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Califia, Gueen of California TheArthur Wright

The Queen Califia exhibit currently on display at the African American Historical and Cultural Society Museum through Sunday, Oct. 5, is curated by John William Templeton. In doing research on the history of police brutality in the LA police department, Templeton, then working as a journalist, also discovered evidence of a black presence in early California - Simi Valley, no less, was founded by an African American rancher.

The idea that Rodney King was beaten because “he didn’t belong” takes on a certain irony when he realizes that the region was once populated by majority black rancheros in a state named after a mythical black Amazon, Queen Califia, whose likeness is on a mural painted in 1926 by Maynard Dixon and Frank von Sloun in the Hall of the Dons at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, 1 Nob Hill, San Francisco, which I recently visited.

I asked Templeton, author of the series, “Our Roots Run Deep, Vols. 1-4,” to tell me about the significance of bringing the mythical black Amazon, Queen Califia, out of the dark. Why was she in the dark in the first place?

Queen Califia
James Gayles

John William Templeton: “She’s in all these places but nobody knows about it. That’s kind of the whole point of it. Where she should be, she is - in the Senate Building at the State Capitol - but still nobody knows about it, so that’s why it’s important to reinforce it with all these different images where people won’t dismiss it as some sort of old wive’s tale or something like that.

“She’s a metaphor for what I call the ‘thin air hypothesis’ of California history, (that) basically nothing happened until white folks got here. And so that’s why we have Miniver on the state seal instead of Queen Califia, because Miniver was the Greek goddess who was born full grown. The only problem is that she has no relationship to California history.

“Califia is a part of California history, and she also reinforces the fact that when Cortes named this place California, he had 300 black people with him. And throughout the whole Spanish-Mexican war, 40 percent of the population was black.”

Wanda Sabir: Where did they come from, the black people who were with him?

JWT: “From Africa. Most of the navigators on the explorations to the New World were African, ‘cause Africans knew how to get here.”

WS: Really? You mean like Columbus too?

JWT: “Look at his navigator on his ship. He was black. Black folks had been going back and forth. All they had to do was get in the wind right off the West Coast of Africa. Abu Bukari took 1,000 ships to the New World in the 1300s. So if you wanted to get somewhere, you had to hire those men who knew how to get there.

“So to understand Queen Califia, you have to understand what the world looked like. To the European, Africans were more advanced in the 1400s. When the Portuguese went to the Congo, my God, they didn’t conquer, they signed a diplomatic treaty and had cultural and trade exchange, trying to learn. What Califia opens up is - okay, if Europeans were thinking about black people this way, well, what was the real situation. It sort of changes the whole texture of history and what it was like.”

WS: You mentioned the person who’s over the California library, Kenneth Starr, and his initial skepticism.

JWT: “Basically, everyone agrees that this is how California got its name. Before, nobody really discussed it. In the last 10 years, whenever I do a presentation, I ask people what does the word California mean? They have this dumb look on their faces. ‘I should know, but I don’t know.’ Right. Then I just kind of like do a free fall and ask, ‘Well, what do you think it means?’ I’ve only run across maybe 12 people in 10 years who knew the real story.”

WS: How did you find out the real story? I found out about the Amazon warrior from Joy Holland, Berkeley resident and fabulous poet who included this information in one of her poems.

JWT: “I was doing a story on Rodney King for the Mercury News, and while I was down there someone said that a black man used to own the San Fernando Valley. That was Pio de Jesus Pico (1801-1894). And then I found out that he was also the last Mexican governor of California. I didn’t know of any black governors or anything, so I called into the Ray Taliaferro show (on KGO news radio) and said to him, ‘Did you know that there were four black governors of the state of California? He said, ‘That ain’t nothing, the whole damn state is named after a black woman.’

“I said, “’What?!’

“He said, ‘Yeah, go up to the Mark Hopkins Hotel and see for yourself.’

“I wouldn’t have believed it but for all the art. The whole inspiration for this exhibit and doing those books … Whenever someone would say something incredible to me, it was always the art that made it credible. ‘Okay, it must be true, because these murals were painted in 1926, when the Black Panthers were big,’” Templeton says with a big laugh.

Lucille Lloyd’s “California Allegory” (1936) from the California State Archives has never been shown in public before this exhibit, which also includes the work of other prominent public artists: Sargent Johnson, Charles Alston, Hale Woodruff and Noni Olabisi, plus Bay Area artists TheArthur Wright and James Gayles.

I asked Templeton about the linguistic link between the Arabic term Khalifa and Califia.

