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Raw Material Season 7

Finding Kinship in the Archive: A Conversation with Babette Thomas

by , October 2021
Babette Thomas at Lake Merritt in Oakland, CA, 2021; photo: Myisa Plancq-Graham

When SFMOMA started Raw Material in 2016, an early goal was to create a podcast for art lovers everywhere, where we worked in collaboration with new storytellers every season to surface distinct perspectives in the arts and culture scene. We’re thrilled to carry that energy into Season 7, passing the mic to East Oakland’s Babette Thomas. 

It’s a sunny afternoon in July, breezy and busy, peak Oakland, peak Lake Merritt. Lake Merritt is a mellow three-mile loop east of downtown Oakland. This place is alive; to artist, writer, radio producer, and Raw Material Podcaster-In-Residence Babette Thomas, this place is special. 

 

Myisa Plancq-Graham: Let’s talk about where we are! 

Babette Thomas: The lake is just really like my spot . . .. My mom used to walk the lake every day at 4 a.m., sometimes she’d even walk it twice a day and bring me after school. I did boating camp at the lake. I’ve capsized in that lake. And I remember when the lake was not the spot to hang out, because it smelled bad. But then a few years ago, they had this whole preservation effort to clean it up. The lake has become this spot where the Black people who are left in Oakland can come and convene. It’s been very beautiful to see. 

 

Babette Thomas at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, CA, circa 2000; photo: Babette Thomas

MPG: What draws you to audio storytelling? 

BT: Sound is just . . . an emotional and intimate medium. Hearing someone in your ear is a very emotional and intimate thing; I think people let their guard down a little bit when they’re listening to podcasts. You can immerse people in history and transport them back. 

MPG: How does Oakland show up in your work? 

BT: I went to these really intense private schools here in Oakland. It is a very interesting experience, growing up in East Oakland and going up into the hills to go to very competitive, very intense, very white schools. I think, honestly, that tainted my view of Oakland for a really long time, and I really just wanted to get away. 

I was into art and music, and it felt like all of that was in New York or on the East Coast. So I applied to Brown and almost accepted without visiting. I graduated, then the pandemic hit, so I came home. I needed to reconnect with this place, reconnect with my parents through my art, make radio about my parents and, also, about aunts and uncles who have passed away, and their legacies. 

I’ve really completely changed my relationship to this place. It’s more than a place where I just went to high school or where I grew up. I really feel like this is my favorite place in the world. So I came home to reconnect and to make art about this place, and I think I’ve done that, or I’m doing that.  

MPG: What can we expect in Season 7? 

BT: The story of how I left Oakland to find artistic and cultural community is a good segue, because I think when I’m doing research I’m still looking for those communities and those people, if that makes sense. I’m looking for moments throughout history where Black people just seem really free in their art and their creation. I’m really into looking for threads of connection and kinship in the archive. 

I always try to state my position in how I’m analyzing and interpreting things, but it’s also just sitting with the archival materials and thinking about how they impact me. I gravitate to stories about Black women and Black women who are doing pioneering and imaginative work. I’m not unbiased.  

I was reporting on a piece about the murals downtown, and I was digging through cool video archives from the 1960s and 1970s of news reporting. I found a clip of this person, Evangeline Montgomery, talking outside of the old Kaiser building. In 1968, there was a Black art exhibit that she curated called New Perspectives in Black Art. According to her, it was the biggest Black art exhibit in the United States happening in 1968 — here in Oakland.  

Evangeline worked in and alongside museums and cultural centers. It just got my brain churning about the spaces throughout history that Black people have created for themselves, that Black artists have created, and how they’re interconnected, and also the kind of spaces I’m hoping for.   

I’ve not had the most amazing experience with museums. In this podcast, I want to create a space for Black people and Black art practitioners to imagine without constraint, about what their most ideal artistic space would be, just to get people dreaming and churning and thinking and imagining futures. 

 

Portrait of Evangeline J. Montgomery, 1973; Oakland Post Photograph Collection, MS 169, African American Museum & Library at Oakland; Oakland Public Library; photo: Babette Thomas
Evangeline J. Montgomery (right) and man and woman looking at artwork, 1971; Oakland Post Photograph Collection, MS 169, African American Museum & Library at Oakland; Oakland Public Library; photo: Babette Thomas
Evangeline J. Montgomery and man standing next to Sargent Johnson’s “Forever Free” at Oakland Museum planning retrospective, circa 1971; Oakland Post Photograph Collection, MS 169, African American Museum & Library at Oakland; Oakland Public Library; photo: Babette Thomas

MPG: What does Black imagination mean to you? 

BT: Black imagination is everything. I think we’re living in a world that is a product of Black imagination — of Black people constantly wanting to will themselves and their futures into existence and ensure that their futures won’t be erased. And ensure that their pasts won’t be erased.  

I don’t want to think about Black imagination as something that’s just reactive, or something that’s just combating white supremacy. I think Black imagination is something that’s interested in the longevity of Blackness, but it’s also something else entirely. It’s uncontainable — just like Black joy is. It’s uncontainable and boundless. 


Myisa Plancq-Graham

Myisa Plancq-Graham