Often overshadowed by San Francisco, its twinkling sister city across the Bay, Oakland is itself an American wonder. The city is surrounded by and filled with natural beauty — mountains and hills and lakes and a bay — and architecture that mirrors its history as a Spanish mission, Gold Rush outpost, and home of the West’s most devious robber barons.
Oakland is also a city of artists and blue-collar workers, the birthplace of the Black Panthers, neighbor to Berkeley, and home to a vibrant and volatile stew of immigrants and refugees.
In Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, world renowned author Ishmael Reed provides a fascinating tour of an untamed, unruly western outpost set against the backdrop of political intrigues, ethnic rivalries, and a gentrification-obsessed mayor.* He talks with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about the city’s complexities — past and present — in our February, 2004 interview.
“The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.”
– Gertrude Stein
“The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, it’s there.”
– San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen
“…writing this book has convinced me that among American cities, Oakland is unique. It combines the beauty of the West, the mountains, rivers, and forests, with the gritty naturalism of old northeastern industrial towns. When you watch the crowds of blacks, Asians, and Hispanics coexisting peacefully in the late afternoon on Broadway and Fourteenth, near the Tribune Tower, you get a glimpse of what the world could look like.”
– Ishmael Reed
Listen to John Lee Hooker play I’m In The Mood
JJM Your book, Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, is about diversity, the merging of cultures, and political courage (in the case of the Black Panthers) as well as political misdirection (in the case of Jerry Brown). It is filled with historic and contemporary heroes and villains who have helped make Oakland become what you describe to be “one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the country, a callaloo of cultures.” As a young man living in Buffalo, New York in the early sixties, what image did you have of Oakland, California?
IR I didn’t really have any image of it at all. I didn’t hear about Oakland probably until the Black Panthers came to prominence, and that would have been when they entered the state house in Sacramento with weapons — something that received much international publicity. That publicity was likely my introduction to Oakland.
JJM How did you end up in Oakland?
IR I came to Los Angeles in 1967, where I began work on my second novel. In September of that year, I moved up to Berkeley, where I lived from ’67 to ’79. I then moved a few miles away to El Cerrito, where I lived for a few years before eventually settling in Oakland. We wanted to buy a house at the time, and this huge Queen Anne with four bedrooms and two baths on 53rd Street was available. We liked it and decided to buy it, and then we renovated it.
JJM Did you have any reservations about moving to Oakland from Berkeley?
IR I sure did, because Oakland had a bad reputation. As a matter of fact, in one of my novels, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, I painted a pretty disparaging portrait of Oakland. But at the time I didn’t really know much of anything about Oakland, and I rarely came over here to check it out.
JJM Did you find Oakland to be more open minded about self-expression than a city like Buffalo?
IR Absolutely. Buffalo is a very conservative, blue collar, working class town. While there are fine art institutions there — including the Albright-Knox Gallery, which has one of the best collections of art in the country — and an excellent university, for the most part it can best be characterized as a city whose residents love large amounts of high cholesterol food.
JJM Ahh Hence the term “Buffalo wings.”
IR Don’t get me wrong. It has some very nice qualities about it. As a result of my recent trip there, I have learned much more about it than I knew before. I went to the local historical society and delved into some of the town’s history.
JJM Is Oakland a city that fosters creativity?
IR I wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but I will say that it has very nice weather, and it is very comfortable here. An ongoing concern in Oakland is that the crime situation has gotten out of hand, especially the murder rate, and the city doesn’t respond to crises very well. Of course, some of them may be beyond their ability to fix. The kids are the ones who are most affected. They are seeing their friends being killed, and they are asking their community leaders what can be done to stop it. I believe that as long as there is so much money in narcotics trafficking, and as long as the United States government continues to make alliances with narcotics dealers — as they have most recently done with the warlords in Afghanistan — it means that their heroin will continue to come into our streets, and there will likely be no end to the crime.
JJM You point out that the critic Alfred Kazin once told Ralph Ellison that if Ellison hadn’t spent so much time hanging out at New York’s “21” club, he could have finished his second novel, and you suggest that New York may have been a drain on his creative juices. How has Oakland impacted your own creative output?