JWT: “Khalifa means God’s ruler (in Arabic). That’s what they called Mansa Musa, who went to Mecca in 1332 with 70 tons of gold and women guards. So in the Cataline Atlas that was done in 1496, five years after Columbus, they put Mansa Musa on the cover, not Columbus.

“So at the time they thought the voyage of Mansa Musa to Mecca was more important than Columbus’ voyage to the New World. This was how the Southern Europeans viewed black people. They looked up to black people. In the previous 700 years, they’d been ruled by black folks.

“So then we have this book that was written about this Amazon woman, ‘Las Serges de Esplandian,’ in 1510, by Garcia Ordonez Rodriguez de Montalvo, a Spanish writer, which Cortes quoted from in 1524. Then in 1535 he landed in Baha, looking for the island of California and the black queen.”

Isn’t it amazing? It wasn’t just gold, but black women that motivated explorers to come to the New World, I comment. Templeton ( plans to take the exhibit back to Sacramento and on to Los Angeles. Then in 2004 he plans to host a major performance on Queen Califia, so stay tuned.

Dr. William E. Hoskins, gallery director at the African American Historical and Cultural Society Museum, said at the artist talk last month that for his organization, one of the oldest such organizations on the West Coast, dating back to 1955, this exhibit “is important for the message that it’s providing not just our own people but also the immediate community and the community at large.”

“When you ask the question, how many people know the story of Queen Califia,” he states rhetorically, “the answer is, probably very few. One of the things we’re trying to do is let people have the additional insight and appreciation for the contributions of African Americans to this wonderful country and more specifically to the state of California. This is just one of many exhibitions we’ve done that has the same goal, and that is, it has to be an educational as well as an aesthetic experience for (patrons young and old).

“I think in the overall plan of the Society - to present the African artifacts and cultural history of this state - that the Queen Califia exhibit is particularly poignant. I think everyone will benefit from it.”

Dr. Hoskins said that though he knew of Queen Califia from visits to the Hall of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, the significance didn’t dawn on him at that time.

“There’s one thing to know something, another to be aware of the importance of not only you knowing it, but being about to disseminate this information to other people,” he said.

“It’s a shame that it’s not prevalent in the schools, that young people are not taught about California history. I’m sure if you go out on the street today, I would wager you whatever you want to wager that you’d be hard placed to find one person who knows about Queen Califia.

“It’s important to look at not only art history, (but also) the history of others - in this case Spain - though I’m sure there are parallels between Germany, Italy and France, the contributions that Africans have made. Certainly in the case of Queen Califia, Cortes was the one who stumbled onto Baja and gave the state the name based on the story, Califia. I understand that with Cortes were 300 black people. And it was interesting - today I had a visitor from Australia who said that all blacks were slaves in the Americas. Well, that is as far from the truth as me not wearing shoes.”

That same afternoon Mamadou Conde, director of Amazones: The Women Master Drummers of Guinea, spoke about the real life women who were warrior queens of West Africa - the women the mythical Califia’s story comes from. The Amazons, who hail from Central West Africa in Dahomey country, the region now known as Benin, served regularly as guards for leaders such as Mansa Musa and Muhammar Qaddaffi. When patriarchy threatened to strip these women of their roles as protectors of their society, one of them took her sword and cut off her left beast to demonstrate her fierceness. It goes without question that the women continued to fight with the men.

Of all the artists, from the muralists Dixon and von Sloun, who painted the 7-foot high mural for the grand opening of the historic landmark on Nob Hill, to the Lloyd work that was a treatment for the mural that adorns the wall of the Senate Budget Committee Hearing Room in the California State Capitol in Sacramento, the more recent additions to Queen’s visual legacy, James Gayles’ lovely watercolor and TheArthur Wright’s striking “pointiflet” work, stand out.

“The Mandate of Califia” poses the queen regally, dressed in a golden cape, breasts bare, her hair fanning out in a huge crown, lower body dissolved, knee inclined, light scepter in her left hand, face stern. Wright’s paintings are unique in that he uses bleach, not water, to paint his queens. With his use of dots of bleach in close proximity, somehow the reaction on the mat surface is alchemical, literally char into gold. Visit to learn more about Wright’s work.

James Gayles, whose watercolor painting is the image on Templeton’s book covers, renders a softer Queen, the pastel colors giving her a deceptively quiet serenity. With just her face and torso framed in the multiple layered work - other California heroes and heroines located in the background - her highness is in fitting company.

The exhibit at the African American Historical and Cultural Museum, Fort Mason Center, Building C-165, San Francisco, continues from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, Oct. 5. Call (415) 441-0640 for information. Admission is free for children under 12, $1 for children 12 and over and seniors 65 and over, and $3 for adults.

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