When you move somewhere new, the people you meet repeat certain regional clichés over and over again as they try to prepare you for your new environment. When I moved from Waterbury, Connecticut to Portland, Oregon, in 2008 for school, the cliché was this: There are no black people here. As a young black woman new to the West Coast, this was never comforting to hear. But over the next four years I found I was indeed one of the few — if not the only — black faces in my classrooms, labs, and lecture halls. It was only when I graduated and finally got to know the city properly that I started to see the other black people in the overwhelmingly white crowds surrounding me, and began to learn about those who came before us.
Despite what I was told, black Portlanders have existed in the city since its birth in the mid-19th century. In 1851, Abner and Sydna Francis started building a mercantile business in the newly incorporated city, defying a 1849 Oregon Territory law prohibiting African-Americans from moving in. They were two of an estimated 135 black Oregonians in the 1850s. Since then, black Portlanders have consistently met exclusion with enterprise, like the owners of the Golden West Hotel, who, in the early 1900s, created a cultural and social hub for black folks, who were barred from entering white establishments. The arts and music scenes in Portland have always been bolstered by African-Americans, such as the musicians and club owners of the ‘50s and ‘60s who turned North Williams Avenue in the historically black Albina neighborhood into the center of a nationally renowned jazz scene. And black Portlanders have always built up and fought for their communities, from the organizers of the city’s first black schools to the numerous civil rights advocates and political organizers of today. This handful of examples only begin to scratch the surface of Portland’s history of black excellence.
But even with this background, Portland has earned its reputation as America’s whitest city, with African-Americans making up only about 6% of its population today. While media institutions — think Portlandia, Travel + Leisure, and the New York Times travel section amongst others — have solidified Portland’s image as a white, liberal haven, its current face is actually the legacy of black exclusion laws, racist real estate practices, forced displacement for urban renewal projects, and a long process of gentrification that is mirrored in so many other American cities. It might be home to craft breweries and artisanal ice cream shops, but it also houses a justice system in which African-Americans are disproportionately imprisoned and African-American and Hispanic youths are disproportionately tried as adults, as well as a school system in which black students are the overwhelming recipients of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. In terms of culture, the city is notoriously inhospitable to hip-hop shows, a tradition that has only recently begun to fade, thanks to the work of local activists, artists, and show promoters.
“Portland is, in a lot of ways, like a microcosm for a lot of the things that the country is experiencing.” —Intisar Abioto
Through it all, however, black entrepreneurs and creatives have been holding it down in Portland, contributing to the art, fashion, food, music, tech, and business worlds that the city so prides itself on. In the process, they have started changing the city’s long-held, sparkling-white narrative. We talked to five black creatives living and working in Portland about their lives, their work, and why Portland is so much more than the trite reductions of Portlandia.
I’ve pretty much lived in Northeast Portland my entire life. Growing up, from the ages of 3 to 14, it was an extremely black community and there were a lot of people of color everywhere you looked. People helping out each other as far as African-Americans go and Mexicans, Asians in general. Over the course of the gentrification that started around when I was 16 up ‘til now, they started to push us out of our neighborhoods to rebuild structures for more out-of-towners and more Caucasian people to move into.
As a black man, I feel like I’m in a zoo when I’m in Portland now. Like, “Oh my gosh, he’s black but he’s not a gang member? He has good manners? He actually went to college? Are you really from here?” Shit like that. And it’s funny but it’s very appalling and hurts my feelings at the same time, that I can’t truly be myself without fitting the standards of some white person.
I hate walking down the street that I grew up on with all of my friends, my uncles, all the stuff that made me who I am, and then looking around and seeing that none of that’s there except maybe a few houses and all these white people looking at me like I don’t belong here. And it’s funny because a lot of the shit that Portland has built upon started from African-American-owned businesses and things that we set as seeds in the soil to grow.
[With X-RAY] me and [series writer and director] Seena [Haddad] wanted to give a feel for the arts scene here as far as hip-hop goes, how hard it is just being in the scene in general. That’s why we only had [local] artists play certain parts, so we could showcase what’s exactly going. His whole goal was to show what was truly going on in the scene and show how a lot of things dictate that [arts community] based upon white privilege or gentrification or poverty or just anything that has to do with the struggle.
