What It’s Like Being Black In Portland

So it seems that a series of circumstances have all led me to reminisce, Pete-Rock-&-CL-Smooth-style, about my upbringing here in Portland Oregon, the undisputed whitest major city in America. Reconnecting with old friends from high school, being a little less homebound and a little more out-and-about in the city (which is a typical, if subconscious spring ritual), and responding to people emailing me about Mitchell S. Jackson’s March essay in Salon, about his experiences growing up here.

I’ve written about this issue before, but usually only tangentially. It’s not something I feel the need to discuss all that often, not because my experiences aren’t novel or interesting, but because there are so few genuine opportunities to talk frankly about racial issues without the issues being sidetracked or hijacked by local or national politics. I actually have several compelling interests that could incentivize my sharing what it’s like growing up here (at or near the top would be to promote my creative works). But in practice, it’s hard to do so without being burdened by the advancement of a particular agenda – as in, talking about diversity in the context of Why We Need To Do Such & Such About The Problem – or, more honestly, without bumming white people out.

Bumming white people out, incidentally, is not something that I’m particularly opposed to. I’m not the kind of person who’s always on the lookout for other people’s feelings. That may sound crass, but it just is. If I would’ve been born in the late 90s instead of the late 70s, I might’ve ended up diagnosed as somewhere along the autism spectrum (probably a mild version of Asperger’s Syndrome). As I type this, I’m sitting here wearing a Star Trek T-shirt depicting the many moods of Spock, which my wife thinks is hilarious not because she knows much about Star Trek, but because she knows quite a bit about me and my often blank expressions. (Although she thoroughly enjoyed the lover’s quarrel between Spock and Uhura in Star Trek Into Darkness. I believe her exact words were, “well, if there’s hope for Spock, there’s hope for you.”)

My point is, I have no problem in principle with people feeling uncomfortable. The truth is what it is and sometimes people need to just deal with it. However, I’ve developed over time more of a habit of underplaying the force of my emotions, particularly my anger. Sometimes this is the result of Spirit-led discernment and a particular desire to extend grace. But most of the time, it’s just a coping mechanism, one common to many successful black personalities. It prevents me from getting too real too fast in front of white people, lest my professional prospects be jeopardized. Truth may be truth, but brothas gotta eat.

Which is why this instinct is hard to turn off, even when I want to.

Walking into my stand-up comedy class yesterday, I was mildly surprised to find another black face in the room, and I had to shake his hand and give him some dap before I did anything else. I realized afterward this was a little bit rude because he was one of the few people in the room that I didn’t actually know personally, and normally I would greet my friends first.

Hey, what’s crackin. Way to exist, fam.

 

But this was different. I was explaining to Alex, the instructor, that this was kind of a black Portland thing. Even if you’re like thirty yards away, you just have to give a little nod of recognition when you see another black person, particularly in an environment where you don’t expect to see many – which, once you get even a few rungs up the ladder, means pretty much everywhere you go. It’s like being a secret club or something.

Anyway, I was explaining this to Alex, and he did what comics do – he related it to something he could more easily conceptualize. “So it’s like being a Harley owner or something,” he said.

“Yeah,” I responded. “If having a Harley made it harder to get a job.”

Several people in the room laughed, and Alex started to backtrack a little. He’s such a nice guy, especially for being a stand-up comic, that I felt bad for even momentarily bumming him out. He responded well and we bantered back and forth a bit, but his slight recoil showed that, when it slipped out, he wasn’t totally ready for my impromptu declaration about racialized economic disparities.  Truth is, I wasn’t totally ready either, actually. I said it, and then sort of regretted it, even though I knew it was funny.  It was funny, pardon the cliché, because it was true.

When my uncle Paul married my aunt Gerutha, two really large black Portland families unofficially joined forces, so now I’m probably distantly related to one out of every three black people in Portland. (Being black in Portland means that your play cousin might actually be your cousin.) So I don’t know Mitchell S. Jackson personally, but as a black Portland native, that hardly matters. I’m sure we know many of the same people.

