Coming from Memphis, Intisar Abioto had no idea there was a Black community in Portland. As a photographer, she has spent years documenting the evolution of the Black experience and she wants to make sure Portland isn't left out of that story.
"I don't care what these other people are doing, or if they love you or want your businesses here," she says. "Y'all need to know that y'all got it and that y'all are fly, fresh and amazing. That's the creative force that changes things."
Abioto has started a photo essay project called "The Black Portlanders." Currently in Tumblr form, the project seeks to build community and capture the stories of Portland's Black community through photos and conversations Abioto has with people she meets in her everyday travels. She is also working on a calendar feature called "The Black List," to provide a guide to Black events.
Abioto says she was always aware of Black history and culture when she was growing up. Her father is a drummer, as well as an arts educator in African music, history and culture. Her mother is a writer and worked as a civil rights attorney. In addition, Abioto's aunts and uncles participated in sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.
Photo courtesy of Intisar Abioto
When she compares Black culture in Memphis to Portland, she says the biggest difference is that it's much more accessible where she's from.
"There, you can access it in the streets, the businesses, the music," says Abioto. "There, when you're walking down the street, it's inside of the air. Just the history. The bad history and the good history.
"Here, I'm looking for the Black culture. I'm looking for the Black presence. I'm looking for our life."
This search is one of the reasons why she started her project. Not having a sense of easily accessible Black culture is disconcerting and hurtful, she says.
Almost everyone she meets wants to talk about gentrification. This includes non-Black people as well. From her discussions, it has become the main story of Black life in Portland. She sees a pervasive trauma in people's stories of displacement.
Although Abioto has familiarized herself with some of the Black history of Oregon and the history of the Black community in Portland, she was particularly affected after reading "Portland Gentrification: The North Williams Avenue That Was – 1956," which was written by the Skanner News' Lisa Loving.
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"Gentrification is not the right word to use here. For this population to be so small, five percent, and you're just going to thump these people to the edge of the city, that's vicious."
While the trauma is real and the story is sad, she wants to show that Portland's Black community is much more than that.
"It's not who we are," she says. "It's not who Black people are. We are more than this story. We are more than that history. We are more than this present even.
"To me, doing this project is about showing us to ourselves. I just want to tell stories about the truth about who we are in this place to the Black people that are here. We are diverse within ourselves, not just in the spectrum of other races.
"Beyond this sadness, I want to tell stories about who Black Portlanders were; who they are now. In the 50s, it was Jazz on Williams Ave. In Memphis it was Blues. They know about WC Handy and BB King. Every city has its thing. What's the thing here for Black people?"
When Abioto goes to arts events about Black culture or African history and culture, she finds that she's usually the only Black person in attendance. As someone who considers herself an adventurer, she says getting out and seeing people can lift her spirits when she's having a down day. Seeing Black people in particular, especially in Portland, is good for the soul, she says.
According to her, the response to the project has been all positive so far. People want to see each other, she says. She rarely comes across people that don't want to talk and have their picture taken. The rejuvenation Abioto gets from these encounters and her love of photography are what guide the project.
"You can find a way that connects to who you are to involve yourself," she says. "There are ways that I'm not able to involve myself because it's not what I do, it's not my passion, but this feels right."
The day after she read the story of Williams Ave., Abioto says that she was looking for a notary with her mother and happened upon Rose City Cab. They found out that the owner, Mr. Arthur Palmer, had recently passed.
She attended his funeral and she spent the time listening to stories about his contributions to the community. The experience was inspiring to her.
"After hearing that story about Williams, the details of the Portland Development Commission and all these things, I needed to hear those stories because I was hurting from the previous day," says Abioto. "You need stories. Beyond just that story, there are other important stories that can be told that can help people in their day to day lives."
At the end of the day, she doesn't think that the people and businesses that have profited from gentrification are bad. In fact, she wonders if many even know the history of the area. Either way, Abioto doesn't think that the businesses are going to pack up anytime soon. She believes we, as Black people need to be responsible for creating our own change and that's the purpose of The Black Portlanders.
"If we aren't in an area, we can be at this domain," she says. "We can be seeing each other. We can be finding out who we are so we're not dispersed.
"I love showing the beauty that's in people. That's one way I can share this community. That's one way I can alter the terrain here."
For more information, go to http://theblackportlanders.com/ or email Abioto at [email protected].