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The Unexpected Joys of Being Black in the Bay Area

A trip to San Francisco offers one writer a surprising feeling of cultural connection.

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Hi, I'm Yvette!

A Southern girl from Nashville, TN, Yvette has made the D(M)V home. She is an alum of Tin House’s Winter Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Slate, Paste, Your Tango, as well as literary magazines such as midnight & indigo, Penumbra Online, 45th Parallel, and others. She is a mother to two sons, and loves traveling and dining well.

Editor’s note: There are uncensored uses of the n-word throughout this piece, at the request of the author.

As I boarded the plane to San Francisco to meet a friend for our birthday celebration last fall, I began to worry about the city’s demographics and whether I would feel comfortable there. Just that summer, a friend and I had been the only people of color for stretches at a time during our beach and wine trip to Cape May, New Jersey. The demographics were startling and the treatment unpleasant. I also thought of my experience in the New Orleans French Quarter, where my son and I were called the n-word that same year. I talked myself through my anxiety. It's San Francisco, a very liberal place. There will be enough of us there for me to be OK. We will be treated decently. I had no idea how pleasantly charmed I would end up being by this town.

On our first day in the Bay Area, my friend and I got the lay of the land via a hop-on hop-off bus. Our first “hop off” was at Golden Gate Park, where we mindfully explored the Japanese Tea Garden. When we hopped back on the bus, and were leaving the park, we saw an advertisement for exhibits about both Ramses the Great and Faith Ringgold at the de Young Museum. My friend and I were excited. I have a 20-year love affair with Ringgold's large canvases and story quilts; I had studied her in grad school, examining her audacious rendering of Black power and strength and her inscription of Black women into spaces they had been blocked from. My friend, for her part, had a lengthy enchantment with the ingenuity and fearlessness of ancient Egyptian people and was intrigued by their cultural practices. We decided we would return later in our trip so we could both indulge our interests.

Yvette J. Green poses for a picture in the Bay Area, California.
Yvette was left pleasantly surprised by her time in the Bay Area.Foto: Yvette J. Green

The next morning, we took a Chinatown culinary walking tour that included both history and gastronomical lessons. Our tour guide taught us how to eat the sesame balls by smashing them between both hands so that we would taste the sweet paste with each bite, and she also explained how America had marginalized and mistreated Chinese immigrants. While hearing about the struggles of Chinese immigrants brought on a strong feeling of empathy, it was a bit easier for me, emotionally, than hearing about the travails of Black people in America (as I did earlier that year on a haunted history tour in New Orleans that included a talk about slavery). Here, I felt space to breathe as I learned about another community that, upon immigrating to the US, decided to live together and preserve their traditions and culture. I learned that the press had named the area “Chinatown” and that the increased presence of Chinese immigrants and their successes stirred fear in other Americans, causing racism which resulted in the looting and burning of business and, eventually, anti-Chinese legislation—including laws limiting immigration. Our guide took care in relating these stories, and she also peppered her lessons with delicious tasting experiences. (The egg rolls I had were especially fresh and flaky, making me wonder what I had been eating before.)

Related: Tour Guide Dorothy Quock’s Guide to San Francisco Chinatown

Chinatown in San Francisco in the Bay Area, filled with restaurants and lanterns.
The author joined a culinary tour in San Francisco's Chinatown.Foto: Anthony Cruz / Viator

The owner of the tea shop we visited on the tour also taught us about the healing benefits of tea and the proper way to prepare it so that it's not bitter and doesn't need honey or sugar. After our tasting was over, the engaging owner spoke directly to my friend and me: “African Americans suffer from diabetes and hypertension,” he said. “You all need to be sure to drink …" The conversation was intimate, private, and candid—an interesting twist on being singled out based on our race. I was starting to realize that San Francisco has an ethos of being honest about race, history, and culture; it was refreshing.

