Column: Undercurrents: A Few More Remarks About Jack London’s Racisim By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Friday August 26, 2005

Last week, we began a discussion on a troubling aspect of Oakland’s veneration of the writer Jack London, the Oakland native who is probably the most honored person in the city (Mr. Knowland has himself a park, Mr. Ogawa a plaza, Mr. Harris a building, but Mr. London has a whole square). The troubling aspect to which I refer is that some of Mr. London’s writings reflect bigotry against Asian-Americans and African-Americans (haven’t run across any anti-Mexican passages, but I’m still in the preliminary stages of my research). 

In case someone thought last week’s passages were aberrations or taken out of context, here is another example from Mr. London’s 1911 novel Adventure, set on a Solomon Island slave plantation. This one is from chapter seven, where Sheldon, the plantation owner and the novel’s protagonist, explains to an outsider his view on his captives, “You see, you don’t understand the situation. In the first place, the blacks have to be ruled sternly. Kindness is all very well, but you can’t rule them by kindness only. … These boys are Melanesians. They’re blacks. They’re niggers—look at their kinky hair. And they’re a whole lot lower than the African niggers. … They possess no gratitude, no sympathy, no kindliness. If you are kind to them, they think you are a fool. If you are gentle with them they think you are afraid. And when they think you are afraid, watch out, for they will get you. Just to show you, let me state the one invariable process in a black man’s brain when, on his native heath, he encounters a stranger. His first thought is one of fear. Will the stranger kill him? His next thought, seeing that he is not killed, is: Can he kill the stranger?” 

Although I could, of course, be mistaken, the passage-taken in the context of the entire book-does not appear to demonstrate that Mr. London was condemning those sentiments, but rather seeing them as a practical virtue. 

(One thing to note in passing: take out the overt racist phrases, and the underlying attitude shown by Mr. London’s character towards these “Melanesian boys” is awfully similar to present-day attitudes in the media, in the mayor’s office, and in the Council Chambers at Oakland City Hall about the young African-American participants in East Oakland’s sideshows. We have not traveled so far as we might think. That, however, is a subject for another column…) 

In any event how does Oakland, with its large population of color and its often-repeated promotion of itself as “the most diverse city in the country” and a “hate-free zone,” reconcile the placement of a statue at its waterfront gateway to a man who espoused anti-black, anti-Asian racism? 

Last week, we suggested that Oakland undertake a public dialogue on the subject to begin to clear the air about our prejudiced past and present. This week, I will add some suggestions as to how Oakland might conduct that dialogue in a way that might bring some added benefit to the city. 

The first suggestion would be to establish a Jack London Room at the main branch of the Oakland Public Library, not dedicated merely to Mr. London, but to East Bay writers in general. The library already has an Oakland History Room that includes some of Jack London’s writings, but that tends to get hidden in a venue that is dedicated to all of Oakland’s history. I would suggest setting up a second room that both contracts and expands on that idea-opening up to a collection for the entire East Bay, while limiting the focus to writers only. 

In that way, we could both a collection of Jack London’s writings, but the writings of other well-known authors with East Bay ties as well (people like Frank Norris, Amy Tan, Ishmael Reed, Terry McMillan, Michael Chabon, Jessica Mitford, and Joaquin Miller come immediately to mind). 

In addition, I would include in an Oakland Library Jack London Room written work by various writers which highlights and concentrates on the effects of racism and ways to combat it, perhaps in the spirit of the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. London’s racism, then, could be seen in context, and not just left out there unacknowledged. 

Another suggestion, since we are talking about museums, would be a revival of the old Jack London Museum itself. There once was such a museum, operated by a private group out of the old Jack London Village. The private group went under and the museum closed sometime before the City of Oakland razed the Village, and despite promises that the museum would be relocated and reopened, that appears to have never happened. So to this day, except for that sad, lonely statue staring out on the estuary next to Scott’s and the surrounding square that has little, if anything, to do with Jack London, Oakland has no destination magnet for its most famous citizen. 

An Oakland Jack London Museum probably can’t hope to compete with the museum in the Jack London State Park up in Glen Ellen, located in the last house that he and his wife occupied. But I think that can be made into a positive rather than a problem. 

First, in much the same way as I would suggest expanding a proposed Jack London Room at the Oakland Public Library to include anti-racist studies, I would suggest expanding a proposed new Jack London Museum to include not only Jack London artifacts from his days in Oakland and the East Bay, but replications of the East Bay communities as they were around the turn of the last century, when Mr. London lived here, concentrating in part on those communities that Mr. London’s writings looked down upon. There were thriving African-American and Chinese-American communities in the East Bay at the turn of the 20th century. Placing replications of those communities next to, say, one of Mr. London’s oyster pirate sloops or the saloon where he hung out would help us understand more of Mr. London, and the times in which he lived. (The Oakland Museum showed how that type of juxtaposition might be done in its recent Vietnam War exhibit, giving equal weight and perspective to both sides of the conflict.) 

A third suggestion would be an Oakland-based Jack London Writers Conference, complete with a writing contest that solicited entries both from those who are working right now towards a professional career, as well as area high school students. Race and racism, once more, could be a suggested theme that would help in both the understanding of Mr. London’s work, as well as ameliorating the harm some of his work helped to perpetuate. The East Bay is awash in both professional writers who could serve as facilitators and colleges that might be induced to sign on as co-sponsors (the Peralta Community College District, Cal State East Bay, and UC Berkeley, for example). Holding such a conference would both encourage Oakland’s own sense of itself as a literary center—which it certainly could be, if it wanted to—as well as change the city’s negative image among folks not familiar with the city. 

Such Oakland problems as the long-known but little-discussed racist side of Jack London are not insurmountable. What it takes for Oakland’s revival is less money thrown at developers, and more imagination. Since Oakland has not so much of the former, and more than enough of the latter, this shouldn’t end up being nearly as much trouble as we seem to be making it.