Boots Riley, Tommy Orange and the Summer of the Oakland Artist

7 min

“What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or any-thing if I like but not there, there is no there there.”

— Gertrude Stein, 1937, "Everybody’s Autobiography"

That quote, much abused and shortened, taken out of context and misunderstood, has long been misapplied to Oakland. You’ve probably heard it, maybe even said it yourself, “there is no there there.” But Stein wasn’t talking about some lacunae at the heart of the town. She was talking about her own childhood home, her own neighborhood, that feeling we have when we return to the place where we were young only to find it no longer there.

“She was talking nostalgically, that the Oakland she knew no longer existed,” Ishmael Reed, the prolific Oakland-based novelist, said, “a lot of people have taken that as a put down.”

Other writers have been clearly insulting in their takes on Oakland. “Bret Harte, when the earthquake hit, he said it didn’t do much damage in Oakland, because there are some places even the earth won’t swallow,” Reed said. “I mean that’s the kind of hit you get on Oakland.”

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Reed has written around a dozen novels, and that does not include his countless books of history, poems, criticism and plays. His latest, "Conjugating Hindi", set in part in California and Oakland, was published this year.

Writer Tommy Orange has also just published a book, his first novel, "There There." It’s been heaped with praise by reviewers and has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for the past month.

Orange said he set out to write an Oakland novel, a novel that contained the city he grew up in, which is why he picked the Stein quote. “'There, there' has been used to say it doesn’t have culture. Or it doesn’t have place, or it doesn’t have a feel to it,” Orange said.

“It’s a very convenient quote if you’re gentrifying some place, to be like 'there’s no place there anyway,' or 'nobodys from Oakland',” Orange said. “All the new people here, all the new white people gentrifying, it’s very convenient to have that feeling.”

That feeling, Orange said, is just wrong.

This summer, Oakland artists are pushing back against the narrative of an invisible city, for all the world to see. They are portraying the place and the people from here with spectacular and sweeping visions, from a film that uses satirical science fiction to take on capitalism, racism and gentrification, to a story spanning the intertwining lives of urban Native Americans and their deep history in Oakland.

Sorry To Bother You

Boots Riley, musician with The Coup, activist, local intellectual and man-about-The-Town, filmed his movie "Sorry To Bother You" over 28 days last summer in Oakland. Now, after getting attention on the festival circuit, it’s opening nationally.

Riley said growing up in Oakland, he would endlessly ride the bus back and forth through the flatlands of the city. From San Leandro, through East Oakland, all the way down Telegraph Avenue and into Berkeley.

“The Oakland that I grew up in was one in which we were constantly wanting to be engaged with something bigger than us,” Riley said. “We felt like there was nothing to do, we felt like there weren’t things available to us.”

Later, when they got older, they would drive in cars, “we didn’t get on the freeway because that trip was what it was all about, looking for signs of life.”

On those long car rides, they would pass boarded up buildings, neighborhoods abandoned by infrastructure, places and people in which the city did not invest. They would also find others like them, say hello while stopped at red lights, whole streams of young people driving in cars, looking for life and each other. It sounds like a scene out of "American Graffiti," or any of our childhoods, before social media. But Riley said because these were black teenagers, Oakland passed anti-cruising laws, making what for so many was a rite of passage into an illegal activity.

That didn’t stop culture and creativity from creeping up through cracks in the concrete. The young people of Oakland made music, staged sideshows, invented turfing, a specific style of street dancing known for its fluid and hypnotic movements, and created a new genre of hip-hop that came to be called hyphy.

Riley said the city and local businesses continually put up bars to access and inclusion. Even when they had the artists and wanted to set up shows, the city wouldn’t approve permits for them, or would make them prohibitively expensive to put on. There was a fear of black people gathering en masse, he said. It wasn’t just the anti-cruising laws, it was also clamp downs on events like Festival at The Lake.

“Refusing access to places, has been a big part of my growing up,” Riley said. He said that was especially true when it came to music.

The most glaring example for Riley is Tupac Shakur, who many claim as Oakland’s own. “Tupac couldn’t perform in Oakland,” Riley said. “They wouldn’t let it happen. The venues that existed in Oakland, wouldn’t do hip-hop.”

It was not that there was “no there there” for Riley, it was that systems of power and economic forces were working very hard against people being anywhere. If they were black.

