Through a series of unrelated recent events, Black Portlanders have landed on the national stage.
First, ascending Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Bloody Jay released a recording in January called “Black Portland” to critical acclaim — except that some African-American people who live in Portland have their own take on what the term means.
Then this week, late-night talk show host Conan O'Brien ridiculed the City of Portland over the recent Portland Development Commission negotiations to build a Trader Joe's on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard – joking that “Portland is the Native American word for ‘too many white people.’”
Portland photographer Intisar Abioto is right in the middle of it. Her photography blog, “The Black Portlanders” — celebrating one year this month — is dedicated to telling the whole story of this very specific community of people which she compares to the Maroon communities in Jamaica.
Abioto hosted a special event Feb. 15 at Glyph Café and Art Space in the Pearl District, to promote an Indiegogo campaign to recover work she lost through an untimely computer crash last fall, as well as future projects.
From the destruction of the historic Black business district to the struggle for hip hop entrepreneurs to make a living here, Abioto has no trouble linking all these issues into one simple truth: African descendants in the Pacific Northwest comprise a unique community, one that has struggled even more than most, and is generally misunderstood or written off by the mainstream culture.
“We think about it in terms of just these physical things, but what we are talking about is the growth and the blossoming of actual people — it's not just the buildings,” she says.
“What does it mean, to rebuild your community again and again, inter-generationally?”
Intisar herself is rebuilding – she suffered an almost irreparable loss last fall when the hard drive containing all of the images from her world-famous photography project crashed.
Now she's launched a new funding effort through Indiegogo to pay for the hard drive repairs and build out her project over the next year.
“I think my approach really takes into account both the whole world, but also the whole African Diaspora, in thinking about this one community of 36 or 37,000 people,” she says.
Which is why comparing Black Portlanders to the maroons is such a fascinating point of view.
The maroons were – are—small communities of Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and throughout the “New World” who escaped enslavement and formed self-governing settlements alongside indigenous people during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They preserved many aspects of African life and culture that otherwise would have been wiped out.
Abioto hopes to branch out into a radio show, video production, storytelling, arts and exploration.
The artist says she's working to publish her images into a book; she's also hoping to purchase a film-capable single lens reflex camera to mix film with video -- which she hopes will take these new projects to a larger audience.
And a larger audience is exactly what she got when Young Thug and Bloody Jay put out “Black Portland” – already considered to be one of the hottest recordings of the year.
“My feelings about it have evolved,” Abioto says. “I do understand to an extent where they're coming from, because I went to school in Atlanta, I'm from the south, I've been there.
“It's a place where Black people are doing all kinds of things, and I get that comparison of Portland’s culture of makers and doers here and the culture of makers and doers there.”
But, Abioto says, there's already a Black Portland.
“To me, as a result of the lack of a diverse expression of the Portland that's being branded to the world, what we see past our borders -- but also within Portland -- it's a limited story. I don't think the world gets any of the real history of this place.
“And so when they talk about Portland being a white city, they don't understand the very unique journey that brought people of color to the state.
"It's powerful what Black people have done to be here, but their story isn't seen on the national stage, because the ongoing trauma of the history -- it doesn't fit into Portland's happy-go-lucky branding of ‘the city that works.’" she says. “It doesn't fit into the idea of this kind of Utopia.
“That is what allows people to think there are no Black people here, that there have never been Black people here or people of color.
“So while I get some aspects of what they're saying and I do applaud their imagination -- I think that's wonderful to be able to think of something like that to try to support alternative ways of Black being -- I'm all for that.
“But I do believe that on the national stage you need to understand that Portland is not Portlandia, it's a place of history and people and culture, living -- trying to live.
“I think it's a much more powerful story than what is currently being portrayed on the national stage.”
For more on Abioto’s Indiegogo campaign, go to www.TheBlackPortlanders.com.