Me: Can I take your picture?
Mr. Walter: Man, they’ve been asking me that all my life. I’m used to it!
Me: Can I take your picture?
Mr. Walter: Man, they’ve been asking me that all my life. I’m used to it!
“You can start as fast as you want to, but if you don’t finish, you haven’t done a thing.”- Oscar Wright
In front of rooms of people, be it at a large school board meeting in downtown or at a small continuation school in East Oakland, I’ve witnessed him introduce himself before—and always does it the same way: by stating his name, his age and the fact that he is a “proud African American man”.
He has always introduced himself in that manner—the only thing that has changed is his age.
A couple of weeks ago, I caught up to the 91 year-old Oscar Wright, and had a one-on-one conversation about some of the things he has experienced in his lifetime.
We sat inside his living room. A living room where the walls are covered in plaques, framed notes signifying accomplishments and photos of Wright posing with politicians, educators and family members.
We talked for an hour. And in that brief time, he told me about his role in getting Emeryville to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Holiday in 1986. He showed me the speech he delivered at a conference on the Philadelphia Plan in 1970; and how that was the catalyst to Affirmative Action. He briefly mentioned how he and Medgar Evers were not only on the same college football team, they were roommates freshman year, as well.
On top of everything, he gave me insight as to how his childhood lessons around sharecropping and doing construction in Mississippi lead to him becoming an advocate for the educational rights of African American children. And to this day, he’s an education advocate; not just at the local school board meeting, but to the President of The United States of America. And when Mr. Wright writes, the President writes back.
“You put the big foundation down, you can go up a lot of stories,” Mr. Wright did a hand gesture as best he could with his elderly shaky palms. He continued, “you put a shabby foundation down, and there’s a limit, you’ve got a limit as to where you can go from there.”
He spent his childhood working in Mississippi for white man who owned a dairy farm. One conflict between his boss’ son and Mr. Wright, lead to Mr. Wright’s enrollment in the Army. He says it was then that he grew to know who “Uncle Sam” really was. While serving time in the armed forces, Mr. Wright was stationed in Burma. It was there he made a friend who encouraged him to attend college once he was done with the army.
“And when I got a discharged from service, on November 23rd of ’46,” Mr. Wright recalled the date without missing a beat, “I went home, and fortunate for me, my father, he had gone from a sharecropper to non-contract work. And he got a lot of work!”
Mr. Wright used this introduction to the world of carpentry, and built on it. After assisting in his father’s dreams of getting the construction business rolling, Mr. Wright left for college. He got accepted to Alcorn State, an all African American school that specialized in agriculture and mechanics in Mississippi.
“We learned a lot of farming, how to do agriculture, blacksmithing, brick masonry, carpentry, sheet metal, electricity,” said Mr. Wright, who admitted that he wasn’t the best student, only earning one A his entire college career. He continued, “In other words: they trained us to do what they wanted us to do.”
Mr. Wright was mad that he was underprepared due to his lack of educational opportunities as a juvenile, and more upset that his college curriculum was created by the white power holders.
He said it was that experience that lead him to look at curriculum and the way young people are taught, and raise questions.
As he went through life, he married twice and had six kids, two of whom have passed. Mr. Wright moved from Mississippi to San Francisco for job opportunities, but he never stopped building on the concept that bothered him in college: the malignant construction of the education system.
To this day, Mr. Wright can sit on his couch and point around his house at things he has constructed, including a large portion of his actual house. In that same living room where Mr. Wright often sits, where all of the historical pictures hang on the walls, there is a table. And on that table there is a handbook. Inside of that handbook is the outline for the State of California’s Public Education Curriculum, the most recent edition.
After talking and walking through Mr. Wright’s personal museum, I asked him a couple of questions… the first: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Mr. Wright responded, “Oh, I had a good family and I made a way for my wife. And you know? God has been good to me. I made a good living for myself, my family, and helped other people out.”
I followed by asking him the same question I ask every elder gentleman I interview: If you had the chance to talk to young people, and give them some wisdom, based on your life experiences, what would you tell them?