IR I have been very prolific here in Oakland, and have been able to produce a lot of work. For me, there are always too many distractions in New York — it is sort of like Babylon. There are many temptations and activities, and one can easily be tokenized and exploited in the East. I still see that happening, where different constituencies have what you might call a “dark horse,” so to speak. For example, there is the socialist coalition producing someone like Cornell West, who receives a lot of prominence, and the political right has people like Armstrong Williams and Shelby Steele. So, there are always outside institutions that manipulate the cultural and political trends in the African American community, and that seems to take place a lot in the Northeast.
JJM It would seem as if the Bay area offers balance, because it certainly is a creative centerpiece.
IR Yes, but it is much more difficult out here. For example, I had three books published in the last year by major companies; From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas, 1900-2002, on Thunders Mouth Press; Blues City on Crown; and Another Day at the Front: Dispatches from the Race War, a book of essays published by Basic Books. Not one of these books was reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, the major daily in Bay area. That would never happen if I lived in the East rather than in Oakland. So, there seems to be people in the middle who are tone deaf about what is going on.
JJM It is surprising that they would ignore a book written specifically about Oakland.
IR It is amazing to me. Not only did they ignore my book but one by Cecil Brown — who lives in Berkeley — which was featured in the London Times and the New York Times. When we question the writers about this, they deny any exclusion is taking place, and then they follow it up by featuring token black people in their publication. They are hardly alone in this. A recent study conducted by feminist critics published in the Village Voice demonstrated that eighty percent of the books reviewed in the New York Times were by white males, and that eighty percent of the reviewers were also white male. I believe that many of these critics who are characterized as being “in the middle” are unaware of what has been happening in the arts and literature during the last fifty years.
JJM How is Oakland viewed by residents of other Bay area cities?
IR Oakland is considered to be an open sore. Even though gentrification has caused a decline of the black population to something in the range of thirty-seven percent, it is still viewed as a black city. It is also a city in which many of its citizens live in poverty. I live a block away from a public school, and as much as seventy percent of the families whose children attend it receive Aid for Dependent Children. So, the image of Oakland in general is that is a city with problems. It is not an affluent area, but because of gentrification, it is becoming more so. The rents are soaring, and some of the African American people who have traditionally lived here for generations are moving eastward to Sacramento and surrounding communities. I believe that is happening directly as a result of the policies of Mayor Jerry Brown, who wants to bring in ten thousand people into the downtown area. He calls it the “10K Plan.”
JJM You wrote, “ the decline of Oakland’s black power began with the election of Jerry Brown.”
IR Yes, which is quite ironic because he got a lot of black support. Many people feel betrayed by Brown. He campaigned as a populist politician whose message was progressive, yet when he gained office he moved to the right.
JJM What is his vision for Oakland?
IR I believe he has aspirations for a higher office — perhaps as California Attorney General — and is using his position in Oakland to help him achieve that. I do believe he has some very good ideas, but Jerry Brown should be city philosopher, not mayor.
JJM What is an example of problems an Oakland neighborhood may experience on an every day basis?
IR Noise. We have many youngsters in the neighborhood playing music at unbelievably high levels. I wrote an Op-Ed in the Oakland Tribune recently called “Noise Torture” that addresses this. They play music in their car stereos at such levels that it reminds me of the tactics used against the Branch Davidians and Manuel Noriega. Amnesty International has described how music is played at this level in some South American countries to soften up prisoners. The people in City Hall don’t do anything about this. As a matter of fact, a councilwoman told me to talk to a police lieutenant about the issue, who then advised me that I should think about performing a citizen’s arrest. This is the sort of attitude we have to deal with concerning law enforcement on some issues. Many of the police officers live in the suburbs and have no stake in this town, and when you suggest that they live in the city in which they work, you get in trouble with their union.
