Editor’s Note: This article is written by Heather Jones for Wear Your Voice Mag
“If shit pops off and we’ve got to die, please tell the children we were fighting the fight for the tree of life. It’s outrageous the things that are going on. Black lives matter. Our lives matter.”
These words were beautifully sung by the Oakland-based band MoonCandy during their performance at last Saturday’s Life is Living Festival at Defremery Park in West Oakland. Their lyrics reflect both the unsettling and transformative reality of being a black person living in Oakland, because we are living in a cultural, political, and economic battleground.
Since the 1950s, West Oakland has been a predominately black community of middle to lower class residents while also serving as the cornerstone of liberatory movements and black intellectual thought. Yet according to the 2010 Census report, Oakland has more white residents than black inhabitants for the first time since the 1970s. Moreover, according to an article by CityLab, West Oakland’s white population has doubled in the past 10 years. These changing dynamics are causing a forced exodus of Oakland’s black community that’s being propelled by buzzwords such as “revitalization” and “rejuvenation”.
Despite these dreary times of displacement, we are seeing glimmers of liberation, seeds of resistance, reflections of joy. Through it all, we continue to thrive. The Life is Living Festival is one of the many expressions of a movement that’s being fueled through self expression, love, art, and shared community. Spaces like this speak to a magnetic element of Oakland that continues to attract black people from across the U.S. and continues to hold space for unapologetic blackness. We are creators at our very core and despite attempts to push us out of this city, we are holding space for our culture and celebrating its beauty.We are healing through unbridled joy, while advocating for ourselves through self-care and activism.We are a powerful force to be reckoned with.
One thing that I love about Oakland is the proud expression of African culture. When I’m out and about, I’m in awe of locs of all lengths and colors, folks proudly sporting their afros and twist-outs, innovative and handcrafted jewelry adornments, and vibrant African prints and headwraps. I’m able to breathe a little easier residing in a place where I feel comfortable expressing my heritage without all of the usual invasive questions and commentary that I might encounter in other cities. It’s simply not tolerated in Oakland. However, I am acutely aware that this comfort is being threatened daily, and I recognize the battle of visibility and ownership black Oaklanders are facing. The push out we are undergoing causes us to question our ability to maintain a place to safely express our black identity.
This brings us to our good old friend Zipporah Gene’s accusation of Black Americans appropriating African culture. In this article she critiqued black American as being no different from white people when we wear African garb. But in her analysis she left out an essential piece. Wearing clothing that connects us to our African roots is not simply a fashion trend. It’s an act of defiance against the white supremacist society we’re surrounded by; a society that in both historic and contemporary times has attempted the erase our identity and our overall right to exist.
Case in point, Lake Merritt is now facing noise sanctions that target African drumming, despite it being a practice that has positively engaged Oakland locals for many years, serving as a unifying presence at the lake. However, Lake Merritt is now an elite neighborhood for the city’s top income earners, and it’s getting whiter by the day. Not only are these new residents not interested in learning about their neighborhood’s cultural legacy; many are utilizing their socioeconomic privilege to lodge complaints and chip away at yet another essential piece of Oakland’s culture.
Proudly expressing our African roots in a historically black city that’s rapidly becoming anti-black, goes way beyond fashion. It has everything to do with identity, space, belonging, and our right to the city. It’s about finding ways to collect pieces of what’s been taken from us while preserving and creating new spaces where we can continue to be unapologetically black within a white supremacist structure. We have a long road ahead of us and it may get worse before it gets better, but we must continue to push for a thriving black community in Oakland for ourselves, our children, and future generations to come. And through it all we must never forget our power to create. We are vibrant, we are here, and we are LIVING.
Photo credit: Heather Jones