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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 01 August 2013

Some people talk as if growing up on a farm is the ideal childhood. Not Russell Parker.

 "I remember a lot of manual labor and a lot of boredom," he says. "We could spend all afternoon sitting on the porch snapping beans and shucking corn. And there was always a reason to fetch wood – even in summer. Summers were an eternity."

The high points?  

"I learned to wash windows with newspaper," he quips. "That and going to baseball practice."

One-liners and a dry wit are Russell Parker's trademark as a stand-up comedian. And people who've seen him perform say his act is different every time. So it's no surprise that in person he's spontaneously funny–as well as deadly serious.

The contradiction starts to make sense when Parker talks about being bi-racial, with an African American father who served in the U.S. Air Force and a Native American mother from the Salish and Kootenai reservation in Montana.

Parker says that Virginia, where he spent much of his childhood, was all about Black and White against the backdrop of the civil war. Even the convenience stores sold replica civil war bullets.

"As a minority, American history bored me, and I was surrounded by it," he says. "I didn't like my childhood, but it made me who I am. It didn't teach me what I wanted, but I learned what I didn't want."

He's only half joking when he says that he moved to Portland because it was the furthest place he could get from Virginia without crossing water.

It wasn't the first time Parker had been out West. Born in Guam, where his father was stationed, his parents split shortly after his birth. After that, Parker's mother took Russell and his sister to Oakland. But she struggled with stability, a legacy from her own childhood as an orphan who moved in and out of foster homes. So when he was five, the children were sent to live with their father and grandparents.

The many personas of Russell Parker cross the street

When Parker was 16  he did return to stay with his mother in Oakland. That eight-month spell as a high school student in Oakland was one of the best experiences of his life, he says. In part it was the excitement of being in a city with entertainment just a walk or a bike ride away. But it was also the freedom to be different.

"I had the best time in Oakland," he says. "Oakland was a very eye-opening experience. It taught me there's a whole world out there. No-one cares what you are, and I liked that. I could be whoever I was at that moment. I just embraced change, and when I went back to Virginia I had a whole new level of confidence."

Those months also gave him the chance to find out about the Native American side of his family.

"That summer I got to go to Montana," he says. "I got to go to pow-wows. I got to stay on the rez. I read a book."

Parker went back to Virginia for his senior year, but after graduation he moved to Oakland. He stayed for eight years, only returning East after marriage, a child and a divorce. That time around, he followed his ex-wife so he could stay close to his son.

Then, in 2007, Parker headed back West to Portland with an ambition. He wanted to work for NIKE. And he did manage to land a seasonal position in the store, he says. But when it came to an end he felt crushed.

"I was distraught," he says. "It was like the day you wake up and find there is no Santa Claus. I didn't know what to do."

Being funny had always come easily to him, so he looked at stand-up comedy.

"My mouth has always gotten me into trouble. And I'm good at being funny. So I decided I'd try comedy and if that didn't work, I'd sell all my stuff, buy a house in Montana and work at Walmart for the rest of my life."

In comedy, Parker can play around with all of his many obsessions: shoes; basketball; music; hiphop; cars. And he can also riff on the craziness of our attitudes to race, class and culture. Among his many alter egos is:  Wun Pist Awf Injun.

Today, Parker wears a tee-shirt he designed himself, that makes fun of the illuminati meme that now is found all over the Internet. The logo is an eye, framed with a feather, inside a triangle surrounded by light. Below it are the words illumi and Native. Below that is the link to his website: bookofrussell.com.

Parker's latest venture; the self-published, "Book of Russell," is filled with both his serious and funny sides. First written on Twitter, it includes the following gems:   

"When someone close to you is acting outlandish, don't bite your tongue. Bite theirs." 

"Live in the moment. If that moment requires you to be an A-hole, then still live in the moment. Just hope the next moment is better."

"Don't burn bridges just because you have fire." 

And if you need more to tempt you, Parker's description of his meeting with singer Toni Braxton is priceless.

Check out Russell Parker's many creative ventures online. (Just don't confuse him with Indian comedian Russell Peters.)  Find his website at: ParkernotPeters.com or bookofrussell.com

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Photos from The Skanner Foundation's 37th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast.