I woke up early Sunday morning with a plan to do two things: 1) Eat at Brown Sugar Kitchen, a local soul food restaurant I’ve been meaning to try since April. 2) Get to the Oakland Museum of California to see the video installation Question Bridge: Black Males, which artist LaShaun Fitch informed me about several weeks earlier. I was spending a day with my blackness.
Sunday was gorgeous. After getting off at the West Oakland bart station I quickly found my way to Mandela Parkway. The Parkway at 9:00 am on a Sunday morning is a strangely expansive yet quiet stretch of road, hosting block after block of perfectly dilapidated factory buildings and closely spaced housing. My favorite structure, a large brick edifice, boasted “American Steel” in large, white block lettering. It was easy to pretend that I was the last person on earth that morning. I walked in the middle of the road, unchallenged by man or automobile.
There is some change coming over me, and I felt it at my core that morning. I’ve been noticing small shifts lately. On Friday I wrote this in my notebook after choosing to watch a play (Sam Shepard’s Buried Child) alone, dismissing an invite to drink with coworkers and a second offer to eat with an old friend:
I watched my twenties prance away from me today. Their party dresses, tight jeans, and brightly painted lips skipped lightly down the sidewalk, arm in arm. It was nice to see them disappear around a corner. I feel lonely in a way I’ve never felt before. A contented loneliness. I just watched an enormous hole form in my life, and I’m wondering what its gonna get filled up with.
I feel like the days of reckless abandon are gone. I’m hoping to welcome the days of thoughtful abandon soon.
Sunday was the first time in weeks that I’d been with myself fully and it felt wonderful. A book (Angela Davis’ Women, Culture and Politcs), some headphones, and my feet, with the mission to find some food and some art. Almost everything I’ve ever needed.
My first discovery was this mural, painted on the side of some kinda building, surrounded by chain link fencing on all sides. I found myself manuevering in strange ways to get a clear photo of the work, and when I finally got the right angle I was sitting on the ground, legs splayed out in front. I took a moment to reflect on where I was, what I had just been reading, what I was looking at, and the fact that the words included an article of clothing. I focused on what it all meant to me. Before long I was crying like a babe, sitting on the ground with a camera phone in one hand, all by myself. Would have been interesting for someone else to come and see me like that, but no one was around.
I started to look around The Parkway to see what other art I could find. I felt like a huntress, trying to find evidence of genuinely free expression in a world that so frequently harnesses creative forces for it’s own benefit. Evidence that someone like me had been down this path before.
It didn’t take me long to find other works. First there was this graffiti Buddha:
And then I stumbled on the motherload, a place I’ve named The Land of Giants. I’ve seen several of these works in San Francisco. There is one in front of the United Nations Plaza on Market Street, a giant steel plant that rises and twists out of the concrete. A bit of beauty in the city’s center, which if often not so beautiful. And there is another, the sculpture of a woman, somewhere in Hayes Valley. I remember coming across it while looking for Dark Garden, a custom corset shop.
I still haven’t been able to remember or find out who the artist is that does all of this amazing work, but I happened on some kind of storage facility for several of them. It was a breathtaking and unbelievable sight to behold. I was lucky that one of the main gates was open and I could easily get close to these impossibly huge creations. I am not sure that my humble camera phone pictures capture the enormity of these sculptures, but look for little visual cues to help with scale (like the bus that shrinks into tininess in comparison).
From what I can tell these sculptures are made from recycled and reconstituted steel. Her hair is made out of chain.
I got pretty intimate with one of the sculptures, the one that is crouching on hands and knees in the third photo. I crawled under it’s belly to take this photo of it”s guts. It felt really warm and safe under there. What a bright morning.
One of my favorite things to do is to sneak into places I feel I shouldn’t be, unnoticed and unquestioned. I’ve done it in restaurants and bars, museums, theaters, pools, amphithetres, partially constructed buildings, future places of employment, the Rodarte studio in LA, house parties, and on Sunday I snuck onto this lot to hang out with these folks.
I skipped out of the TLOG just as a man arrived on his bicycle. He didn’t notice me.
Brown Sugar Kitchen was only a few blocks away and I walked briskly in it’s direction, hoping I wouldn’t have too long to get a table. My friend Julia told me she’d gone there a few weeks ago and had to wait 45 minutes. My stomach was in no condition for such hold ups. I entered and was greeted by the friendly host who was in the midst of telling other parties that there was a one hour minimum wait. He turned to me, “How are you this morning?” “I’m wonderful. How is your morning?” I responded. “It’s beautiful.”