Another issue we deal with is crime. Oakland has approximately three thousand felons, and there is a very high rate of recidivism among them. We can always tell when they get out of prison because criminal activity in the community increases. They have nothing to do. To make matters worse, some of the felons who return to the neighborhood are quite charismatic and draw kids into their illegal activities. California has a very strong correctional institution, but prison should be used for rehabilitation. Now, due to a variety of factors, prominent among them politicians — including the Bush family, who feel they can only get elected by scaring the hell out of the white population — we have very harsh conditions in prison. During the sixties, you would often read about some black guy in prison who got a doctorate degree because of Pell Grants, but they cut these grants out even though they accounted for only one percent of the entire prison budget. The people who have the least to fear about crime — generally the suburbanites — are the ones driving this issue, primarily because they routinely see images of African Americans on television messing up, whether it be through television programs and movies, or through individuals like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson, or whomever.
JJM Sure, it sells big time.
IR It sure does. And because it sells, you have politicians like George Pataki whose only real issue is the death penalty — which means the death penalty for black people. Consequently, prisoners come back into society after having faced very harsh conditions, and they don’t come back into the suburbs, they come to our neighborhood, generally uneducated. Instead of taking advantage of having these people “cornered” while in prison, educating them and preparing them for society, we punish them. All you have to do is look to the example of Malcolm X, how he went to prison and came out a philosopher after having read so much.
JJM Oakland and the East bay were in the news a lot in the sixties, of course. Black Panther Party member David Hilliard said, “A lot of black people back East didn’t know Oakland existed. They knew Los Angeles and San Francisco. When they found out about us, they knew only that about Oakland.” How did the Panthers change the image of Oakland?
IR Police brutality is something African American people have had intimate knowledge of for generations. It has been an issue since slavery, when men on patrol would hunt down fugitive slaves, checking the papers of black people off the plantations. When slaves were transported from one place to another, at times they were held in prison without having committed a crime. So, we have had intimate knowledge of police brutality, and police brutality is one of the reasons that gave rise to the Panthers, who consequently changed the image of Oakland. During the sixties in Oakland, some of the members of the police force were recruited from the South because they knew how to handle black people, presumably, and they were viewed as roaming death squads. The Panthers responded by monitoring the police, which of course created problems for them. It led to an encounter with police officer John Frey and Panther leader Huey Newton, during which Frey was killed. This confrontation brought the Panthers international publicity, and the “Free Huey” movement was born. Before the Panthers, Oakland was like a feudalistic backwater run by a few families. Newton and the Panthers transformed the city, and when they began to participate in electoral politics, they actually succeeded in helping elect Oakland’s first black mayor, Lionel Wilson.
JJM Did the methods of the Panther’s political ascension and the way the media portrayed them make Oakland seem dangerously radical?
IR Even when I was living in Berkeley I never thought much about Oakland.
JJM Sure, but I have to tell you, when I was living in the Bay area at the time, between the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panthers, Oakland, Berkeley and the East bay area was portrayed as a pretty radical community — a place that made many people pretty squeamish.
IR The Black Panther movement was an international movement, and although Panther leader David Hilliard may disagree with me, this may have led to its downfall. During the time, New York liberals imposed a program upon the Panthers that was probably out of reach. Then, as now, they wanted to appoint our leaders. I remember seeing a copy of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice on Leonard Bernstein’s coffee table, for example. Ex-radicals and liberals had gotten hold of him and were pushing him, whose agenda was opposed to that of the Panthers. African Americans have little independence over who their cultural and political leaders are. They are generally appointed by whites who share similar views, just like the abolitionists appointed Frederick Douglas. That is why people are endeared to Malcolm X and Huey Newton because they at least came up from the grass roots. The Panthers were a community group, and perhaps if they remained simply a community group, they would still be around, but these other people came along and imposed their agenda on them. And now, ironically, the people who did that are part of the conservative group. It was much easier to be a white radical than a black radical, because a lot of the Panthers are still in jail.
JJM Yes, or dead.
IR Yes, and meanwhile the white radicals did great. If you are a black radical they can still put you in jail or kill you. White radicals, on the other hand, can run for president. Wasn’t John Kerry considered to be a radical?
JJM Well, the white elite of the era were very threatened by the Panthers, so much so that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called them “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” What tactics did he use to destroy the Panthers?