And as I read his Salon essay, I sensed some commonalities in our growing up years. I didn’t run with many gangbangers, mostly because I was a preacher’s kid and would’ve gotten a swift ass-whoopin’ if I tried. But I still went to school with some. Had a few friends in elementary and middle school that eventually went that way. I probably went to the movies with a few, played basketball at the park with a few.

And yet, as I look back on some of those years, they probably feel just as distant and alien as they do for Mitchell, but unlike him, I still live here.

See, there’s a sort of internalized absurdity that I feel as a media-literate, semi-successful black person living in Portland. There are so many elements of black culture in general that I value and understand and live out, but only privately. These cultural experiences and values are too often misunderstood or marginalized as irrelevant by the general Portland community, because there are so few of us here. Just like the put-a-bird-on-it thing, Portlanders love the idea of black people as long as they don’t have to deal with the reality of black life here, because that reality often comes off like an inconvenient buzzkill.

As one example, Portland is such a secular, postmodern place that white people by and large don’t understand the cultural connection that black people have with church.  “But bike lanes are about safety and sustainability, who could have a problem with that? Oh… the older, churchgoing black people.” (I keep waiting for someone at an open mic comedy night to blurt out, “what’s the deal with black people and church?!,” like that hacky Seinfeld line about cancer.)

SF gentrified coffee shop 2013_0312_Bottom_Line_20

Macbooks, expensive coffee, tech-savvy hipsters, this must be one of those “up and coming” neighborhoods.

 

Much has been said and written about the phenomenon of gentrification, and it’s important to note that many of demographic trends afflicting Portland are happening across the nation, but it’s much more obvious because of the lack of ethnic diversity here. Metro areas across America are becoming whiter as the poorer communities of color are being forced into surrounding areas. Some call it white infill, the reverse of the white flight that happened in the late 60s.

So what it means here in Portland is that most of the areas of town where people who look like me used to live, we no longer live there. The church my father founded no longer resides in the neighborhood for which it was named, and I can count on one hand the number of black people I know personally who live in that neighborhood now, a neighborhood that, in the early 80s, was considered a model of racial integration. There was a period of almost a decade where my father and two of his brothers (my uncles) had houses on the same street. Now, none of them live anywhere near that area of the city.

So what this means is that the sense of community and belonging that I had growing up is long gone. Some of it is the lost innocence of youth, but a lot of it is the everyday reality of my people being scattered across the metro area. And this decentralization, this tangible erosion of influence and involvement from stakeholders in my area who look and sound and feel like me, it does something to me. In small ways, it can warp my judgment and sensibility.

I can see this more clearly when I contrast my life now with the years I spent living on the north side of Chicago. Coming back to Portland from Chicago, everything felt a little bit quaint and precious. I’m reminded of my friend Betsy Kauffman, who told me that when she moved here from Chicago and took a job doing radio, her station manager had to remind her that even “regular” shootings make the news here.

Back in the Chi, where I was surrounded by people of varying ethnicities on a regular basis, (including plenty of black folks) I had certain tastes and standards that clearly set me outside the boundaries of what normal black people thought and did. Some of this may have been because of my Caribbean background, but a lot of it also had to do with growing up in Portland. By the time I’d reached college, my circle of friends was skewed pretty white, despite the overall diversity in the area. This made for occasionally awkward and hilarious exchanges, like when a friend of mine was worried I wouldn’t like the tent he gave us as a wedding present. “What, because black people don’t go camping?” I said to him (which we do, but only rarely). He sheepishly nodded, and then said triumphantly – “but I knew you were from Portland.” (Which was a better choice than the more obvious comeback, “but I knew you married a white girl.”)

Anyway, so even though I loved hip-hop and plenty other forms of black music, I also had a sort of bourgeois distaste for anything too loud, too uncivilized, too “hood.” Not that I rejected the hood element outright, but I did not feel native to it. In many ways, my college experience was defined by trying not to be labeled as a sellout by other, “realer” black folks, of whom I secretly but desperately wanted validation and acceptance.

