"Blues City: A Walk In Oakland"

"Blues City: A Walk In Oakland"

Blues City: A Walk In Oakland
by Ishmael Reed

Crown Journeys Series, Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.,  New York

Review by Norman Douglas


      "Most of us spend our lives viewing our environment through a haze, but if we work hard enough, the haze lifts and the view becomes limitless"

-- from "The Universe," in Blues City: A Walk in Oakland by Ishmael Reed (p. 188)


Ishmael Reed's Blues City: A Walk in Oakland is perhaps best summed up as the author's refutation of the way in which famed scribbler Gertrude Stein once characterized the other city by the San Francisco Bay: "There's no there there." While Reed calls Oakland home, he is a transplant, a native of Buffalo, New York. His first excursion Out West in 1958 ended up a kind of mixed blessing. Reed traveled there with two friends, David and Kirk, one white, the other an indigenous American -- a fact Reed (and David) learned only after they had arrived in San Francisco, where Kirk, who drove, "slammed the brakes in anger" at David's remark, "'Look at those drunken Indians.'" "Kirk said, 'You've been seated next to one all day.'"


Spending a couple of months around North Beach -- already Beatnik Central, USA -- the three travelers, "unable to find jobs, headed back to Buffalo." Thus, Reed's first encounter with the Bay Area not only bore no fruit, it skirted his future home in favor of the more reputable, culturally prominent, poetically renowned City of Seven Hills.


The blessing disguised by the first leg of Reed's trip did not take place in California, but in North Platte, Nebraska, on the way Back East. Stranded after Kirk was arrested for speeding, Reed and David found themselves the recipients of an outpouring of hometown hospitality. Spotted by an American Indian woman and a black man, Reed found himself "a kind of celebrity, accorded the kind of treatment that black American celebrities received in Europe at the time." After enjoyments that included a show put on by "a man claiming to be Buffalo Bill's grandson," Reed and friend were granted an audience with the town's plug hat-wearing judge. He released Kirk from jail on hearing that the trio were students and needed to resume their studies. "After the coldness of San Francisco ... [the three friends] welcomed the warmth of North Platte."


Beginning his career as a writer in Buffalo, Reed headed for New York a few years later. Reed briefly documents his rise, beginning in 1962, through the city's cultural milieu. Without enumerating his string of literary accomplishments -- this is a book about Oakland, after all -- Reed claims that he was "not ready for early literary success. I messed up. Drank too much. Talked too much. Left a trail of hurt feelings. My poetry was quoted in the New York Times. My name was dropped in gossip columns. I wasn't up to the dinners held in my honor at Doubleday's townhouse, the adulation of women, the fame that accompanied being young, gifted, and black in the New York of the 1960s. The jacket of my first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was put up on the wall at Chumley's months before the book itself had even come out."


He lived with Carla Blank, a dancer/choreographer who became (and remains) his wife. Despite the success that the couple enjoyed (Carla worked on an equal footing with Meredith Monk, Elaine Summers, Sally Gross, and collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi), they both sought "new challenges." Loathe to wear out his welcome, he and Carla headed to Los Angeles in 1967. By September, they had moved to Berkeley -- no less a hotbed of social, cultural, and political activity in those heady times than New York (albeit with less chance of "murder by affection"). The following year, UC Berkeley English professor Thomas Parkinson invited Reed to teach. He never left. But ten years would go by before, in 1979 -- the year I arrived to live in West Oakland and finish my BFA at San Francisco Art Institute -- the Reeds found their home.


In 1979, when I moved to Oakland, the city was a model for black power, partially due to the efforts of the Black Panther party, which had helped transform the city from a feudal backwater run by a few families into a modern city with worldwide recognition. From the seventies through the nineties, there was a black mayor, a black symphony conductor, a black museum head, black members of the black city council and, in Robert Maynard, the only black publisher of a major news daily. Mayor Lionel Wilson ... and other black elected officials openly attributed their electoral success to support from the Black Panther party. The Panthers supported the campaign of our current mayor, Jerry Brown, too, and the scene at his commune after he'd won the mayoral election in 1999 resembled a Black Panther party reunion. But soon the Panthers and many other black supporters broke with Brown ... (pp.19-20)


