JENNIFER JOHNS

“You have a right to be yourself and that is a very Oakland trait and you’re going to find all manner of people who are willing to fight for your right to be who you are. I think that Oakland is the best of the American experiment. It is the best of the American experiment because people have to deal with each other. And so I have to deal with why you’re so upset about the way that you’re being treated as a trans person. I have to see that, cause I see you walking down the street everyday. My life is right up against yours. And so I think that’s one of the things that makes us different.”

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Your name and your age?

I’m Jennifer Johnson. I will be 40 in two weeks.

What neighborhood of Oakland are you from or would you just say you associate with growing up?

I’ve lived a few places in East Oakland but pretty squarely East Oakland.

Tell me about your neighborhood growing up?

My earliest memories of childhood was over in the murder dubs over near Highland hospital and then we lived on 66th and Avenal and I remember the day that I knew that crack hit like the day without question. I was sleep, I might’ve been like six and there was a guy that was down the street that was kind of like  the neighborhood homie. Like you just saw him all the time and our doors were never locked and I could go wherever I wanted to at that age and so forth. And then over time the rules got a little bit tighter. Then one night my dad had just gotten this bike and it was in the backyard and the guy from down the block broke  into the backyard and we all wake up from the commotion cause he was mad loud cause he was a crack crackhead. And so he’s running with the bike, half off the bike, half on the bike. My father was a big man, like he wasn’t playing.  I know my dad well enough to know that he could have caught up to him fast enough and snatched him and really roughed him up and all the things but didn’t decide to and turned to me and was like, this is different. You don’t approach those type of people. I remember very distinctively that that was the day that things changed. I had a couple uncles, I couldn’t let in the house anymore. And you know the neighborhood completely changed, at least for me, that was the day that I remember that things were different and it’s deep because you drive through East Oakland with these beautiful homes and it’s still considered the hood, you know? It’s just the impact of what happened when the blue collar jobs dried up. And you know, the rule that if you had an able body man in your home, you weren’t eligible for the same amount of aid. Things just changed. We were ground zero for crack as chemical warfare, you know, and somy neighborhood had a real rich depth and connectivity to it and then crack happened. And I remember I’d decade of heartbreak.

I want to ask you a little bit more about your positive experience. I’m trying to say that I want both. What I’m saying, it’s to give context because some people have been here long enough to remember pre crack Oakland. This is totally different.

Fully different…

It’s so different than how so many people frame Oakland now. So much of Oakland is poised in a frame of the post crack era. But there is a whole part of Oakland that was there before that and also existed through that.

Yes.

I think that doesn’t get talking about enough.

So, well I think the thing that’s really dope about Oakland and East Oakland in particular is there’s such diversity, there’s such diversity and there’s blackness at the core. We’re in California and so there’s a way that there was just so many different kinds of people and so much different kinds of food. Like I’m thinking about my childhood right now and I’m thinking about there always being lumpia at every school event (laughing). There was Chinese New Year and all of those things. I really think that one of the things that has survived for Oakland has been this attachment to our cultures and an appreciation that everyone deserves to have their own culture. I went to Saint Cyril’s in East Oakland as a kid and our school was run by hippies, it was a Catholic school in Deep East Oakland run by fucking hippies, then they left to go and make Northern Light school. There’s a way that this feeling that there’s a justice passion in us that just doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Like you could decide that you are going to start a revolution because the gorillas don’t have nail Polish, whatever. (Laughing) That’s the thing about Oakland that’ll fucking never dies and we believe that we have a right to be ourselves.

So my parents, they’re a little crazy. They broke up, you know, love them, God bless them. I go away to voice camp. I’m 10 years old, I go to way to casadero voice camp. This is the longest I’ve been away from my parents. My parents have just broken up and there are no cell phones then.  I’m calling my mom to be like, “hey, how you doing?” And I guess the police had just left and the fire department, because inside our garage there are three doors. So it looks like it’s a three car garage, but it’s not.

It’s a two car garage. And then once you’re inside there, these three doors up against the wall, right. So one door, my whole life had never opened. Like I’d never wondered what was in there cause fucking why did I care? So I guess my mother decided that she needs to know and my dad had a live missile and there (laughing) Because my grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman, and had given him a missile for his 13th birthday and taught him how to make bullets. So my father had a bullet making machine, gun powder and a missile in our fucking garage. So when the fire department came apparently they were like, “Good thing you didn’t have a fire you’d have blown up half of East Oakland, that would have sucked”. So those are some of my childhood memories. Yeah.