This aversion to all things hood was especially obvious for me every time I would go past a typical urban apparel shop. In Chicago, these places were everywhere, in upscale shopping centers and run-down strip malls, even on sidewalks in the summer time. It was the kind of place that, growing up, we might’ve referred to by the generic term “swap meet” … the kind of store, or loose collection of vendors, where there was little to no ambiance, and the clothes were cheap. The jeans were always oversized and gaudy, and the T-shirts were always emblazoned with loud-and-proud artifacts of black culture. Rows and rows of caps, logo-festooned and blank alike. Unlicensed caricatures of Bugs Bunny or Bart Simpson with saggy jeans and cornrows. Huge, detailed portraits of Snoop or Tupac. Gold chains, dollar signs, cannabis leaves.

Hood like a mug.

These were the stores I usually avoided, in part because I’d been schooled by my mother to always try to find the highest quality garments when I bought clothes, but also because I just didn’t want to associate with that lifestyle. Part of it was I was having a hard enough time trying to get hip-hop accepted in certain elements of church culture, and I didn’t need any more baggage than necessary, emotional or otherwise.

But living in Portland and being so disconnected from most of the elements of black culture, I came to appreciate these stores, even as many of them stocked clothing that glorified parts of black culture I was offended and embarrassed by. When one of them closed up shop and moved to the other side of town, I was kind of sad. But just a few weeks ago, one reopened in a location not far from my house, a sort of deserted retail spot that was previously a consignment shop (and before that, a PayLess shoe store). I literally did a U-turn just to turn into the parking lot.

When I walked into that shop and saw the rows and rows of hats and T-shirts and jeans, my eyes lit up again. I was standing there, a grown-ass man, getting excited about $5 T-shirts and gaudy jeans.

I guess when you feel like you’ve lost so much of your culture, you can’t afford to be picky about which parts to love. Even the things that drive you crazy can, with time and absence, become things that make you smile.

And I guess that sort of illustrates the ridiculous predicament I feel living here. I’m too Black to feel totally comfortable here, and yet I’m way too Portland to feel totally at home anywhere else. I’ve become attached to this cultural space, half by choice and half by Stockholm syndrome. It’s odd; I don’t expect people to get it, but at the same time I keep wanting to remind people that I exist and that it’s okay.

“Parade” by Young Thug & Bloody Jay

Like a few months back, there were some Atlanta rappers that put out a mixtape called Black Portland, and half of me was a little excited that the Trail Blazers were good enough and Portland had become famous enough to draw the attention of some underground ATL rappers, because Portland is not one of those places that tends to get many shouts out. In a hip-hop roll-call track, you get all manner of references to Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Houston, Philly, Chicago, St. Louis. Occasionally Denver or Seattle, but never Portland.

But then when I read their extended interview where they explained the concept, I was kind of annoyed. They were using “Black Portland” as a nickname for their part of Atlanta. Like, this part of the Atlanta hip-hop scene is like Portland, but with actual black people. I wanted to get into a Twitter beef, just to defend my existence. Hold up, Young Thug! Black Portland actually exists!! Well… used to, anyway.

(This is the moment where, if my life were a TV show, you would hear the Sad Trombone – or actually, if I could get the rights to it, the Price-Is-Right-loser-horns, and then it would start looping and morphing into a chopped-and-screwed remix.)

I think a lot about moving elsewhere, even though I have no concrete means to do so. It’s the habitual daydreaming of unfulfilled longing. I enjoy visiting other cities a lot, just so I can be surrounded by more black and brown faces. I love serving as a worship leader, but it gets old having to work hard to recruit people to sing for the choir. It gets old being the only one saying “amen” during the sermon. After awhile, these little things, they get to you.

So if, when talking about Portland, pardon me if I get a little nutty, a little emotional, a little defensive. Pardon me if I lose my $#!+ over a potential Trader Joe’s location. Most of the time, I do just fine relating my experiences to a broader audience of white people, most of whom tend to be pretty sympathetic if they are willing to actually engage the topic.

But every once in awhile, I might go a little haywire. That might just be part of what it means to grow up and live black in Portland.

 

 


 

EPILOGUE

(7/22/2014):

 

imsoportlandSo I had to write an epilogue to this post after my social media feed blew up yesterday and today with old school, mostly black Portlanders throwin’ up the #ImSoPortland hashtag and reliving a lot of hood memories from back in the day.

