent solely to the settlements along the eastern seaboard of an area that would, in later years, become the thirteen British colonies.

In fact, elements of the African diaspora can also be found in areas throughout the realm of the Spanish conquest. In 1598, the presence of free women of color in the San Juan Pueblo of Northern New Spain (near present day Santa Fe) predated by nineteen years the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Jamestown, an English settlement on the Atlantic coast. These women were not a statistical aberration but a documented presence of African-descended people in northern New Spain.

The first part of this narrative tells of the years after the conquest of Tenochtitlan (1521). Spaniards widened their expansionist gaze and extended their dominion over the new continent. They first voyaged north, along each of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. Then they journeyed overland, north out of the valley of Mexico, first through Sinaloa, the Gran Chichimeca, Sonora, and Nuevo Mexico, into lands that would eventually be called the American South, the Southwest, Texas, the Great Plains, Western Canada, Alaska, and the “island” of California. These foreign invaders with their retinues of indigenous allies, priests, Mestizos, and some Africans (most of whom were enslaved) held partial dominion over vast tracks of land as well as some of its people.

The second part of this story begins three hundred years later. By the 1800s, the descendants of the Spanish conquest, Mestizos, Mulattos, Negros, and Españoles, including Indian allies as well as the descendants of the indigenous people who had traditionally inhabited those invaded lands, experienced a second wave of conquest. These new invaders spoke different languages and had different customs and objectives than those who had come before; some spoke English and others spoke French. They were voyagers, trappers, merchants, and explorers of European, African, and indigenous extraction who had pushed westward in an expansion from the eastern seaboard.

Through my photographs, I’ve sought to tell the stories of the African diaspora within this tale of twin conquests. It is within this larger story of conquest, settlement, and eventual dominion that I have sought to chronicle interactions, failures, accomplishments, and misdeeds of people who were part of the African diaspora in the greater Trans-Mississippi West. My method of visual documentation and accompanying narrative text identifies the locations of particular events and tries to explain what transpired there. The photographs here are selected from the broader, ongoing Manifesting Destiny project to tell some of those stories from California’s past.

Julian, San Diego County. America Newton was a free woman, likely a former slave, who traveled west after the Civil War. She settled in Julian, California, in 1872. Gold had been discovered there by another free person, and Newton made her living washing the clothes of the gold miners. She received a homestead in 1891 and remained in Julian the rest of her life. Today, Julian commemorates Newton with a local gift shop named after her.

Mission San Miguel Arcangel, San Miguel. James Beckwourth was a free man who worked as a fur trapper and trader in the 1820s and 1830s before carrying the mail during the Mexican-American War. In December 1848, he stopped at Mission San Miguel, a resting point on the journey of more than 160 miles between Monterey and Nipomo. There, Beckwourth discovered the bodies of ten murdered men and women, the residents of the mission. The victims included William Reed, the owner of the mission, and his family, as well as their black cook and a Native American shepherd. Beckwourth rode on, delivering the news of the murders to Monterey. In part due to Beckwourth’s news, the perpetrators were caught. Beckwourth went on to write the story in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Mountaineer, Scout, and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians.


Charley’s Butte, Inyo County. Charley Tyler was a black cowboy who rode across the Southern California landscape in the 1860s. While he was working for the McGee family, a group of Paiute, resisting white encroachment, attacked. Tyler made a stand that allowed the McGees to flee, but he was likely killed in the engagement in Inyo County, near the so-called Charley’s Butte, named after Tyler. A small marker by the roadside now commemorates Tyler’s death.


Brown’s Valley, northern gold fields. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Edward Duplex worked as a barber until he followed the call of the Gold Rush in the 1850s. Once in California, he helped discover a gold mine in Brown’s Valley and, along with several other free black men, owned and operated it. In the 1870s, he moved to Wheatland and was elected mayor of that community. He was one of the first black mayors in the West.


Point St. George, Crescent City. In 1865, the ship Brother Jonathan hit a reef ten miles off of Port St. George and sunk. Hundreds of people died. A more successful mission took place ten years earlier, when the vessel was named the Commodore. Back then, after the California legislature refused to accept the testimony of black people in judicial proceedings, hundreds of black men left the gold fields of California to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Many sailed aboard the Commodore to Canada, where they felt they would fare better in Frazier River gold mines in British Columbia.



Fair Labor

by Abigail Markwyn

Constructing an idealized Pacific city

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

The message was supposed to be simple and clear: San Francisco was the new queen of the Pacific world and a flagship city for commerce in an empire that extended west across the ocean. Planners and publicists for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition depicted the fairgrounds as an ideal city, an efficient place where everything hummed smartly along and businessmen could not help but invest in its future. This ideal city would embody the ideals of their Progressive Era. But to make it so, they had to carefully control the tensions and politics at the center of the Progressive Era, as these tensions were expressed in the production of the fair, at a time when challenges to the lines delineating class, race, and gender were steadily gaining traction in the United States.

The boosters set themselves up for an impossible challenge. San Francisco might have been queen of the Pacific, but the city was part of the United States. Conflicts emerged at the fair almost from day one. To construct their ideal city, officials placed stringent restrictions on fair employees. But workers often had different ideas about what was right. Culinary workers clashed with traditional union bosses, white female cashiers pushed the boundaries of propriety, black female washroom attendants fought for tips and personal respect, and immigrant performers in the fair’s midway Joy Zone faced deportation after demanding back wages and fair treatment.

Why look back at these tensions during the centenary celebration of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition? The fair was supposed to celebrate all that was new, hopeful, and inspiring: technology, light shows, global connections, trade, and the nation’s new Pacific-spanning empire. But underneath the surface celebrations were deeper tensions. Looking back at this distant mirror, we might see anew some of the tensions today in technology, gender, labor, and immigration. As we continue to try to reframe and redefine California’s place in the Pacific world, some of the very close-up, personal, even mundane seeming conflicts on an ideal fairground a century ago are a reminder that constructing California’s image abroad entails real work at home, with real costs.

