What a Vandalized Oakland Mural Says About Black Futures in America

A mural on 14th Street in West Oakland, depicting Jazz Hudson, Olafemi Akintunde and their son Selah.
A mural on 14th Street in West Oakland, depicting Jazz Hudson, Olafemi Akintunde and their son Selah. (Refa One)

A mural in West Oakland depicting three members of an African American family, dressed in white garb above the words “The Future is Ours,” was defaced this past weekend. It’s the third time the painting has been vandalized in the past two weeks.

The lead artist behind the piece and founder of the street art collective AeroSoul, Refa One, says he doesn’t know the identity of the vandal, but has a feeling racism plays a role in what’s going on.

I've covered Refa's work before. I've had him on my podcast Rightnowish to discuss his Dr. Huey P. Newton mural in West Oakland, and have photographed his Oscar Grant mural at Fruitvale BART Station. And, earlier this year, I wrote a story after Refa covered up a Tom Hanks and Too $hort mural on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland because he felt that it didn't properly benefit the community.

So, you may ask, how is his own mural being defaced any different?

"There's no comparison," Refa One tells me. "We halted cultural gentrifiers from coming into the Black community, and went and created art that is edifying for Black people."

A line is shown, drawn though an image of the Black family at the center of the mural on 14th st. in West Oakland
A line is drawn though the image of a Black family at the center of a mural on 14th Street in West Oakland. (Refa One)

The mural on San Pablo Avenue that depicted the world-famous Hollywood actor beside the MC who popularized rapping about pimpin' and selling tapes out of his trunk—both raised in Oakland—has since been replaced with a note that a new mural is in progress (delayed by circumstances related to COVID-19) and a quote from the Black Panther Party's Ten-Point Program: "We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings."

Refa says his latest piece is a nod to the future of the Black community.

The recently vandalized mural, with its multicolored geometrical background, is located on 14th Street in West Oakland. The area was once home to a majority African American community that's since embarked on a mass exodus due to a number of factors—urban renewal, the war on drugs, predatory lending, gentrification, you name it. The neighborhood is much like America itself: in the grips of constant tension driven by the all-too-familiar isms of racism, capitalism, sexism and classism.

Some folks in this country have this notion that since Joe Biden has been elected president, we'll be able to "go back to normal." But we all know what normal race relations look like in America. On top of that, we know there’s a large percentage of people—46.9% of voters nationwide—who aren’t too fond of this new president.

Last month the FBI released results showing that, nationwide, the amount of reported hate crimes has been rising for almost 12 years, and this year is no different. For the past decade, California has seen hate crimes reported at a rate higher than the rest of the country.

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Consider that there have been at least three Black men found hanged in California this year, all of which were initially ruled suicides. Over the summer, two men in Southern California, Malcolm Harsh in Victorville and Robert Fuller in Palmdale were found hanged; Harsh’s death has since been proven to have been a suicide. But questions still linger about the circumstances around Fuller’s death. 

The most recent incident happened this fall in Sacramento, where Willie Brown Jr. was found hanged from a basketball hoop, just days before the election. Although still officially ruled a suicide, questions remain as to what truly happened.

That same weekend, a boat parade of Trump supporters floated along the two rivers upon which the city was founded, the Sacramento and the American. Since then, pro-Trump rallies have continued in Sacramento, including one that turned violent this past weekend as Trump-supporting Proud Boys exchanged blows and pepper spray with Antifa activists on the perimeter of the state’s capitol building.  

A day prior, in Richmond’s Point Richmond area, a conflict arose between a man posing with a Trump flag and a group of people fishing nearby, one of whom tried to snatch the flag. The Richmond Pulse reports that the conflict led to a gun being fired in the direction of the Trump supporter, but that no one was hit.

Just about a month ago, on the other side of Contra Costa County in the city of Brentwood, protestors took to the street in anger over a local resident’s extreme show of Trump support—an effigy of Joe Biden hanged from a window.    

All the while, I’m thinking about the end of the Civil War, and the 2,000 Black people who were lynched in the 24-month period immediately afterward.

A closer look at the defaced mural, showing a black line clearly through the image of the young child
A closer look at the defaced mural, showing a black line clearly through the image of the young child (Refa One)

So, yeah, when I hear about someone defacing a work of art dedicated to the proliferation of Black futurism, a part of me is like, 'Yeah, murals get painted over everyday, B.'

At the same time, I can't help think about the timing, the environment and the symbolism—the lines are literally drawn on the child.

The mother depicted in the mural is Jazz Hudson, a poet and owner of Goddess Butter, and a friend I grew-up with in the Oakland arts community. She's seen in a regal headwrap, sitting alongside her husband Olafemi Akintunde and the youngest of their three children, Selah. Jazz says she understands that painting over murals is all part of the street art game, but that doesn’t change how she feels seeing her child with a black line over his face.

 “This last time," Hudson tells me, "I cried, I got scared. I immediately was like, 'I want my son’s face off that mural.'" 

Hudson, also unaware of the identity of the vandal or the motivation behind the defacing, says that it could be someone who doesn't like Refa's work, or even someone who doesn't appreciate her family. "Either way, it does speak to the constant attack on Black people thriving," she tells me. "To dress up in all white, for African people, is a representation of purity, your highest self and your ancestors." 

Hudson was once hopeful that the mural, a visual representation of the evolution of their family, would stand as a proud artifact. She now says she's removed her emotions from the piece.

The father in the mural, Olafemi Akintunde, an artist and educator, used a well-known four-letter word to express his emotion toward the person repeatedly tarnishing the image of his family. "My child’s face being defaced—it’s a powerful symbol," says Akintunde. "The Black child, the Black male in particular, is a symbol that scares a lot of people," he says, adding that fear-based energy "isn't what's winning right now, in general."  

With multiple layers of epoxy protecting the mural, the thin layer of aerosol paint sprayed on the piece requires spending money on supplies and a couple of hours of elbow grease in order to be erased.

A vandalized piece of art doesn't compare to headlines of hangings or physical brawls at rallies. But it's hard not to look at the defaced mural of Jazz, Olafemi and Selah and think of the everyday tension in the minds of people who reside in this divided land.

The only thing out here that's more obvious than a three-foot-long jet black scar across a wall-sized painting of a Black family dressed in white are the racist and classist tensions that divide Americans—and a new president isn't going to change that.

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