Three years ago, when Oakland designer Mike Nicholls published the first issue of Umber magazine, which “focuses on creative culture and the visual arts from the perspective of Black and brown people” in Oakland and beyond, he got deeply vulnerable by asking his father to contribute an essay about the history of their own relationship. In this issue, Umber‘s fourth, Mike offers up an unglamorous, loving, full-frontal snapshot of his own body as a centerpiece of the magazine’s exploration of sports, athletics, and movement. He disarmingly captions himself: “This is my body. I’m learning to accept it. I may never get a six pack and that’s ok. The future is now, lol.”
This year has been hard on our bodies, and some have been devastated far more than others. Many of us have spent far too much time parked in front of screens. So it’s slightly startling, the experience of physically flipping through a gorgeous print magazine full of stories about dancers, yogis, skateboarders, powerlifters, and other athletes reveling in the things their bodies can do.
I caught up with Mike, who also designed The Oaklandside’s logo, to learn more about this issue’s theme, how it relates to everything else that’s been happening this year, and why you don’t have to care about sports to really enjoy it. You can find this issue, which printed at 750 copies, at Renegade Running in Oakland and Pegasus Bookstore in Berkeley, and you can find previous issues at Blk Girls Green House.
Over the past six months, many of us have been hyper-aware of our bodies—Am I standing too close to someone in line at the grocery store? Is it safe to go to this protest?—and simultaneously disconnected from physical spaces and habits we used to take for granted, like hugging our friends, going to the gym, or, during fire season, simply going for a walk. Did those realities play into the development of this issue?
One article in this issue features Clinay Cameron. She’s a Division I powerlifter—she can pull a truck with her bare hands. Normally, we might do our photoshoot with Clinay in the gym, but we had to think of something else because the gym was shut down. In her piece, she talked about how lifting weight can be meditative. That makes me think of nature. We started asking, what would it look like to really work out in nature, and use the natural environment as your gym, since you can’t go to the gym. You might lift boulders or logs—and that’s what we ended up doing for the photoshoot.
We ended up doing a lot of things like that for the issue, reflecting on the fact that the current situation is weird, but we’re able to adapt. That’s sort of a theme of the issue: that people have found ways to adapt but still do what they do, and hold on to what they believe in.
This is your fourth issue of Umber, and the only one that you’ve published during a global pandemic. The theme you chose for this issue is sports, athletics, and movement. Did you have to fight the impulse to do a COVID-themed issue, given that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on brown and Black folks, and given that Umber is expressly for and by Black and brown creators?
I knew what the theme would be for this issue back in the summer of last year; I wrote it down in my little notebook. When the pandemic hit, I kind of just took a stop. I was kind of numb. And then at some point, I was like, ‘You know what, this is still what I’m going to do.’ I started talking to writers and contributors along this theme.
At some point as I started working on the design, a friend of mine asked how Umber was going. I told her about the theme. She was like, ‘Shouldn’t you be talking about the pandemic? Shouldn’t you be talking about Black Lives Matter?’
I thought about it and kind of got in my feelings about it. And then something interesting happened. NBA players started to protest. The Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a playoff game, at a moment when they were the face of the franchise to some extent. And then you had Bubba Wallace, the Black NASCAR driver. Sports, athletes, and movement in general have their way of revealing the fabric of what’s really happening in our society, not just in America, but globally. So I took a deep breath and thought, there’s a lot here, and I’m gonna keep doing this. The pandemic may or may not change things forever, but the themes that are covered in this issue will always be relevant.
You do not have to care one iota about sports to really, really dig this issue of Umber. As the title says, it’s also about movement, and how we all move through the world in the bodies we have. One of my favorite features is this totally out-of-left-field imagining of what sort of hi-tech outdoor performance gear Harriet Tubman might have found useful in her freedom work, had such things been around in her time. It’s loving and clever and funny and respectful, all at the same time. How did this concept come about?
It was all Angela Medlin, who’s a Black woman and a functional apparel designer. She’s worked at North Face, Nike, and other companies like that. I originally said to her, ‘I want people to see your thought process and how you come up with designs for your clothing.’ A while later, she called me and was like, ‘Mike, I had this dream about what Harriet Tubman would wear if she was transported to the future.’ I said, ‘Yes please Lord, let’s do this!’
With Umber, I like playing around with different time periods. Design-wise, Umber is inspired by the 50s, 60s, and the 90s. I like to play with a sort of timewarp aesthetic that feels old-ish and archival, but also new. So Angela worked on her designs and illustrations, I just took them and helped them fit into the format of Umber.
I like to give the contributors a platform to geek out about the things they’re passionate about. I mean, you could imagine an excellent graphic novel about Harriet Tubman that would fit that aesthetic. It’s like [the science-fiction novels] Kindred and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, which are futuristic but also not at the same time. So here we have Harriet Tubman wearing this outfit in this similar sort of science-fiction, time-travel approach.
Over the course of the issue, we get to meet Black and brown people who are practitioners of an astonishingly wide range of sports and movement forms: ballet, Muay Thai, powerlifting, skateboarding, soccer, yoga, and much more. Throughout the issue, you’re clearly striking a delicate balance. You’re giving people space to speak on their joy-filled love of their sport or craft, while also giving them space to reflect on the ways that their sport or craft might be tainted by the forces of white supremacy and exclusion. How did you think about that balance?
It’s not contrived. We don’t say, ‘Make sure you talk about how you’re marginalized.’ It’s more about giving people a space to geek out about what they love, but also say, ‘Know that there’s a way in which I’m grounded in my experience that’s shaped by my identity and my heritage.’
It just comes out. It’s not something I force on myself or any of the other contributors. It’s more like, ‘Man, I can really speak freely here, and talk about the thing I love,’ while knowing that there are some aspects of it that are wrapped up in white supremacy. And knowing that some of the dominance that white people have had in these fields comes from taking things Black and brown people were already doing and finding ways of putting new structures around them to monetize it.
There’s a global community of Black and brown creatives from all industries who are really passionate about what they do, and at the same time, are really imaginative about the world they want to see and the world they want to live in. That’s the creative nuance.
This issue is about much more than just somebody who loves soccer, somebody who loves lifting weights, someone who loves going downhill on a bicycle really fast. Everybody in this issue is bringing the weight, the pride, the joy, and the pain of their life into their work.
When it’s safe again, what’s one thing you’re really looking forward to being able to do, in terms of your physical body and being with other people?
God almighty, I miss dancing. I can dance in my house or my studio, that’s fine, whatever. But the vibe and the energy that is transferred when other people are dancing and the music is pumping back through your body? I miss that.
I’ve been talking to all of my dancer friends asking, ‘What’s going to be the new place? All of them are shutting down!’ The place I loved dancing at is unfortunately not here—Spirithaus Gallery, which was a block away from my studio. [In May, Spirithaus, a West Oakland arts and events space, announced it was leaving its Adeline Street warehouse and evolving into its next chapter, however that looks.]
I think we’re going to go back to house parties, and dancing in people’s backyards. I think that’s what it should be.