Fighting Cliched Representation 

Boots Riley’s film is now available to audiences across the country, representing Oakland to the world at large.

Feeling represented, feeling seen, is important, Riley said. He remembers when Sheila E. came back to her high school, Oakland High, where Riley was a student, to pass out tickets to her new movie, Krush Groove.

“She came to the school in her full Prince-style regalia,” he said. “It seemed like there was a light around her as she walked through the hall, like of your high school!”

“That meant that we meant something,” he said. “We were told so much that we are insignificant. Through life, and what we see on television or in the movies.”

Representation is important, but for Riley making this movie is about more than reflecting Oakland back to the people who live here. Representation is also about how Oakland appears to the outside world. Not just with images of the city and its residents, but the radical politics that thrive here, from the Black Panthers to Occupy Oakland to Black Lives Matter.

“I’m fighting cliche,” Riley said. “Usually when we make something, we tend to fall into the conventions of the people that have done it before.”

Representation on the left has problems of its own, Riley said. For him, diversifying representation is not enough. "Even on the left, we've moved away from class struggle in the last 50 years and started talking about things in terms of people's personalities," he said. "As an effect of the McCarthy era, even in places like public radio, people won't put out an idea that makes them look like they might be a communist. So they water down their philosophy so much, that we lie to people, we tell each other that the way to change things is by letting our voice be heard." This perpetuates a myth that representation — that 'giving voice to the voiceless' as the cliche has it — is enough. For Riley, representation without rigorous class analysis, without tools for reshaping the power dynamics that cage the working class from the ruling class, can never be enough.

Art, Riley said, has the power to reshape our conceptions, even to spread the message that power structures can be dismantled by the withholding of labor. “Much of what we believe about the world, like what we envision of the world, is formed by works of art: Movies, TV.”

And yes, sometimes that does start with the way we see places. “Like I’ve never been to Delhi,” Riley said. “I’ve a picture in my head of what it looks like and that picture is not even from the news, it’s probably from James Bond movies, with really racist ideas about it.”

Oakland has not been immune from these kinds of racist, outsider representations. When President Donald Trump was a candidate, he was asked by the New York Times where the most dangerous place he had ever been to was:

“There are places in America that are among the most dangerous in the world,” Trump responded. “You go to places like Oakland. Or Ferguson. The crime numbers are worse. Seriously.”

Oakland did have a high crime rate in the 1990’s and in the 2000’s, but the crime, and murder rate, has dropped significantly in recent years. It is not, by these statistics, one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, let alone the entire world.

But those broad brush strokes have shaped Oakland's image for a long time, often erasing the culture, political and artistic, of people here.

Writer Tommy Orange is all too familiar with that myth of Oakland. “People know of Oakland, but it was like the murder capital in the 90’s and sort of has that representation,” he said.

Orange wanted to find different representations of his hometown. He searched for Oakland novels while writing his book, and was surprised to find so few.

“A lot of writing this,” Orange said, “came from the native invisibility, and then the Oakland invisibility thing.”

There There

For Orange, the Gertrude Stein quote speaks not just to the invisibility of Oakland, but the invisibility of native people, especially in cities. “For native people, similarly, we live on land that has been changed from what it was,” Orange said. “The novel is about identity and native identity, and figuring out how we make sense of living in the city.”

Orange came into an understanding of his identity, as what he calls an urban Indian, over time. Urban Indian is a term that has come to refer to native people who have moved and relocated, whether by force or choice, to cities and metropolitan areas.

“I would always say I’m native, but I’d probably say I’m half,” he said. “Because as a native person you're constantly have to qualify yourself, or how much, or you’re actually being directly asked how much you are.”

“I knew my mom was white and my dad was Indian,” he said. “It was a conflict in the house to some extent, and I knew it was a deep conflict based on history, and that was just something that I always knew.”

But what he didn’t always know was where he fit. “There’s a difference identity-wise, if you were born on the rez, and you’re part of...” he pauses. “If you’re from a reservation you’re surrounded by people of your same tribe. People from the city, who grew up in the city, not only are you not around your tribe, you're around a lot of non-Indian people.”

