My Words Are My Words

November 15, 2017

Whatever happened to those ambitious plans to create a Black arts and business district in the downtown section of the City of Oakland? After a lot of advocacy and activity leading up to this past summer, they seem to have faded from sight.

I have a personal reason for bringing this up, but first, some background.

As I wrote in a column in July of this year (“Oakland's Black Arts And Business District Left Off State Pilot Project List”), the Oakland Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD) “was the creation of Oakland Third District City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney... On paper, it runs in an eight block corridor with Broadway at the center between Chinatown and Uptown, from the western bank of Lake Merritt to the 880 freeway. It was officially set up to ‘highlight, celebrate, preserve and support the contributions of Oakland’s Black artists and business owners’ in that downtown/West Oakland corridor.”

Both the general concept and the details for this proposed Black district was the product of a community advisory group called the Culture Keepers, which Ms. McElhaney had set up to help her office bring such a district into being. Among those individuals who became active in the Culture Keepers was longtime Oakland poet and playwright Marvin X Jackmon, who had worked in the original Black Arts Movement in both the Bay Area and nationally in the 1960’s. According to Ms. McElhaney, Mr. Jackmon had long been promoting the idea of a Black Oakland district independent of the Councilmember, and it was at Mr. Jackmon’s urging that the name “Black Arts Movement” was eventually incorporated into the name of the McElhaney-sponsored district.

Mr. Jackmon argues that because of those contributions he made to the project, the Black district should not be listed as the “creation” solely of Ms. McElhaney. I disagree, so there’s a difference of opinion between us, but I think that’s a small point, not worth haggling over.

Anyway, there’s no dispute over the fact that it was Ms. McElhaney who introduced the resolution to the Oakland City Council setting up the BAMBD as an official Oakland district, which the Council passed in January of 2016. No further action was taken either by the City or by Ms. McElhaney’s Council office to actually put that resolution into effect, however, and by the summer of that year, some of the Black arts activists who had worked with the Culture Keepers advisory group appeared to be growing restless over that lack of progress.

In the summer of 2016, Lower Bottom Playaz theater group Founding Director Ayodele Nzinga, a close ally of Mr. Jackmon, filed papers with the State of California to set up a community development corporation with the same name as that of the proposed official city district: Black Arts Movement and Business District (BAMBD). Later that year, Ms. Nzinga and others, such as Oakland journalist and photographer Eric Arnold, engaged in a number of activities in the name of the BAMBD Community Development Corporation, including negotiating community benefits packages with developers seeking approval for development projects in Oakland. It seemed a confusing situation to me, having a community corporation and a city-created entity existing with the same name at the same time, but maybe that’s just me.

Then last fall, Mr. Jackmon himself made a complete break with Ms. McElhaney over the official city BAMBD, loudly denouncing the Councilmember in her run for re-election last November. For his part, Mr. Arnold insists that the BAMBD CDC was not part of that Jackmon/McElhaney break and continues to work closely with Ms. McElhaney’s office. On the other hand, Mr. Jackmon told me as late as last summer that he was a part of the BAMBD CDC. More confusion, clearly.

As far as the official city BAMBD, this summer the official district received a possibly fatal blow when it when it failed to make the California Arts Council’s list of 14 districts that will serve as California's inaugural state-designated Cultural Districts. Without the state and private funding that would have come from state pilot project designation, and without any current funding from the City of Oakland, the official City of Oakland BAMBD appears for the time being to be an orphan program without any means at hand to create and carry out its intended projects.

Meanwhile, after much public activity throughout 2016, the BAMBD Community Development Corporation seems to have gone silent. If they are currently carrying on any activities, they do not show up on any internet searches or public statements that I have found. Even Mr. Jackmon has stopped mentioning the BAMBD in his publication,The Movement after promoting the project for months in that forum.

So if the Black Arts Movement Business District, either in its official or its community development corporation incarnations, is not dead, it’s certainly in a deep regrouping pause while its proponents assess how they can get back on track.

I believed—and continue to believe—that setting aside a district or string of districts somewhere in Oakland to promote Black arts and business is an important idea, and could be a key component in bringing back together the African-American community that is badly drifting apart. I had serious concerns and criticisms, however, about the various concepts of the Black Arts Movement Business District as put forth both by Councilmember McElhaney’s office and the by Jackmon/Nzinga/Arnold coalition, as well as concerns and criticisms about how both groups went about trying to put those concepts into effect, and I voiced those concerns and criticisms in a series of CounterPoints columns last year and this.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Ms. McElhaney nor her office ever responded to me directly about those criticisms. Ms. McElhaney did write a response to my columns in an email to Oakland environmental and affordable housing advocate James Vann, which I reprinted with Mr. Vann’s permission.

Ms. Nzinga did respond.

After I published my “Oakland's Black Arts And Business District Left Off State Pilot Project List” column last July, which mentioned Ms. Nzinga’s name several times (though not in a negative way, to my mind), Ms. Nzinga sent wrote me in an email to say, “once again your facts are mangled -- please quit misreporting on me -- basically keep my name out of your mouth if you refuse to fact check. -- you sir -- are a hack.” When I wrote back to ask her which parts of column she felt were misreported or had facts mangled, Ms. Nzinga failed to respond.

