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Reed takes a walk on Oakland’s wild side

Mills College Weekly

Reading Ishmael Reed’s new book, Blues City, is like
having a walking conversation with a crusty, opinionated elder of
the Oakland community. Reed knows everyone, and he links touring
the notable sites in Oakland with the history, politics, culture
and race relations that unite the past with the present.

You’ll learn why (and when) there’s an annual Black Cowboy
parade in Oakland, what the real program and history of the Black
Panther Party was, the geopolitical reasons for the existence of
Chinatown, and how the original Anglo settlers robbed the Peralta
family of their Spanish land grant where Oakland now stands. Reed
compares the invading whites of the Gold Rush to the “outlaw
capitalist” gang members who deal drugs and shoot people on the
streets today.

Reed is unabashedly political; and you’ll also learn why he
detests Mayor Jerry Brown, and his “Brownies” who, according to
Reed, want to gentrify the city and drive out its non-white
population, and why Oakland is in economic trouble. Reed chronicles
the scrappy, diverse working class tradition of the city, starting
with the docks and the railroad. He documents the cultural history
that has led to Oakland being called “blues city.” The only
photograph in the book shows some of the great local blues men
standing in front of Esther’s Orbit Room in West Oakland.

Reed is gossipy, and funny. At the Peralta House Christmas
party, there’s “…a man calling himself the King of the Universe
who sits at a table patiently making (zany) hats, presumably a good
job for the King of the Universe.” After a racial snub at the
Oakland museum, he remarks, “I’d just experienced the human
experience at its highest only to be reminded of the human
experience at its dumbest.”

You can read Blues City cover to cover-it’s a great
read-but I recommend that you read each chapter, and then walk the
area or the building he describes in it, from Jack London Square,
Old Oakland, and Chinatown to the renovated African-American Museum
and Library, and the Chabot Space and Science Center. Reed also
links those locations to events such as the Gay Pride parade, the
Chinatown street festival, the BBQ, Beer and Blues Festival, and
the Panther Tour.

You might visit Marcus Brooks to get the “Walk Oakland! Map and
Guide” for additional assistance in finding your way around. Use
the buses to get from one place to another, and you’ll see and
understand even more of this quintessentially American city that we
live in.