Growing up, I learned about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar—international Black Muslim icons—on my own, with no thanks to the Oregon school system. But where did Black Muslims feature in the story of Oregon?
Like the icons I’d learned about before, this was a question I had to find answers to for myself.
In late 2020, I started a Zoom interview series called The Blacktastic Adventure to highlight the variety of stories of Black life in Oregon. For the series’ second season, I received the support of the Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellowship and partnered with photographer Intisar Abioto and videographer Ifanyi Bell, via Open Signal Labs, to bring the interviews to life. I wanted to feature Black life in specific geographic regions of the state, hash out conversations happening within the Black Oregon zeitgeist, and create profiles of individuals from specific communities within the Black Oregon population.
As part of this project, I wanted to explore the stories of Black Muslims in Oregon—and why those stories weren't more well known.
“Most people don’t understand enough about Islam to be more detailed in their Islamophobia,” says journalist and activist Mac Smiff. “I’m more obviously Black [to them].”
“Oregon is just so intrinsically racist and xenophobic that just being a Muslim becomes a hassle for a lot of people. I feel like a lot of Muslims in Oregon make being Muslim a secondary character trait.”
These portraits are in no way meant to represent the entire stories of these individuals’ communities, never mind Black Muslims in the state as a whole. Rather, they are part of a series of snapshots that showcase the diversity of stories within the Black diaspora in Oregon.
“I can’t unsee the landmarks that used to be here”
I met Nikki Brown in 2013 while writing a profile of her for The Skanner. Early in the interview, I learned that Brown was a recent Nation of Islam convert and was fighting to be recognized as Nicole X at her then day job. As a young reporter, I was excited to help, in a small way, by printing her name as she desired in the article.
These days, when reporters call, she goes by Nikki Brown. In addition to being recognized statewide as a performer, she’s a foster parent of three, a doula, a grandparent, and serves as caretaker of the Emerson Street Garden in North Portland.
“I get frustrated when I hear, ‘We don’t have this and we don’t have that,’” says Brown. “Just go do it.”
When Brown took on the caretaker role in early 2022, she didn’t know much about the technical aspects of gardening. She just saw the need and hoped her ability to bring people together would help move the project forward.
The first community activities that Brown led at the garden were cleanups to remove needles, trash, and other items. A man who had been camping at the site even helped with cleanup efforts.
Later on, an older Black Muslim woman volunteered to teach Brown and others about gardening, and the Emerson Street Garden, which now includes an environmental classroom, has been active ever since.
On days when Brown is struggling to find the motivation, she loves getting calls from Black women who are interested in trying their hand at gardening and organizing impromptu get-togethers. She also loves organizing gardening activities specifically for youth.
Knowing that Portland is a hub for transplants, Brown sees special importance in Black Portlanders leading projects like the Emerson Street Garden. She’s spent most of her life living in Northeast Portland, where her family moved to from Louisiana when she was six months old. This is her second stint living in the Emerson Street neighborhood.
“People don’t understand how important it is to maintain our history as Black Portlanders,” says Brown. “I can’t unsee the landmarks that used to be here.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that what drew Brown to the Nation of Islam back in 2012 was the group’s reputation for community outreach and the opportunity it provided her to personally dive into Black history. Somewhat ironically, the subsequent journey led her to embrace the name Nikki Brown.
“I no longer have to fight to prove that this is what a Muslim is,” says Brown. “I realized that a good Muslim is just one who submits to God, and if I’m doing that, my work will speak to it, and people will see that.”
“You have to say what you want to be heard”
When Nikki Brown speaks about her call to serve the community, I can’t help but think of Mac Smiff, another person I met during my time at The Skanner. It was 2013, and Smiff was transitioning from a young rap career to a writing career. He recalls performing at the Portland State University park blocks during his lunch break, still wearing his work uniform.
In the early 2010s, he began blogging, and soon after, he started writing for We Out Here Magazine, a Northwest hip-hop lifestyle blog, where he eventually became the editor and owner. Since taking the helm at WOHM, Smiff has put a major emphasis on engaging the city and country alike with the story of Portland hip hop.
Seeing and filling community needs was something instilled in Smiff early on. In 1992, his family moved from New York to an area of Clackamas that is now Happy Valley. They found community at the Muslim Community Center of Portland, and his parents were involved in helping build the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington masjid in Vancouver.
At WOHM, Smiff has created a platform for a number of emerging writers (full disclosure: I wrote as a columnist for WOHM off and on between 2014 and 2016) and used the platform to influence politics. In particular, the site has shone a spotlight on Portland’s police profiling of hip hop, as well as police brutality and corruption in general.