I’ve heard some good stories, but I think that one just shot to the top…

And I tell you like there was 10 years of like what the fuck? It was like crack and shit like, and then the hell’s angels lived next door. And that’s what I mean about this diversity and addiction to be your fucking self.

Right. Let’s talk about your Hell’s Angels Neighbors.

Oh my God, these motherfuckers right here. I dare you to mess with me as a child on this block. I dare you. I double dog, dare you. They were not having it. Them cats. So protective, so culturally present. Like it’s really interesting to me that I know that there’s a different kind of history to what Hell’s Angels came from or whatever. But my experience with Hell’s angels has always been will I know I’m safe when they’re around. You know? And so them cats next next door, but they were wild. And one time the police came and apparently they were making meth. I was just a kid and  they had big dogs and it just always looked like there was more than I needed to be involved in over there. But I did know that if any shit went down and enough shit went down for me to know that I was safe because of them.

I mean, like there was multiple drug dealers that lived up and down in these blocks but they was the boys from the neighborhood. Especially now that I’m older and I understand what led our communities to what it is, I always had an appreciation for those young men. I always did. I always felt safe with them, you know? I always didn’t understand completely why they kept on going to jail, but the Hell’s Angels, boys looked out for them and they looked out for the Hell’s Angels guys.  I dunno, this community, everybody was their own kind of thing, but we all looked out for one another. My mom is from East Oakland, but she was the first person in her family to get a college degree from Mills College. She’s from East Oakland then went to college at Mills College and then went to go and work at Mills College. And so half of my life has been in a world of education or “The haves” for lack of better way of saying it. And then the other has been an east Oakland with,  see I don’t even want to call East Oakland “The Have Nots” because we have so much, there’s so much culture, there’s so much passion, there’s so much fire, there’s so much education and information and diversity. I guess I’ve always had one foot in the hills and one foot in the flats. Um, and that’s how it has been.

Tell me a little about your experience with Mills College.

I was a latch key kid and I went to Sherman and I went to Saint Cyrils,  I went to Burbank and I would walk home everyday, drop my backpack, and then I would walk through there (Mills). And it was like walking into Narnia, you know what I mean? Cause like you’re walking through East Oakland, you know, maybe I went over to my grandmother’s house, I  walk past the cemetery, back up through here, whatever and down Seminary and then I walk into there. I’d spend my afternoons swimming. I learned how to swim there and learned how to hike there. My very first recording session was at Mill’s. All of those things, I grew up on that campus.

Do you know when your family came to Oakland and what were the reasons? 

My great grand mother came to Oakland from Tennessee and they were first generation out of slavery. So they moved to Alameda and they were very fair complected. So there was a lot that worked for them. There were some folks who could just pass, actually on both sides of my family that’s the case and then my father came here in the 60s in the military

You know which base?

He was stationed at Travis.

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So saying all that, we’ve created all this context. All this in your personal history, how does that make you feel to be an Oakland native?

I think I’m from the best place on earth. I don’t know another place that has the kind of component of awesomeness anywhere like we have. We have such a rich history of passion for individuality and community. At the same time, we have the best weather. It’s amazing. I’m proud to be from Oakland and I’m proud to be a part of the people who stay and a part of the people who are laying claim to our legacy. You know, that’s not easy. I have had to move out and move around a host of times because it’s so expensive. I almost just moved to Los Angeles because it’s so expensive here but I know that those of us who are from here believe in justice and we’ll do all that we can to make sure that we change the circumstances, you know?

I feel like you kind of touched on this, but if you want to expand on this question, we can do that or we can move on to the next one. But what is it that you think makes Oakland so special in comparison to other cities of similar size, stature and history, say like Detroit, Cincinnati, etc?

I really think that the thing that makes Oakland so different is the kind of diversity that we have here. It’s not just ethnic diversity, it’s socioeconomic diversity, it’s educational diversity. We have so many different kinds of life experiences, even inside of one ethnicity, right? That the possibility of ideas is greater and so we create all manner of shit that the world uses. You know what I mean? The whole world looks at us for movement building and they also look at us towards technology. There’s so much about who we are that is amplified into the world. And we’re not even half a million people now.

What are the social values that you associate with Oakland?

I have a right to fucking be myself. (Laughing) Yo, listen, I need a t shirt that’s like Oakland values. Fuck what you heard. I have a right to be myself. No matter who you are. Oh my God. It doesn’t matter who you are. You have a right to be yourself and that is a very Oakland trait and you’re going to find all manner of people who are willing to fight for your right to be who you are. I think that Oakland is the best of the American experiment. It is the best of the American experiment because people have to deal with each other. And so I have to deal with why you’re so upset about the way that you’re being treated as a trans person. I have to see that, cause I see you walking down the street everyday. My life is right up against yours. And so I think that’s one of the things that makes us different.