I’m not sure why now or what started it, but a basic search for “#imso” on Twitter showed me hits for Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago, so I know it’s not just a local thing.

And honestly, it’s been really fun, like an informal class reunion.

I wanted to include that here, because so much of this post is negative, I didn’t want to give off the impression that I hate it here in Portland. It’s true, I am “so Portland.”  I remember Union Avenue, the Bee company grocery store, the Tilt Arcade at Lloyd Center (which used to be outdoor!!), Benson vs. Jefferson rivalries, Jack’s chicken, Paragon cable, Blazer games at Memorial Coliseum, Tubman Middle school, et cetera. I spent my most formative years of life in northeast Portland, and for better or worse, it has helped to shape me into who I am today.

But love and hate are not total opposites, they are more like siblings. That’s why, when I think about my upbringing here in Portland, my smiles often melt into sighs. The warm memories of the past are what makes the present so alarming, frustrating, and disenchanting. Mississippi becomes a trendy area, and you sigh. Alberta becomes an “arts district,” where before it was just “where people like you used to live and go to church.” And you sigh.

“Good In the Hood,” the local festival celebrating local music and culture, becomes “Good In the Neighborhood (sponsored by Safeway, Providence and US Bank.”

More sighs.

It’s no surprise that “I’m So Portland” seems to be a mostly black social media meme, because white Portlanders have no need to affirm their ethnic identity. They have “Portlandia” to do that for them. I hate to keep score like that, but that’s sort of how it is. Seattle has Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and we have Fred and Carrie.  And Pink Martini, and the Decemberists. And Everclear. And the evening news. And city council. And pretty much every Trimet bus line except the 4, the 6, and the 72.

Shoot, if it weren’t for Esperanza Spalding and Liv Warfield, the only black representation of Portland would come from the Trail Blazers (and Liv Warfield isn’t even from Portland).

I guess what I’m saying is that in Portland, white is not just the default standard like it is everywhere else in America. For too many, it’s the unquestioned normal baseline of human existence, only to be commented upon for the sake of irony. And just because I don’t always think or talk about it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exact a toll on my spirit day after day.

Fish don’t need to be reminded that they’re in water, for they have no experience otherwise.

I’m so Portland that most of the time, I don’t even mind being wet that much, but sometimes I wish I could spend more time outside the pool.

  1. Your Article was interesting and pulled me in because of your being honest about the complexities That we as African Africans face on a daily basis. Continue to write and boldly tackle these subjects.

  2. Such an interesting perspective. I grew up and raised my kids in SE Portland. Westmoreland, Sellwood and Woodstock neighborhoods. I remember that from kindergarten through 8th grade there was not one black child enrolled at Llewellyn. Their were a few black children enrolled in Sellwood. I remember them both. Tonio Bishop and Renea Mendoza…half black actually. I kissed Tonio and Renea almost kicked my ass! (two separate incidents., rival schools, rival girls.) haha! memory lane…sorry for getting off track. Anyway, when we all attended Cleveland High that changed. Tonio, Renea and I became friends and we laughed about the rivalries of “kids.” (at 14! haha) Now that I think back even though Cleveland had several black students, I believe they had to ride the bus from NE. I remember when all of NE and N Portland were predominately black. I remember when during the housing boom, white peeps went in and bought some of the coolest houses in Portland, North and Northeast Portland and fixed them up, lived in them or sold them, raising the property taxes and rent in those neighborhoods, forcing so many low income people from their homes. I remember the riots in the 60’s. My family was so weird, we (my grandma included…probably her idea) drove over just to see the action. Keep in mind, I was VERY young, but that was the vibe I was getting from my family. For them it wasn’t about black or white but fight! Looking back now, that was my perception at the time. My parents were not racist at all. My mom however, always worried about the children of interracial marriages because she didn’t feel it was fair to put them through the obvious heartaches.

