Hello, and thank you for taking the time to engage in this dialogue. Your willingness to hold these words is what makes them come to life and I am grateful for your ability to do such a task. Because you have opted into reading my story, I am going to be very transparent with you.
Everything I am writing is for Black Oakland natives, for those that gave birth to Oakland natives, for Black elders who paved the way for Oakland youth and youth internationally. It is our people who have shaped the famous culture of Oakland. It is our slang that has been falsely emulated, our sound attempted to be co-opted (though cannot be). It is our people that disproportionately die in these streets, our blood engraved into roadways, sidewalks, carpeted living rooms, BART Platforms, so on and so forth.
I write with the intention of sharing my story because I so desperately want to hear yours, and because I believe it is important for us to be the archivists of our own history. In this I dedicate my words to our healing, to Black intergenerational healing.
Because this is written for Black Oakland natives, everyone else must understand their position as a spectator, observing a personal conversation between Black folks.
My Oakland began with blood.
When I was born there was a rattle beneath the earth. Through my mother’s screams, my ancestor’s—whose bones were buried beneath Californian soil—welcomed me back home. It’s true, the Bay shook as I sprouted from the blues, pinks, purples, and reds that were both me and my mother. And when the greeting was complete, I was faced towards the living and met with my mission: to carry on the legacy of my people.
Though I can’t recall this moment from memory, I can imagine it: The drab, sterile interior of the Alta Bates hospital room, the look of excited agony on my mother’s freshly twenty-one year old face, her kinky hair, the tone of her voice as she pushed, the grip of her long black fingers as she was cut to release me, and the obvious fact that there was blood, the blood those that bring us into the universe sacrifice.
My father comes to mind too. His contribution being the lighter complexion of my skin, my Puerto Rican hair, and the Mexican shape of my body. But it wasn’t his blood that was shed for my arrival. It was because of my mother that all of these attributes became tied to the marker of divinity he was not blessed with; Blackness.
Your parents had somewhat of a typical Bay Area love story:
Your father drove a 1967, blue Mustang. One day, as he made his way down the streets of East Oakland, he came into alignment with your mother, who happened to have an affinity for cars. From the comfort of the sidewalk, she caught your father’s attention by way of a compliment. Her compliment became an invitation to join him for a ride, and that ride became the ten year on and off relationship you call your childhood.
Your mother was born with an appetite for love that had never been fulfilled. It was her skill to attract many, and her blood was the little she could give in return. She should have known better than to get in the car with a complete stranger, but
your father lacked the substance your mother wove from her longing, and when they found each other, they conjoined in a bond that contracted until it created you.
You believe your father was born with the gift of storytelling. It may be the old house of a friend in the East, or a new graffiti piece he drives you up and down Oakland’s streets looking for, that prompt him to expel his wisdom. Landmarks in the geography of his mind that make him reminisce on his days as a kid in the Town.
Your father wasn’t much of a storyteller before his father died. In life your grandfather was the grey-haired man who extended every vowel in your name when he saw you. Who spent good days on the front porch with a cigarette. Who drank Old English more than water. Coughed and spit loudly into a small trash can by the couch as he watched civil court on television. He was the only one who taught you to be proud of your Puerto Rican heritage, who gave fantastic hugs, and always kept you laughing.
When your grandfather died, his memory became obscured by your father's tales of childhood horror. Like the months your grandfather spent in Soledad prison. Or when your father walked into the bathroom to find your grandfather’s friend overdosed in the tub of the old house on 64th. The Scarface table of cocaine at the waterfront apartment in Jack London your father was brought to. The beatings of your grandmother and your father’s plea for her to leave.
Though you wanted to feel empathetic when your father shared his truths, you were embarrassed that these accounts assured you of your lineage. You too grew up witnessing drug deals and domestic abuse. You too found solace in your maternal grandfather whilst your father was “absent,” and lived a thirty minute drive away.
Each year removed from your grandfather’s death unlocks a new story. Recently, your father casually mentioned your grandfather’s hatred for Black people. You were seated in the passenger seat of his car. You can’t remember if you continued to look forward or turned to make eye contact. You wanted to say so much more after your father revealed that your grandfather used to be super racist and didn’t want him dating Black girls.
Instead you said, “Really?” and acted surprised while your body felt a peculiar clarity.
It made you think about your father as the first born to GLORIA RUIZ, and how he was doomed when named DANIEL, after his father. It was DANIEL who inherited the paternal familial job of drug dealing that contributed to the demise of the Black community, DANIEL who put his hands on the Black women he claimed he wouldn’t, and DANIEL who had Black children despite the argument that he never wanted them (although he told your mother otherwise).