But while Ms. Nzinga is the dramatist of the group, it was Mr. Arnold whose response to my columns was the most dramatic.

Around the same time as Ms. Nzinga was writing me about the state pilot list column, Mr. Arnold sent me a series of emails setting forth his concerns about all of my BAMBD columns. That series of emails culminated with Mr. Arnold’s statement that, “i have gone through your other remaining column on BAMBD and found even more factual errors, libelous and defamatory assertions, and even outright intellectual property theft (using a CRP photo without permission). By my reckoning,  this brings the total count to 66 problematic statements. I'm not just referring to your speculative opinion, but false, misleading, historically-inaccurate, factually-incorrect, or racially-derogatory assertions you have put forth. I can only hope that you will realize the serious nature of what you have done, and issue a full retraction for every point identified. I really have better things to do than taking you to court, but your conduct thusfar has been egregious. The best course of action at this point would be for you to admit your mistakes, apologize, and move on to writing about something else entirely. It is doubtful that any of the principals involved whom you have unfairly malinged would look forward to more writings from you on this subject.”

I went through Mr. Arnold’s list of 66 “problematic statements” he believed to be in my various columns on BAMBD, but could only find one  that was an actual identifiable error. The other 65 “errors” were either cases where my opinion of something differed from Mr. Arnold’s, where he had additional information that was not available to me at the time I wrote the columns, or where he asserted something was untrue even though I had information from others that it was true. Based upon that review, I declined his request to apologize and issue a full retraction.

When I tried to clear up those differences by getting clarification from Mr. Arnold about the remaining concerns, however, Mr. Arnold responded that, “I see no need to give you any information which is not publicly available already, because what you have reported so far has been slanderous, inaccurate, and apparently a work of fiction. You have bungled so many details, and gone out on a limb without any facts backing you up, that it is safe to say, you have ZERO credibility at this point.” And that’s where we left it.

Nothing in what Ms. Nzinga or Mr. Arnold wrote in response to my BAMBD columns particularly disturbed me, since it’s not uncommon for people to get upset about critical things you write about them. But what Mr. Jackmon wrote in response to those columns—and, more particularly, what Mr. Jackmon did in response to those columns—did disturb me, however. Disturbed me a lot.

In the past, upon his request, I had regularly given Mr. Jackmon permission to reprint some of my columns in his publication, The Movement. And in the August, 2017 hard copy issue of that publication, he republished my “Oakland's Black Arts And Business District Left Off State Pilot Project List” column. As a prelude to that column, however, Mr. Jackmon included a note by Mr. Arnold which began, “For the record, Allen-Taylor has consistently gotten this story wrong, sometimes insisting on publishing defamatory hearsay without even attempting to confirm the facts.” Which was not exactly true, but which okay with me, since that’s Mr. Arnold’s opinion, and he’s entitled to it.

What Mr. Jackmon printed immediately following Mr. Arnold’s assertion, however, was not okay. Mr. Jackmon wrote “Jesse Allen Taylor is trying to improve his fact checking, but we proofread his article and made a few changes... I am sure Ayodele Nzinga and Eric Arnold will peruse Jesse’s article to correct other errors.”

The print edition of Mr. Jackmon’s The Movement newsletter then included a small portion of the beginning of my July, 2017 column, ending with the notation “continue on” Presumably, that’s where Mr. Jackmon’s “corrections” to the column took place. The link transfers immediately to a address, which only provides downloads of the pdf versions of several The Movement print editions, including the edition that indicated changes were being made to my column. Where Mr. Jackmon’s altered reprint of my column actually exists online I was never able to determine and so, therefore, I am not sure what changes either he or Ms. Nzinga or Mr. Arnold made to those columns, or if any changes were actually made.

That’s not the point, however.

I wrote Mr. Jackmon to tell him that I had never given him permission to make changes in my columns. But when I asked him to either remove any changes he had made to my words or take my column down from his website altogether, however, Mr. Jackmon responded “yo, bro, i am not engaging in intellectual masturbation with you, don't have time. I'm working on the next issue. You got something, send it to me. No debate. I appreciate your talent as a writer and you should be an essential part of this project. Don't try to stress me with intellectual bullshit. I love you and your entire family, let's get the movement moving, no time to discuss petty ass bullshit. I am working on the next issue. por favor! Nigguh please!”

That pretty much speaks for itself, so I won’t add any comment.

I will say that because of his refusal to restore my posted columns to their original form, I have withdrawn any permission I gave to Mr. Jackmon to reprint any of those columns, and have instructed him to remove any of them from any websites under his control. If you do see any of my columns on any websites affiliated with Mr. Jackmon, you should assume that they have been altered in some way without my permission, and check back with me for the originals. I think one of the most dishonest things one can do in an argument is to alter the words your opponent has written or said, and pretend that your opponent actually wrote or said the altered words, instead of dealing openly with what was actually written or said. My words are my words. They are my own, I stand by them, and if they need changing, I’ll be the one to do the changing.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to those ambitious plans to create a Black arts and business district in the downtown section of the City of Oakland? Damned if I know, since none of the principals are talking to me right now, and I can’t find any record of recent activities on the internet. But it’s a good idea that should not be dropped, and if they’re not moving forward, someone else should pick up the ball and run with it.


Contact Jesse Allen-Taylor at
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