On Black Glances, in Portland.
1 : a brief look 2: a flash or gleam of light.
In some cases, both of those things.
Portland, Oregon. The water is crystal clear. Nature is all around us. The air is fresh. It is a beautiful place to be, and I am glad I’m here.
Portland is a small city fuelled by community. A progressive city. A literary city. A place where if you are curious, gregarious and talented you will most likely thrive. Portland seems to be a place where your neighbour cups their hands together for you to step into to get a better vantage point. Then you return the favour. Portland is also a place where I have been followed down the street and called a nigger bitch walking on my way to work in the morning. It is a place where sitting on the bus on the way to partake in enjoyments and grab drinks, I was warned to “be vigilant” because there were a series of KKK rallies in the city centre. It is also a place where #BlackLivesMatter signs in front yards replace actual living, breathing black people in the neighbourhoods they were relegated to, yet still flourished in and built.
Portland is weird. Portland is an extremely liberal city — I deliberately use that ‘l’ word that makes most Portlanders convulse, as it absolutely should. Portland’s way of being is driven by a moral obligation to protect and elevate individual freedom — but that approach often comes at the expense of larger, political systemic change. Same shit everywhere — I know. It just feels amplified here because of this ever-present lingering cognitive dissonance that just doesn’t sit right within your spirit — Portland is white and woke, it is individual and collective, it seems one way on the surface then you dig a little deeper and it becomes the polar opposite, then you dig a little deeper and the pendulum swings back again.
Portland is not my home. I am a transplant. I am not African-American.
I’m British-Ghanaian, of mixed heritage, and a black woman — complex, innit. I don’t intend on taking up too much space in the conversation and I do intend to acknowledge my privilege in living here, as an outsider. I can only imagine what it means to be an African American person who is born, raised and has fought generation after generation not to be erased from the city, but is still here, fighting to live another day. To be native to a place that very openly and unabashedly tried to erase you is something black people have in common, to varying degrees. But, Portland is the whitest big city in North America — this is not some accident of history — it has been designed that way. Most of America was too, the founders of Portland were just wildly explicit about their intentions.
But, when you move to a new city, you invest in that city. You are part of the fabric of that place. You must subscribe in some way to it’s rhythm of life, you frequent the bars, restaurants and coffee shops it has to offer. You fuel the economy. You pay your state taxes. You learn to buss your table after yourself. You become an early riser. Your nights become far more wholesome. You use its transport systems. You contemplate things you never would have done before like camping, skiing and hiking. You play a part in gentrifying the area. You change the character of the area. It is still early days, but you will try to understand, then be of value to the community you live in, in the way they measure it.
According to Oregon’s founding constitution in the mid 1800’s, slavery was made illegal, which was relatively progressive at the time. Yet black people were also made ‘illegal’. There goes that cognitive dissonance again. Black people were not permitted to live in the state — and that held true until 1926. I live in Northeast Portland — the part of town where white realtors and bankers steered black people to live and own businesses and live in substandard housing via redlining. In the 1950’s, there were covenants that forbade “persons of any race other than the caucasian race” to use or occupy homes in certain neighbourhoods in Portland. The Northeast neighbourhoods, specifically the area around Albina, is where African American people were relegated to.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned over the past week about having black skin irrespective of your context — no matter who you are or where you are — history binds us, slavery has both pulled and repelled us, colonialism and racism makes us familiar to each other even if we are geographically or culturally world’s apart. This is what happens when as a people you look at the world and are still constantly being made to question “where is home?”
It is a strange time to be new(ish) in a city, trying to forge community during a global pandemic. It is also a strange time to have discovered running, whilst being black. Yesterday, I was running on Albina, listening to #NS10v10 with the sounds of Nigeria and Jamaica, and the spirit of Black British diaspora, fuelling me through a stream of very seasoned-looking white runners. The sun was beating down on me, I was dehydrated, it was pure struggle. Yesterday was an emotionally difficult time and context for me to be fighting my body in, as this was mile 7 of an extended run for #IRunWithMaud. An older black man with peppergrained grey hair walks past and sends me a quick, sharp yet encouraging nod. Running on N Vancouver, I receive a familiar smile which lights up a familiar black man’s face as he’s sitting outside in his wheelchair whilst reading his book — this is the third time I’ve crossed his path in a similar number of weeks. An immactulately dressed black woman and her carbon-copy daughter are outside their house towards St John’s — I run past and glance over, they stop talking to each other for a split second and simultaneously look at me, deeply and lovingly.
The brief black head nods here make me feel that I am acknowledged and seen in a way that is unmatched here in Portland, Oregon. I’ve not felt the meaning and the warmth of that not-so-secret head nod anywhere else in the world quite like I’ve felt it here, specifically in Northeast Portland. A mutual respect of eachother’s existence can go a long way — a small but critical gesture.
Put simply, the relationship between Africa, between the Caribbean, between Black America and Black Britain and beyond has often been mitigated by white-colored lenses and agendas. The thing that has brought us so concretely and unanimously together over the last few weeks is the celebration of our distinct cultures under an inclusive and all-encompassing banner of “blackness.” Whether that’s through creation of platforms and mechanisms exulting our culture, or through unwritten but universally understood rituals of acknowledgement. We are change-makers, we are purveyors of culture, we are resistant, and resourceful. We are better when we have each other’s back.
We are collectively mourning the public murder of yet another young person, Ahmaud Arbery, whose crime was being black and jogging outside. We’re mourning friends and family at higher rates, as we are disproportionately affected by COVID. Whilst we’re all stuck in this COVID purgatory, we should be contemplating ways to dismantle the master’s house in ways which do not use his tools. I am not smart enough to realise what that looks like. What am I smart enough to realise is that yesterday, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott’s #Verzuz turned into a soothing, healing, communal balm for 700,000 people. #NS10v10 has continued to connect the Black British diaspora all over the globe through a radio station in JoJo’s bedroom. The recognition, solidarity and subtle intimacy of three head nods gave me fuel to keep on going, to keep on living.
The metaphor I’m going to use is played out but it is fitting. It holds a particular emotional sway, as we’re searching for community, rootedness and connection both digitally and physically more than ever — they tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds. Black people, thank you for planting these seeds. Thank you for turning my tears of grief into tears of catharsis, then pride this weekend. Our joy is an act of beautiful resistance, as ever.