Call it the sunny side of the Bay, call it the town. Whatever name you give it, Oakland has the rich and revolutionary history expected from a city bridging to San Francisco and bundled up against Berkeley. Oakland is also uniquely its own city, with its own successes and struggles.
Originally a port city built up with the business of railroads, folks called Oakland the “Detroit of the West” by the 1920’s for its automotive factories and booming economy. During World War II, Oakland built ships and canned foods, and the exodus of Southern workers to the area created a melting pot of cultures and belief systems. Post-WWII, Oakland (and the rest of America) witnessed white flight, as wealthier citizens fled further East to the suburbs. Once a shining star of productivity, post-WWII Oakland began to feel its economy slow and its racial tensions rise.
And this brings us to Virgin Soul, a novel by Judy Juanita based on Juanita’s own experiences growing up in Oakland. Geniece Hightower, the novel’s star, is a snappy and smart African American woman on the cusp of revolution. She enrolls at Oakland City College in 1964 and is surrounded by activists and intellectuals. Geniece soon learns about the black power movement, and her activism eventually leads her to the Black Panther Party. The novel is broken into four parts: Freshman, Sophmore, Junior, Senior. We follow Geniece as she gets an education, but classes are rarely mentioned – confronted with inequality from all sides, meeting men and women both inspirational and heartbreaking, navigating a world not yet equipped to handle an empowered black women – Geniece’s education is of a different sort.
Virgin Soul reads lyrical and very much like poetry – it doesn’t surprise me that Juanita is also a successful poet. On going to Oakland City College: “But we called it City, a raggedy, in-the-flatlands, couldn’t-pass-the-earthquake-code, stimulating, politically popping repository of blacks who couldn’t get to college any other way, whites who had flunked out of University of California, and anybody else shrewd enough to go free for two years and transfer to Berkeley, prereqs zapped (3).” Juanita creates a perfect voice for her protagonist, a balance of the questions running through Geniece’s mind, funky lingo of sixties, and moments of brilliant clarity.
I imagine Juanita has captured the tone of the time perfectly – I wasn’t there, but she was, and she’s built a magical, mad world around Oakland’s past.