“I’d say love yourself. And respect yourself. And have confidence in yourself. And never forget the roots from which you came; that you can do anything. God gave you the ability to think and reason, and put you beyond any other creature on earth. God gave man the ability to think and reason, and the right to choose. I’d tell those youngsters, ya know, for every choice there is a consequence. And in order to be in successful in anything in life, it requires hard work, discipline and perseverance. You can start as fast as you want to, but if you don’t finish, you haven’t done a thing. So, stay the course. And there is nothing that you can’t do— with God being put first, you can do anything.”- Oscar Wright.
"I’d tell em to go back to school."- James Moore
I stopped for tacos. Ended up getting clean windows… and some wisdom.
As the sun set in East Oakland on a Saturday evening, I met James Moore, a neighborhood native who traveled the world; a serviceman who fought in the Korean War.
He was washing windows in front of the well-known Sinaloa Taco Truck on 22nd Ave. and International Blvd.
As he sprayed and wiped the front window of my car, I asked Mr. Moore the question I ask all elders I encounter: if you had the chance to tell young people any words of advice what would you tell them, Mr. Moore instantly replied: “I’d tell ‘em to go back to school”.
We continued to discuss the concept of work ethic, be it that of a window washer or that of a journalist; and how your work might help other people.
He ended with saying, “it might not seem like much, but the more I do it, the better I get.”
After I cut off the camera, I asked Mr. Moore about the work ethic of the women on International Blvd, a well-known hub for prostitution. “That profession is older than Christ,” Mr. Moore said as a young lady in short shorts walked through the intersection about 50 yards away from us. “It’s ok, if they’re are doing it for the right reason,” said Mr. Moore. He followed up with saying, “if she has a family and this is the only way they can eat, then it’s ok.”
As the school-age girl walked out of my peripheral, Mr. Moore finished wiping my passenger window. I got my order of three tacos and one large Orchata from the taco truck, and then shook Mr. Moore’s hand—giving him what spare change I had in my pocket.
“Have a blessed day,” Mr. Moore said, before I drove away.
"Alcohol is almost as bad as heroin…"- Gerald "Tin Man" Green
Mr. Green and I stood outside of Oakland’s Laney College Forum on a Saturday morning, as we discussed his upbringing, his career as an engineer and his history here in Oakland.
What impressed me the most was the portion of the conversation where Mr. Green, I mean Tin Man, talked about his knucklehead days.
"You know that corner store over there on 59th and San Pablo?" Tin Man said as he pointed in the general vicinity.
"I used to hangout in front of that liquor store!"
He and his crew were regulars on that corner. And after having a couple of drinks and/or smoking with the gang, he’d head home and do his homework.
He said it’s all about self-control.
I asked him if it was like being a kid, and knowing how to stop yourself from grabbing another cookie out of the jar. He said, yeah!
I didn’t get a chance to ask him the question (If you had a chance to give young people a piece of wisdom, based on your experience, what would you tell them?).
Instead, our conversation about drug consumption ended abruptly, as I was asked to return to my job as a photographer for an event.
But, before I left, Tin Man made sure to tell me to be mindful of my alcohol consumption.
"Alcohol is almost as bad as heroin; it’s one of the hardest habits to break."
“When (Billy Dee) smiled at Diana Ross… I said, man, that nigga got a pretty smile.”- Diamond Jim
I saw his car earlier this year, and I instantly took a photo.
The caption of the photo read: "(Whose) granddaddy/ uncle/ baby’s daddy is this? I gotta holla at OG. #OGToldMe. #Oakland. #Cadillac.”
Well, on June 12th 2014, I saw the car again. It was in the Church’s Chicken parking lot in North Oakland. As the driver stepped out of his brown Cadillac Fleetwood, I approached him, introduced myself and complimented him on his license plates.
We began to talk: about his birth down in Louisiana, his upbringing in Chicago and the ups and downs of selling drugs in Oakland.
Diamond Jim’s lifestyle was flashy: he gave cars to family members and invested in jewelry.
"I had 2 whole karats, not no half karats, 2 whole karats," Diamond Jim said as he pointed to his teeth.
He told me that back in the day he had gold teeth with diamonds in them, but he had recently “gotten past that”.
"In 2010 I had ‘em taken out,” said Diamond, as he hit his hand with his fist. “I’m 74 years old now!”
He continued, “I liked it when I saw Billy Dee with it. You know, Billy Dee in lady Sings the Blues,” Diamond smiled.
