Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Update: Free Marcus Books

UnknownMarcus Books and its supporters won a small victory in the ongoing fight to save the store when this week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the preservation of the historic building.  In business for over 50 years, Marcus is America’s oldest black-owned bookstore and a San Francisco literary institution that’s hosted James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Toni Morrison, among countless other writers and thinkers; it is a huge part of the City’s African American heritage. Before it became a bookstore, the Victorian building originally located on Post Street was home to Jimbo’s Bop City, the legendary Fillmore District club that staged Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, among other jazz giants. The resolution put forth by Supervisors London Breed and Malia Cohen, and supported by Supervisors of all districts, urges the new owners of the property to “uphold the building’s community serving purpose.”

At a rally and press conference Tuesday afternoon, hours before the resolution was passed, about 100 community and church leaders, as well as activists, artists and supporters gathered on the steps of City Hall (never mind the persistent sound of horns you will hear in this clip—in a separate but related issue, cab drivers were protesting the rogue transportation companies that have taken over the roadways in the face of SF’s latest tech boom).

“Tell everyone you know who loves truth and justice and tell them to get involved,” said Archibishop Franzo King of Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. The Fillmore has historically been the scene of systematic removal of it residents, whether the internment of Japanese Americans in the ‘40s or the ‘50s and ‘60s relocation of its African American dwellers who were promised housing that never materialized. After a decades-long, so-called redevelopment project (which is now widely and finally acknowledged at the city government level as a failed undertaking), the Fillmore has rebuilt and rebooted more than once, but the well-documented exodus of middle to low-income people of color, and the working and artist classes from throughout San Francisco continues unabated. To state the  plainly obvious, unlike buildings, people cannot be replaced.

“This isn’t just about the bookstore,” said Marcus Books owner Greg Johnson.  “It’s about humanity.”

“This is about transfer of wealth, out of the hands of working class black folk…” said Rev. Arnold Townsend, Vice President of the local NAACP, at Tuesday’s press conference.

Most all of the speakers noted the persistent effort to save Marcus Books goes beyond highlighting the failing of brick and mortar book stores in the 21st Century; it touches realms of historical preservation of culture and ideas, and bores straight into matters regarding maintenance of a community hub. Literacy, education, and generally freely traded  knowledge of self and others are also at stake.

“When we lose our artists, we lose our stories,” said Tony Robles of grassroots arts organization, POOR Magazine.

“I would not be where I am without this book store,” stated devorah major, author, educator, and a San Francisco poet laureate.

The Marcus situation is sadly indicative of the changing demographics of the so-called sanctuary City of St. Francis, “with its widely advertised liberal and cosmopolitan tradition.”   But San Francisco’s track record with its African American population is not good, a contradiction that did not escape the notice of James Baldwin who participated in a film specially broadcast on public television station KQED in 1963.  I recommend the entire series of clips that follow from Take This Hammer.  And I especially commend San Francisco’s elected officials for taking the matter of Marcus Books and the larger problems it represents with the seriousness it demands.

For updates on the effort to Support  Marcus Books,  visit the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.

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Filed under: Books, James Baldwin, San Francisco News, video, , , , ,

Evolution of an Artist: Eugene E. White

Text of Evolution of an Artist:  San Francisco Appreciation Society Celebrates Eugene E. White, delivered at Elders Project 2013 Special Reception, African American Arts & Culture Complex, San Francisco, CA, July 11, 2013.

I have known of the artist Eugene E. White for decades, but it wasn’t until fairly recently, that I’ve come to know a little more about my fellow San Franciscan as a vital community member, with wisdom and experience to spare, and as a visionary artist. Humble heroes and heroines with rural roots, the people who raised families then sent them away from the South for better lives elsewhere, are the elders Eugene E. White honors in his work. Tonight, we honor the elder as artist.

Eugene E. White

Eugene E. White

From a boy in the backwoods of Arkansas, to a young man in the Cadillac factory of Detroit, Mr. White came to San Francisco in 1958 and made his way as a sign painter and electronics repairman.  He opened his Kujiona Gallery in 1963 and followed with a show in 1964, sponsored by Bulart in Golden Gate Park’s Hall of Flowers; from that start, fine art became his full time pursuit. Traveling across the country and over seas, seeing all the great changes of the 20th and 21st Centuries, he brought his artist’s insights home with him.  Yes, he’s known racism and participated in the fight for equality—and the artwork was part of that, whether at ’60s community meetings in his gallery, at the 1970s original Black Expo in Chicago, or as recently as this year’s Juneteenth festival in the Fillmore.  He also paints great figures from the past—Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass—and from his lifetime—Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Dr. King, and President Obama: They are the portraits of progress. But another story runs alongside that narrative: Mr. White has seen his community and neighborhoods devastated and dismantled. Poverty, violence, and prison statistics grow grim, courtroom injustices roll by and voting rights are rolled back, and yet he doesn’t flinch from these facts.  He is an artist, and as such he holds a vision that we can change history from here—for the good and for the better—by coming together and writing a different script. That is in part why he agreed to show the paintings, so we could better see the here and now.

portion of A Song For My Lady

portion of A Song For My Lady by Eugene E. White

Mr. White has a calling, not only to paint, but to tell stories through images that help us better see everyday people—ourselves and each other—“the people without titles,” as he describes his subjects. When I came by to see him and his wife Lynnette late last year, it was as a journalist, to inquire about the paintings and the process, to find out what he’d been doing in the years since I first made his acquaintance. Of course he was painting, and had two commissioned portraits in progress, but he wasn’t publicly showing his work outside his own gallery—which is why tonight is a very special occasion. As we take time to admire the canvases and their images of beauty, resilience, and courage, let us also reflect on their maker’s message: Mr. White’s gift is a starting place for a dialogue on life, its sacrifices, and what can be done to improve circumstances, for ourselves and for those around us.  His success as an artist is a demonstration of his passion and dedication not only to art, but to the art of life. May this night inspire a young man or young woman in the room to pursue his or her dreams to pick up a brush or a pen and make art in San Francisco, to become our city’s next fine artist for the next 50 years.  We appreciate the White Family, for letting us into your lives; and especially Mr. White, who has made an indelible impression on our city:  The San Francisco Appreciation Society and those of us assembled here tonight wish to say thank you.

