Facing the N-Word

Writer Donnell Alexander reflects on the making of "An Oregon Canyon"

In summer 2016, Portland writer Donnell Alexander collaborated with filmmaker Sika Stanton on a short documentary called “An Oregon Canyon,” which takes a look at racist place names in Oregon. Donnell spoke with Oregon Humanities Communications and Programs Assistant Julia Withers last fall to talk about making the film. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JW: Would you start by telling us about the project that you worked on?

DA: We worked on a project film about John Brown Canyon. It's out in roughly the Madras area, Jefferson County to be specific. To be very specific, it's an area called Agency Plains, close to the Warm Springs Reservation.

JW: What did you learn by working on the project?

DA: Well, I can tell you that Central Oregon is a really specifically interesting place to me. I'm from Ohio originally, but I spent most of my life in New York and California, San Francisco and LA to be specific, and came up to Oregon in 2010 and I've been here off and on for six years. So I knew Portland pretty well, and I didn't know rural Oregon too well. Now, I have to amend that by saying I worked on the Conversation Project through Oregon Humanities beginning last October, and so I've been seeing more and more of rural Oregon.

JW: Do you have any specific observations you want to share?

DA: Off the top of my head, I've had the experience on writing about it now—the distinctions between sensibilities in rural Oregon and in Portland. The distinctions politically...I hate the word “politically correct.” I think there's being a good person and then there's this category of being exceptionally sensitive to the point where you're not helping. And I do feel like when I talk to people outside of Portland, and even Eugene, when I'm outside those areas, people speak more frankly to me about race.

You know, I went to an Oregon State football game yesterday, October 29, and so you know, I'm Black, right, and I took a knee for the anthem. And it's really conservative out there, but I felt like I could do it. I've got this ability now, I feel, to relate to the more conservative elements of Portland. That's come from all the travels, but it really does boil down to stuff I picked up in Central Oregon.

In the making of this project, I've heard the word “nigger” about forty times. And it was necessary because the subject was called Nigger Brown Canyon way back in the day. There were varying degrees and inflections in which I heard white men over the age of sixty use it, and I think that's fascinating, I think it's amazing. One of the reasons I'm not really happy about where the project is right now is I feel like we're going to scale back on the amount of that word being used to make Portland's sensibilities somehow less challenged. I think that's utter bullshit. I get angry just thinking about it. But that's where I feel like we're going right now.

We took one piece out [and doing that] I think hurt the film. I think people can make up reasons why they don't want to hear it; why it “doesn't work” for them, but at a certain point, you're confronting your past and it's painful for you. And you don't necessarily have to be white to feel that way because people identify with the dominant culture.
 I've learned a lot about the nuances of older white people and their relationship to that word. That's something I didn't expect. I joked with [This Land Project Manager] Kathleen and Sika that we could make a documentary about the short in which you see me have forty micro-seizures in the course of making this. I exaggerate that because the fact is that I heard it forty times and I did not fucking melt, so I don't understand why it's so painful for these other people to hear it.

There are aspirational discussions about race in Portland—some bearing on reality. It's about where certain educated, “well-informed” cultural elites would like things to be, but I've said for years since I've been here, the magic thing about Portland is the sort of dirty work of democracy of all these different people being together—the awkward, difficult parts of it—y'all haven't had to deal with it, so it's like a wonderland. That's not really America because America is grappling with this stuff, and here it's kind of...cute.

I have family who lives out here and they are poor. And this is in the city limits of Portland until recently, when they had to move to Vancouver because of the rents. It's so far away from what my liberal friends know. I feel like the questions that get asked in places like Madras, and the southern coast and all the way out to Burns, they're less guarded. People don't worry so much about being called out on their racism. All of white America—well, I'm not breaking news here—this is a privileged paradigm that people live on. White is the default color of existing here in Oregon.

JW: How did your feelings about using the n-word or other people using the word change as a result of this project?

DA: So I used the word. I grew up poor and Black and so it was part of my life. I was treated like a nigga, and the people around me were my niggas. It was a fact of life. The corollary I try to use for people who are not from that cultural milieu is in World War II—I think this may even go back to World War I—veterans referred to each other as “old dogfaces.” And it's sort of an insult, but you own it and it conveys this kinship that only you have gone through. And these people are saying the n-word with a hard “r,” they're not saying it the way I'm saying, but there was a purpose to it. As much as I didn't enjoy hearing it, I understood it, and I felt like it was kind of my obligation to go through it.

JW: You're talking about hearing white people say it?

DA: Yeah, you don't necessarily want to hear it said. You just don't. And what was interesting to me was when some people had different nuances and reluctances and energy having people saying it. And I can think of one person in particular who just really threw himself into it, he was all and free, cannonball, I'm going to get to say it as much as I want. At a certain point, it was very early, because I hadn't really braced myself for the impact of it. And I said, “You're going to have to dial it down a little.” You've used it fifteen times when you could've used it eight. This isn't like all free here.

JW: That's interesting. So some people were more hesitant than others?

DA: I mean, it's a dubious part of history. I'm from California, and since I've moved here, I've been on social media [seeing] facts about the history of Oregon's racism. Almost invariably—I'm fifty, you know—we're talking about people over forty who will say, “I never knew that,” and it's just stunning to me in a state with such a unique racial history. But it's not stunning because I feel like that sort of thing has been suppressed. The city of Portland is actually trying to compensate for that sort of enforced ignorance. My point is that people don't really know the history and that's a problem.

JW: What will you take away from this project?

DA: There's this amazing guy who left slavery, went to Canada, and despite all of that, went back to the United States for the Oregon Gold Rush possibly, and settled Central Oregon. What I tried to get across in the making of it is that that name, just making him Nigger Brown dehumanized him dramatically. Instead of an individual with names, he was just this slur. The slur may have had currency—for those people, it may have been like a pronoun for the pioneers back then—but it did take away from his humanity and I think that was a very valuable thing to learn: that there were full-fledged people with filled-out personal narratives that we are overlooking historically. We know about him, but what about other people who were in Oregon who were very significant figures? These stories in Central Oregon add to Oregon's understanding of itself. I'm not sure Oregon does understand itself.

JW: One other question: You were saying, before the project started and when you were growing up, you used the word, not with a hard r, but as an endearment term. Do you feel like you would still do that now, or how has that changed?

DA: I think sometimes the problem with the word is like, “You can't have something that white people can't have.” I don't know if that's really germane but I was really adamant about, that's my word. There's not as much reason for me to use it in an environment that's so white, and things are changing culturally. This film comes at a really good time for me, for all of us. When it hits it's going to be very useful in terms of timing. Maybe I was going to turn away from it anyway. I don't know that this film has; I think it was hard for me to hear.

And it's weird because people think, “What's the difference between nigger and nigga?” But as we were talking about earlier, spoken word power is intangible. It's not tangible the way words on a page are. And just hearing that different pronunciation, that end of the last syllable of the word, changes the meaning hugely. So, I felt like it affected me in terms of how I hear it, but not necessarily how I say it. Maybe I'll grow up and I'll put all this behind me, but I'm probably still hanging on to the word.

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