Modeling crew at work on Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


In 1915, boosters dreamed of establishing San Francisco as the undisputed economic center of the Pacific world. To make it so, the leading businessmen who composed the exposition board realized that they needed an agreement with labor leaders to ensure smooth construction of the fair and to keep labor upheavals from scaring away exhibitors, visitors, or future investors. National manufacturers dedicated to antiunion, open-shop conditions feared doing business in a city with potential for labor unrest, high wages, and union shops, while union leaders were afraid low-paid workers would flood the grounds, undercutting their power in San Francisco. The city already had a burgeoning antiunion, open-shop movement, brought to greater prominence by the founding in 1914 of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association of San Francisco. To alleviate concerns and to demonstrate their support for a venture that would bring business and jobs to the city, the city’s two leading labor organizations, the Building Trades Council and the San Francisco Labor Council, entered into an informal accord with the fair.

Labor made numerous concessions, most importantly agreeing not to disrupt the fair with labor stoppages.1 This was never a formal legal agreement, despite rumors to the contrary.2 Nonetheless, the accord was widely publicized and soothed the nerves of both manufacturers and labor unions concerned about unrest at the exposition, as did extensive publicity that depicted the city as unmarred by labor disputes. The pact was dubbed the “Pax Panama Pacifica.”

The peace prevailed during construction, but a month after opening day, trouble was already beginning to brew on the fairgrounds. Dan P. Regan of the local culinary workers union complained that restaurants in the Joy Zone were failing to pay their workers and resisting employing union labor. “The papers have been lauding to the skies that the Fair was built under union conditions, but it does not state the rotten conditions under which the members of the culinary crafts have to work.”3

Unfortunately for culinary workers, pre-fair negotiations focused on the workers involved in physically constructing the exposition. Culinary workers soon learned that the fair was not, in fact, friendly to unskilled labor. By mid-March, union organizers complained that very few culinary workers were being paid on the grounds, and one local had gone so far as to “levy attachments” on vendors to force payment of wages to members. Moreover, some employers actively refused to allow their workers to unionize. Regan pleaded with John O’Connell, secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council, for aid in publicizing the problem. “It is all very well,” he argued, “for the men…that helped to build the fair [to] crow about how thankful Labor should be…but how about the unskilled man that has to work under the rotten conditions imposed upon them by the concessionaries.”4

The problem persisted even after fair officials got involved.5 In mid-April the labor council considered a request from the Cook’s Union to declare three cafes on exposition grounds “unfair.”6 The next week, the joint board of culinary workers requested a boycott of several cafes on the grounds.7 By late April, union organizers were becoming frustrated. The waitress local lodged a complaint against the Waffle Kitchen because the manager had let “all the union help go and gives our Business Agent no encouragement in regard to straightening out the house and enforcing Union conditions.”8

In early May 1915, local labor leader, former mayor, and fair director Patrick McCarthy finally stepped in to address the issue. Reminding fair officials that many labor groups were meeting in San Francisco during the fair, he threatened that the labor council would ask union supporters to stay away from the offending concessions if labor concerns were not resolved.9 Not long after his intervention, the Labor Clarion reported that the Waiter’s Union secured a raise for workers at banquets at the Old Faithful Inn and that the restaurant was employing union members only, and the union was working to win the same conditions at the Inside Inn.10

While these disputes were apparently successfully resolved, waiters and waitresses enjoyed no ongoing labor peace at the exposition. The agreement between the fair and the labor and building trades councils, informal as it was, applied to the powerful building trades unions, not the unskilled workers on the grounds. Lower wage cooks, waiters, and waitresses wielded little power in San Francisco’s labor community. An influx of workers to the city, drawn by the promise of fair jobs, limited the bargaining position of unskilled workers. Socialist influence in culinary unions may have motivated labor leaders to ignore their interests, since the traditional trade unionists had their own internecine battles with the socialists.11

The Labor Clarion briefly reported on these disputes, but overall reporting on the fair continued to be unrelentingly positive, indicating the warm relationship between labor elites and the exposition. Even the editors of the Labor Clarion did not see fit to indict fair management for failing to keep the grounds friendly to organized labor, nor did they call for action in support of the culinary workers.

The story of labor at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition reflected the story of labor across America in 1915. Progressive Era politics sought to limit the power of unions, but often did so by fashioning agreements with union leaders, bringing them into the fold of the technocratic elites that Progressives believed could best manage an increasingly complicated society run by big institutions.

The work that went into producing the fair day-to-day also provides a window into the changing role of gender and race at work in the early twentieth century.12 The exposition espoused progress as the highest value, and the artwork and rhetoric of the fair often symbolically encoded many of the central ideas of social Darwinism and scientific racism, which were rampant in America at the time. The employment structure of the fair reflected these gender and racial hierarchies. White men regulated behavior, white women upheld moral order, and people of color performed menial jobs—janitors, washroom attendants, drivers—or performed as exotic attractions in the Joy Zone.

On a cool February morning in 1915, more than nine hundred young white women reported for work to sell postcards, silver spoons, and refreshments to the throngs of tourists and locals who soon poured onto the fairgrounds from the huge opening day parade. Clad in simple blue, asexual serge suits, they served as symbolic foils to the sexualized and racialized women who performed on the Joy Zone.13 Like the white, male exposition guards, their appearance reassured visitors that despite the multitude of foreign people and products, the fair was a safe space with a recognizable racial and moral order.

