by Wendy M. Thompson
We are still here.
In a city known as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the hyphy movement, Black people are still here.
Once spatially confined to West Oakland where Black parents warned their children not to “go past the lake” or face threats of reprisal, Oakland’s Black population would shift and grow during the Second World War as Black Southern migrants arrived at West Coast shipyards, transforming the town with new sounds, tastes, political ideas, and cultural institutions. With the removal and incarceration of persons of Japanese descent, Black people would become the largest nonwhite ethnic group in urban California cities, and by the end of the war, Oakland would see a population boom with the Black population more than tripling, making up nearly ten percent of the city’s residents.
Black migration west would open up what Donna Jean Murch describes as “a new migration geography” that connected Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas to the Pacific Coast. This geography would see a generation of Southerners and their children becoming rooted in Oakland, surrounded and supported by a multitude of formal and informal networks and organizations; among them churches, fraternal lodges, women’s clubs, and othermothers. They would create a thriving community, patronizing Black local businesses and socializing at entertainment venues like Slim Jenkins’ jazz club on Seventh and Wood, which headlined a legendary nightclub scene lining the Seventh Street corridor. At the foundation of it all would be Black women, the backbone of these communities, carrying and caring for children, families, and households, relying on Black Southern traditions and practices to thrive.
But as quickly as the wartime boom led to new prosperity and opportunities for Black newcomers, the end of the war and the closure of the defense industry would usher in deindustrialization and decline in the greater Bay Area. Many Black residents would brace for the storm as white retail businesses and homeowners fled to cheaper, newly developed, racially homogenous East Bay suburbs. What had initially open up newer parts of Oakland to Black residents and entrepreneurs would lead to long-term municipal and commercial divestment. And by 1964, with much of the city facing depressed property values, an eroding tax base, limited retail options and necessary amenities, and poor public services, the federal government would officially declare Oakland a “depressed area.”
The shift of white bodies and capital out of Oakland would create a moving map that saw a marked change in the city’s racial demographics. In 1980, the year before I was born, Oakland was 47% Black, constituting almost half the city’s population. Between 2000 and 2010, the year my daughter was born, Oakland’s Black population had dropped to 25% while the city’s Latinx, Asian, and white populations grew. Driving Black displacement into the twentieth century would be the Bay Area’s skyrocketing housing market, with home prices making homeownership unaffordable for most Black buyers and evictions forcing Black renters out of the city.
In response, a number of Black Oaklanders would set their sights elsewhere, moving to nearby counties or other parts of the state in order to continue building generational wealth. Others would choose reverse migration with almost 75,000 residents leaving the Golden State in 2018. The top destinations would be emerging hubs for Black middle-class homeownership, education, and entrepreneurship, namely Houston, Atlanta, and Las Vegas. However, there would be yet another group of Black Oaklanders thrust further into precarity. Despite only making up a quarter of Oakland’s total population, Black people continue to be overrepresented in the city’s unhoused population, comprising a staggering 70%.
As a Black Oakland native and the mother of a young son who loves American cars, I focus my lens here on a car show I attended with my children as an example of the intentional autonomous spaces Black working-class residents continue to create in a city actively divesting from their futures. This car show—organized as part of a birthday memorial for Chavairick “Boo” Smith, a prominent figure in East Oakland whose influence reverberated far beyond the Sobrante Park neighborhood he hailed from—was open to the public and reflected the generous nature of Black collective gathering, celebration, and grief.
Growing up in Sobrante Park and similar East Oakland neighborhoods—where homes continue to be bounded by heavy industry and transportation infrastructure—many young Black people would experience life between various points of pleasure (in joy, in play, in community, in stories, and in the sensorial world) and resistance (to scarcity, to pollution, to isolation, and to the constant presence of violence). Following decades of municipal neglect and planned scarcity, tremendous beauty and creativity would emerge; one of these expressions is a Black car culture, unique to Oakland, that began in the mid-1980s.