Eugene E. White receives commendation from City of San Francisco  Supervisor London Breed

Eugene E. White received commendation for his art and service to the City of San Francisco from Supervisor London Breed. Later in the evening, San Francisco Appreciation Society honored him with a Proclamation from Mayor Lee declaring July 11 Eugene E. White Day.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Freedom Now, new article, , , , , , ,

Free Marcus Books

June 2013

Western San Francisco, June 2013

GOOD OL’ USA–June has been quite a month so far:  Bradley Manning’s trial kick-off was the first troubling thing, while jury selection for the George Zimmerman case must’ve been way more than just troubling for the family of Trayvon Martin. For those strung out on the injustice of the young man’s  killing in 2012, it is post-traumatic revisitation time.  Then there was the terrible mass shooting in Santa Monica. Just as my heart broke in two, thinking of friends and old neighbors we’d left behind there, we got the news (?) the N.S.A. is surveilling just plain folks on the regular. I thought we knew this already and so I just figure time is going backwards now. Incidentally, while all this was going down,  I saw a defaced billboard/piece of street art that seemed to fit the mood ’round these parts.

“I have so much trouble on my mind,” I told my husband, not even counting the day to day personal challenges of survival.  “I know,”  he said, though at least we could laugh at me quoting Chuck D accidentally without irony. Meanwhile, a national historic landmark, located in San Francisco, was moving into jeopardy.

The Richardson-Johnson family,  proprietors of the Marcus Book Store in the Fillmoreslider-2 district, have been on a course of change for over 50 years here and have survived those changes royally. Founders Julian and Raye Richardson were directly invested in the struggle for civil rights and equality, first with their Success printing company, followed by the opening of their bookstore.  To cite just one example: During the historic student strike at SF State in 1968, they used their home as collateral, to pay the bail for those arrested in the demonstration. They also printed the student paper when no one else would touch it. The result of the student action, by the way, are today’s multicultural studies departments and diversity programs  enjoyed on college campuses from here to Timbuktu (and when I say Timbuktu I do mean Timbuktu, quite literally).

Marcus Books, named after Marcus Garvey, specializes in books about Africa and African Americans, books by and about black people, among other things.  The authors they’ve hosted are those great writers, thinkers, poets, and humanitarians of the 2oth Century: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Ishmael Reed, and those are just a few of them. Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Wanda Coleman, Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Walter Mosely and Oprah Winfrey have also passed through the doors at one of their two locations (the other is in Oakland). In San Francisco, the purple building stands near the corner of Post,  at the former location of Jimbo’s Bop City, the Fillmore’s premier jazz spot, back in the day.  I mention all this on the first day of what I expect will be a long hot summer here in our chilly little town, because some of us are concerned about such things. Yes, it’s for some of the usual reasons small businesses and booksellers have been struggling in the Amazonian jungle for a decade, exacerbated by the economy’s mess, but the wages of income disparity have also come to bear, the way it makes some people in town go boom while the rest of us go bust are also mixed up in it. You can read more about the store’s situation; as these circumstances do not resolve overnight, the fight to save Marcus Books has really only just begun.

As a native daughter of western San Francisco, I’ve recently returned home following some years in Atlanta, Los Angeles and on another side of town, and Marcus Books has since became my new favorite old place here. There are only a handful of places like that here, where I find it harder and harder to recognize the people and places I used to know as uniquely San Francisco. But some of what I remember best about our town’s openness, and willingness, I re-found at Marcus. There, if you are so inclined, you might talk to Karen Johnson about James Jamerson. Or Charles Mingus, Soul Train and Don Cornelius; Fillmore Street’s jazz heritage, quantum physics, Marvin Gaye and the beginning of all life in Africa. Self-reliance, self-knowledge, the rise and fall of Egypt, astrology, numerology; Harry Belafonte, Smokey and Stevie may come up, depending how you go. I don’t know about you but there aren’t too many places in town where people are conversant in the things I want to talk about and that’s just my own personal reason for wanting Marcus to hang around. The other is that I care about Karen, her family, and of course the general community in the Sucka Free City, served by the book store.

It has been said that the Fillmore is the heart and soul of San Francisco; certainly I have been witness to those flavors at work at Marcus Books in the hands of the Richardson-Johnson family. And because there is hardly any other place on earth I’d rather be than in a friendly neighborhood book or record store, chances are if you’ve read this far, I suspect you feel the same way too. So please, if you will, sign the petition to help Marcus Books, the oldest African American Bookstore in the United States stay around not only to educate the young and curious, the avid reader and casual seeker, but to stand as one of the longest standing community safe places for black authors and black people, and all folks, even those who are white, like me.

A gathering of concerned customers and citizens will convene at the store on Saturday June 22 at noon. Marcus Books is located at 1712 Fillmore Street in San Francisco.

Filed under: Book news, Harry Belafonte, income disparity, , , , , ,

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