My own sojourn in the Bay Area, from 1979 to 1982, were the most culturally nationalist years of my life. (Some might disparagingly argue that I should have better written "My Life As An Oreo.") I went around calling myself by the Swahili variant of my given (Scots) name. I avoided my white schoolmates in favor of the black artists (including several dancers) I met at Oakland's Everybody's Arts Center, Laney College and the Dimensions Dance Theater, where I served as technical director {1}. I taught poetry and photography at inner-city schools, at the aforementioned Opera House {2}, and with a program for incarcerated teens in the Haight. Something about the Bay Area -- about California, in general -- has always struck me as racially polarizing, a gut feeling I have never successfully explained to myself. Nor have I been able to shake it. Once I got Back East, the trappings of black nationalist rage I felt and openly expressed while Out West disappeared. I found myself graciously cleansed of the plastic burden of California consciousness -- of Jheri curl grease on the bus windows and seatbacks, of black men with wave hairdos; where being white was the penultimate achievement, while being of color was an obstacle to overcome through all one's waking hours. I also worried that California consciousness was creeping across the country, that it foretold the future of America. Barring the obvious sins of the Reagan era that chased me overseas to Paris in the late Eighties, the years since OJ's low-speed chase seem to have borne out my trepidation. While not prepared to declare myself a cultural nationalist, it is not hard to recognize the racial re-polarizing of the States (which is not to say it was even close to depolarized).


Naturally, Reed's book does not speak to my experience in the Bay Area, nor does it directly address my concerns regarding This Great Nation of ours. He does emphasize the relationship between Oakland's regional history -- its characters and characterizations -- in terms of America's history. He cites numerous texts to establish the connection, such as The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands: "In the aftermath of the Gold Rush, a new American dream was born -- the enduring conviction that sudden wealth was potentially within everyone's grasp." As a resident of Oakland, Reed writes to recreate his own experience there. And he has constructed Blues City following a strategy revealed in the subtitle, A Walk In Oakland. Over the course of a year or so, Reed is accompanied by family, friends, and assorted others who avail themselves of the city's easy layout, strolling through a host of civic and cultural activities and events: the Jack London Waterfront Walk, the black cowboy parade, Kwanzaa, a powwow, the Chinatown festival, a tour of Old Oakland, the City Center tour, the Peralta House, the Preservation Park picnic, the Black Panther picnic, El dia de los muertos (The Day of the Dead), an Oakland Heritage Alliance ceremony honoring the African American Museum and Library, the Black Panther tour led by former party chairman David Hilliard, a Fruitvale district tour, the BBQ, Beer, and Blues Festival, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex Pride Festival, Art and Soul Weekend ...


And what makes each of these events resonate is the fact that Reed makes contact with someone knowledgeable at each. In italicized passages, he revives these voices as they addressed him, capturing their candor as well as their selflessness. He has assembled a chorus of people who are committed to the city they live in. These are people whose work is not just a job, but a means to stave off oblivion. While not all of the people remember the histories and personalities they relate through direct contact, they have assumed the humanity of their social forbears as genuine.


Reed uncovers these qualities because he is the kind of teacher who cannot hide his lust for learning, his consummate skill as a listener. And as a listener, he writes for his subjects as much as for himself: "If I had not written this book, I would not have become acquainted with Oakland's many worlds. Nor would I have met the many volunteers, the true heroes and heroines of the city who strive to keep Oakland alive in the face of fierce and often malevolent forces of development." Deftly delivering these anecdotes and vignettes in subtly varied stylistic shifts, Reed is a proven craftsman whose forty-plus years of promoting American letters comes across in crisp, pointed prose. He conveys ideas as well as images, embellishing his vivid imagery with appropriate ideas. Avoiding clutter, he constructs information-loaded paragraphs that are deceptively brief.


In one exemplary passage, he visits the Chabot Space and Science Center, a facility affiliated with both NASA and the Smithsonian. He writes:


After touring the classrooms and the mock Challenger space station, after crossing a sky bridge to the Dellums building from the Sprees building, Tennessee and I join Sprees in watching a movie in the Tien MegaDome Theater. It shows an exploration of the inner body, and Tennessee finds it hard to take at certain points. After watching the stomach break down foods like some sort of washing machine, I vow to chew my food more carefully. The next morning, while swimming at the YMCA, I see myself as a movie skeleton moving through the waters, an image triggered by having watched moving about in everyday activities the day before. The Chabot Center is a gigantic, transformative teaching tool; when you exit, you're not the same person who entered.


