Don’t sleep on Oakland — not just Ryan Coogler
The origin/evolution of many Black creative talents & social justice leaders
The San Francisco Bay Area has always been a diverse and unique place, but as an Oakland-native I always felt this town, or The Town — as some of us call it, is exceptional. In the SF Bay Area there are many types of migration geographies: those of Black American people from the U.S. South who migrated here during and after World War II; particularly from Louisiana and Mississippi. Before that, Chinese workers and labourers built the railroads that allowed for the Westward expansion of the U.S. settler colonies in 19th century. California used to be Mexico so there have always been Mexicans here and there are Latin Americans communities as well who migrated in the 50s and 60s. There are large Filipino and Vietnamese communities; in fact, after Spanish, Tagalog is the most commonly spoken foreign language. The Bay Area, and Oakland especially, has always been a city of hybrid culture. Although gentrification has decreased the amount of demographic diversity in this region in general, Oakland still remains one of the most diverse and culturally competent cities in the United States — in addition to places like New York, Austin, and Washington D.C. This is much of the reason why people want to move here in the first place.
As a result of this history of diversity, Oakland has been a hub for arts and activism. It is where the Black Panther Party started and a place where arts, culture and activism has been seamlessly integrated. Especially for Black/POC artists, Oakland is a place where they are from and/or would come. During the World War II years Maya Angelou lived in West Oakland. Ruth Beckford, a dancer and choreographer was born and raised in Oakland, where she was the pioneer of the African Diaspora dance scene in Oakland beginning in the late 1940s. Alice Walker has spent a lot of time in Oakland and written about her appreciation for this city. Fantastic Negrito spent many of his formative years in Oakland. Most recently and most notably Oakland’s own Ryan Coogler has risen to fame, first and foremost with his film Fruitvale Station, which poignantly maps the reality of the precariousness of life for many Black men, and Black people, in Oakland and other cities in the United States. He then did Creed, and of course has blown us all away this past weekend with Black Panther. Oakland is so proud of him and yet it only makes sense to me that he is from here.
Growing up I knew that Tom Hanks was from the Bay Area where he attended Skyline High School in Oakland and studied at Chabot College. Notwithstanding, my community and world was always filled with artists, creatives, and academics who had always been inspiring pioneers even if they were not as well-known for their work. Oakland is a place where artists and creators are able to reimagine realities, describe nuanced stories, use limits as a source of inspiration, and use the city as a canvas. Despite intense gentrification over the past two decades in part due to the northern expansion of Silicon Valley, Oakland is still a hub for Black music, arts, culture, liberal politics, activism, and diversity. Although some of these aspects are being challenged and displaced by rapid gentrification and technologization.
Even if public schools here do not have funding for or robust music and art programs there are many nonprofits and cultural spaces that have been created to foster and support youth arts education; among them Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Youth Speaks, and Eastside Arts Alliance to name a few. Over the past nearly 70 years Oakland, and the Bay Area more generally, has produced phenomenal creative talent and steadfast activists. From Bernice Bing to Wendy Yoshimura who represent the Asian arts diaspora; Bernice Bing being Chinese American and Wendy Yoshimura having been born in a Japanese internment camp in California. In the realm of politics and activism there is Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale all the way to Kamala Harris. More recently in entertainment we have actors like Mahershala Ali, Daveed Diggs, and Zendaya Coleman who was several years younger than me when we attended Redwood Day School together.
This place has produced thoughtful, insightful, meaningful creative talent and it will continue to do so as long as the people who are apart of this culture can continue to afford to live here, which is unfortunately not the case for many artists and activists anymore. Oakland does not have to rival New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta to be a hub from which renoun creative talent hails. It is because of the history of cultural communities in this city, the creativity of the people who make it up, its proximity to U.C. Berkeley, as well as the social issues that have plagued Oakland in the past (such as gun violence) and on a certain scale continue to do so — that make this place ripe for creation. If gentrification pushes these communities out then the artists and activists that are produced from them will no longer be here to make this place as special has it has been to me and others who grew up here like Ryan Coogler. The expansion of the tech sector is creating more homogeneity in a place that thrives from heterogeneity. The creative talent here is made of this heterogeneity, edginess, and diasporan activism that is being threatened.
Ryan, Mahershala, and Zendaya are just some of those who “made it,” but represent a small glimpse of the talent that exists within and is from Oakland. When you are from here and have been from here — there is an understanding of this place as a creative hub and a center for artists and activists even if the rest of the world has yet to recognize it. Now people are starting to realize they should not sleep on Oakland or the Bay Area! Even with Silicon Valley and the tech companies, certainly before Silicon Valley, and hopefully even after Silicon Valley, this place has always been and will always be a producer of some of the greatest creators in music, film, art, activism, and culture.