The Importance of Black Art in San Francisco by LeRon Barton
As a young man growing up in Kansas City, Mo, I had visions of moving to California, San Francisco to be exact. Watching TV and seeing hip, Afro’ed out Black men and women moving to their own beat, looking free, dressing free, and acting free just, “got me.” I wanted to leave the conservative, snow bound and culturally slow Midwest to come to a city that seemed as if Black folks could be who they wanted to be with no limitations. I wanted to live somewhere that attracted artists of all kinds and not live in fear of judgement or get sucked into the perpetual cycle of date someone, get married, buy a house, and have a kid. I was an artist, a writer and I wanted to go where I could flourish.
Arriving in SF three years ago, one of my favorite places to visit has been the Fillmore. Dubbed, “The Harlem of The West,” the Fillmore was historically home to many Blacks that could express themselves through painting, dance, and song. Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, and the great Duke Ellington played their classic sets there. Marcus Books, the legendary bookstore whose patrons included Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, and Oprah Winfrey, was considered the oldest Black bookstore in the nation. The late, great, Maya Angelou of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings frequented the Fillmore. It was as if walking down the street, you could feel the magic of the Black arts.
In 2016, much of that is being torn away. The Fillmore, like many neighborhoods in the City by The Bay, is being gentrified. The history of the Black arts is being washed away, pushed out, and erased. As a Black artist, I feel that it is important to do what I can to not only continue the tradition of writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, singers, etc, but to also preserve what was made before me. That is one of the reasons I joined the MoAD Vanguard Council at the Museum of the African Diaspora. I want to continue the presence of African artistic expression in San Francisco as well as help cultivate new talent that tells our unique story – talent that needs an audience, but may not receive it elsewhere.
The first time I walked by the beautiful mural of Billie Holiday on Fillmore street, I was with my younger brother. I was amazed at how good it was, but also that a Black woman was immortalized with such grace and dignity. The artwork had not been desecrated. I think about that and realize if we don’t continue to preserve Black art in San Francisco, then there may not be another opportunity to do so.
By LeRon Barton of the MoAD Vanguard Leadership Council