Without the literary pyrotechnics that plague many writers, Reed transforms the reader using straightforward language. He neither talks down to his reader, nor sucks up to the literate acrobats of too many postmodern prose writers. {3}



"The city" as inspiration for literary memoir may be approached from any number of perspectives. The last such book I read was Colson Whitehead's \italic{Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Chapters}. Whitehead writes about a mythic New York; the great city that arouses wonder and hyperbole by the truckload. Whitehead accomplishes this mythologizing by relying on the sense of anonymity the city engenders. Not a beautiful portrait of New York but an ironic one, the writing nonetheless conveys the beauty of New Yorkers' anonymous unity. Whitehead, like Reed, has listened to the city's residents and molded the classical persona of the title through their voices, their plaintive laments, their careful hopes, their controlled despair. His subtitle, A City in Thirteen Chapters, suggests an episodic television broadcast, one starring his Colossus at the center of a sit-com, a sardonic series somewhere between Sex and the City and The Honeymooners (in tone, rather than content), a program of comic paradoxes.


Reed, on the other hand, has written a memoir full of history. He does not pretend that history -- even when nearly forgotten -- does not matter. He sets forth to challenge whatever recent received ideas we now circulate regarding this city; he is not separate from this "we." Further, he does not claim to discover his identity through his narrative. But Reed wants to demystify Oakland; he has long written from the position of a debunker of myths. While the fog of ignorance can be quite familiar, its dispersal is ultimately greater; even -- as cited in this essay's epigram -- "limitless."


While Reed never answers my Californiaphobia, he has painted a tableau that portrays a modern city with historic roots I scarcely saw (or sought). Whitehead's New York is ahistorical; a city that -- maybe through the arrogance of its willful deracination, its secret law of everything at once -- develops and assumes a peculiar character precisely because it is so archetypical.


In the end, neither city can belong to either author. More to the point, no city belongs to any one person. Both writers cannot avoid creating composites; this is how a city reveals itself. The Blues, which Reed invokes throughout his book, and the mythic, which Whitehead evokes through his Colossus, differ in form. But like cities, they represent cultural composites. Made of so many, it is remarkable that anyone would dare to speak for such monstrous hydras as cities present.


To convey as clear a picture as Reed does -- building his image one walk at a time, one encounter after another, each citizen leisurely recalling those before and around him or her -- is a laudable achievement, to say the least. To do so in so few pages (both books come in at under two hundred pages) is what makes Blues City read like poetry. Reed mentions that he reread Homer's Odyssey -- among several other books -- while at work on Blues City. And Blues City, while written as prose, reminds one of the measured style that one hears in narrative verse. Having listened to -- and heard -- Mr. Reed speak and read on numerous occasions over the past twenty-five years, I mentioned to Steve Cannon, his erstwhile partner and colleague, that Reed's voice jumps off the page, comes through the printed text -- its cadence, its rhythm, its intonations and inflections -- as if he was in the room reading aloud. "That's what a writer's supposed to do," remarked Cannon. "Isn't it?" That may be enough, but in Blues City, the writer has accomplished (or has he revealed?) so much more. However true or untrue Gertrude Stein's statement may have been regarding the Oakland of the early twentieth century, there is definitely a lot of "there" in Reed's book. Read it and go there.



That Reed left the Bay Area in the company of the same two guys with whom he arrived, that the high point of that first trip was the time spent in North Platte, suggests the writer's aversion to irresponsible antics. Reed, the first African American writer to inspire my literary ambitions with his second novel, Yellow Back Radio Brokedown (which had me devouring the two other novels he had done --  The Freelance Pallbearers and Mumbo Jumbo -- in quick succession), has long channeled his adventurous side -- the Call of the Wild {4}, if you will -- into his writing. While idiots like myself have shipwrecked any promise we may have hoped for in the pursuit of negligent recklessness, Reed wisely chose the course of an adventurous recluse. Experience takes us along many paths, but a productive and inspirational output like Reed's requires a degree of consistency that escaped countless colleagues and peers of all three generations. The obscurity, the spare and spotty records, the mediocrity of much of the Beat Generation of writers may amuse us, but their works lack the craft that their crafty lives pretended to; their oeuvres are like footnotes to the biographies of their queer, fucked-up lives. In the end, the tight, concise, content-rich texts that Ishmael Reed has consistently completed over the last forty years comes of a dedication to communication, rather than a muddle of self-medicated speculations posing as meditative ruminations.



1 They still called me Oreo at the Bayview Hunters Point Opera House, where I was also tech director. But that's another story.


2 Actually a small facility in a predominantly black district "across the tracks" on the San Francisco side of the bay.


3 Indeed, as a writer, the book has been immensely instructive in terms of its technical feats. Reed's prowess is surprisingly understated, a fact that in no way suggests a lack of force. If anything, the low key "delivery" packs power into phrases that seem as calm as a mountaintop lake, and just as profound.


4 Radical writer Jack London plays a great part in Oakland history and, as such, in Reed's Blues City.


© 2003 Norman Douglas. New York City December 5, 2003