    Your story touched me because quite honestly I did not realize that there are probably many Portlanders who feel the same as you. I had no clue. I now have a beautiful 6 year old granddaughter. She is my heart. She is half black and half white. She and my daughter moved to Lake Arrowhead, CA to be with me and to start a new life. There is not one other black child on this mountain. She is very accepted at her great little school in Running Springs. The San Bernardino Mountains is a wonderful place to raise a child. Although a resort town, there are many local community events, we support our athletes, etc etc. The alternative would to live somewhere near San Bernardino! No offense to the people who have to live there, but accckkk!! Her income will not get her a decent place to live “down the hill!” Five murders just in the last two weeks! But is Arrowhead a good place for my granddaughter to grow up? Because you shared your feelings with me I will be speaking openly to my granddaughter about the subject. Thank you.

    Rose

  3. Rose, thank you for your response! It’s obvious you have a lot of warm memories from your history in SE Portland, and I’m sure those memories are impacting your new life in CA.

    I’ve never been in the California mountains, and have only passing familiarity with San Bernadino. But I think it’s important for people to consider their surroundings, and particularly if they find themselves in an extreme racial minority situation, to give voice to feelings and emotions they might otherwise squelch for the sake of survival. That stuff never really goes away, and if you fail to monitor it, it can spring up at awkward, inopportune, even dangerous moments.

  4. I’m a little scared to move to Portland. I’m so use to making black friends easily. I’m extremely comfortable with diversity. Please tell me I have no reason to worry lol . I’d hate to be one of the few blacks at my soon to be community college.

    • Well obviously Portland isn’t going to be like any other major diverse city. BUT… the good news is, since there are so few black folks here, it’s been my experience that the black community is very tight-knit, and if you know where to go (you mentioned community college… which one, PCC?) the ones you find should be willing to connect.

  5. Well done. I feel connected to the tone of this conversation. I don’t share the same experience,but can understand where it comes from. Being half white and black gives me an out of body experience. I watch what goes on around the hood because I’m handy and try to keep busy. Mostly, I find Portland to to be generous and busy. My clients support me and challenge me to be more than average. The true heartbeat of Portland is good but the real issue I’ve had is being stuck in this halfbreed place. Actually, what’s interesting white people usually tell me “you don’t look black” or “I didn’t think you were black.” Today, the common theme is “hola amigo.” Add that to the mix. Age somehow created that one. I hold back most of the time from correcting the obvious. I wish they would say hello instead. Either way your words brought me to write back because I see the world around me in disguise. Unless my efforts stand out. I am the ears and eyes of the town. I lived on 9th and Alberta for a few months as a kid. Then we moved to many places in southwest pdx. I have been to big cities too and notice the tone of Portland. I often want to leave for I find no connection holding me here. Seems to be what Portland is . There’s more to my story but just wanted to say hello since I don’t get that “nod” you get. To be left alone is a bonus sometimes while I’m hard at work in the yard. My job is to make my neighborhoods beautiful and turn a head or two. Once in awhile I catch someone checking out my work. That’s how I handle Portland these days. In the southwest area I was the “black friend”. My favorite story about working in ne Portland came when I was putting in a yard, and this car pulled up. The window went down and I thought this is it I’m going to be shot. Not joking. It was two older black men in a tinted glass sedan. I froze as they said nothing and gave me a thumbs up. Then pulled away. Now breathing again, I realized I broke through. It’s hard to feel accepted without growing up around here but I’ll keep my head up. Thanks for starting this dialog. I’ll see you around. Peace.

  6. Hey Jelani:
    I really enjoyed your article on what it is like being black in Portland. I grew up and had similar experiences to yours, but only in Texas. I have a friend who lives in Portland, Oregon that I have known since college and they want me to come visit. But, I am very cautious because I have heard about all the racism in Portland, Oregon and some places do not welcome Blacks. I really want to visit but I value my life at the same time. So, what do you suggest? Thanks
    ~Summer

    • Well, Summer, I don’t know where in Texas you grew up, but my guess is any racism you might experience in Portland will be of the I’m-annoyed-at-this-microaggression kind, and not the I’m-scared-for-my-life kind. (There is plenty of the latter in Oregon, but you’d have to venture fairly far outside the city limits.)

      So come on out! I recommend summer or late spring, where there is a greater chance of sunshine.

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