Telephone switchboard in service building at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


Still fair officials closely scrutinized the women’s comportment, worrying that any misbehavior among the cashiers might call the moral order of the fair into question. Less than a month after opening day, the department of concessions and admissions found it necessary to remind female cashiers of the expected standards of behavior. No “animated or extended conversations” with either employees or guests in front of their booths would be tolerated. Most importantly, cashiers were not to “be seen arm in arm with Male employees” or to frequent any of the numerous dance halls of the fair. They should spend their break times “eating their meals and attending to their personal comfort.” They were absolutely forbidden from associating with other fair employees or visiting other concessions, either while on duty or during their lunch and supper hours. This memo suggests that male and female employees in the Joy Zone had been consorting and perhaps even visiting dance halls together. The guards also received a copy of the memo, along with a note reminding them that these rules would “save these young ladies some embarrassment,” and that “cooperation upon the part of male employees would perhaps save these young ladies their jobs.”14

If these young women wandered the fair dressed in their work uniforms, dancing, drinking, and flirting with the male guards, they would reaffirm the concerns of those who feared a debauched and immoral fair in San Francisco. San Francisco’s reputation as the home of “the notorious Barbary Coast, where the lowest forms of vice and sin, show themselves, in all their hideousness and deformity” concerned fair officials and made them vigilant to emphasize San Francisco’s safety, both from physical danger and notions that might upset the social order.15 Such reassurances helped to maintain a boundary between the sexually suggestive shows of the Joy Zone, and the rest of the fair and city. If young white cashiers could work near these shows and continue to act as chaste young women, then the racial and gender lines of the fair remained in place. If they did not, then the exposition’s carefully constructed image of a respectable world’s fair might begin to crumble, and San Francisco could regain its reputation as an uncivilized frontier outpost, unsuited to be the global economic center leaders yearned to create.

But young women did not always accept these restrictions on their behavior. As more young men and women entered the urban labor force in the early twentieth century, new sexual mores emerged that challenged old ideas about female chastity and public sexuality.16 Away from their homes and families, young working-class women spent their hard-earned money on dance halls, movies, and fashionable attire, often to the horror of middle-class reformers.17 Reformers targeted brothels, prostitutes, and dance shows, and rushed to regulate the behavior of unchaperoned young people in cities across the United States.

Simmering conflicts over public sexuality and gender roles erupted at the fair as some young white female employees engaged in behaviors that shocked reformers and flouted the rules set out by officials. Exposition guards twice discovered one young Joy Zone employee occupying a back room at the ’49 Camp. Although she claimed to have permission to sleep there, after a guard discovered a man in the adjourning room the second time, the woman was escorted to the chief of concessions and immediately dismissed.18 She had failed to live up to expectations of female moral behavior at the fair. The incident revealed both the high degree of surveillance under which fair employees lived and worked, and the ways that some women attempted to circumvent the expectations of fair directors and reformers.

Asserting San Francisco’s preeminence in the Pacific world also meant demonstrating that racial lines remained firm in a newly imperial United States. In California, on the edge of the continent facing the Pacific, sexual relationships between white women and nonwhite men were a source of great anxiety. When a black employee made “insulting remarks” to a white female worker, he was sent to the exposition guards for disciplinary action.19 Another young male Hawaiian Village employee accused of paying excessive attention and making “insulting remarks” to white women also lost his job.20 Fair officials refused to tolerate racial transgressions by nonwhite men, which, like sexual transgressions by white women, threatened the public image—and potential profits—of the fair.

African Americans had hoped to use the fair to demonstrate their status as US citizens and to establish pride in their race.21 But the entry fees were high, jobs were few, and no collection of exhibits at the exposition honored their heritage or place in California. The Progressive Era—and the year 1915 in particular—was one of heightened anxiety about race relations across the country, with the release of the film Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. African Americans were relegated to the position of primitive “other” at the fair either in sideshows or as menial laborers. They demanded the meager benefits their demeaning positions offered, using everyday actions to resist white supremacy.22

In late July, an exposition guard brought Helen Castro, a black matron in the women’s lavatory in the Palace of Horticulture, and Lovinia Johnson, a white employee of the building’s Pine Apple Concession, into the guard headquarters.23 The two women had engaged in a physical dispute over payment of a restroom fee.24 Johnson claimed that she had paid the fee, but Castro demanded another payment. Johnson refused and Castro “caught her arm” and Johnson “then struck the maid in the face.” Castro maintained that Johnson had refused to pay and that she only grabbed her after Johnson had hit her in the face. In response, Castro’s employer, the Western Sanitary Company, vowed to fire her.25

This odd conflict over personal space in a public washroom was not an aberration, but one of a number of similar incidents that point to racial tensions on the grounds.26 Just a week before, Castro had been reported for overcharging and insulting an army captain’s wife, a charge for which she was supposed to have been fired.27 During the nine months of the fair, white patrons accused black lavatory attendants of hitting them, grabbing them, accusing them of not paying, or insulting them, in toilets in the Fine Arts Palace, Education Palace, Horticulture Palace, Palace of Mines, the Liberal Arts Building, and in locations near Van Ness Avenue, the Tower of Jewels, and in the Joy Zone.28 Both male and female visitors reported similar conflicts, demonstrating the strange prevalence of these incidents. No other conflict between employees and visitors was reported to the guards with such regularity. The relatively large number of these encounters suggests that they should not be dismissed as simple misunderstandings, but were rather manifestations of larger racial tensions.

Japanese tea pickers inside the Palace of Food Products, Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


Although service employees like the cashiers and washroom attendants engaged with visitors daily, Joy Zone performers were some of the most visible laborers at the fair and the most prone to being policed for transgressing their prescribed roles. Although fair visitors might have viewed them solely as performers, they were workers, subject to the same kinds of regulations as the exposition guards, cashiers, and washroom attendants. Hundreds of people worked in the Joy Zone, many appearing to visitors as living exhibits rather than workers—the Indians of the Grand Canyon concession, the Somalis of Somaliland, and the Samoans of the Samoan Village among others. Although their work might have been disguised as traditional dances or traditional ways of living, these workers faced, in many cases, more intense restrictions on their behavior than did those employees whose work was more recognizable to contemporaries as actual labor.