You must grapple with the reality that, as a man born into systemic racism, anti-blackness has been integral to his survival. Although he may not see it this way because his sexual desires have lied in the favor of Black women, you too have to see this as a fetish, a fetish that stems from your grandfather’s anti-blackness, a family heirloom.
You feel that Black women would be better off without this man (women in general for that matter) but this does not negate the fact that you are his daughter—and a black woman at that.
Because your father was born here, he is your tie to this land. It is this connection he is referring to when he makes the grand statement that you are both ‘alike’. A phrase he especially likes to use when engaging in difficult conversations. But you see this as an unfortunate truth. You believe you are alike due to your shared talent of sewing yourselves up and acting as if the stitches are not bulging, the hesitation to admit that although you have kept yourself together, you are not protected from what’s underneath.
It is to this chaos that you owe your existence in Oakland.
It was the summer of 2017 that I thought I was leaving Oakland for good. I was freshly 18, accepted to “the college of my dreams,” and ready to get the hell out of the Bay Area. Or at least that was what I told people regarding my departure. The reality was that I felt pushed out of a place that was already slipping from me, where even in my closest friend groups I knew disaster was coming.
I was beginning to observe how every native (and transplant for that matter) loved to brag about the unmatched community they’d made in Oakland. This observation stemmed from my own dedication to the word ‘community’. Because social capital dictated the means of my perception in Oakland, I tried to make my ‘community’ as abundant as possible. I wanted to be known, even if it was by the older people who preyed on us young ones, the white / non Black people that utilized AAVE for their own social capital, the white girls who wore Nike’s and Jordan’s to sleazily reel in Black men, or the patriarchal fraternities that called themselves “collectives”. Yes, I was guilty, but I was one guilty person in a room full of witnesses to the same violence—a room of guilty people that called each other family, brother, kin.
Because the basis of our relationships were bonded in artistic collaborations, personal trauma, and dramas, our critiques had the power to shift the way we were perceived in larger social contexts. I knew if I stayed in Oakland I would never learn to outgrow my silence. Like almost every contemporary native, I ran to New York. I was bleeding but I didn’t notice yet.
Your mother, a Maryland born girl, was eleven years old when she moved to California. Her own mother was fleeing the drowning gunk expelled from her husband. Know that this gunk haunts your lineage like an illness. A direct product of war, this gunk, saturated with hues of orange, produces a sick twisted rage.
It almost killed your family, and now that it is in you, it is your prophecy to heal it.
Your trauma is inherently linked to the sprawling nerves of colonization. When you ignore this, you fail to recognize the same trauma embedded in others, but turning a blind eye is something the women in your family have mastered for episodic peace.
You tried to do things the “right” way. You got good grades, you were respectful, you were even personable to toxic people, you kept your pain private, you saved conversations for later (and said nothing when later never came). You went to a therapy of sorts so you could find the language to put everything you had been waiting to say in a book. When that book came, some family members couldn’t read it because it was too much. Some read it all the way through and never apologized for the atrocities they caused you, some said they had no idea you felt that way. All of them exclaimed that the book was good, and you began to question what good meant.
You left for New York with the same fantasy you can imagine Oakland transplants left their hometowns for: a restart—a visualization that made New York [or Oakland] citizens mythic, leaving you [them] ignorant to the nuances of their [your] hardships. One being the violence of your presence as a mode of cultural and physical gentrification under the guise of artistry.
Everyone wants to get away, but in this you fail to realize that the lesson will make space for itself in your suitcase, it will become the dirt under your fingernails, the virus that makes its way into your body. Your fate cannot escape you. No matter where you run to, you will always be running in circles. Look, you ran yourself right back to Oakland.
Your pain is rooted in Blackness, and until you recognize this, you will forever be caught in the habit of escapism. Your anxieties have a direct correlation to your liberation.
Your people have been coerced into a nonconsensual nomadic culture. Being that your presence has the potential to be displaced at any moment, your resilience allows you to develop / take part in Black culture wherever you go. Because you are tied to no land and so many lands at once, you have access to a paradoxical, transient movement.
In late December, a virus integrated itself into the blood of the streets. The tale was that it traveled from a corner in China and was making its way around the world. Everyone needed to be prepared. The government ordered people to stay home, limit touch, wear face masks, and monitor their symptoms. I decided if I was going to be anywhere for the end of the world, it would be my hometown. I left New York and returned to Oakland. As soon as I touched down, I became aware of a familiar blood: a gag inducing iron that began in my mouth and built up until fluid trickled down my torso. I left the airport for immediate isolation to ensure I wasn’t sick (or sicker than usual).
