Few folks really know how to navigate Oakland like Pendarvis Harshaw. It’s really a sight to see. Following him on a bike feels like a mini parade: a whole lotta head nods and peace signs as we cruise. I call him the Mayor of Oakland. “I gotta hit the office, hit a cafe, then head to this lil’ event tonight,” Pen mentions as we ride. His days are often strategically assembled like this, with stopping points sprinkled along the way.
There’s a deliberateness to Pen’s moves that borders a bit on the obsessive. Pen’s steps are calculated, as if he never wants to waste a moment. Perhaps it’s out of necessity, as a second-year pursuing a graduate degree in Journalism at Cal tends to occupy most of his time.
But despite these responsibilities, much of Pen’s passion is poured into his ongoing photo essay, OG Told Me, a continuous collection of interviews with representatives of Oakland’s wiser generation. “It’s an ode to the elder men in the community who gave me tidbits of wisdom as I moved through society as a child,” Pen states. “They taught me what to do and what not to do. Sometimes it’d be a neighborhood big shot standing in front of his car. Sometimes it’d be a homeless person at a bus stop.”
From ex-convicts to teachers, recovering drug addicts to world-famous figures like Bill Russell and Danny Glover, Pen’s interviews are wide and varied. And while personal relationships have led Pen to a number of OG interactions, chance situations also tend to turn to interview opportunities as well. The result is a diverse collection of stories, perspectives and experiences from those that have been here longer. Situating himself within the fabric of Oakland’s past, present and future, Pen’s contributions to the community are immense. Set to release a book of essays in the months to come, Pen spoke with Wine & Bowties about the evolution of OG Told Me, the lessons he’s learned, and his aspirations for the future.
Head over to Wine & Bowties, for an in depth conversation with Pendarvis Harshaw.
I’m interested to know what led you to pursue the project in the first place…
The project comes from that experience of being on the back of a bus, and having some drunk older dude spew a whole bunch of bullshit, and in the middle of it he’ll say, “And if you don’t love nobody else, love your mother…” Then he’ll spew some more bullshit about QUAZARS and shit that don’t make no sense. But for some reason that quote about loving my mother would stick with me. And then I’d go home and write that in my rap book, and that’d be the start of a whole poem…
It’s that experience with those crazy dudes, mixed with the experience of the dude on the block in the old school candy-painted cougar with a fresh ass outfit on and a bad chick, and seeing both images of older black masculinity and having the realization that I’m going to be somewhere on that spectrum.
You see that for yourself?
Yeah. This is me growing up in Oakland, given these examples and thinking, “Well I need to take notes on both of these dudes…” Both the knowledge that this crazy dude is saying and the image this respected dude is portraying, and from that, quilt together my concept of manhood.
So for the website, I interview men from all types of demographics, politicians, athletes, dope fiends, inmates…the whole nine. There’s so many examples of black masculinity. I’d rather just take a tidbit from each of them and tie it all together. I think it would be a good example of where black men in America are at today [Pen points to his head]. It’s gone through many stages. It was a rap album at first.
What do you mean?
Like I was running around town, meeting dudes and getting a quote from them and then really writing raps. Sample their quote in the hook or something. I shelved that because I realized everybody’s a rapper… but that this could be a photo essay, a book, a novel, a play, a monologue, a comic book. There’s so many different ways to express the same concept.
But at its root, it’s the idea of quilting together what black masculinity is through all these different voices…
It’s real life. You gotta think about it. I grew up with eight patnas in East Oakland. None of us had fathers in our household. So it’s almost like a collective of boys coming together and being like, “Yo I saw my big cousin do this, so I’m gonna do this with my boys.” Whatever the newest slang was, whatever the latest way of wearing your pants was…The newest way of shooting dice. Just because you learned that from your sisters boyfriend. Or you learned that from the fifth grader at school when we were in third.
You find yourself looking all over for those influences?
It’s that sense of intergenerational responsibility. As a younger dude, I could see that older dudes knew what knowledge was, and that I was seeking it.
Ronald “Elder” Freeman, a former Field Secretary for the Black Panthers, remembers on the “Free Huey” Rally of 1968.
So they might even be more open to sharing some wisdom with you…
Exactly. Some cats will overlook you though on some, “Man I don’t got time for your young ass, get out of here.”
How do you deal with those experiences?
You’ll find those cats. What can you do?
When did it click for you, when you said, “Yo this is something I can do, I’m good at, and I can do continuously…”
I met a gentleman named OG Ali Baba at a black writers gathering in downtown Oakland in like 2009. It was some time after Chauncey Bailey‘s death. We were having a conversation and my friend took some photos while we chatted. We looked at them and they came out clean. Looked like we were having a deep ass conversation. Really, we were talking about some bullshit.
But it compelled me to think about taking the OG album I had, and putting that into photo form. I’ve been writing about this shit since like 10th grade. It’s almost like religion, looking to the elders. But yeah, putting it in photo form probably clicked around that point. I started testing the waters around 2011 when I got back from school.
How did your photography evolve with the project? Were you always taking photographs?
Yeah, I’ve always done both. Photography and journalism. It’s fun man.
Check out Pen’s encounter with NBA legend and Oakland native Bill Russell here.
How do you go about approaching an OG? What kind of characteristics do you look for when you’re going into engaging someone for an interview and photoshoot?
There’s different routes, there’s the “Hey, you should interview my uncle, he did this…” There’s the, “Man I see this dude around town all the time, so I’m gonna just interview him…” There’s the, “I’m standing in a store and a dude walks past me and he says some wild shit. And I say, ‘Ha that’s funny as hell, man what’s your name, let me get a picture?’” There’s a lot of different routes to it, I guess it’s individual. There’s an art to setting it up, and then there’s an art to capturing the moment. That shit is fun. I learn a lot.
What are some things that you’ve taken away from these experiences?
Approaching people is hard. In approaching people, you have to be confident yourself and what you want. Your intentions. Intentionality is a great thing to communicate when approaching people. And before you can know people you have to know yourself. There’s a backstory to each and every interview. I’ve gained more than I’ve put out there.
I’ve learned more than I’ve given from each and every interview. Approaching people is definitely something that I’ve picked up. And then I think that being quick or witty–on your toes, but also respectful. These are things that you just need for the job. And also patience. Some people talk a lot.
What’s your definition of an OG?
Original Griot, somebody who can tell their story from a first person perspective and say, “I did it.”
I’d think most people would take OG to mean Original Gangsta.
I mean you gotta be kinda gangster to say, “I did it, and made it through.”
I guess so.
Of course it means Original Gangsta, but it could mean a plethora of things. It means Original Gangsta to a lot of people. It could mean Oakland Grown.
What other aspirations do you have for this project?
Well, right now I’m working on a book. The book is going to be a collection of 10 essays, a coming of age story answering why I’d do this type of photo essay. And then I’d like to make a documentary based upon one of the interviews where I’m going to delve really deep into the story.
What’s the third one?
To keep going with the blog! (laughs) All day man, I got a lot more interviews up my sleeve.
I know man, it’s beautiful.
I’ve got one more question for you dude. To flip it for a moment, tell me, “If you had the voice of the elders, based upon your life experiences, what advice would you give to them…?”
Don’t be scared…(Pauses)…Don’t be scared of the youth. That’s your people.