Remarkably, one group of performers went on strike, although the race and immigrant status of the participants obscured the nature of their protest for contemporaries. During the spring of 1915, after their employer failed to pay their wages, thirty-one Somali men and women of the Somaliland concession stopped working and refused to vacate their houses. The concession was already floundering just a month after opening, so the concessionaire canceled his contract with the villagers. The exposition took over the show, but the Somali workers refused to perform because they had not been paid. After the exposition disbanded the show, the impoverished Somalis insisted on remaining on the grounds. In mid-May, the Examiner reported that fair officials had ordered them to vacate the premises. But Ahaoun, their representative, told the paper: “I sent word to Mr. Bryan that if we were removed they would have to call upon the Exposition guard to do it. They haven’t put us out yet, but of course they will tear our houses down.”29 As Ahaoun predicted, immigration officials assisted the exposition in forcing the Somalis out. Exposition guards “loaded the dark strangers on a Fadgl train, and escorted them to the Yacht Harbor, where a Government tug awaited them for Angel Island, whence they were…deported.”30

The Somali labor conflict demonstrates the difficulties that faced the employees of many Joy Zone concessions. As immigrant workers, often colonial subjects brought to the United States solely as performers, these men and women depended on their employer for everything from wages to housing. If their act was unpopular, they had no choice but to follow the concessionaire when he closed up shop. As poor African immigrant performers, the Somalis had little to no bargaining power. Despite their attempt to stage a strike—to both refuse to dance and to vacate their dwellings on the grounds—they proved no match for the power of the exposition and the US government. The exposition controlled the land they occupied and had the authority to tear their houses down once their presence became an obstacle to the spectacle of the exposition.

When the Somali workers ceased to participate in the spectacle and demanded fair treatment from the exposition, they challenged the fair’s racial hierarchy and colonial message. As colonial subjects, the Somalis’ appearance at the fair justified the imperial system by juxtaposing their “primitive” ways of life with those of white Americans and Europeans displayed in the fair’s exhibit palaces. As colonial subjects, however, by definition, they could not stage a strike, so their actions threatened the fair both financially and ideologically. Although the Somalis’ actions probably went unnoticed by many fair visitors, the episode highlighted the race and class system that governed employment on the Joy Zone. White waiters and waitresses and cashiers might have their own frustrations with their working conditions, but their racial status, nationality, and terms of employment gave them a degree of power not granted to the black Somalis.31

Fair planners staged an international exposition to declare California’s ascendance as an economic stronghold in the Pacific. But the staging itself involved work that was inexorably bound with local, domestic, class, race, and gender conflicts in the Progressive Era.

While exposition officials scrutinized the behavior of all workers—culinary workers, guards, cashiers, washroom workers, and Joy Zone performers alike—to ensure that their actions reinforced the fair’s social hierarchy, the fair did not always work in the way that officials expected. Unskilled workers fought to organize, while their employers fought for an open shop. Young men and women flirted and danced and circumvented the rules laid out by fair officials, therefore threatening the fair’s claim to be a morally clean space. African American men and women fought for the meager profits offered by their employment at the fair and their behavior engendered resentment by angry white visitors. Joy Zone performers, like the Somalis, attempted to live their lives in the public venue and found it impossible to escape racial attitudes and expectations of their behavior and place in society. Progressive Era anxieties about class conflict, the regulation of female sexuality and gender roles, and the maintenance of white supremacy permeated the fair’s veneer of labor peace and threatened to reveal the real contradictions upon which the Pax Panama Pacifica was built.

Samoan dance and the golden Buddha of Japan at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.


This material appears courtesy of the University of Nebraska Press. It is drawn from Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

1. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, (New York, 1921), vol. 1, 325–330.

2. Charles C. Moore to Labor Council and Building Trades Council, 7 September 1912, Labor Conditions – corres. re.:, Carton 36, Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley (hereafter PPIE-BL).

3. Dan P. Regan to John O’Connell, 19 March 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

4. Dan P. Regan to John O’Connell, 19 March 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

5. H.D.H. Connick to John O’Connell, 31 March 1915, SF-PPIE, Carton 16, San Francisco Labor Council Papers, Bancroft Library.

6. “Synopsis of Minutes of Regular Meeting Held April 9, 1915, SFLC,” Labor Clarion, 16 April 1915.

7. “Synopsis of Minutes of Regular Meeting,” Labor Clarion, 23 April 1915.

8. Laura Molleda to John O’Connell, 29 April 1915, Labor Organizations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

9. P.H. McCarthy to H.D.H. Connick, 3 May 1915, Labor Associations and Trade Associations, Carton 93, PPIE-BL.

10. “Minutes of SFLC,” Labor Clarion, 21 May 1915.

11. Robert Edward Lee Knight, Industrial Relations in the Bay Area, 1900–1918 (San Francisco: University of California Press, 1960), 270–271.

12. On the imperial nature of the fair, see Sarah J. Moore, Empire on Display: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

13. Todd, The Story of the Exposition, vol. 2 (New York: Panama-Pacific International Exposition Company. 1921), 279.

14. 14 March 1915, copy of bulletin to cashiers, Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards March-April 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

15. Frederick P. Church to Moore, 18 February 1913, Liquor and Red Light Abatement, Carton 23, PPIE-BL.

16. On changing public sexuality, see John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, 3d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

17. Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

18. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards for August 4, 1915,” and “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards for August 20, 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards August 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

19. “Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards, March 31, 1915,” Extracts of Daily Reports of the Guards, March–April 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

20. Frank Burt to Cumming, 3 September 1915, Corres. re: complaints, Carton 8, PPIE-BL.

21. Lynn Hudson,”‘This Is Our Fair and Our State’: African Americans and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition,” California History 87(3), 2010, 26–45; Abigail Markwyn, Empress San Francisco: The Pacific Rim, the Great West, and California at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

22. See Robin D.G. Kelley, “We Are Not What We Seem: Rethinking Black Working Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” The Journal of American History, 80 (1993): 75–112, for a discussion of the ways in which African Americans in the Jim Crow South asserted their identities through these kinds of interactions.

23. The report describes Castro as “colored,” a term that could mean African American. Nonetheless, given that her surname was a Spanish one, it is also possible that she was of Hispanic descent. Nonetheless, it remains clear that she was perceived as nonwhite, like the other attendants whose actions are described below. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 25 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

24. A system of free and pay restrooms existed on the grounds, with quite a few more pay than free toilets, causing confusion for visitors as to whether or not they should pay for use of the facilities.

25. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 25 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

26. It is worth noting that washroom attendant was one of the few positions available to blacks on the grounds, and these reports suggest that a large number of these attendants were African American. The same was true at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Christopher Robert Reed, “All the World is Here!” The Black Presence at White City (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 76.

27. “Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, 18 July 1915,” Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards July 1915, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

28. See Extracts from Daily Reports of the Guards, Carton 83, PPIE-BL.

29. “Somali Natives at Fair ‘Broke,'” Examiner, 14 May 1915.

30. Frank Morton Todd, The Story of the Exposition, Being the Official History of the International Celebration Held at San Francisco in 1915 to Commemorate the Discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the Construction of the Panama Canal, vol. 2 (New York, 1921), 375.

31. Todd, Story of the Exposition, vol. 2: 375.


California Soul

by Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

Stories of food and place from Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen

Oakland, California, has long been a place with an embattled food politic. In 1968 the Black Panther Party (BPP), a militant political organization founded in Oakland, initiated a series of “Survival Programs” designed, in part, to improve the public image of the Party and make more visible their work as practitioners struggling for social change within black communities. These “Survival Programs”—food and clothing giveaways, free breakfast programs, free clinics, and alternative primary schools—were part of the BPP’s 10 Point Program. Instituting these programs was central to a growing realization among some party members that the health and well-being of the BPP depended on the health and well-being of “the people” and the communities within which they resided. The “Free Breakfast Program” and the “Free Food Giveaways” received a good deal of media attention and, while the legitimacy of the BPP was always contested, this community work drew a lot of support from the Black elite, the white liberal Left, and political leaders within the San Francisco Bay Area.1

However, over forty years later, the social conditions that made necessary the BPP “Survival Programs” continue to plague many black communities in Oakland—especially the West and East Oakland neighborhoods, which nurtured the beginnings of the BPP. Today, poor and working-class residents of Oakland utilize food banks and other emergency food-assistance programs at disturbingly high rates. Convenience stores selling liquor and fast food restaurants dominate the landscape. For instance, until recently, there was just one grocery store, forty liquor/convenience stores, and a handful of fast food restaurants to serve about 30,000 Black and Latino residents.2 Indeed, the lack of access in this community to fresh and reasonably priced food stuffs (particularly fruits and vegetables) is representative of a phenomenon gaining greater visibility nationally: food insecurity within the industrialized “first world.”3 It is perhaps ironic that many of the foods considered subsistence foods in an earlier era have become increasingly unavailable to poor and working-class African Americans. The consumption of highly processed convenience and fast foods coupled with other risk factors, such as environmental pollution and racism, have been cited as central to a dramatic increase in the occurrences of obesity and diet-related diseases.4


It is within this context that I am interested in exploring the recent proliferation of both upscale and down-home “soul food” restaurants in Oakland; what a San Francisco Chronicle story termed a “soul food renaissance.”5 Although three out of the four restaurants profiled in that Chronicle story had closed their doors by the end of last year, others, such as Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, were taking root. These restaurants are intriguing locations for thinking through the politics of food and place. They present food rooted in a Black Southern cultural repertoire—fried chicken, greens, sweet potato pie—with a twenty-first-century sensibility—local, sustainable, chef-driven, seasonal ingredients. Brown Sugar Kitchen takes its clues from this “new food movement” by emphasizing its use of fresh, local, and sustainably produced foodstuffs. Chef Holland seeks to bring the culinary influences of the Caribbean, New Orleans, California, and her classical French training to bear on soul food. In many ways, Brown Sugar Kitchen is part of a culinary movement that one might argue has its origins in Alice Waters’s “delicious revolution”6 of the 1970s and the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s.


In December 2011, I sat with Chef Holland in the dining area of her West Oakland restaurant for one of two interviews about her work as a chef, restaurateur, culinary entrepreneur, and nascent community leader. We followed up our conversation several months later, just as her restaurant was being featured in the June issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. What follows is a distillation of our conversations.

Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón: Chef, talk me through your signature dish—the fried chicken and cornmeal waffles.

Chef Tanya Holland: The chicken and waffles came about as a sort of accident, and was in many ways dictated by the space. We have one griddle and six burners, so doing pancakes or French toast for breakfast wasn’t feasible. But it’s easy to plug in some waffle machines. And then we added the cornmeal to the waffle to capture the sense that people often eat fried chicken with cornbread. So it really marries the sweet and the savory sides of the dish well. And then we wanted to make something that sourced good ingredients, like organic chicken, dairy, and so on, and do the chicken and waffle really well. We wanted to make it unique.

Nettles-Barcelón: And what about the vegetarian jambalaya?

Holland: You mean dirty rice … yes, that was also something that came out of being in this place in this area. I know that there are a lot of people who are limiting their meat intake or are vegetarian, and while I love the whole chicken gizzards and liver you normally find in dirty rice, I knew that I wanted to make a dish that had all of those flavors without the meat. That dish is something I actually created before the restaurant happened and I brought it onto the menu because I thought it would work.

Nettles-Barcelón: How did you come to feature soul food? And do you find yourself constrained by the category?


Holland: Before I started this restaurant, I would say that I was cooking multi-ethnic cuisine. My cooking, like most chefs, has been influenced by cuisines from all over the world. I’ve cooked all over the place in many different types of restaurants and just my own palate leads me to pick-and-choose from the variety of cuisines out there in terms of the foods I prepare. So, ‘soul food’ as a genre. When I made the decision that this is the direction I was going in, I realized that I wanted this to be my mission—to do for soul food what we’ve seen done in other cuisines. To really elevate it, to bring it to a level of sophistication that is not expected for ‘soul food.’ Soul food has the reputation of not being seasonal, of being full of animal fat, etc. And I wanted to show that it is and can be seasonal and less reliant on smoked pork and still be flavorful and true to those authentic soul food tastes.

Nettles-Barcelón: Is doing soul food or the expectation that you will do soul food connected to your being an African American woman?

