In Oakland, California, and many other places around the country, “OG” can bring to mind regional rap heroes who have outlasted their peers against the odds, activists from previous generations who made their mark on history, and elders who are a constant presence in the community, even if they’re not always seen and acknowledged. As Oakland journalist Pendarvis Harshaw told me, he likes to think of OG as an acronym for “Oakland Griot” — a storyteller who provides an oral history of his rapidly changing city.
After receiving a degree in journalism from Howard University in 2011, Harshaw returned to Oakland and embarked on a photo essay project that he called “OG Told Me,” documenting the stories of older black men in the community on his Tumblr blog. Over the course of the five-year project, Harshaw’s interview subjects ranged from NBA legend Bill Russell and famed comedian and social critic Dick Gregory to anonymous elders on street corners and bus stops. He always asked them the same question: “If you had the opportunity to speak to young people, what would you tell them?”
Harshaw has compiled their answers and stories into a self-published book named after his blog. Below, he explained to The FADER how OG Told Me came about and why it was so important to create this intergenerational dialogue.
PENDARVIS HARSHAW: I grew up all around The Town, but my coming-of-age experiences were in The Dubs in East Oakland — those were the dudes that showed me the ropes. It starts with family first — definitely my mom and my sister. Then just people in the community — mainly older dudes. Cats you would see all the time, from homeless people, people you would see coming out of church, teachers, bus drivers, a little bit of everybody. The OG Told Me project is a representation of that: how I would get wisdom from elders of all different walks of life to cobble together this concept of manhood.
As kids growing up, the way we treated elders was a mixture of over-respect and under-respect. Some guys would just demand your respect because maybe they had cool chains or flashy cars — they were “factors,” if you will, in East Oakland. Other cats who were homeless or something like that, we wouldn’t give them as much respect as kids. But as you get older, you realize everyone has a little wisdom to offer. For black men, if you’ve lived past a certain age you’ve accomplished something.
I grew up with seven or eight friends in East Oakland and none of us had fathers in the house. I think all of us, in some way, were searching for a father figure. So we would leave the circle: I would go hang out with one of my sister’s boyfriends, or one of my friends would go hang out with their uncle or something like that. Then we would come back to the circle, and we would have a new quote, a new way of walking, or some new fashion idea.
In the book, I talk about an older cousin of mine, who was like an uncle. Big Ron was his name. He was from southeast D.C, and he passed away right after Obama’s inauguration in 2009. He was a real witty dude — grew up in the hood, ended buying a house just outside of the hood, raising his family, doing right. When he passed, all the stories that people shared at his funeral were kind of a clicking moment for me. I felt like I needed to document all these stories so that people weren’t just sharing them at funerals. I was studying journalism in college, so I decided to make it a photo essay project.
The first interview I did was with Dick Gregory. I had been hired to go film an event where he was speaking, and, after he spoke, people were going up to him and asking questions. So, I went up, got a quick interview and photo. Some guys, who were academics or figures in the community, I was already connected with. Other guys, I would approach them on the street.
I started asking that question because I was genuinely curious. I think some of the best journalism that I’ve ever done started with a genuine question that I had. It helped that I’m a young black man, so when these men did open up, they would be talking directly to me. I was standing in front of them as a symbol for that generation. I learned a lot from asking those questions and looking through the world from that lens. Sometimes, I would interview dudes and not even put in on the website because it would just be something that I needed to hear in that moment.
Some people were really receptive and just waiting for somebody to tap into them. There a guy who I would always see around downtown Oakland in front of City Hall, and he really opened up to me. He said, “If I could tell young people anything it would be go find your parents.” He explained to me how he came to the Bay Area in search of his father and it was really moving. He had no idea about my history of going to find my own father in Alabama. There are older black men all around us — on street corners, busses, service positions. They have stories and they’re willing to share a lot of the time.
I will say that not everybody was receptive, though. You know, I’m 20-something, riding around Oakland on my bike with a camera on my chest. There were times where I would approach people in the same way, and they would be like, “Hell nah, get out of here with that camera.” This is a demographic that isn’t necessarily trusting of cameras or the internet. And I could see that lot of them were impacted by the War on Drugs. A couple of them were COINTELPRO survivors; some of them were impacted by being in Vietnam or other wars.
If you go out and talk to people every day, you’re going to find diversity. I found that within this niche of older black men, the grand experiences are very similar, but the granular experiences are what separate people. Some people’s quotes would be very similar but their paths to that wisdom were very different. A lot of the answers were either about god, or a higher power, education or staying away from incarceration, and family. Those three things really stood out.
Doing the project for five years, I learned more than I could possibly put in that digital library that I created. It started as a personal quest and it was something that I decided to put out to a larger audience because I was teaching at the time, and I felt like the young men in my classroom needed it. They were on Tumblr all the time looking at half-naked girls. I thought if they could read something and identify, they could value themselves a little more and see that there is life beyond 25.
Gentrification definitely changes the intergenerational dialogue. Pretty much everybody I interviewed from Oakland was from a different place. Oakland was such a transit spot for that generation — people coming up from the South and searching for greener pastures. A lot of those men that are 60-plus came out here as teenagers in search of a better of life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is essentially like somebody running around Mississippi doing interviews before everybody moved to Chicago. There was one dude I interviewed that they call D-Bo, who I would see riding his motorcycle around East Oakland all the time. So many people responded to the interview and were like, “I know bruh. I see him all the time.” But one day soon, he won’t be there, either by force of nature or force of government.
I’m a couple months shy of 30 now. I have a six-month-old daughter. Since I started the project, I’ve received two degrees and had a number of different jobs, so I’ve grown and gained life experiences along with the project. At times, I wish I would’ve done it better and realized the significance of it sooner, but I’m happy with what it’s resulted in. More than anything, it’s been a way to connect and talk to people. We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation now if it wasn’t for OG Told Me.