It was to the point where you couldn’t even do a hip-hop show in Portland. I mean, it still is to that point, but it’s a little more lenient than it was. We’re getting more artists and more shows and more people to be comfortable with what we are doing. People like We Out Here Magazine, DUG (Deep Under Ground), YGB (Young, Gifted, and Black), those types of people [and groups] are creating communities for African Americans and African-American artists to showcase their skills in a place where people can come and commune and have an understanding of what exactly is going on. And for the most part, it’s not really a huge change, but it’s a step through the door. Our people have been through so much, you know. We aren’t going to just stop because of this shit.
2. Donovan Smith
Founder and creator of clothing brand Ignorant/Reflections, journalist, lifelong Portlander
You have so many great incredible artists here, and even with the spotlight that’s come to Portland, it hasn’t quite been shone on black art. I think that’s bound to change. We’re living in a particular renaissance here in Portland and people are going to want to flock to what’s happening out here. We’re just creating art at such an incredible level that we don’t need anybody to necessarily co-sign it.
I think one of the biggest misconceptions in terms of talking about black art and black people is that we’re all the same. So when we’re talking about what happens with black Portland and our renaissance that we’re dealing in right now, I think it’s important to remember that we’ve got diversity in that, too. It’s not one thing. We have people doing dope things across the board and they come from different backgrounds. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, we’ve got people in between, we’ve got politicians, we’ve got visual artists, we’ve got rappers. I think our power is in the recognition of our unity as black people, but celebrating the differences. And I think those multitudes of stories that can be told about us is actually gonna be what makes it so great when there is more national attention to what black Portland creates — not just the story of us being attacked but the story of what we can make, period.
As far as the art that I make, it’s kind of informed by the fact that I remember this black neighborhood, I remember coming up in that neighborhood, but also I was in the suburbs and kind of struggling to find my black identity. I’m trying to tell my story of kind being in between these worlds, wanting to bridge the gap using the clothes I make as conversation pieces, doing community events to have more platforms where people can tell their stories. I think those are our own moments of paradise.
With my clothing line, it’s about creating conversations with people. It’s about using bold provocative imagery to spark the way people think and get people to rethink why they think the way they think. When I’m making a design, whether it’s the Ignorant/ beanie or I Survived Portland Police or Gentrification is Weird, it’s just me creating things that I’m happy with and posing questions and statements that I have I think is the most powerful thing. And every time that you wear something that Ignorant/Reflections produces you’re making a statement out into the world, you’re opening yourself up to having a conversations with people, and whether you know it or not you’re already having that conversation just by wearing it. And in turn, we’re actually creating a community. Even though we don’t have the physical neighborhood anymore, we are coming together.
Rapper, singer, writer, Portlander since 2013
When I first stepped into the [Portland hip-hop] scene, it didn’t feel like anybody was really making waves at all and that’s just because I wasn’t paying attention. But as soon as I became involved in the community, I found there’s so many talented artists here that really just need to get some recognition. The local papers don’t really support a bunch of hip-hop, and we’ve seen in the past that there’s still a lot of passive racism in the city with police and even nightclub owners. You have a hip-hop act playing and immediately the capacity gets cut or the fire marshall people are there immediately to try to shut everything down.
It’s definitely a trip and it’s heartbreaking, but sometimes you just have to ignore that part of Portland and know that it’s America. As much as we feel like we’ve progressed, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. And Portland is definitely a representation of America.
It’s a liberal progressive paradise if you’re white, for sure. But it’s still very much a paradise for me because I’m living in my own world. I live in a liberal paradise in Portland that has nothing to do with what everybody else views Portland as. I have this community of artists that range in color that nobody is paying attention to. And we just care about the art that we create. People may assume that there are no communities of color in Portland, but they’re definitely thriving here.
You need to dig a little bit deeper and see what’s going on outside of what Portlandia shows you because, yeah, a lot of those skits are real. People wait in line forever for brunch, people stop at the stop sign forever and nobody knows when to go. But understand that there is an epicenter of creatives of color in Portland that are changing how people in the town view us. People eventually will understand that this place has so much more to offer than what’s been shown on television. So much more to offer. And as far as the creatives of color go, there’s a lot of us killing it.