Holland: Some of it is that. After doing the Food Network show [Melting Pot: Soul Kitchen, cohosted with Cheryl Smith] and my cookbook, I got sort of pigeon-holed. And I think that black male chefs have been able to break out of the soul food genre more so than black women. But really I have found it a marvelous way to make visible a cuisine that is not thought of in certain ways. You don’t see chefs of soul food restaurants being nominated for James Beard Awards, for example.

Nettles-Barcelón: Tell me about the restaurant’s space. You said before that there is often a difficulty in restaurants where either the space is right or the food is, but not both. What does it mean for you to get the “space and the food right”?


Holland: I wanted to create everyday food for everyday people. I can’t help but bring my background, in terms of my formal culinary training and sophistication, into the food. But, I wanted to make it really accessible and authentic to whatever the dish is. You know how you go into restaurants and food can be off-putting? I didn’t want that; I wanted people to be able to come in and really enjoy and connect to the food and the experience. We inherited the space—how everything is configured—and so we decided to work with what was here and create the sort of atmosphere that would shape the kind of experience people may have been missing in Oakland. We are like a food oasis in a food desert. Something here makes people trek long distances to get here to get our food.

Nettles-Barcelón: I’m remembering that when I came early on a Sunday I was struck by how people were milling about outside waiting to get in. Then, at some point, a guy with a piano set up outside and started playing music. People were sitting on the curb, drinking coffee, talking to each other. It was quite the scene … and this is before even getting inside to eat!


Holland: Yes, and there again, that just sort of happened organically. The space itself is small and so during our busy times it can be a wait to get a table. And people don’t just leave and go down the street to the next restaurant—there is no next restaurant—instead, they treat that wait time as part of the experience itself. And so we started making coffee available to folks who are waiting outside… and it’s sort of like an adventure. Like people are saying to themselves: “We’re here in the midst of industrial West Oakland hanging out and socializing!” So the outside serves as an extension of the experience inside the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant I had a vision about how I wanted the space to feel. So I spent a lot of time choosing paint colors, art for the walls—by a local artist, Amanda Williams—new rugs, the music we play. All of that. We haven’t been able to change the table tops yet, but we got new chairs. And then the small things like the salt and pepper shakers. I wanted something in particular—somethingthat could hold the courser-grained sea salt and freshly ground pepper—which we grind ourselves here. Shakers that were rustic, yet elegant. And choosing Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces. All of those small things are intentional. They are designed to create an atmosphere that invites people in and that they know what to expect when they come in.

Nettles-Barcelón: I understand people travel from all over the Bay Area and beyond to come to the restaurant, but I can also imagine that there are a lot of local people who are regulars.

Holland: Yes, yes. I kind of get to do a bit of sociology by being a restaurateur. And what I’ve found is that people are really particular about their breakfast foods, lunch too, but especially breakfast. We like certain things, and once we find them, we don’t like to deviate too much. I think people are more adventurous at dinner time. We’ve got regulars who come in every week and we know who they are sometimes not by name, but by what they order. So like “Here comes two pieces with a side of biscuits.” You know?

Nettles-Barcelón: So, is there a lot of variation in your menu?

Holland: No, that’s the thing that’s been an adjustment for me as a restaurateur. The menu doesn’t change much at all. We have some daily specials that shift in and out, but the core of our menu stays the same. And what I’ve found is that Brown Sugar Kitchen is an exercise in perfection and consistency. And that’s really the name of the game in this business. People have to know that when they come in, whenever they come in, and order their favorite dish, that it’s going to be as good if not better than it always is. So we are seeing ourselves as becoming a sort of institution in this area, through the consistency our food.


Nettles-Barcelón: I like this idea of your becoming an institution in this town. I know you came to Oakland without a whole lot of planning to be here.

Holland: I’ve lived in Oakland the longest I’ve lived anywhere other than Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up. And I landed here through a process of testing out various areas in California. I lived for a time in San Francisco, and I just didn’t care for that. I thought about Napa because I just love wine country, but I didn’t think it would be a good place socially; there’s issues of lack of diversity there. And I considered Berkeley for a while. But I settled in Oakland because I feel really at home here in ways that I never felt even in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The thing about the East Coast is that the pace of life is so fast, and it’s more difficult to slow down and really connect with people. Here I feel like the pace is more European. People care more about other people, and there’s an idea that we should strive to cultivate some work-life balance. Of course, that’s difficult to do in this industry—achieve balance—but there’s more of an expectation that we should do more in our lives than just work.

Nettles-Barcelón: How do you deal with people’s ideas about Oakland as dangerous and poverty ridden?

Holland: Oakland has a bad reputation. But, again, I’ve felt so at home here. Ever since my husband and I decided to move into West Oakland and then set up the restaurant here, I’ve felt like it’s part of my mission to bring Oakland good press. And that’s what I see the restaurant doing: creating a positive buzz about Oakland, about it being a good place to be an entrepreneur, a good place to do interesting things.

Pictured from left to right are Mayor Jean Quan; Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel; Chef Tanya Holland, and Phil Surkis, husband of Tanya Holland and co-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF JIM DENNIS

You know, I’m not that politically oriented. Meaning I don’t want to engage in politics directly, but what I do like to do is use my role in the community to empower people. But because I have been seen as someone who can get things done, I have been called upon to host political events and activities, to sit on various boards and be involved in the Chamber of Commerce. I actually have good relationships with the current Mayor, and several City Council members have come to us about issues or asked to use our space. But I try to maintain a very nonpartisan approach. I am for the improvement of Oakland, for allowing dialogue and change to happen organically.

I’ve been involved in two organizations that have meant a lot to me both personally and professionally. I was one of two women of color inducted into the local chapter of the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier. I don’t know that there are any other women of color locally or nationally within that organization. That means a lot to me and the work that I’m trying to do here. And, then, more locally I sit on the board of the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment. This organization really strives to empower women to think about what’s possible for them … and provides them with tools to help them make some of their ideas come to life.

Nettles-Barcelón: Speaking of these sorts of leadership roles, how do you approach mentoring within your restaurant? I remember in our last conversation you said that people still walk in and comment on how it’s good to see brown people in the kitchen … that this is not a common sight in upscale or higher-end restaurants. And, then you also mentioned how you wanted to mentor others in ways that you were not always mentored. Can you speak a bit more about that?