Orange’s parents divorced when he was 13-years-old, and he said his teenage years were hard. But in 2005, he got a job at the Native American Health Center in Oakland, and found the urban Indian community here, “I felt that sense of belonging again, and belonging to a community of people that were like me,” he said. “I didn’t even know that community existed.”

“It definitely changed me in a big way to feel like, oh there’s other people like me here, and there’s a long history of us being here,” he said.

A copy of Tommy Orange's "There There," a first novel from the author, which has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for the past month.
A copy of Tommy Orange's "There There," a first novel from the author, which has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list for the past month. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)

He writes of that community in "There There":

“We bought and rented homes, slept on the streets, under freeways, we went to school, joined the armed forces, populated Indian bars in the Fruitvale in Oakland, and in the Mission in San Francisco. We lived in boxcar villages in Richmond. We made art and we made babies and we made way for our people to go back and forth between reservation and city. We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in.”

Giving representation to the urban Indian, Orange said, is a big part of why he wrote this book. “It’s a totally different experience being an urban Indian than it is being a rez Indian, and so much of representation is based on reservation Indians or historical Indians,” he said.

“It risks being erased, if all you can refer to as self is historical — then you’re basically already gone.”

Gone, as in not there at all.

Here, Here

There are these subtle parallels between the experiences of exclusion and the search for significance and belonging in both Riley’s and Orange’s childhoods, and in their paths to storytelling.

But of course, the biggest parallel, is that they are both telling stories grounded in their Oaklands, which both are, and are not, the same place. Maybe it is a coincidence, that in the same summer, their work is finding acclaim before a national audience. Oakland seems to be having a moment in the zeitgeist.

Riley said that isn't just happening in books and movies. His socialist and communist ideologies, of dismantling capitalism through withholding labor, are finding a foothold in national politics. Which is why Riley said despite everything that is happening in American politics right now, he is hopeful. "The population is much more radical than the democratic party," Riley said. "There was a right wing think tank that did this study of millennials and they were up in arms at the results," Riley said. "The results were that one in two millennials think this should be a socialist society, and that gives me hope."

Director Boots Riley attends the Film Independent At LACMA Presents Screening And Q&A Of 'Sorry To Bother You' at Bing Theater At LACMA on June 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Director Boots Riley attends the Film Independent At LACMA Presents Screening And Q&A Of 'Sorry To Bother You' at Bing Theater At LACMA on June 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images)

Riley sees artists like himself being embraced as part of a deeper change in radical representation. Tommy Orange also sees his success as part of a larger phenomenon, both of Native writers, and of the city he is from.

“Oakland’s having a great year,” Orange said. He’s referring not only to Riley and himself, but also a certain hometown basketball team. “And hopefully that will not be a wave that comes and goes and recedes.”

Recently Orange had his own Gertrude Stein moment, going back to the street he grew up on. But unlike with Stein, his house was still there. He took his wife and son, and they had a picnic near his childhood home.

“It looked totally small, because when you go back to things from your childhood you just feel big, because you are bigger,” he said. “But there's also something about memory and the way size and scope changes.”

There was another change he noticed too, “the money that has come into Oakland, has changed the street. It was a lot nicer than I remember it,” he laughed.

Orange said the people still felt very much the same. But that isn’t true for everyone.

Oakland writer Ishmael Reed said he doesn’t recognize his neighborhood anymore. “This used to be a black neighborhood,” he said. “It’s now, no longer that. Everybody knew everybody, it was like more of a family neighborhood. But now, people seem to be alienated.”

Here comes the classic moment in any Oakland story, that always turns the knife. The city in which both Riley and Orange were raised is changing. And for many Native and black people, it is no longer affordable. At the same moment that these storytellers are gaining national attention for their work about diverse and complicated Oakland, it has become less and less possible for black and Native people to afford to live here. In the glow of all this representation, of them showing the there that is here, the people that have been here all along, can’t always stay.

Tommy Orange and his family do not live in Oakland, because he has not been able to afford the steadily rising rents.

“We’re currently live out in Angels Camp,” he said. “Were thinking of moving back in the fall, because now we can afford it. And we haven’t been able to move back, because we haven’t been able to afford it.”

Now, with the success of his new book, he may just be able to come back. Writing a book about his beloved Oakland, may have provided him the resources to return home.

“If we make it back in the fall,” Orange said, “I’ll think of it like that. Like Oakland allowed me to come back.”

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