Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 3

In the previous part, I focused mainly on the very short chapter about Asian-Americans in the book Season of the Witch and its shortcomings.

However, in my opinion, was is even worse than the shortcomings of that chapter is the fact that Asian Americans are hardly ever mentioned elsewhere in the book. Going through the index, it seems that the only Asian-American who is ever mentioned outside of that short chapter is Wendy Yoshimura, who is briefly mentioned as being a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the person who was arrested with Patty Hearst. It’s as if the book decided to segregate the Asian-American history of this era in San Francisco, squeeze it into a short chapter, and almost never let them be outside that chapter.

A lot of the book focuses on the music scene of San Francisco of the time, which was dominated by white people. Yet they were not entirely white, and not all of the non-white people were black. There was Benjamin Fong-Torres, the first senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine, who was also active in the San Francisco State College protests, and was a DJ at KSAN-FM, one of the radio stations mentioned in the book. Was it absolutely essential to include Ben Fong-Torres in the book? Probably not. However, given that I know a lot less about San Francisco’s rock-and-roll history than Bryan Talbot does … the fact that even I can name an Asian-American who was seriously involved in that history, and Bryan Talbot did not in a 400-page book … is somewhat sad.

Even if the writer did not find any Asian-Americans who were compelling enough to include in the rock-and-roll angle of the book, at least the dominance of white people deserved comment.

And generally, the book ignores how Asian-Americans were involved in or impacted by the events and issues discussed.

The book does this much better with black people – black people are not just in the ‘African-American’ chapters, they can be found in various chapters which are not focused on African-Americans. There is a sense that there are black people in San Francisco, and that they are connected to the narrative.

Unsurprisingly, the book is even better at representing white people than black people. Way better.

Even though Asian-Americans are the largest non-white racial group in San Francisco, and thus their under-representation is most glaring, I think it is also worth examining how the book addresses Latinos and American Indians. I am going to quote everything I can find about Latinos in the book:

The Castro district and the Noe Valley neighborhood were working-class Irish, though the Irish in the adjacent Mission district were giving way to Latino immigrants. (Chapter 2, “Dead Men Dancing”)

In the beginning, he trawled for items at the city’s swanky Nob Hill hotels and the more colorful watering holes down below, like Shanty Malone’s – whose massive floor was marked out with white lines like a football field – and the Black Cat, where drag diva José Sarria would lead patrons each night in a rousing version of “God Save Us Nelly Queens, sung to the stately tun of the British anthem. (Chapter 10, “San Francisco’s Morning Kiss”)

José Sarria, a hometown boy who plucked his eyebrows, slipped into a basic black dress and a pair of Capezio stilettos, and began singing torch songs at the bohemian Black Cat in the 1950s, was the first to politicize the drag world. In between songs, he started preaching that “gay is good,” and at the end of each performance, he had the audience stand and belt out a parody of “God Save the Queen” – “as a kind of anthem,” he later recalled, “to get them realizing that we had to work together, that … we could change the laws if we weren’t always hiding.” In 1961 Sarria took his campaign public, running for the city’s board of supervisors with an early gay pride message. The campaign fell short of victory, but the gay genie was released from San Francisco’s bottle. (Chapter 12, “The Palace of Golden Cocks”)

Some of the organizations that the SLA requested to coordinate the food give-away, including the Black Panthers and the United Farm Workers union, refused to play a role, with Panthers leader Huey Newton proclaiming that he wouldn’t be a party to SLA “extortion.” (Chapter 19, “The Revolution Will Be Televised”)

The temple worked its mojo on dozens of community organizations, from small groups like the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association to higher-profile ones like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Farm Workers. (Chapter 25, “Slouching Toward San Francisco”

Many of the attackers were from the heavily Latino Mission district that abutted the Castro – a neighborhood that had shared the Mission’s Catholic family values until gays displaced the Irish. Some of the young thugs were wrestling with their own sexual confusions. In June 1977, on the first warm night of summer, Robert Hillsborough, a thirty-one-year-old city gardener known as Mr. Greenjeans to the kids at the park where he worked, was jumped by four young men as he walked to his apartment with his boyfriend. A nineteen-year-old Latino named John Cordova pinned Hillsborough to the ground and plunged a fishing knife repeatedly into his chest and face, screaming “Faggot, faggot, faggot!” It was an intensely personal and physical way to kill a man. Cordova, it was later revealed, led his own secret homosexual life. (Chapter 30, “A Tale of Two Cities”)

That, as well as Santana’s song “Samba Pa Ti” appearing on the list of best songs recorded by San Francisco bands 1965-1985 – is everything I could find in this 400+ page book about Latino people. You may judge for yourself.

The only place in the book where American Indians are mentioned is Chapter 19 – “He sat down for a four-hour lunch meeting at a Hilton hotel in San Francisco with suspicious American Indian Movement (AIM) leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, who – after making their bodyguards taste the meal – agreed to help with PIN.” Since American Indians were less than 1% of San Francisco’s population at that time, their almost total absence from the book would be easily excusable – if it were not for the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz island. I was surprised that that event was not mentioned at all in the book.

In the next part, I will discuss a major transformation of San Francisco in the 1960-80s which a) totally involves Asian-Americans and b) is totally missed by the book.

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One thought on “Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 3

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on racial (non)representation in a book about San Francisco – Part 5 | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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