The blog, along with local partners such as DJ Verbz, Vortex Music Magazine, and Portland State University, has also fostered the rise of The Thesis, one of Portland’s premier hip hop showcases. The monthly event at downtown Portland’s Kelly’s Olympian has been lauded for consciously incorporating local photographers and an unwritten “no more straight dude shows” rule, ensuring every show highlights the diversity of the local scene.
“People have said The Thesis is activism, in a way,” says Smiff, “because it does seek to teach by example.”
When Portland’s racial justice protests began in 2020, Smiff used his media experience and skills as a “connective tissue person” to provide regular coverage on the ground and serve as a consistent mouthpiece to voice the sentiments of the community to the press. In fact, he emerged as one of the most quoted people during the 2020 protests and amassed a large following on Twitter.
Smiff tries to keep the attention in perspective. “Most of these people are following me because they just want some kind of protest news,” he says. “They want some information on what’s going on with the cops. They want some rhetoric to run with.”
A little over a decade ago, Smiff was rapping in his work uniform at the PSU Park Blocks. Now, his imprint can be found across the city, from the crowds he addresses at the Multnomah County Justice Center and Kelly’s Olympian, to the youth he educates at the Numberz FM content camp and his WOHM creative office.
Ultimately, he says his speaking acumen comes from a simple lesson learned while on stage and from working for years in the media: “You have to say what you want to be heard.”
“Coming to America, I had this idea that anyone who is Black is from Africa”
For as much of a culture shock as it was for Mac Smiff and his family to move from New York to Clackamas, it was that much more of a transition for Nafisa Fai and her family. They immigrated from Somalia in the 1990s, when Fai was seventeen, to escape the country’s civil war. Before beginning the immigration interview process, she’d never even met a White person.
Once in Portland, Fai’s family was placed in a housing development occupied mostly by other African immigrant families near Northeast Portland’s Dawson Park. Early on, she spent a lot of time listening, trying to pick up on the nuances of American culture and her new community.
She recalls the way girls at her high school would follow her and her sister around because they were holding hands. Her uncle suggested she write the girls a letter to ask them what they wanted. When Fai did, the girls wrote back that they thought Fai and her sister were lesbians. She later transferred to another school, where a classmate thought she was Samoan, and they got into a confrontation. The two would ultimately become good friends, but it was all part of a social learning curve. This was especially true when it came to understanding the complexities of Portland’s Black community.
“Coming to America, I had this idea that anyone who is Black is from Africa,” says Fai. “I learned about the different ethnicities within the Black community.”
Fai eventually translated those experiences into founding the Pan African Festival of Oregon in 2017. She was initially going to call it Marcus Garvey Day but settled on an umbrella term that specifically highlighted all Black communities. Featuring food, businesses, and live performances showcasing the African diaspora, the Pan African Festival has since become an annual event and a Portland favorite.
With the success of the festival, Nafisa turned her eyes to politics. She went through the Emerge Oregon program, which recruits and trains Democratic women to seek public office, and then successfully ran for Washington County Commissioner in 2020. As the first Black and Muslim woman to hold the position, she and her campaign received a more virulent version of the bigotry she faced growing up—this time from a significant portion of her largely White constituents.
“When I was running, anti-Blackness was real. Islamophobia was real,” says Fai. “They accused me of being a baby killer. A terrorist. You name it.”
Fai has prided herself on not allowing the hatred to distract her. Likewise, she rejects notions that seek to divide either Black or Muslim communities from within.
“When it comes to leaders, I like to think we’re getting smarter, learning from past experiences and unifying to say, ‘We’re Black,’” says Fai. “Disaggregating Blackness is a distraction and doesn’t help us. The goal is to get as many resources as possible funneled into our community.”
“The children still deserve magic”
While they might seem to represent different sides—the politician and the activist— Fai and Smiff demonstrate that leadership is a puzzle made up of a variety of pieces. One of those pieces might even wear green hair and a clown nose.
Despite experimenting with clowning and converting to the Nation of Islam around the same time, Nikki Brown personally struggled to embrace her clown character early on. Specifically, she looked at the work of her peers like Imani Muhammad (who encouraged Brown to join the NOI), Mattie Khan, and Michelle X Pratcher and felt like clowning didn’t measure up.
That all changed when she was invited to perform at the Nation of Islam’s National Savior’s Day convention in 2013. She found peace in her role, she says, walking through the Savior’s Day children’s village and observing young people playing games, getting their faces painted, and riding the carnival train.
“In any activism, there’s children,” says Brown. “In our fight for freedom, the children still deserve magic. The children still deserve fun.”
She likens the children’s interactions with her to those of theme park mascots like Minnie Mouse or Spongebob Squarepants. The big difference, of course, is that Nikki Brown Clown looks like the Black children she serves.
“Black children rarely get to experience icons who are human,” says Brown. “To stand next to Nikki Brown Clown is to say, ‘Maybe that could be me,’ or ‘Hey, that’s my friend.’”
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