Later that day, we headed to another must-do on our pre-planned itinerary: the cable cars. We walked from our hotel to the intersection of Powell and Market Streets, where we could watch the operators spin the car on the turntable to reposition it for a new ride. I knew that the cable cars, while an iconic San Francisco sight, were also connected to two notable Black artists: the film director Mario Van Peebles was a gripman, and the acclaimed memoirist and poet Maya Angelou was the first Black woman conductor. These Black historical figures who operated the cars (and then went on to be talents in their respective fields) contribute to the cars’ storied history.

When we eventually hopped on, we found that our conductor was like an older cousin; he had a sense of humor, and he narrated the ride with comedic flair and energy, masking any weariness his workday may have carried. He was personable, fun, and knowledgeable. As we disembarked on our way to find food down by the piers, he stopped us.

"I want you all to stand on this step and wrap your arm around this pole and take some pictures," he said. He knew we would enjoy the moment and relish the images. This was a small but big gesture, a moment of taking care of the people in one's racial community, even though we were from miles away.

Travelers ride a cablecar through the streets of San Francisco in the Bay Area on a sunny day.
The cablecar in San Francisco has quite the history.Foto: Brittany Hosea-Small / Shutterstock

Our visit to the de Young Museum, on the last day of our trip, helped to confirm my feelings about San Francisco’s conscientious and genuine ethos. We walked into the foyer wide-eyed like children, and one of our elders, who could have been an aunt, greeted us with familiarity and intimacy. She treated us as though we were kin and gifted us free admission (a perk I assume the museum extends to its employees). As we thanked her a few times too many, she made sure to encourage us to take the elevator up to the Hamon Observation Tower to see an expansive view of the city.

I slowly walked to the entrance of the Faith Ringgold exhibit, holding onto the excitement of anticipation. As I approached Ringgold's work, the eyes of her characters stared at and past me. The first space in the gallery was Ringgold's daring and radical Black Arts Movement work. In these pieces, she took on race with bold strokes, and the de Young museum displayed multiple 8-by-10-foot (2.5-by-3-meter) works, forcing the viewer to engage with the political on a large scale.

One of her flag paintings was titled “Die Nigger,” which left me conflicted. On the one hand, I was able to situate Ringgold's piece as reflecting a historical and cultural moment but as Faulkner writes, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” Race-based hatred and violence still exist today, over 55 years since Ringgold's 1967 painting was created. In that moment in front of the painting, I felt clothed in my Blackness; coming face-to-face with death wishes based on my skin color alone was challenging and disheartening. But the fact that the institution did not shy away from displaying the reality that Black people experienced was refreshing; I felt seen, I was impressed. Not least by the accompanying placard requesting that viewers recognize that “nigger” was inflammatory and to opt for the n-word in this cultural space. The de Young curators heeded calls for cultural responsiveness on multiple levels.

The exterior of the de Young Museum in the Bay Area, which is home to many works by Black artists.
The de Young Museum hosted an exhibit of work by Faith Ringgold.Foto: Stephen Lam / Viator

I was thrilled when I turned a corner and saw that the exhibit reached deep into the recesses of the museum, holding enough work to really capture the breadth of Ringgold's political art. She was also deeply engaged in the politics of cultural institutions, and the de Young museum incorporated some of her papers indicting museums for their failure to include Black women artists into their exhibits. In doing this, the de Young museum was reaching backwards to hold a mirror to critiques of cultural institutions. The institution was participating in recentering narratives, exhuming forgotten stories, and recognizing essential pieces. When institutions get involved in granting space to art that disrupts narratives of anti-Blackness, they help resituate the past in the present. They are acknowledging that they have a responsibility as a cultural institution to be inclusive and to tell full stories. The esteemed character of this museum was on full display in their artistic, cultural, and linguistic choices.

In the end, every part of our trip impacted me. The people—the cable car conductor and the greeter at the de Young museum—the institutions, and the experience in Chinatown punctuated the trip with familiarity and intimacy, providing me with such warmth and Black joy in the breezy Bay area.

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