This past December, as I brainstormed about 2021’s Black History Month theme, I was all set to research and write about badasses throughout Black History. Bessie Stringfield was on my list. So was Bass Reeves. Then the E40 / Too Short Verzuz battle happened.
I tuned in to sing and dance to the westside sounds of youth and I realized how much I missed home. I realized how deeply the culture of California was embedded within me. I realized how ignorant I was about the Black history of my home state.
Remembering back to my elementary school field trips, junior high history classes and high school government courses, I could not recall a single instance in which any of my history teachers or history books shared any detail of the Black people who settled, built or contributed to the 5th largest economy in the world. We were never mentioned as having participated in the Gold Rush. No one ever spoke of the Black towns and settlements. Or Black contributions to California’s war efforts. Or the Black activists, entrepreneurs, creators, writers, artists, scientists, and politicians who were born and raised on America’s west (and best) coast. I’m not sure why I never posed the question about Black history in California either.
Maybe back then I knew better. Besides never mentioning the actual names of the indigenous people (Ohlone, Chochenyo, Ramaytush and Yokuts), my high school mascot was the Apache who wasn’t even native to the state, let alone my hometown of Vallejo. Most of what I was taught about “the V” included General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, his irrationally long-haired wife, Benicia, their 16 kids, and the General’s inability to properly manage the city. As for California history in general, there were the missions, the railroad barons, the 49ers, Ronald Reagan’s theatrical ass, and maybe a few tidbits about Mormons.
It was not until last week that I learned that the state’s name came from a Spanish novel, La Sergas de Espladian, written by Garcia de Montalvo and published in 1510. The book spoke of a fantastic “Island of California” located west of the Indies near a terrestrial paradise inhabited by nothing by Black women who lived, looked, and fought like the fabled Amazons. The land was said to be steep, rocky and abundant with gold. If Montalvo dreamed the State of California, his visions hadn’t been too far off!
Naturally, I’m eager to learn more.
This month, with the help Delilah Leontium Beasley‘s book The Negro Trail Blazers of California and other sources, I’ll be learning and writing about the many Black people of California who moved barriers for Black bodies inside and outside of the state long before two rap guys moved my body last December.