On Saturday, May 7, OPL’s 81st Avenue branch held its first in-person event since the beginning of the pandemic over two years ago. It was worth the wait.
East Oakland Counter Narratives (80 mins.), directed by Cheryl Fabio, is “a place-based homage to Black families that have been rooted in East Oakland” since the 1950s. The documentary film weaves together filmed oral histories of eighteen East Oakland residents, historical film footage (including home movies), photographs, and news clippings to form a portrait of what older residents remember as a tight-knit, safe community, one whose resilience was subsequently tested by successive challenges.
The second Great Migration brought tens of thousands of African Americans from the South to the Bay Area beginning with World War II. Jobs were plentiful in the defense and shipbuilding industries, and soon Oakland boasted thriving Black commercial and entertainment hubs. In the postwar era, African Americans continued to move to Oakland, finding employment in manufacturing and on the waterfront, building solidly middle-class lives despite racial barriers and sustaining their own foothold in the professions. By 1980, Black people comprised nearly half of the city’s population, outnumbering whites for the first time. By then, however, the community felt besieged. Cocaine in the 1970s and crack the following decade devastated families, many of whom were already reeling from the loss of employment as manufacturing declined in the city. Crime, gun violence, and police brutality, abetted by the flight of many middle-class Black people to the suburbs, left an impoverished community in turmoil. As John Jones III, a third-generation East Oakland resident who has rebuilt his life after a spell of incarceration, observes, “East Oakland used to be a neighborhood where we knew our neighbors. Now it’s just a ‘hood because we don’t even know who lives next door to us anymore.”
If you’ve been paying attention to your city, much of this story is familiar even if, for many of us, its visceral consequences aren’t. That’s why this film is so important: it’s both a Black film made for a Black audience and one that everyone in Oakland can benefit from seeing. The East Oakland community’s resilience is represented here in people’s stories and in the initiatives they have taken to rebuild. This is not a salvage operation. There is love here. And hope. And belief. That’s why Regina Jackson spent decades mentoring at-risk youth at the East Oakland Youth Development Center and Earnest Jenkins III won awards for his work with the African American Male Achievement program at Oakland High. Others, like Angela Scott and Marquita “Keta” Price, have poured their energy and talent into environmental justice and land use issues in the neighborhood. Still others stress the importance of revitalizing Black businesses and culture through the work of organizations like the Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation, using a development model that ensures that benefits of economic growth remain in the community.
This is an important film that deserves as wide an audience as possible. Ask your local library branch or community group to arrange a showing, by contacting Cheryl Fabio at (510) 206-4407 or email@example.com.