Due to my isolation, I started to become intimate with my sores, picking at the scabs to investigate the fresh pink underneath. I dug my fingernails into the dry blood and pried upwards until I was presented with more than the development of new skin. It was in the presence of myself that I found words and pulled them out my body like exposed nerves until they unraveled, extracting whole paragraphs. I read the stories of my inner workings: fragments of my parents, of their parents and those before them, pains and aches I’ve adopted from their bodies, their desires, grievances and wishes soaked in Black and written in red ink.
On the rare occasion that I left the house, I observed other Black Oakland Natives coughing up a similar concoction of cells. Red stained their masks and revealed itself to passersby. There could be so much that it ran down the side of the curb and slipped through the bars of rain gutters. On a hot day, you could smell the iron rising from sewage. So many of us were partaking in the expulsion of our innards, but it was an act too painful to watch. Just a glance brought the intensity of the feeling, so we passed each other as if it was unseen. The result of our collective silence was a clogging thick that denied our bodies proper circulation, bringing past, present, and future to conjoin and become a swelling clot.
After the release of the video depicting Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, Oakland was beaten, and for the next two weeks the city was covered in glass. Wooden boards, like decorative bandages, replaced the windows of storefronts. Although white people were shocked by the damage of their so cherished, monopolized businesses, the Black Oakland natives knew that the overflow of Black rage had come again.
We had seen this before with the military occupation of Downtown during the Occupy movement, with the riots that followed the death of Oscar Grant, the vigils at MacArthur Bart Station for Nia Wilson. Though these were more publicized iterations of Black resistance, there were a number of personal resistances scattered across the 510. In times as such, the performance of care was accepted and regenerated city-wide. Which is not to say that the care, or presence of solidarity was disingenuous, but that the same could not be said of daily interactions of people constantly living amidst trauma.
When the streets grew rampant with police violence, I lended myself to volunteer work. I was excited to reconnect with the people I had cherished for so many years, to see people in general since the virus destroyed opportunities for familiar intimacy. In the beginning I was enthralled by the zeal expressed by each volunteer, but as time progressed and the intertwinings of complicated home lives affected us all, we didn't have the radical education necessary to utilize our energy sustainably. Not all of us had the time, energy, safety, or trust to share the nuances of our pain.
Where there is survival there is resilience, but unfortunately where there is resilience there is not always healing. The concept of healing is complicated for us natives. The legacy of Oakland’s social justice history puts pressure on Millenial and Gen Z activists. Presumably we are to be picking up where our elders left off. Though most are drawn to the “fantasy” of miltiance painted for us by the Black Panther Party, there is no concrete understanding of the responsibility of such an experience.
It’s important to clarify that in no way, shape or form, is this specific critique Black Oakland natives’ fault. The historic implications of the AIDS and crack epidemic (the war on drugs), the Vietnam War, and the prison industrial complex have played an integral role in the erasure of our elders. Which is not to mention the U.S. government’s habit of executing Black people that exhibit radical behavior. The people who should have been there to teach us how to do things right were killed and their peers equally traumatized.
That being said, there was an apparent need for us to acknowledge. The United States was twenty steps ahead of our first move, because times like this weren’t new. Utilizing public colonial platforms such as Instagram or Twitter to promote our rallies, meetings, protests, and gatherings was a bad idea. Having white people in our spaces was a step backwards because the lines of communication between Black people needed and still do need intense mending. Black people must grieve together before we can fight together, we must fight together before we can celebrate together.
In your suffering, you are not so unique. Your story is just one of the many complicated stories of how Oakland natives came to be. For others it began with work insecurity, radical prophecy, to join a lover, to find community, or to find a place closer to the water to call home. Which is to say that Oakland has been and is many different things for different people, and all of these things are true.
Because all Black Oakland natives experience oppression differently (all oppressed people are not a monolith), the way you envision / perceive liberation will vary. This does not mean you should ignore the differences of those with which you share oppression-hood. But rather, that you have a responsibility to make yourself hyper aware of the nuance of their experience. Pay attention to ways that violence is enacted upon them so that you can lend yourself to the labor of defending and affirming your family.
What you will find hard in this journey, is not that you will have to accept the world for the state it is in, but that you will have to look at yourself for what and who you are right now—not who you think you will become, or should be. Which will take a complete confrontation of the self, the very practice of decolonization.
Before you can properly contextualize your family, you have to forgive them. In order to fully understand their oppression, you have to understand their humanity.
For Black natives in Oakland, our most apparent, yet silent desire is to grieve together. Not only to grieve the deaths of our kin, but the death of our city, our nostalgia, and home. When will the act of looking at each other’s scars be met with longing rather than repulsion? When will we be able to hold each other again for all that we’ve seen and all that we’ve become? I do not know how many more stories I can pull out of myself until there is nothing left of my body, until the bleeding stops