Você está na página 1de 3

Column: Undercurrents: A Few More Remarks About Jack


Friday August 26, 2005
Last week, we began a discussion on a troubling aspect of Oaklands 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. Londons writings reflect
bigotry against Asian-Americans and African-Americans (havent run across any anti-Mexican
passages, but Im still in the preliminary stages of my research).
In case someone thought last weeks passages were aberrations or taken out of context, here is
another example from Mr. Londons 1911 novel Adventure, set on a Solomon Island slave
plantation. This one is from chapter seven, where Sheldon, the plantation owner and the novels
protagonist, explains to an outsider his view on his captives, You see, you dont understand the
situation. In the first place, the blacks have to be ruled sternly. Kindness is all very well, but you
cant rule them by kindness only. These boys are Melanesians. Theyre blacks. Theyre
niggerslook at their kinky hair. And theyre 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 mans 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 bookdoes 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. Londons character towards these Melanesian boys is awfully similar to present-day
attitudes in the media, in the mayors office, and in the Council Chambers at Oakland City Hall
about the young African-American participants in East Oaklands 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
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

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 Londons writings,
but that tends to get hidden in a venue that is dedicated to all of Oaklands 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 Londons writings, but the writings of other wellknown 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
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. Londons 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 Scotts and the surrounding square that has little, if
anything, to do with Jack London, Oakland has no destination magnet for its most famous
An Oakland Jack London Museum probably cant 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.
Londons writings looked down upon. There were thriving African-American and ChineseAmerican communities in the East Bay at the turn of the 20th century. Placing replications of
those communities next to, say, one of Mr. Londons 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. Londons 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 Oaklands own sense of itself as
a literary centerwhich it certainly could be, if it wanted toas well as change the citys
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 Oaklands 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 shouldnt end up being nearly as much trouble as we seem to be making it.