A mural of Tom Hanks and Too Short in Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)
I really thought I was doingsomething when I took a picture of a nearly finished mural of Tom Hanks and Too $hort and then posted it to social media. I mean, I really put my phone in my pocket, thinking I actually did something good for people.
My rationale? The mural was a huge street-side tribute to two vastly different hometown luminaries. I figured it would uplift folks, and help take their minds off the deflating news cycle about the unimpeachable president, the spread of an international virus and the dire housing situation in the Bay Area.
Instead, that picture put a number of the issues we’re facing into perspective—issues that I didn't notice until the mural was gone.
It took less than three days for the mural to be covered. All of the work from the artists, whose Instagram handles are @pierremadethat, @charles.utero.the3rd and @funkysquash, on the broad side of the building at San Pablo Avenue and Castro Street was erased.
What once was a short-lived mural depicting a young and spunky Tom Hanks from the movie Big and an image of Too $hort from the Life Is... Too $hort era—big donkey rope chain in tow—was gone. Poof! The details in the photo, all the easter eggs in the illustrations that accompanied Hanks' image: a computer mouse from You've Got Mail, the Wilson ball from Cast Away, and a nod to Toy Story in the form of a cowboy hat. Behind $hort were a number of details, too, including a boom box and some unidentified booties of women in thongs.
It was homage to two guys who spent their formative years in Oakland, who made it big in entertainment and who speak highly of their East Bay roots in nearly every interview I’ve ever seen. What could be wrong with that?
“The level (of) keebler cracker and gmo wheat toast fkery in these pictures is ridiculously pitiful,” wrote Refa One, a well-known activist and artist from West Oakland, in a Facebook post with the image of the mural. “I’m still processing the amount of thirsty accolades this work is receiving from Negropeans that have embraced defeat by the gentrifying colonizers hell bent on mascot iconography of a displaced BLACK people.”
Damn man, I hate to admit it, but I was one of those “Negropeans.”
Not too long after Refa One made the Facebook post, the mural was covered with a massive blotting of light blue paint—similar to the color the Black Panther Party’s school uniforms. “Mural in Progress. Reserved for Black Panther Party,” was the only message left on the elongated wall that parallels the 980 freeway.
The next day, I went down to the corner of San Pablo and Castro Street, and took a close photo of the new coat of paint and the message inscribed on the wall. I posted the picture on social media, and in came the questions: "Why’d they cover it?" "Who did it?" "What’s coming next?"
So I called Refa One.
"This is about African people controlling the visual landscape in their community, particularly against all forms of gentrification," said Refa One, a longtime Oakland-based creator who heads the international arts collective Aerosoul, and the son of two Black Panther Party members. He's also the artist behind numerous murals in Oakland, including one of Huey P. Newton in West Oakland and one of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station. "And in this particular situation," he added, "we’re dealing with visual culture."
He told me he had a few issues with the mural of Hanks and $hort.
For starters, it depicts Tom Hanks, a multimillionaire who speaks proudly of his Oakland roots, but has yet to make a public statement about inequity in Oakland, Refa One said. And that's for a city where the housing crisis has been noted as an emergency by local, state and international officials; an emergency that has disproportionately impacted black people.
And the image of Too $hort, known for misogynistic lyrics, is an issue too, Refa One added. It's on the side of a wall that butts up against San Pablo Avenue not too far from the Greyhound Bus Station, which over the decades has been a hot spot for sex trafficking, an issue that's plagued Oakland for longer than Too $hort has been rapping. And it has disproportionately impacted black women.
Then Refa One noted that two of the three artists involved in the mural were white folks, and not from Oakland. He questioned what right they had to paint the walls in a traditionally black community. "Can I go to Chinatown and paint whatever I want? Can I go to Piedmont and paint there?" he asked.
Well, when you put it like that, I get it. So did the other artists. They told me that they understood the politics behind Refa's point and ambition to paint over their work, and deferred any further comment.
"It's a good thing," one of the artists wrote on Instagram. "Excited for what’s going up next.
There's a long history of African American culture being compromised and remade to fit the palate of white America. Elvis Presley re-recording “Hound Dog” and selling 9.5 million more copies than the original Big Mama Thornton version. The long-running TV show Friends, a spinoff of Living Single. Hell, famed slavery abolitionist Sojouner Truth's first language was Dutch, and when she learned English, she spoke in a Dutch accent. Yet her famous speech, “Ain't I A Woman,” is usually thought to have been spoken in "a stereotypical 'southern black slave accent,'" because that's how (white) historians believed all enslaved Africans spoke.
It’s deeper than some paint on the walls. It's about the importance of controlling your story, no matter the medium, because from that comes control over your life.
And on that note of self-determination shown through community art, Refa One told me about a time he was painting a piece in Campbell Village, a well-known public housing project in West Oakland.
“You know how to do this?" Refa One said a young man asked, watching him paint while playing with a group of friends. "We thought only white people did this.”
Refa One said he talked to the group of children, and told them, "The first people on the planet to ever paint murals, and to express their culture in that fashion, were African people just like us.”
He invited the youngsters to pick up some paint and participate in the production of the piece, giving them "collective ownership of their walls." Which is especially important in the black community, where we're constantly combating self-hatred.
“We’ve been conditioned to believe that anything happening positively in our community must come from the outside,” said Refa One, in reference to numerous images of African American leaders painted by white artists in Oakland. "Oftentimes the community is ignorant to the fact that we’re being 'mascotted' by white folks who consider themselves the ambassador to our culture, and how it should be used and decimated."
He says he can't simply paint over those walls. It's a Catch-22. "At that point it becomes difficult to remove those images, because people’s overall thought is that it’s positive."
But in a town where black folks have been disproportionately killed, over-policed, under-educated, sex trafficked and pushed out by the masses, putting up images of black folks is like sports teams having mascots. Mascots derived from cultural aspects of the natives, who've been killed off of the very land where they now toss a pigskin or pitch a four-seam fastball.
Damn, it is just like sports: it's easy to root for a team because you like their mascot or star players, but you better do your research on who's really in control.
Otherwise you'll be cheering for the “Negropeans.”
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