Preserving Our Own Personal Black History

Kumi Rauf, founder of “I Love Being Black,” taking a photo of the wristbands on the arms of young folks at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland.  (Pendarvis Harshaw)

On this last day of Black History Month, my spirit is channeling the stories of Tubman, Parks, and King, as well as the tales of X, Garvey and Chisholm. And beyond that, heavy on my heart are the less popular tales: the grandparents who worked until their grand babies were in college, the mother who held down two jobs, just to come home and teach her children arithmetic, the formerly incarcerated brother who got out on appeal after applying information he received by reading a law book or two.

The lesser-known bearers of black history. The ones whose stories don’t appear in books. Their tales aren’t mammoth legends known around the world, but their individual stories combine to paint a thorough narrative of a people; my people.

There are microcosms of black history walking the streets of America. I see them in Oakland every day. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a vast amount of these people open up to me, and let me into their story.

I’ve been a published journalist for over a dozen years, and during this time, I’ve had a front-row seat to protests, celebrations, weddings, funerals, and everyday life. A front-row seat that I am privileged and honored to have, allowing me to produce stories and give the world a small taste of what I’ve seen.

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It’s world history. American history. Oakland history. Black history... His story. Her story. My story. Our story.

Black Panther Party member Mama Charlotte O’Neal attends a Black Panther Party anniversary event at the West Oakland library.
Black Panther Party member Mama Charlotte O’Neal attends a Black Panther Party anniversary event at the West Oakland library. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

As Black History Month concludes, I’m inspired by the late Sarah Tramble, who passed last February. Tramble, a longtime resident of West Oakland, lived to be 100 years old. And as she made her way through life’s journey, she created her own history books. I interviewed Tramble a few years ago, and got to witness her magic for myself. (My favorite line of hers was when she said that no one on Earth was like her, except for Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson.)

What I love most about Tramble’s take on history is that she didn’t go out seeking to tell the entire saga of human existence. She simply told the story from where she was seated. And in that, she told the story of the great migration, urban renewal, women’s rights, what it means to be African American, and so much more.

Every last piece of personal history is part of the bigger story taught in schools, shown in films and etched in our memories. Every individual tale is a piece of the fabric that quilts together to create the coat that is the story of humankind. This is true for all people.

But since the first ship landed here, the tales of individual African Americans have been disregarded. Over time, we’ve learned to praise "the greatest" or "the first," and overlook the rest. Jackie Robinson is a hero for what he accomplished, no doubt. But if you think Larry Doby wasn’t just as brave, you’re missing a major piece of the story. And then, if you’re from Oakland and you’ve never heard the tale of Jimmy Claxton, you’re not just missing a story — you’re missing a whole chapter.

Jesus El gets airborne at DeFremery (Lil' Bobby Hutton) Park in West Oakland.
Jesus El gets airborne at DeFremery (Lil' Bobby Hutton) Park in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

My point being, you can’t possibly know black history from just hearing about “the first” or “the greatest”; black history is a collection of tales combined to create a narrative that is ultimately intertwined with American history, and world history.

Every single black person’s story is a type of black history worth chronicling and preserving. So take photos. Record conversations with your grandmothers. Write about the people on your block. If we don't do it, who will?

Inspired by Tramble, and the month in which we celebrate black history, it’s my honor to share with you 28 photos — one for each day of the month — taken from the seat I was given.

The boys next door.
The boys next door. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Fatima and Dafina attend an opening at Betti Ono Art Gallery in downtown Oakland.
Fatima and Dafina attend an opening at Betti Ono Art Gallery in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
A young lady rides a horse, as a member of the Black Cowboys chaperones her, at a Juneteenth festival in East Oakland.
A young lady rides a horse, as a member of the Black Cowboys chaperones her, at a Juneteenth festival in East Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and poet Chinaka Hodge share the stage at the Oakland Museum.
Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale and poet Chinaka Hodge share the stage at the Oakland Museum. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
The Scraper Bike Boyz!
The Scraper Bike Boyz! (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Director Ryan Coogler speaking at the Grand Lake Theater with members of the cast and crew of 'Fruitvale Station' (Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Forest Whittaker and others) on the night of the premiere.
Director Ryan Coogler speaking at the Grand Lake Theater with members of the cast and crew of 'Fruitvale Station' (Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer, Forest Whittaker and others) on the night of the premiere. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
The Afro-Panamanian rap duo Los Rakas on top of the old train station in West Oakland.
The Afro-Panamanian rap duo Los Rakas on top of the old train station in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Congresswoman Barbara Lee visits the East Oakland Youth Development Center in East Oakland.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee visits the East Oakland Youth Development Center in East Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
The late Elder Freeman, former Black Panther party member, sitting on his porch in West Oakland.
The late Elder Freeman, former Black Panther party member, sitting on his porch in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
A streetside memorial for 16 year-old Reggina Jefferies in downtown Oakland.
A streetside memorial for 16 year-old Reggina Jefferies in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
West Oakland’s own Beejus takes a dive in the DeFremery (Lil' Bobby Hutton) Park pool.
West Oakland’s own Beejus takes a dive in the DeFremery (Lil' Bobby Hutton) Park pool. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
East Oakland native, rapper Richie Rich, poses for a photo outside of a store in North Oakland.
East Oakland native, rapper Richie Rich, poses for a photo outside of a store in North Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
The Bey’s union.
The Bey’s union. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Rocky takes his human, Keith Gregory, on an evening walk around Lake Merritt.
Rocky takes his human, Keith Gregory, on an evening walk around Lake Merritt. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Kev Choice, ever animated, performs at an event in West Oakland.
Kev Choice, ever animated, performs at an event in West Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Ajhana DeRamous and her daughter Aziyah Williams by Lake Merritt.
Ajhana DeRamous and her daughter Aziyah Williams by Lake Merritt. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Roger, a childhood friend, now homeless. We keep in touch. Situations have changed, but love hasn’t.
Roger, a childhood friend, now homeless. We keep in touch. Situations have changed, but love hasn’t. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
A Marcus Foster Education Institute graduation ceremony at Merritt College in the Oakland Hills.
A Marcus Foster Education Institute graduation ceremony at Merritt College in the Oakland Hills. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Ant Petty getting active on the weights as his family watches in the background.
Ant Petty getting active on the weights as his family watches in the background. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
A joyous celebration at a McClymonds graduation.
A joyous celebration at a McClymonds graduation. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Fremont High students get amped after school.
Fremont High students get amped after school. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Arnold Perkins shoots the camera a cold look prior to being interviewed by Cheo Tyehimba Taylor.
Arnold Perkins shoots the camera a cold look prior to being interviewed by Cheo Tyehimba Taylor. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Rapper Ian Kelly takes a long look at one of the longest standing murals in Oakland, the image of slain East Oakland rapper Plan Bee.
Rapper Ian Kelly takes a long look at one of the longest standing murals in Oakland, the image of slain East Oakland rapper Plan Bee. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Loryan strikes a cool-kid pose in downtown Oakland.
Loryan strikes a cool-kid pose in downtown Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Dalila’s hand, on the day of her wedding. Photo taken just last week.
Dalila’s hand, on the day of her wedding. Photo taken just last week. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

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Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.

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