Last Saturday, a group of over 100 people gathered at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland to celebrate the launch of “The Griots of Oakland,” a book and the name of an exhibition about young black men living in the city. Eric Nobles, a senior at Dewey Academy, was one of five boys celebrated for his contribution as a ‘griots’, a West-African word meaning storyteller. As Nobles clutched the microphone, he told the audience the experience had been eye-opening. “I got a whole different perspective on Oakland,” he said.
The party was the culmination of over a year’s worth of hard work. In February 2012, African American Male Achievement (AAMA), an office in Oakland Unified School District that aims to empower young black males, and Alameda Health Care Services Agency decided to create a project that would allow young African American males to share their personal experiences in a compelling and creative manner. They partnered up with Story for All, a non-profit that helps communities tell their stories, to teach a group of teenage boys how to be storytellers.
AAMA and Story For All recruited five young men from the ages of 14 to 18 to serve as the conduit for the voices of black males throughout the city. All natives of Oakland, the boys were taught African American and Oakland history, as well as videography, by the non-profit. Through mock interviews that were conducted in public places, they were trained in active listening and public speaking. Classes also featured guest speakers such as syndicated talk show host Davey D, and Oscar Wright, an education activist.
Equipped with video cameras and 30 interview questions, the young men hit the streets. They ventured to Edna Brewer Middle School, Parker Elementary School, Oakland Tech, Martin Luther King Elementary School, the Eastmont Mall bus stop, Youth Uprising, and downtown Oakland. Unsure of what to expect, the interviewers walked through the city with the goal of learning more about their community and capturing the voices and thoughts of a group of young black men – who often are lumped together in many peoples’ minds. The project highlighted the individual personalities, philosophies, and hopes of each young man. A professional photographer also joined the teens during their interviews to snap a portrait of the people they interviewed. Over the course of the year they interviewed over 100 African American males from the ages of 6 to 24.
Interview questions ranged in complexity from “What did you eat for breakfast?” to “What is it like being a young African American man in Oakland?” The answers were sometimes alarming. While nearly 79 percent of boys under 13 said that it was good to be a young black male, 83 percent of those over 13 said that it was hard.
One of the interviewers, Jarvis Henry, a recent graduate from Dewey Academy in Oakland, said that the answers gave him a new view on the black male community. He noted that many young kids said that they felt more comfortable at home rather than outside, because the risk of violence meant they couldn’t play freely in the streets. He said that he hopes the streets will be safer when his 1-year-old son gets older. “I want my son to be able to go to the park. I want him to go places without worrying about it,” Harvey added.
Nobles says that he was humbled and inspired by the struggles and dreams of the people who he interviewed, and that the project gave him a renewed pride in Oakland. “I love this city and I hope that black people can start to come together more,” Nobles said.
Story For All hopes that the “Griots” project is one that they’ll be able to replicate in other communities. Angela Zusman, the director of the nonprofit, says that “Griots” exposed her to a world that she was previously unaware of. She thought that she had an idea of what life was like for young men living in Oakland, but soon realized that their lives were more difficult than she had expected. She says that she was taken aback by the clarity with which the boys were aware of the challenges in their lives. “I was blown away by their wisdom, by their beauty and by their struggle,” Zusman says.
The exhibition at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland will run until March 1, and includes photos, quotes and video clips from the interviews. An interactive kiosk also allows viewers to answer some of the questions that were asked of the young men.
A “Griots” book featuring the interviews is also on sale, and Zusman hopes that it will help the young black men in the community feel recognized and honored. All the proceeds from the book will go towards racial equity based oral history programs in Alameda County.
While interviewing various men in Oakland, Nobles says that he was inspired by the lofty goals that some had, such as wanting to be a forensic scientist or a veterinarian. He hopes that “The Griots of Oakland” will invite the rest of the nation to change their perspective about young African American males in the city. “We’re cool, normal people just like everybody else,” Nobles adds. “Just people who have a struggle that we’re trying to overcome.”