So yeah, I have a right to be myself. I must fight for your right to be yourself. Oh and uh, fuck it. Yo, let’s just kick it. (Laughing) That’s the value, right? Out here it’s you gone be who you are. I’m not sure what a blunt and some vegan snacks can’t fix. You know what I mean? Regardless of where you from out here. I saw somebody the other day and I was like, we could go to 90th and Plymouth and I can introduce you to a gangster ass gardener who will blow your wig off though. Like that is so Oakland, it’s the juxtaposition of life experiences. We are about living in the balance for sure.

Why do you think so many people are so eager to move here now? 

Cause we made it fresh!!  And then told these motherfuckers about it. Damn you Too Short and Fabby…

And E-40,  you’re the ambassador to The Bay so you get the blame as well. (Laughing)

Totally. They finally caught on to the fact that we have the best weather. The best weed. Everyone’s so attractive here. We’ve been getting along for a long time, so everybody’s been fucking and reproducing, so everyone’s cute. You know what I mean? I think that people just came because it’s a really great place to like smoke a blunt and make some code and be a tech bro. And I think that we need to deal with these thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people that are homeless with a little bit of this tech money, you know? And we need to let the tech Bros know Hey, you’re welcome to be here and everything but you’re going to have to smile when you walk down the street.

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That gets to my next question. What do you wish people knew about Oakland before they came here? As far as what’s their briefing before they came here? What would you tell your new neighbors are the good are the guidelines to being a good Oaklander?

I will fight for your right to be yourself, if you fight for my right to be me too. And when you come here and you come with your money and your wealth, I expect that you understand our values and our values is that everyone belongs here. We are the best of the American experiment and we take that shit mad seriously. So when you come here you smile and you fucking smile at the elder’s walking down the street. If you don’t, what the hell is wrong with you? There is some panthers, people who lived their life so that you could even have a better life. They said black power for black people. They also said white power for white people. So get it together and smile at the people, be kind, be welcoming, you have an ethnic snack of some sort. Share it. You know what I mean? That’s, that. Be nice…

You were starting to touch on this, but let’s go deeper. What do you not like about the current changes occurring in Oakland?

It’s a zillion dollars to live here. It’s way too expensive. It’s offensive and we’re such a small place and the homelessness is out of control. When the United Nations calls your city a human rights violation, that is a problem. I recently,  I’ve been really traumatized by the idea that the statistics of black people and Oakland has dropped by such incredible numbers, right? So like when I was growing up, I thought it was like, you know, 80% black. That was just my consciousness with all of the diversity of things that were in my life. My life was pretty black. Let’s just say it was 50% black, now it’s under 25% black. Right? But that’s what we’re calculating. Not looking at the idea that the homeless population is over 70% black. So it may just be that, there are tons of these black people that haven’t actually left, but they don’t have a home and they’re not being counted. That’s huge because everyone wants to be here because of the black people. That’s just keep it funky. Everyone who is here is here because there is a swag and a vibration and so forth and so on. That came with being a loveaolucionary ass black person. That made incredible music and brought people together and all of those things. I’m disappointed with our city’s administration for that.

On the flip side of that, what are things that are changing now that you are happy with?

There’s so much more to do and it’s safer. Crack brought murder in real numbers and for the majority of my coming of age years, our homicide rate was a hundred plus easy. To be able to be on 17th and telegraph and not really, really worry about getting shot and that’s just downtown, that’s impressive to me. That’s awesome. I wish that the people that I watched growing up in this neighborhood could benefit from it. You know?

Yeah, that sort of segues into my final question, which was what are your hopes and aspirations for the community of Oakland moving forward?

I hope and trust because we have such a brazen belief and our ability to start a revolution. I trust that we will find a way to house the homeless and create a just economy in Oakland that will inspire the world to do better. I think that’s totally possible for us. If any place could do it in America, it would be Oakland.

Okay. I got one bonus round question. Okay. Don’t give up any secrets or spots! But  what is something about Oakland and most people don’t know? (Both of us laughing)

You know, the thing that people don’t know about Oakland, is it something that you can’t explain… You have to be here. I couldn’t give up any game because there’s something in the water or the way that we move that just makes us so powerful and so chill at the same time. I couldn’t explain that to you. That’s why they all here, they’ve come out here and they’re trying to figure it out. And I think that it’s in the struggle together. You know, it’s in the winning together and the struggle together that makes us who we are, but it’s a familial thing. So I couldn’t give it away if I tried.  I mean, you could visit, but don’t come here…

 

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