IR They infiltrated the organization with informants, and that is what really destroyed them. Also, just as the FBI pitted Elijah Muhammad against Malcolm X — which probably resulted in his murder — in this case they pitted Ron Karenga of the US organization against the Panthers, fighting over some black studies position at UCLA. Panthers “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins were murdered as a result of that.
In my introduction to the new edition of Soul on Ice, I write that the Panthers were caught in a family quarrel between the white right and the white left, and that the white right and the white left now have a consensus about African Americans — that the problems of African Americans are self-inflicted, or that homosexual or feminist issues are more important. Shirley Chisolm once said that she had more trouble being a woman than being black, so middle-class feminists adopted the argument that they faced the same problems and conditions as blacks. And many of the white politicians who are hostile to black people are quite favorable to gays. For example, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom has railed against the homeless — many of whom are blacks and veterans — but he is very favorable to gays. When Gray Davis was in trouble, even though African Americans supported him, he made his greatest appeals to gays, and backed civil unions. Politicians in general now see gay voters as a bloc they need to chase, but at the same time many are hostile to the black voter. Add to these constituencies white women, who gained more from the civil rights movement and affirmative action than any other group.
JJM How did the success of the Raiders and A’s teams of the sixties and seventies impact the image of Oakland, particularly in light of the type of players they employed? If you remember, Jack Tatum and George Atkinson of the Raiders were known for their aggressive play, and the entire A’s team for its free-spirited, argumentative personality.
IR I have to say that I don’t follow sports. I watch the Super Bowl and that’s about it, so I don’t think I can answer that question. The current Raiders situation played a big role in Jerry Brown’s election. The previous political administrators had made financial guarantees to Al Davis and the Raiders, and as a result, the city lost a lot of money. Brown ran against the people who made this deal with Davis, and made that a prominent issue in his campaign for mayor
JJM You have to admit that it is pretty amazing that they would make a deal with Davis, who often turned his back on the fans and city of Oakland.
IR Yes, its pretty nuts, isn’t it?
JJM In your 1974 book, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, you wrote, “Oakland is a churlish, grinding its pelvis to tough shipyard music. The last thing its Negro weekend casualties say to their wives before they go out of the house with their shotguns is ‘I’ll be right back.’ Even a rough-and-tumble painter like Joe Overstreet refuses to go into Oakland. He’ll drive to the border of the town and drop off passengers as if they were passengers at the edge of the world.” Would you write that about Oakland now?
IR I don’t think so. I would say that it is much more complex than what I wrote there. You can have a good life in Oakland, and the main problem we face now is that our leadership doesn’t have a clue. We need leadership that interacts with people and creates programs for people in need. We need someone like David Hilliard to interact with young men. So many kids in my own neighborhood never finish high school and consequently live their lives standing in front of liquor stores all day, and someone needs to inform them of opportunities in the community that may be available to them.
JJM Is the aura and power of the neighboring city of San Francisco too big for Oakland to overcome?
IR Well, San Francisco is a city on the decline, so I would have to say no. Many other cities around the Bay area are actually taking population from San Francisco. San Jose, for one, and Sacramento for sure, which is actually becoming a boom town.
JJM I began the interview by asking what your image of Oakland was when you were living in Buffalo in the sixties. What do you suppose a current resident of Buffalo’s image of Oakland is?
IR I would say that the Black Panthers are probably what most people know about Oakland. They are so iconic. And maybe the image of Oakland is that it is a black city, which it was at one point. At one time the publisher of the local paper was black, the head of the museum was black, and the conductor of the symphony was black — which we still have in Michael Morgan. But that has changed. The black power in Oakland has declined, and it is certainly not the same city that it was in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, but I doubt that the residents of Buffalo would necessarily know that.
About Ishmael Reed
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
IR I admired boxers and cowboys when I was young, so I would say my heroes at the time were Roy Rogers and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Ishmael Reed has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth and has long been on the faculty at U.C. Berkeley. Reed is the award-winning author of more than twenty books — novels, essays, plays, and poetry — that have been translated into seven languages. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was twice nominated for the National Book Award. He lives in Oakland, California.
Ishmael Reed products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on February 28, 2004
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with New York Mayor John Lindsay biographer Vincent Cannato.
* Text from publisher.