Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oakland's Okay By Me, There, Gertrude

(image: vintage photo of Jack London Square, Oakland,
California [with vintage automobiles])

It seems as if I've had more students hailing from the East Bay Area of California in general and Oakland/Berkeley specifically in classes than I used to. I enjoy talkling with them about that region.
I went to college at U.C. Davis, not Berkeley, but I still spent a lot of time in the East Bay, and I have good memories of Oakland. There's a sense in which one is supposed to be more fond of San Francisco than of Oakland. --Nothing against San Francisco (except the baseball team perpetually breaks my heart), but I happen to be more fond of Oakland. I'm not entirely sure why.
As noted, memories of friends, events, and places play a role, of course. Also, I became a fan of the professional football team, the Raiders, by happenstance: the only television-signal we could receive in the Sierra Nevada canyon I grew up in was from an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, and NBC broadcast the American Football League games, whereas CBS broadcast the venerable NFL games. Essentially, the TV signals at the time had to carom off peaks; why one signal from Sacramento arrived at our aluminum antenna and the other didn't remains a mystery, but the mystery led to my "following" the Raiders.
Let's see: I accepted a prize in a statewide poetry-contest in Oakland. That was a good night. The first poem I ever read on the radio was for a recorded show on KPFA, whose home is technically Berkeley, I think, but that's close enough for poetry, radio, and horse-shoes. . . .I knew some people in Oakland-proper, in the Oakland hills, in Berkeley, and in nearby El Cerrito. . . . .As far as I know, I was probably the only white person in a movie theater in Oakland one afternoon, long ago; most of the rest of the audience was African American; it was an instructive, valuable, valued, pleasant experience. . . . . The Oakland Museum is splendid. . . . .Trees, birds, people, bookstores, water, places to eat, places to listen to music. . . . .All of these things count. . . .
As to Oakland itself, whatever that means, I just feel a certain connection to it that I don't feel to some other cities. Gertrude Stein, who lived in Oakland for a while, apparently felt little or no connection to it because she observed, famously, of Oakland, "There's no there there." Well, there you have it. Or maybe not.
Oakland Is There

Gertrude Stein famously said a lot of famous
things fashioned to be famously remembered
tenderly such as, of Oakland, California, U.S.A.,
"there's no there there," but after she left
and eventually went to Thereville, France,
the There of Oakland that had actually always
been There remained There in her absence.
See, Oakland had and has persons, places,
and things--the stuff that composes the There
of any place from Paris to Bangkok, Vladivostok
to Lesotho, Aberdeen to Montevideo. Gertrude
wanted more, or less (who knows?) from Oakland.
--Some irony to that since she possessed the
Oaklandish visage of a stevedore or boxing promoter,
a face with angles and planes in which Picasso
found a lot of There to paint in the portrait he painted.
Gertrude wrote some inlandish Oaklandese
sentences and hit some of them right on the
button, and then she died. Oakland's still there.
So is its There, which was there all along, and
will be, and is, and is there, and so there.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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