Holland: My approach with leadership and mentoring is to lead by example. I always tell my staff that we are an open book here. So they are able to see all aspects of how the business is run, from testing recipes, to costing/financials, to working with the press, to direct customer service. All of that is part of this industry. And since I have been successful in working with the press to get our story out there, the staff are able to see other aspects of this industry—like for instance for the O Magazine spread we had a photo shoot with them and some of the staff got to experience what happens in food styling. All of these sorts of opportunities are available for my staff so that they can see ways to advance themselves within this profession. It’s not always just about the cooking. There’s so much more.

One of my staff members is interested in the fashion industry and she learned of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment through my work with them and she’s going through their program. My husband and I gave a small business loan to help her pursue that. I recently had some conversations with one of the cooks here who was considering the hospitality program at a college, looking to get his bachelor’s degree. And I was able to suggest people I knew who could talk to him about whether that particular program was a good one, or whether he should consider a different program. I mean we are almost like an extended family here because we spend so much time at the restaurant it becomes like a family. With the way things are now, families are so splintered with people living all over the country or even the world … such that the workplace becomes that. My husband and I work hard to make it not so much a dysfunctional family, but a functional one: one where we can support and nurture each other’s strengths and help people to work on their shortcomings. We try to make it a place where people want to come to work and feel supported in this environment.


At the City Council meeting in Oakland City Hall, 5 June 2012 was named Chef Tanya Holland Day by special decree from the Mayor and Vice-Mayor. Chef Holland (joined by more than twenty of her friends and supporters) received recognition for the community-building work she does as Chef/Owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen and the newly opened restaurant B-Side BBQ. The Resolution lists ten actions of distinction (such as employing over twenty Oaklanders, using local/organic/sustainable ingredients, garnering positive media attention for Oakland, and creating the celebrated and much imitated cornmeal waffles) and culminates with the following statement: “The City of Oakland hereby honors Tanya Holland for her significant role in creating community and establishing Oakland as a culinary center recognized through the City of Oakland, the State of California, and the United States.”


1. On the Black Panther Party and its Free Breakfast Program and Free Food Giveaway programs, Andrew Warnes’s brief, but compelling, analysis is worth reading—Hunger Overcome? Food and Resistance in Twentieth-Century African American Literature (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2004). See also the striking photo collection of Stephen Shames, The Black Panthers (New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2006) and Alondra Nelson’s meticulous investigation of the BPP’s work on issues of health care in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). The politics/pleasures of “soul food” is also well-discussed in Amiri Baraka’s “Soul Food” (from Home: Social Essays. Ecco Press, 1966), Marvalene Hughes’s “Soul, Black Women, and Food” (in Counihan and Van Esterik’s edited volume, Food and Culture: A Reader, Routledge, 1997), Nettles’s “’Saving’ Soul Food” (in Gastronomica, 7, no. 3), T. Poe’s “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915–1947” (in Counihan’s edited volume, Food in the USA: A Reader, 1999), and Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. identity (Oxford University Press, 1999).

2. Christine Ahn, “Breaking Ground; The Community Food Security Movement.” Backgrounder, 10, no. 19, 2004. http://www.foodfirst.org/pubs/backgrdrs. Last accessed: 14 May 2010.

3. Young activists and activist scholars have been on the ground in communities like West Oakland trying to facilitate change, create, and illuminate avenues of resistance through their “food justice” work. See Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman’s edited volume, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

4. This is an issue with considerable complexity and has been debated quite heavily in the popular and academic literatures on “food deserts,“ “obesity epidemic,” “urban agriculture,” and so on. Geographer Julie Guthman’s latest work on this topic is quite useful: Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011).

5. Scott Hocker, “Oakland in Midst of Soul Food Renaissance.” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 August 2004; Karola Saekel, “Long-Cooked Greens Warm the Heart,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 January 2005.

6. See L. Brenner’s American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a National Cuisine (Harper Perennial, 2000).


Bird Proud

by Susan Straight

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

Family and belonging at LAX

(Proud Bird image courtesy of Telstar Logistics)

The history of Los Angeles is inextricably tied to migrations—though America has lately begun a harsher new chorus of the old anti-immigrant sentiment, Southern Californians should shake their heads and know better. From the first group of forty-four pobladores or townspeople to settle along the river at the behest of Felipe de Neve, Gobernador de Las Californias, to the latest immigrants arriving this week from Oaxaca or Guatemala or Nigeria or Iraq, or the migrants moving from the Midwest or northeast, Los Angeles has been shaped and shaded by people from other places.

Bobby and Lee Sims at the anniversary party, sharing jokes and stories (photograph courtesy Sims family)

Those pobladores included twenty-two children, sixteen of whom had African ancestry and would be considered “black” today. They were the basis, with the original Native Californians, of who we are today. New residents have married each other, or native Angelenos, or fellow migrants from Wisconsin and New York, and their children, born here, are Californians.

My family represents a classic spectrum of immigration and migration. My mother is from Switzerland, my stepfather from Canada. My former husband’s mother’s family is from Mississippi, his father from Oklahoma. Today, listening to the expressions of deepseated anger at people born elsewhere, hearing the pessimism of Californians who say the state will collapse, reading that Americans aren’t getting married, or are getting divorced, or aren’t having babies, I keep in mind The Proud Bird.

The Proud Bird is an iconic restaurant near Los Angeles International Airport, a place where African American Angelenos have gathered for decades to celebrate and dance and eat. Last summer, while jets thundered overhead, my ex-husband Dwayne, his aunt Loretta, and I parked near the replica of a famous plane from World War II. I met my husband in the eighth grade. We were married for fourteen years, have been divorced for thirteen years, and along with many others in our family who aren’t married anymore, we still see each other all the time and share a huge extended family. Loyalty and longevity in relationships, whether bound by legal documents or not, are hallmarks of our family.

