I wasn’t sure what to expect at the inaugural Oakland Book Festival. Situated downtown at City Hall and Frank Ogawa Plaza, just steps away from the 12th Street BART station, it was billed as “One Day, Seven Hours, 90 Writers, 40 Events.”
It was my daughter Kylie’s last day home on her short visit from Baltimore, which has claimed her heart as no other city has (though Oakland is probably a close second). I wanted to spend my precious last minutes with her how she wanted to spend them, but I made the suggestion that we check out the book event. To my delight, she was game. And she was even more excited when she discovered who was speaking.
Two people she’d read about in school and admired were among the panelists: former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown and scholar and writer, Frank Wilderson. Since their panels were later, we wandered around Laurel Books in its new digs on Broadway and perused the booksellers’ booths in the plaza. I managed to buy only one book, Bad Indian, which had been recommended by the professor of a recent course I took on Native American Literature, History, and Politics.
We splurged on frozen custard cookie sandwiches as we listened to a self-professed nerd rap on stage at the amphitheater. Since this was a very public place, all kinds of people were among the crowd, including a woman wearing a wire hat shaped into a spider who told all of us to follow Jesus, and if we didn’t, we’d arrive at judgment day to find that Jesus would not only keep us out, but according to this woman, he would tell us, “Fuck you!” At least she offended Christians and atheists alike…
When we arrived for the first panel we’d chosen, Question Everything, we were turned away because the room where it was meeting was at capacity. Disappointed but not broken, we improvised. Because Kylie wanted to ensure she’d get a seat for the panel called Radical Cities, Radical Lives, where Brown and Wilderson would be speaking, she sat at the head of a line for an hour and a half, where she made friends with two women while they waited together and talked about racial politics.
I decided to catch the end of a panel on famous Oakland writers that included an expert on California’s first poet laureate Ina Coolbrith, who was also the librarian for the city of Oakland over a hundred years ago. And in the same room afterward I enjoyed readings by Ayelet Waldman and Akhil Sharma, who were quite entertaining.
While Kylie nabbed a front-row seat watching two of her idols, I dashed across the plaza to Laurel Books to watch a late addition to the program sponsored by Mother Jones magazine on the state of police and their portrayal in media. The presenters were knowledgeable and well spoken, and a lively Q&A session made for interesting conversation.
I applaud the people who put together this amazing program centered around books. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the festival is that it’s completely free and open to the public. I hope this becomes an annual event because I could easily make this a tradition…