There are so many people here that are making music that is gonna change the game so much, and I’m not just talking about myself. Chanti Darling: amazing, phenomenal. And you won’t be able to see that anywhere else but Portland. Old Grape God, who is an Asian-American artist, is phenomenal. There are just a lot of beautiful open creatives here that I’m so lucky to know and I’m so lucky to be a part of this whole movement that’s going on.
I feel like Portland is, in a lot of ways, like a microcosm for a lot of the things that the country is experiencing. I feel like people of color here are coming together. And, even with the changes with gentrification or the decades of displacement of people of color, I just really believe in our power.
I think the face of Portland, what draws different kinds of people to Portland, can be that liberal progressive face or story — there are some aspects of that, but that’s not the complete story. Of course it has a reputation [as a white liberal paradise] and there are ways that it’s true and there are ways that it’s not true. I think things that are contrasting can exist at once. There are people of color there. There are black people, there are black artists there, there are artists of color there, there are creative people there who have built the city, who have been building the city, who have been there since the start. [There are] so many people in the city, artists specifically, that are working to address and uncover and speak about Portland’s history in regards to race, in regards to black people, in regards to people of color, in regards to white supremacy. I think it’s all needed. We need this history and this present, the story of what happened and what happens.
There’s this [tendency] of saying what Portland isn’t and sometimes it’s just seeing what Portland is. I feel like with my art I’m really focused on seeing. I want to put my energy on the truth of the thing. And so I’m not so much about changing a misconception as more revealing honest truths through art and through engagement. I just want to show what’s actually there in terms of the presence of people of African descent in Portland. I just feel like it’s so clear that they’re there, it’s so clear that we’re here. There’s something about how white supremacy alters perception so that you aren’t actually seeing or something. And I see black people everywhere in Portland. I always notice us. I want black Portlanders to see black Portlanders and I want Portlanders to see black Portlanders and I do want the United States to see these black Portlanders, to know this present and history and future.
I really do believe in artists as people who can create spaces and create cities, create things that occur. There’s this thing about artists responding. Artists don’t respond. Artists make things happen and I feel a lot of courage in the artists of Portland, black artists, artists of color, artists in general. They’re changing the city and will continue to change the city and I just think we need to be braver about that we are actual architects of culture and change.
5. Mic Capes
Hip-hop artist, mentor, teacher, lifelong Portlander
I like living here. There’s a lot of things you don’t have to deal with [here that you would if you] lived in a bigger city. But at the same time, there’s a lot of microaggressions and passive aggressiveness and racism that you gotta deal with. You gotta deal with sometimes maybe being the only black person in an environment.
It’s mostly a white-dominated culture. I feel like Portland is more of an acoustic, indie rock type city so I think they tend to pay more attention to that just naturally. But I feel like hip-hop is gaining for sure. I think it’s the strongest it’s ever been as far as quality of artists and quality of the media put out and content and also really supporting one another.
Every show I do, a lot of people, mostly white, didn’t know that there was a hip-hop community here and when they come to one of my shows, they’re like, “Man, I didn’t even know, I’ve gotta start coming to way more, I enjoyed this.” So it’s been more and more people coming to shows. We just needed a spotlight on that culture here because like I said, black people are only 6% [of the population] here in Portland, so white people can just live their lives a lot of the time and not even know or acknowledge what’s going on. Here in Portland a white person can grow up their entire life and never have to grow up around people of color so a lot of them are ignorant to what we’re even about or our culture. They just see us on TV or they see us playing sports and then they don’t go beyond that. So it’s dope to see the spotlight being put on hip-hop more and more.
As far as my music, I try to create these narratives for the people outside of my own race to look at it and understand and be able to look at these situations from a different angle instead of just look at it in an ignorant way and just say, “Oh they gangbang because of this, it’s violent because of this.” I want my music to be a way of looking at it and understanding some more of what’s going on, understanding depth and maybe change somebody’s perspective. At the end of the day, it’s really my personal expression, but if they can look into my music and get educated in it or gain perspective that’s a double win.