Conversation ith a Portland Activist
Interview by Tonya J.
Published in Women of Color Zine: How to Live in the City of Roses and Avoid the Pricks #4 Home
I'm glad I know Walidah Imarisha. I became acquainted with Walidah after taking her course at Portland State University. The class looked at how racism and classism framed our government's actions (or inactions) when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, LA.
I liked Walidah right away. She encouraged us to think deeply about the interconnectedness of oppression. She wanted us to know how communities of color do resist and support each other, despite mainstream media's campaign to portray Black people doing otherwise, during Hurricane Katrina.
Over the years, I have maintained contact with Walidah. When she has time, she is always willing to spea at events I have organized on different topic (e.g. domestic violence). Walidah is just overall an intelligent and bad sista.
I asked her would she be willing to be interviews for this zine, she was happy to participate.
So tell us about yourself…
I am an educator, poet, writer and organizer. I currently teach in PSU’s Black Studies Department, Women’s Studies at OSU and in the English Department at Southern New Hampshire University. I am part of the poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista with Turiya Autry… Much of my work with art, organizing and scholarship looks at intersections of identities, historic and current methods of control, and community-built alternative institutions.
How long have you lived in Portland? What are the things you like/hate about Portland?
I have a complicated history with Portland. I did not grow up here – I was raised around the world on military bases. I lived in Portland for four years – in fact, I received my undergraduate degree from PSU. I went out east for almost a decade, and came back about 5 years ago.
I left Portland because I wanted to experience being engaged in community organizing in a place with more people of color. I think exploring and establishing your identity as a young Black woman in Portland was exceptionally hard. It’s difficult not just because of the very low numbers of people of color here, but also because of the idea that Portland does not have a problem with race. Portland is a city that is looked to as a model nationally for its urban planning, its efforts at environmental sustainability. But it is a city, and a state, with a very troubled and rough living legacy around race, privilege and power.
But part of what I love about Portland, and why I moved back, is the community that has been able to grow despite all odds. The history of Oregon is one that explicitly excluded Black people – Oregon’s Constitution banned Black people from moving to this state upon punishment of public whipping every six months until they left. One scholar wrote that Black people were the first “illegal aliens” in Oregon. Which I think is a useful framing and insight for the current local and nationally attacks on immigrants/economic refugees – this idea of not belonging, of not existing legally, of being vilified and attacked because of your very existence, is not a new one. Not in Oregon and not in the United States.
And of course this mentality of the desire for a “white homeland” (actual language used) did not just confine the Black community – if we look at the history of Tribal Termination, we see that Indigenous communities in Oregon were hit hardest nationally and as a result suffer some of the worst disparities. We see the history and the current reality around restriction, exclusion and exploitation of immigrant populations. We also see that Oregon has been the testing ground for anti-LGBTQ legislation for decades by the Right – this is no accident or coincidence; it is because the foundation of Oregon as a state is firmly rooted in the creation of a white homeland that is rooted in patriarchy that we see historic and continued hostilities to everyone who does not benefit from white capitalist patriarchy.
But I say all that to say that in spite of this, strong communities of color have flourished. Specifically because of my research and my identity as a Black woman, the fact that a Black community exists in Portland, in Oregon, at all is a testament to the strength and resilience and support Black people have shown each other over the centuries here. There was never supposed to be a Black community here, and it was red-lined and confined and segregated and shoved around – like a plant shoved into a pot that is too small, starved for light, and repotted sloppily over and over again. And yet not only did a Black community survive, it thrived, it struggled, it organized, and it won.
You have been touring around Oregon and presenting the workshop: “Why are there so few Black people in Oregon?” How did you get involved in this project and why do you think it’s an important discussion to have in Oregon? What are some of your own thoughts about the displacement of the Black community in Portland?
I created this program as part of the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project – the goal of the project is to get different communities around the state talking about issues that we don’t usually have public conversations about. I have two others, on prisons and criminal justice issues and on the history of hip hop.
I personally was lucky enough to go through PSU’s Black Studies Department, and learn from the incredible professors there, especially Dr. Darrell Millner who is one of the pre-eminent historians on Black people in the west. That is where I was first exposed to this history, and it helped me so much personally to frame my experiences, to reassure me that I wasn’t crazy, that the hostility and racialized reactions I encountered every day were very real, and moreover there was a historical framework for them.
I felt it was important for all Oregonians to know this, because this shapes all of our lives. The institutions that define our realities – education, criminal justice, housing, employment, health, etc. – were all created at a time when Oregon was created for white straight cisgendered men, to provide them with economic opportunities to create a world away from people of color, where hetero-normative patriarchy was the norm and women were kept in their place, and LGBTQ folks were erased. If we don’t see this, then we can’t see why students of color are dropping out at twice the rate of white students, and why LGBTQ students of color are dropping out at even a higher rate. We can’t understand why the incarceration rate for Black people is six times that of white people.
I want to be clear; this is not history – this is the foundation for the institutions that shape our lives every day in the here and now. And it affects and constricts all of our lives.
As I said before, I did not grow up in Oregon and so I know that I can study and read and interview and research as much as I want, but I will never know what it was like to live through the Vanport Flood. To see the Albina neighborhood before the construction of the Rose Quarter, I-5, Emmanuel Hospital’s expansion, the rapid rise of gentrification, all of which displaced the Black community. So my hope is not just that I am providing information and frames for seeing our state and the world around us, but that I am creating space so those folks who have lived through these realities, especially the Black community, can share their experiences as the experts they are.
I think one of the most powerful moments doing this program was where a Black woman who grew up here told the audience not to believe any fabrications about the Albina neighborhood being run down and that’s why gentrification was necessary; that her family, her grandmother, her aunt all had homes that they kept meticulous with pride and love. That is the sort of expert opinion that comes from lived experience, and that is so vital to challenge these myths we are fed every day.
Any upcoming projects that you would like to share with readers?
I’ve had the honor of getting to work with PFLAG Portland Black Chapter and the Urban League of Portland on an issue brief that specifically focuses on the experiences of LGBTQ Black Oregonians. The Urban League of Portland released an incredible report, “The State of Black Oregon 2009,” that showed enormous institutional disparities based on race across the board – housing, environmental health, infant mortality, education, and on.
But what is known is that the intersections of multiple forms of oppression for LGBTQ Black folks and other LGBTQ people of color result in even higher disparity rates. So we have looked at local and national data, and Black PFLAG and Urban League have done a ground-breaking survey of LGBTQ Black Oregonians, and have found some shocking statistical disparities. We have also found that much of this data just isn’t tracked, and that’s definitely one of the recommendations to come out of the brief – that agencies, governmental and non-profit – track the experiences of LGBTQ people of color so people’s experiences are not invisibilized and folks’ needs, experiences and leadership can be supported and raised up in our communities.