I recently had a phone conversation with a friend who is still living in Portland. He asked me how I was doing after a harrowing cross-country drive, and I struggled to explain to him what it was about Philadelphia that inspired me to make my way East. Portland, after all, is experiencing a period of unprecedented social and economic growth that is drawing people from all over the country. At some point, it seems, the word got out about the city’s socially responsible businesses, bike lanes, organic food, and outdoor lifestyle, and this has inspired a renewal of the Oregon Trail. New settlers have immigrated to the city by the Subaru- and Prius-full, shifting the demographics in almost every way imaginable.
Meanwhile, I have flowed against the onrush of new pioneers seeking to claim a slice of the Oregon way of life, in search of a place where I could simply breathe. It isn’t an easy sentiment to verbalize, but it’s something many black Portlanders understand. On the phone, my friend could hear it in my voice. I told him that Philadelphia was not a particularly beautiful city, although it is certainly as rich in history as, say, Boston or New York, and in some cases more so. There is something fundamental about Philadelphia that drew me to it, but also wrested me from a place I should, of all places, belong: Portland, Oregon, the city of my birth.
When I first left Portland after high school in the fall of 1996, I never thought I would come back. Growing up, I always had the sneaking suspicion that no one outside of the five or so blocks that made up my Northeast Portland neighborhood wanted me to be there. Portland did not appear to love me, its own son, but merely tolerated and continually underestimated me. So when I graduated from high school, I left and didn’t look back, until I was pulled back several years ago.
I explained to my friend on the phone that I could no longer afford to remain in Portland for any sustained period of time. I described how, on any given day, I could leave my place in west Philadelphia and not see a white person for a half hour or more. My mail carrier was black, the person who served me coffee was black, the person who issued me parking tickets was black, the mayor was black.
But there was more. In Philadelphia, among the monuments of those who founded this country, there are references to people and events deeply rooted in the African American tradition. Woven throughout the narrative of that city’s history, and by extension the history of America, are the stories and lore of African Americans who contributed to the founding of our entire culture and identity. The story of African Americans is written, though perhaps apologetically, in permanent ink and projected on the walls of buildings and placards; it is carved in the statues and monuments of black people who make that city what it is.
All of these things brought about a new kind of social and emotional security that may be a given to most white Americans. A sense of belonging, a sense that one’s own interests are being looked out for and that the feelings and beliefs of one’s fellow citizens mirror those of one’s own, a sense that one belongs to a community. For a black person in Portland, this shared sense of history and belonging is notably absent.
It’s not that I didn’t like Portland while I was growing up, and, to be honest, I do not dislike it today. Portland is an area of land that I walked on, fell into, collided with, bled, spat, and pissed on, used, farmed, and took from while it asked for nothing in exchange. It is in no way a greedy, vindictive, arrogant, or prejudiced place. If only the trees could speak, the grass could nurture, and the steel and concrete could soften underfoot while reminding me that I am part of its story.
Some would call my childhood idyllic. I lived on the eastern border of the Piedmont Neighborhood in Portland, the western border of which was formed by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which used to be Union Avenue, which through it all has been US Highway 99. Nestled among the apple, cherry, and plum trees, I played hide-and-seek with the neighborhood kids in the summers before dinnertime and climbed trees after doing homework during the school year. When it wasn’t raining we played basketball or football in the streets, or cruised around on bikes and skateboards until the streetlights came on and it was time to retreat inside for dinner or chores. There were times when I felt proud of my neighborhood, especially in the summers when school was out, before the drugs and the gangs destroyed what I considered to be the last vestiges of black neighborhood life in Portland.
Though I grew up on the east side of Portland, I went to school across the river, on the west side. Twice a day, from third grade until I graduated high school, I took a trip in a rumbly yellow bus, and later public transportation, to get to school and back. I know it might be hard to believe because of the current popularity of places like Alberta and Mississippi Streets, but in the late 1980s and through the mid-’90s, many white people found no reason to cross the river. Friends I’d made in elementary school were not allowed to come over to my house for birthdays or sleepovers, and objections were often raised at the suggestion that I spend time at theirs.
For the first six months of third grade, I felt like an exhibit. It took that long for the other kids to realize that I was just as curious, interested, and articulate about the world as they were. I wasn’t often picked first for schoolyard sports; in elementary school, when deciding teams, you pick your friends first. You don’t necessarily choose kids who are the best athletes and will give you the greatest chance of winning; you choose the ones you understand, the people you are familiar with. (If your friends happen to be the best athletes, that’s icing on the cake.) When they found out I was familiar with the way they lived and breathed in the world, I began to make friends.
