(Black History Month 2021)
by Melissa Howard
From San Francisco to Berkeley to Oakland and beyond, our community has been profoundly impacted by the presence and power of Black men and women.
This Black History Month, we’re taking a moment to reflect on some of the wisdom and vision that the Black community has contributed to our collective way of life in the Bay Area. We also encourage any reader who’s interested in learning more about Black affairs and local history to browse SFMOMA’s reading list of books on racial justice and equity from Bay Area authors.
Musings from 15 Black Bay Area Voices
- Maya Angelou: “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” A prolific poet, activist, and educator, Maya Angelou began making waves as a young Black woman in the Bay Area shortly after she moved here — during her teenage years, she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco.Dr. Angelou went on to build a global legacy, publishing dozens of books and essays (starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). While her talents propelled her away from the Bay Area, her imprint remains one of our most widely known examples of Black excellence.
- Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Color Purple, Alice Walker is a womanist (a term she coined to mean “a Black feminist or a feminist of color”), a novelist, and a civil rights activist. She stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, whom she met during college, during the 1963 March on Washington and took part in many critical actions during the civil rights and anti-war movements.Now 76 years old and living in Mendocino, Walker originally moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent many years in Berkeley.
- Belva Davis: “Don’t be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality. If you can dream it, you can make it so.” Belva Davis, the first Black woman to become a television reporter on the West Coast, had an illustrious journalism career in San Francisco. Growing up in Oakland, Davis’s calm demeanor and astute insight on issues ranging from politics to race to gender made her an on-air personality to be reckoned with. She enjoyed a long career with many accomplishments (including 8 Emmys) from 1957 to 2012, and her final broadcast was an interview with her personal friend, Maya Angelou.
- Kamala Harris: “There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane.’ They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.” The woman we now know as the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris grew up in Oakland and started her political career in the Bay Area. Born to parents who instilled a sense of activism and justice, Vice President Harris is the first Black and Asian American woman to hold this title.
- Etta James: “My mother always told me, even if a song has been done a thousand times, you can still bring something of your own to it. I’d like to think I did that.” The legendary singer Etta James moved to San Francisco at the age of 12, just a few years before she embarked on an illustrious musical career that would deliver her six Grammys.James’s fiery voice, known for songs that blended R&B, blues, and soul such as “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” kept her in the public eye from 1954 to her death in 2012. She was also known as one of the greatest singers of all time, being named as such by Rolling Stone.
- Ron Dellums: “Failure is not a crime. The crime is not trying.” One of America’s best-known Black congressmen, and the first African American elected to Congress from Northern California, Ron Dellums was born in Oakland and spent most of his life there. He was also Mayor of Oakland from 2007 to 2011.Dellums, whose parents were active in the organized labor movement, was perhaps best known for his stance and policies on military intervention and apartheid (both of which he vehemently opposed). When he retired in 1997, many of his contemporaries in Congress described him as a man of great conviction and integrity.
- Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” An educator and activist, Angela Davis has contributed countless writings, speeches, and perspectives on critical topics such as class, race, gender, and the prison-industrial complex. Her name will perk the ears of anyone well-versed in social justice affairs. Davis currently holds a professorship at the University of California, Santa Cruz, within the History of Consciousness department.
- Huey Newton: “I think what motivates people is not great hate, but great love for other people.” Co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton moved with family to Oakland at the age of three in 1945. Newton was involved in direct action focused on liberating the Black community throughout his adult life, and his impact was fundamental to the Black Power movement in the U.S.
- Bobby Seale: “You don’t fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity.” Bobby Seale, another co-founder of the Black Panther Party, was an active force in the Oakland community for many years. While his early stance on Black empowerment was defined by its radicalness, he later adopted a more inclusive stance of healing the nation “from the inside,” so to speak. Seale even ran for mayor of Oakland once in the 1970s, finishing second.
- Danny Glover: “We have to be that wedge that drives the question and asks the hard questions.”While most Americans know Danny Glover as an actor who starred in many feature films, he is also renowned for his community activism in the Bay Area and beyond. Glover, who starred in movies such as Lethal Weapon and The Color Purple, has used his platform to bring awareness to issues from systemic racism in America to Sudan’s humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
- Willie Stargell: “Judgment traps you within the limitations of your comparisons. It inhibits freedom.” While Willie Stargell played all 21 of his Major League Baseball seasons in Pittsburgh, he honed his skills playing high school ball at Encinal High School in Alameda.Stargell experienced many racial difficulties as a Black athlete touring the country in the racially divided 1960s — but he persisted and eventually became one of the most formidable power hitters in baseball history.
- Alicia Garza: “It’s hard to be a leader when you have to make hard choices and when you have to do what’s right, even though people are not going to like you for it.”Black Lives Matter has blossomed into an international movement in the last few years, led by none other than Marin County-native Alicia Garza. As the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Garza first dove into social activism as a teenager right here in the Bay Area. After Trayvon Martin’s death and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, she is credited with coining the Black Lives Matter name and for pioneering the use of social media to drive social movements.
- Kwatsi Alibaruho: “There are a number of minorities who simply haven’t had the opportunity or may not be in areas where they’re receiving the kind of foundation that they need in the math and sciences to really distinguish themselves and really achieve themselves. I myself feel a very strong burden to serve as that type of mentor.” Raised in Oakland, Kwatsi Alibaruho became the first Black flight director for NASA in 2005. His parents instilled an appreciation for math and science in him at a young age, and Alibaruho’s curiosity helped to propel his career forward over the years — which, in turn, has inspired many other Black men and women to pursue the fields of math and science.
- Sarah Webster Fabio: “If we come like rain, freely, with a downpouring of smiles and/or tears, running breathlessly, in answer to each other’s call, then come we must. Or else, we should wish for each other the dawn of brighter suns.” A notable poet and educator, Sarah Webster Fabio was accomplished in her career and also, in a collective sense, for her role in establishing Black Arts departments at West Coast universities such as UC Berkeley. Webster Fabio’s art bridged poetry and music later in her life, leading her to publish four collections of written works and four musical recordings.
- Sly Stone: “You can make it if you try, push a little harder, think a little deeper.” Of “Sly and the Family Stone” fame, Sly Stone is a prominent musician — and played in several San Francisco music groups as a college student before forming his supergroup. This was notable, as racially integrated, male and female music acts were rare at the time.
Here at Mosaic, we’re always looking for ways to highlight the rich cultural histories that have shaped our Bay Area. This Black History Month, we celebrate our community of Black changemakers, who have each contributed their lives to evolving matters of racial equality, Black arts and culture, and social movements that went on to evolve our nation.
How (and who) are you celebrating this Black History Month? Let us know in the comment section below!