The Proud Bird, near Los Angeles International Airport, and iconic aircraft (courtesy of Telstar Logistics)

We went into the lobby of the Tuskegee Room, where black and white photos of Tuskegee Airmen, posed near their aircraft, filled with pride, hope, resignation, anger, and defiance, seemed to study us. In one photo, airmen posed in Los Angeles with Lena Horne. Back then it was segregated Los Angeles and a segregated military—a part of history many Californians forget. At my side, our cousin, John Larkin, looked at the photos and murmured, “They never got their due until they were gone.”

As we entered the Tuskegee Room, I thought about how many decades of California history are contained here. The room was elegantly decorated for the sixtieth wedding anniversary of Robert and Lee Sims, my former husband’s uncle and aunt. They graduated from Jefferson High School together in 1947—a photo of them in gleaming cap and gown, taken in front of the high school, was displayed beside their wedding portrait, taken at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Fifty-first and Hooper.

At their table, Uncle Bobby and Aunt Lee received legions of well-wishers. Nearly two hundred of us surrounded the dance floor while their favorite band warmed up with classics by Duke Ellington. As a young couple, Bobby and Lee danced to such bands back on Central Avenue in the 1940s and 1950s, when South Los Angeles was the hot jazz scene and skirts twirled like morning glory blossoms.

I first met them at nineteen, knowing I’d marry their nephew. Lee’s people were originally from Louisiana, and she came to California when she was young. From her front yard in Inglewood, where Dwayne and I went every year for Super Bowl Sunday, she gave me a cutting of a red-leafed plant, vivid as black-cherry Jell-O, for the balcony of my first married apartment. She pressed it into my palm wrapped in a damp paper towel, and said she’d brought it home from an island in the Caribbean. She called it “blood plant” because of the color.

I was a petite blonde girl on her nephew’s arm. She might have studied me with suspicion—maybe the suspicion that many Americans today seem to be cultivating in response to harder and harder times—but she never did, and times were much harder back then for African Americans and Angelenos.

In Lee’s living room, in 1980, the Sims men debated which meat had tasted the worst back when they were starving in Oklahoma, after their father died and they had to shoot dinner. Possum, raccoon, rabbit or squirrel. Uncle Bobby could certainly have mistrusted me—he’d come to LA to stay with his own aunt and uncle, whose brother quit Oklahoma after being shot in the knee during the Tulsa Riot of 1921. That June, most of the black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was burned to the ground after a mob decided a young black man had touched a white woman in an elevator.

It’s the oldest tragic story—the seed for hundreds of lynchings—and yet no Sims has ever been unkind to me. Their nephew and I, along with our siblings, children, nieces, nephews, and cousins, were first-generation Californians—mixtures of black and Chicano and Haitian and Swiss and Filipino and Samoan and French. Some of us probably have skin the same shade as a few of those original poblador children.

Lee and her court of bridesmaids and flower girl, in front of her mother’s house in South Los Angeles (photograph courtesy Sims family)

Some of the loudest political voices have begun to insist that nothing can overcome the nation’s recent divisions and animosities. Such negative beliefs weaken not only family and clan, but California and America as a nation. Except for the Native Americans, all of us came here from somewhere else: Italy, like my daughters’ godmother’s parents who ended up outside Philadelphia; and Japan, like my college roommate’s great-grandparents; and like Uncle Bobby’s grandmother’s mother, who arrived in chains from Africa and was a slave in Tennessee.

Does America not remember this?

That slave woman had a Cherokee lover whom she was not allowed to marry, but their descendants did marry. They lived in single rented rooms or “colored” hotels in segregated Los Angeles, in Chicago and New York, and Washington, D.C., trying to get a foothold on the American Dream. A generation later, my high school sweetheart and I got married. Most of our furniture was donated by our families, and our first daughter slept in a dresser drawer by our bed for a few weeks. I have some of that furniture still: a small Sears oak table from my mother-in-law’s mother, who was born in Mississippi; next to me as I write, there is a black-lacquered wooden bowl painted with wildflowers of the Swiss Alps, brought to California by my mother from her small village.

At The Proud Bird, people shifted from table to table, relating stories of old Los Angeles, the dances and proms, and parties and restaurants. Chicken and waffles. Soul food on Central Avenue. Uncle John, Bobby’s youngest brother, told stories of the Mexican food given to him by families along his mail route in Glendale. Aunt Loretta, as beautiful when she was a teenager as Lena Horne, visited with people she hadn’t seen in years. I listened to decades of history and peals of laughter.

Uncle Bobby is a large, voluble man, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, and after the toast to his long marriage and to years of fishing in retirement, he joked that he’d been ready to start a new job as director of transportation for the city of Bell, and he’d planned to hire a few friends he named in the audience—but that deal was off. Everyone laughed. Bell is famous now—but just the latest story in greed and politics.

The band’s female vocalist then performed “Satin Doll” and “I’m A Woman.” I went outside with my cousin Teri’s son, David, who’s in his twenties. We walked around The Proud Bird. Over a small bridge, we could see a wedding reception taking place. The bride was glowing, her dark skin soft against a dress and stole of white satin. The groom wore white, too, and the bridesmaids were clad in a vivid tangerine to match the bride’s bouquet of lilies and roses. They were young, and David and I joked that they were bumping Jay Z while we could hear the strains of Duke Ellington from our own party.

Robert Sims and his groomsmen, including my father-in-law General (in glasses), in front of the house before the wedding (photograph courtesy Sims family)

Sixty years of marriage in one room and one hour of marriage in another. Los Angeles can still be in love. California is not going to collapse because people come here from other states or nations and marry each other and have children whose skin is a blending of theirs—whether pink or gold or brown or taupe. I felt unaccountably happy, wandering back under the eyes of the black men in uniform and the planes they piloted to help keep their nation free, at the behest of their President. Inside the Tuskegee Room, I watched our elders holding court at the tables, bobbing their heads to the song “At Last,” made famous by Etta James, a native of Los Angeles born to a fourteen-year-old African American mother who told Etta that her father was the white pool player “Minnesota Fats.”

“At last, my love has come along … my heart was wrapped up in clover, and life is like a song … “