Since I was by myself I was seated immediately, and decided to have their classic: buttermilk fried chicken and cornmeal waffles. I downed several cups of coffee, and occasionally chatted with the woman sitting next to me. The meal was excellent, like most meals are, and I continued on my journey feeling especially perky. I left a note on the receipt, it said something like:
Thank you for the excellent meal and thank you for working on Sunday. I’m sure there are a million other things you’d rather be doing/people you’d like to be spending time with. Your sacrifice is appreciated.
Best Wishes, L
The next leg of my walk was a long one. I went from West Oakland, down Grand Avenue, through the city center, where remnants of Occupy Oakland remain, towards Lake Merritt. Two things stand out in my mind from this leg of the journey. On the wall of what looked like a large apartment building was a Kaiser Permanente ad. It showed a little black girl in striped socks and roller skates, but it didn’t show the whole girl. She was only photographed from her feet to right before her crotch. The word “Thrive” was printed somewhere on the ad. The image didn’t reveal what kind of clothing she was wearing on the bottom half. Roller skates, socks, and brown knees and thighs were all on display. I saw it as unnecessarily suggestive, why not just show the whole girl? I was reminded of the painful history that black women’s bodies, even black children, have survived while attempting to live and as Kaiser put it “thrive” in America. Upset doesn’t come close to describing how I felt in that moment.
The other thing that stood out was a fabric store I found along the way.
I reached the Museum, and was given my free ticket (first Sunday’s at OMCA are free), and chose a free locker to put my things in.
I didn’t really look at anything else in the museum that day because I had come to see Question Bridge, and nothing else seemed as important. Besides, I’ve been to OMCA several times and know I’ll go back again.
The video installation was simple. 5 or 6 flat screens lined the curved wall of a dark room. Several circular cushion stools sat in a row, positioned to see all screens easily. There was plenty of standing room. I was lucky enough to nab a cushion stool, and spent the next two hours in the darkness, listening to the experiences and viewpoints from black men of all ages, socioeconomic statuses, sexual orientations, occupations, etc. ask each other questions and have them answered by other black men.
For a little bit of context:
Question Bridge: Black Males is an innovative video installation created by Chris Johnson and artists Hank Willis Thomas in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair after traveling around the country interviewing 150 Black men in eleven cities. They created 1,500 videos of conversations with men representing a range of geographic, generational, economic, and educational levels. They then wove the conversations together to simulate a stream-of-consciousness dialogue, allowing important themes and issues to emerge, including family, love, interracial relationships, community, education, violence, and the past, present, and future of Black men in American society. The project will be on view simultaneously at OMCA, the Brooklyn Museum, the Castain Art Center in Atlanta, and Salt Lake City Arts Center.
If anyone is curious about the installation, I would recommend seeing it. I experienced the full range of emotions, and was surprised by most of what I saw and heard. The most interesting part of the experience was seeing black men in a safe space that felt totally free of judgement. A place where they could share their experiences openly and honestly, without being criticized. It reminded me that context is incredibly important. Something about sharing the experience of being black and male created a zone that was honest and open and many times emotional. I haven’t seen many men cry, in fact, I’ve never seen my father cry and I saw a few men, most of them my father’s age, shed tears on those screens.
It reminded me of Dave Chappelle’s Ask a Black Dude, but with more heart, and hopefully with more far-reaching positive consequences. I could definitely see this format replicated with many populations. ***Hey Hank (one of the co-creators of the exhibit), how about a callabo? Me and you talking to black ladies. I especially want to focus on the themes of dreams, pleasure, needs, and desires. Whaddaya think?***
My favorite questions:
1. The youngest (and cutest) participant, who looked to be around 9 asked, “How will I know when I’m a man?”
2. “Why are black men afraid to be smart?
3. “What’s so cool about crack?”
4. How do you know you’ve met the woman you want to spend your life with?
5. Why don’t black men go to the doctor?
This exhibit allowed me to stare at every beautiful face for as long as I wanted and celebrate the diversity that exists within black culture. It’s not easy for me to look at men. In my experience many men, of all races and places, actively avoid my gaze. Still, I keep trying to find sincere souls through eye contact. Most times it turns out fine, but any man could be a threat. Looking at them sometimes means that, as a woman, I receive unwanted and disrespectful attention. Again, this is not true all of the time, but it’s a subtle thing that I’ve noticed. The exhibit provided a safe place for me as well. A place where I could look at a man and not have to have my guard up to deflect unwanted sexual advances. I could stare into their eyes and they could stare into mine, and I could really listen to the way they felt about things without them feeling like they were supposed to be do anything else.
Most importantly this exhibit exploded the idea that there is a singular black, male experience. If black males from different walks of life have questions for each other, ways of living that they haven’t experienced or don’t understand, then that necessarily means that the only true thing that all black men have in common with each other is that they are black and that they are male. Nothing more, nothing less.
Love and Enjoy!