“When (Billy Dee) smiled at Diana Ross… I said, man, that nigga got a pretty smile.”
I laughed, and then I went to ask him the magical question— but he didn’t answer.
"If you had the opportunity to give young people some advice based your life experience," I said, "what would you tell them?"
OG told me, “look man, I got to go.” He gestured at the fast food joint behind us. He was en route to get something to eat, and I was holding him up in the parking lot.
He concluded with saying, “Do you know Gangsta Brown? He has my whole story…”
I found the OG in the brown Cadillac. Now I have to find Gangsta Brown...
"Pay close attention to anyone who looks like they have a level head."- Randolph Cox
He was wearing a weathered leather jacket and holding a horn in his hand. He walked alongside his bike, marching down San Pablo Ave at high-noon on Wednesday June 11th.
I introduced myself to Randolph Cox, and without taking a breathe, I asked: why do you play the horn?
"There’s nothing new under the sun, so I play the same thing over and over; and it makes me feel good," said Mr. Cox.
"How long have you been playing?" I asked.
Mr. Cox replied, “I picked this thing up about two weeks ago; got it from a shop around the corner…”
We proceeded to have a conversation about his middle school days in Berkeley, his time in Vietnam and how the media can be deceiving or informing— and that’s why it’s powerful.
His mention of media served as the perfect segue. I showed Mr. Cox a newspaper that I had just grabbed off the newsstand a couple blocks prior to encountering him. The East Bay Express had just published a well-written piece, highlighting my OG Told Me project. I was excited; in the middle of the street, tooting my own horn!
After showing him the periodical and explaining my project, I asked Mr. Cox thee question: If he had the opportunity to tell young people anything, based on his life experiences, what would he say? OG Told Me:
"The best training is to start early, maths and sciences and stuff like that," Mr. Cox said as I filmed him talking. He said that if you can acquire one of these skills, "you’ll always have a place in society… ’Cause ain’t nothing new under the sun."
On May 26th, I met a gentleman who introduced himself as D-Bo on the corner of 57th and Foothill in East Oakland. This is what OG Told Me…
"My name is OK," an older gentleman told me, as I walked through Oakland’s Mosswood Park with a camera in my hand.
After asking If I could take his photo, OG told me: "Oh baby, don’t get it twisted: I’m not Hollywood. I’m Holly-hood.”
And then he proceeded to take a number of photos, with different poses.
"Culture is a weapon."- Emory Douglas
Emory Douglas is an artist, illustrator and the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. He’s a published author, as copies of his book “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas" can still be found online.
His art is evocative. I dare you to look at his images and not feel them.
“Whether the people like it or not, you’ve got to bring it to their attention,” Emory Douglas told a room full of students and faculty during a presentation at Merritt College’s Student Lounge on February 18th, 2014.
His art is social commentary.
“I wonder if Nixon is bothering us now,” Douglas said as he showed an image of the former President in a menacing manner. He clicked to the next slide and said, “I wonder if Obama is spying on us now”. As the image of Obama replaced the image of Nixon, someone in the crowd let out an “Ohhhh!”
"We’re talking about the real deal!" exclaimed Douglas.
His point: the same thing he saw back then, he sees going on today. And it’s his job to show that connection to the world.
His presentation was full of words like: Freedom, Slave ships, Obama, Nixon, Panthers, Sickle-cell, Oakland, Atlanta, Vietnam, Terrorism, Media, Government, Police, Pigs, Politics and Power.
He talked a lot about politics. And power.
When the question/ answer portion of his presentation came about, I asked Mr. Douglas: if he had the chance to give the youth a piece of advice, based on his experience, what words of wisdom would he give them?
OG Told Me:
"Stay inspired. Stay focused. Have fun, at the same time, be focused on what you need to do. Study, learn your craft or whatever you do," Emory Douglas told me (and a room of people).
He concluded with saying,”be able to work with a group of people.”
After answering my question, he recited a poem.
(The following is the final segment of his poem.)
"…It is our duty as the makers of the art of resistance to always recognize the oppression of others. The goal should be, to make the message clear— so that even a child can understand it. Don’t be fooled by deception. Know the rules before you break them. Don’t lose sight of what the goal is. All power to the people.”