In 2018, a White woman called the police on two Black men who were holding a cookout on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA. Branded “BBQ Becky” by Black Twitter, this incident ricocheted around the digital mediascape, contributing to a national debate about racist policing and the dangers of “living while Black.” Many commentators interpreted the struggle over Black cultural practices at Lake Merritt in terms of the now common, even generic, narrative of tech-induced gentrification in the Bay Area. But this elided the fact that the violence of BBQ Becky reproduced an enduring drive to regulate Black geographies and sounds as a means to control the post-emancipation social order. This article argues that scholars and activists need to attune to the “racial reverberations” that continue to loop in contemporary spatial struggles, especially ones involving sound. Drawing upon archival and ethnographic materials, it provides a recursive account of struggles over Black public cultures in Oakland from World War II until the present, thus suggesting that the racial/spatial control embodied in BBQ Becky can’t be reduced to the gentrification narrative alone. Ultimately, this article centers the temporalities of African American epistemologies and musics to realign U.S. gentrification studies with the haunting rhythms of geographic harm and repair experienced by those most impacted by urban dispossession.
Before BBQ Becky: Racial Reverberations at Oakland’s Lake Merritt
Alex Werth is a geographer, writer, and DJ based in Berkeley, CA. As a doctoral student in geography at UC Berkeley, he researched the longstanding role of popular music and dance in campaigns to empower, but also police, Oakland's working-class communities of color. He has worked to advance these concerns beyond academia as a Public Imagination Fellow at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, research analyst for the City of Oakland’s cultural plan, and as cultural critic for Africa Is a Country, FIELD, Sounding Out!, and more. He currently works at a housing justice organization, with a focus on stopping pandemic evictions in the East Bay.
Alex Werth; Before BBQ Becky: Racial Reverberations at Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Journal of Popular Music Studies 1 December 2021; 33 (4): 78–103. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jpms.2021.33.4.78
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