Excluded from participating in white middle-class leisure activities and marginalized in public space, Black youth began gathering in low-use and semi-abandoned commercial spaces in East Oakland, like the Eastmont Mall and Foothill Square parking lots. They would converge in the evenings and on weekends to listen to music, dance, fraternize, and cruise in their cars. These cars, customized late model 1980s and early model 1990s American sedans, commonly Buicks, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, or Dodges, would rise in popularity with Oakland’s hyphy movement, a cultural expression born from the disorder of post-deindustrialization, hyper-gentrification, and Black erasure. Known as scraper cars, each vehicle was elaborately painted in bright, flashy, sometimes neon candy colors and enhanced with after-market rims and tires.
By the early 1990s, these cars, along with Black young people, would migrate over to Lake Merritt where the popular Festival at the Lake would draw even larger crowds. There, Black youth would cruise and hang out (and sometimes fight) in “one of the city’s most desirable public spaces.” Seeing them as a threat to white business interests and middle-class lake goers, city council members would implement police sweeps and an ordinance in an attempt to exercise control, going after drivers by prohibiting vehicles from passing between two designated checkpoints more than once within a four hour span. And yet, in a testament of Black youth refusal in the face of municipal crackdown, drivers and spectators would continue to take over and cruise through the streets of Oakland, engaging in sideshows which forced the city to spend “roughly five hundred thousand dollars a year on police overtime” between the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In a country where white motorists have long felt that the mastery of the open road was part of their national identity and Black motorists continue to pay the price for driving while Black—a sardonic expression referring to the practice of racial profiling that can potentially lead Black motorists to grave injury or fatal encounters with law enforcement—Black car culture and car shows represent a type of urban marronage, a fugitive movement using vehicles to challenge racially restricted mobility and contested space in the city while creating an alternate world of art, joy, and freedom. Walking with my children among the many classic cars on display, there was a clear and visible pride in ownership: the countless hours of labor and money put into restoring and modifying vehicles that folks in my peer group’s grandparents once drove have now made each car a living artifact of Black mobility and leisure and demonstrate the extent of Black working class aesthetic expression.
In the face of ongoing racial harassment, police abuse, and arbitrary violence on the streets, Black classic car enthusiasts and owners resist the white power structure and assert belonging on the contested grounds of public space. They demonstrate their love of the open road, each street, each lane, a stage for performing Black urban masculinity and freedom. To see Black car culture continuing to unfold on Oakland’s streets, to see a generation of my peer group, survivors of the crack era and the time of mass incarceration, coming together to celebrate our refusal to be moved in this world, to be disappeared from memory, to be erased from the map, is both proof and a blessing of our grands and great-grands, ancestors now, looking down on us and saying, “Well, now, we came all this way west. Don’t you all give up on this dream just yet.”
go past the lake”: Epstein, Kitty Kelly. “Chapter 3. “MISSISSIPPI WEST”: Oakland’s Civil Rights Movement.” Counterpoints 291 (2012): 27.
Black population more than tripling: Rhomberg, Chris. No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004: 2.
“a new migration geography”: Murch, Donna Jean. Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, 16-17.
“depressed area”: Murch 17.
Oakland’s Black population had dropped to 25%: David DeBolt, “Oakland’s population grew by 50,000 over the past decade, 2020 Census data shows,” The Oaklandside, August 18, 2021.
Latinx, Asian, and white populations grew: DeBolt.
namely Houston, Atlanta, and Las Vegas: Hepler, Lauren. “The hidden toll of California’s Black exodus,” Cal Matters, July 15, 2020.
comprising a staggering 70%: Thompson Summers, Brandi. “Untimely Futures,” Places, November 2021,
cruise in their cars: Tilton, Jennifer. Dangerous or Endangered? Race and the Politics of Youth in Urban America, NYU Press, 156.
“one of the city’s most desirable public spaces”: Tilton 167.
more than once within a four hour span: Tilton 167.
on police overtime: Tilton 167.
Wendy M. Thompson is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at San José State University. Her creative work has most recently appeared in Sheepshead Review, The Account, Funicular Magazine, Palaver, Gulf Stream Lit, and a number of other publications. She is the coeditor of Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Progressive Illusion.
SLAG GLASS CITY · Volume 8 · June 2022
Header image by Wendy Thompson
About Barrie Jean Borich
add a bio