But even at the age of nine, I could feel a certain sense of fear from them, not about how I looked or even talked, but about what I knew and how intelligent I was. The constant stream of gold stars pasted next to my name on worksheets hanging on the wall was more dangerous to my social life than the color of my skin.
Looking back, I wonder if even then I understood the gravity of privilege and community, though I couldn’t describe it or explain it. The vulnerability and feelings of uncertainty and fear I saw in the eyes of my towheaded friends still shake me to this day. I can’t remember how many times I intentionally lost a game, offered incorrect answers, or scuttled a sure victory, all to maintain the fragile and delicate balance between a white kid’s self-esteem and my sense of worth and capacity for achievement.
There is no place in the world that is immune to bias fueled by fear. Philadelphia certainly has its problems with culture, class, and economic disparities, but it is a city that has grown and strengthened its identity through prolonged engagement in issues of equity and representation. It is a city girded by a deep connection to a history that is inclusive of the contributions of black people. Perhaps the most difficult thing about living in Portland was the lack of an authentic visual and social acknowledgment, recognition, and appreciation of African American people. Without a historical anchor, I fear the potential of what Portland could be in the twenty-first century will be lost to the unrelenting pressure to maintain and preserve a very particular understanding of its history.
I returned to Portland in January 2011, after years spent in Boston and San Francisco, following my infant daughter and her mother after a traumatic and sudden separation. My plan had been to raise my daughter in a place that was sure to value her difference, rather than see it as a novelty. The San Francisco Bay area, even with its extremely high cost of living, was well worth the price for a diverse community, social activism, and genuine value and respect for people of color. But when, one rainy afternoon, her mother disappeared with my daughter and headed to Portland, my responsibility as a father superseded my concerns about my career and misgivings about returning to the culturally sheltered and increasingly homogenous community that is my hometown.
In the midst of intense emotional and legal entanglement, I landed a job at Oregon Public Broadcasting that gave me a means to support my daughter and myself. As the only black person in a creative role at my job, being in the office felt much like being back in middle school in a class with only white students and faculty. Between working and trying to raise a child with an uncooperative and combative partner, I spent most of my time exploring ways to keep my head above emotionally rough water.
The city was very different than I remembered from 1996. It seemed that Portland no longer had any black neighborhoods; instead, it seemed that there were places where black people lived or occasionally came to be for periods of time. In hindsight it is more likely that there were never any truly black neighborhoods, but simply places in Portland where white people did not go out of fear, mostly imagined and exacerbated by isolation and economic factors. Perhaps there still remains a central concentration of black residents around the Northeast Killingsworth area near Jefferson High School and Portland Community College. That area is flanked by the rapid gentrification of Alberta and Mississippi Streets to the east and west.
When I had my daughter with me, I explored the city through a whole new lens, not simply as a black man who was born and raised in a place that was seemingly unfamiliar and unconcerned with its own history, but as a father of a biracial child. Through that lens, I felt deeply concerned for the development of her identity and emotional well-being as an “other.” But she will have a different experience than I had growing up. She will be saddled by the challenges of womanhood as well as the unique biases reserved for her skin tone and the unmistakable evidence of me in the curl of her light brown hair. I wanted her to grow up in a place where she would not experience the feelings of isolation and difference that I did growing up. Now, ironically, I am tethered to this city for the foreseeable future.
I resigned from OPB in the summer of 2014. It took me three years to understand that no manner of exceptional work would lead to any real acknowledgment or recognition of my value to the organization. Maintaining a sense of optimism under these circumstances became a convoluted exercise in self-delusion and poorly managed expectations that ate away at my self-confidence. Among an essentially all-white staff, I found myself misunderstood, my ideas and suggestions held in a kind of creative quarantine. By the time I left, I realized that no one would really ever know I was gone.
I cannot abandon Portland again. I still live there in many ways: because of my daughter, though I have no custodial influence in her life, and because of my own history, I will maintain this connection. I know what it will be like for her to grow up in Portland, where she will surely be singled out by her peers, who will remark on the texture of her hair and the tone of her skin. I worry about her sense of self-worth if she is in a classroom of full of white students.
However, today I feel something like a pause in the collective consciousness of the city, perhaps because the dramatic and rapid transformation of these communities has been so remarkable, unprecedented, and visually stunning. It is as though Portland is staring into the glare of a sparkling clutch of diamonds and suddenly questioning the origins of the jewels.
In my mind it is possible that the city will capitalize on this moment and collectively reevaluate its course. Though there is no precedent for such large-scale social, political, and ethical reform, if there is any city that can investigate the anthill beneath its boot, it is Portland. It is for a purely selfish reason that I hold out hope that this city and the people who control it will chart a new course for the future. I hope it is a course that deftly avoids the pitfalls of other communities in this country, which have fallen victim to a volatile parity that eventually erupts into flames.
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