I asked my students from our Truth & Dare workshop to capture a bird. Not literally, with a net in the yard, but to render one artistically somehow: on the page with paint or colored pencils, with a sound recording or in a poem. The following class, they presented their “captures” on screen via Zoom, sharing things like a grainy picture of a crow on a rooftop and an audio clip of a bird chirping, wind blowing the branches of trees in the background. Each struck me as particularly beautiful and affecting, perhaps due to the pandemic and the confinement we’ve all felt.
“I didn’t capture a bird,” B said. But I wanted to show you all this.” She cupped her hands at her mouth and made a hollow, beautiful whistle. This, she told us, was the bird call her father taught her, the one used in Rwanda to summon a bird that will hopefully turn into dinner. Across the zoom squares, the students’ hands came together in silent applause.
The students are composed of “recently graduated seniors” and “incoming juniors,” phrases that used to mean more before the pandemic. We have met twice a week for this workshop and already they feel comfortable sharing inner parts of themselves. S says that in today’s America, she fears she could be killed for the color of her skin. F shows a painting in progress for his mother, a sketch of a woman, with text that says, “Black is Beautiful.” T says she struggled with profound anxiety in 2014 but after she had a play produced, she began to gain confidence. Each week I offer students creative challenges in the form of one truth, one dare. The truth is a writing prompt and the dare is an action out in the world, an artistic gesture.
It is art that I turn to when I want to understand something outside my own experience, and the city of Portland has always offered rich sources. Mitchell Jackson showed us what it was to be a young Black man growing up in northeast Portland, with his book The Residue Years (and now the more recent Survival Math). For years, Walidah Imarisha, the scholar, historian, professor and writer has been creating new worlds of possibility in her spoken word poetry, her lectures for Oregon Humanities on prisons and the history of white supremacy in our state, and her science fiction anthology called Octavia’s Brood. Damaris Webb directed Pipeline, (at Portland Playhouse) the play by Dominique Morriseau that combines Gwendolyn Brooks poetry with the story of a Black mother’s fear for her son, in order to explore the school-to-prison pipeline. In his film, “Alien Boy,” Brian Lindstrom documented the life of James Chasse, the Portland artist who struggled with schizophrenia and died in the back of a patrol car after being tackled and crushed by a Portland police officer. The actor/director Kevin Jones directed monologues from seven Black playwrights for a performance called “Hands Up,” which explored the experiences of people of color living in a culture of institutional profiling. His own first encounter with police happened when he was 14 years old, walking home from a classical guitar concert at Carnegie Hall, dreaming of how someday he too would play the guitar like Andres Segovia. The police who threw him against the hood of the patrol car and held him at gunpoint did not share this vision he had for himself. They saw only a criminal element walking in a city. When he began acting, Jones realized he could exist freely inside of any world he wanted to invent, that humans had the capacity to reach across to one another if only we build a world for that to happen. Jones’ Red Door Project went on to create Cop Out, a series of monologues based on interviews with law enforcement officers and telling the story of cops and the communities with whom they interact.
Portland is in the national headlines right now. Downtown in our own city, thousands of people are gathering nightly to protest for Black Lives Matter, joining a chorus of Black voices that have been calling for justice since the beginning. Each evening, the streets fill with the Wall of Moms, dads with leaf blowers, veterans, union members, teachers and young people of all races. As the clock ticks toward midnight, federal agents burst forth from the building spewing tear gas and pepper spray, like a noxious cuckoo clock. I have been riding my bike downtown to join the demonstration and then riding home in the dark, still reeling from the concussive flashbang grenades deployed by the agents, my brain firing with more questions than answers. But there is one thing I know for sure: Beyond the unity demonstrated by thousands gathered within the 2-block radius of the federal building downtown, there remain deep racial and economic disparities in our city’s schools, our access to healthcare and employment. In the rush to put our white bodies downtown to show our support, we must remember that this struggle has gone on forever for communities of color, and that Portland Public Schools has historically offered more discipline than education and enrichment for young kids of color.
Mitchell Jackson’s alma mater, Jefferson high school, where a small crowd of people recently toppled the statue of Thomas Jefferson, hasn’t had a marching band in more than 20 years and valiant efforts to re-start a band program two years ago raised $395 in a Go-Fund-Me campaign. In a handful of days, as the Wall of Moms shared and re-shared a link to Riot Ribs, the volunteer-run grill that has been feeding protesters and houseless people next to the federal building since July 4th, more than $300,000 was raised. The folks at Riot Ribs actually posted a plea for people to stop donating money because it was way beyond what they could spend. [Note: they have handed some of that funding and the oversight of it to Don’t Shoot Pdx].
The Wall of Moms is powerful. They have influence and significant resources at the ready and I’m hopeful that this is the beginning of leveraging this power to help dismantle our racist system in Oregon. Recently the white co-founders of the Wall of Moms have yielded those leadership positions to women of color and right now there are endless conversations online strategizing about how to avoid making this story about white mothers. But nothing will change if white people don’t take this opportunity to look deeply inward as well. Where do our kids go to school in this city? How many of us never visited our neighborhood schools for a tour because of what we’d heard about or read about online, opting instead to drive our kids across town to a school that was a “better fit” for our children? What would it look like for the Wall of Moms to show up with interlocked arms and demand the same educational and enrichment opportunities for every kid in the state of Oregon, no matter their zip code or the color of their skin?
Meanwhile, my students in the Truth & Dare workshop make art. They write and paint and create the world they want to inhabit. Everything depends on their capacity to see themselves in that world, to live in the space they need to breathe and grow. But it also depends on the rest of us doing our part to build this world, to look carefully at the ways we’ve benefitted from the system as it is and to help dismantle the institutions that serve some of us well and oppress and damage the rest. Art can yield answers and help us understand one another, but it has to be something to which everyone has access. This time of uprising offers us the chance to look hard at this truth together and it dares us to fight for justice.
- Watch a conversation called on Safety, Justice & Policing with Nkenge Harmon Johnson and Samuel Sinyangwe, moderated by the writer Omar El Akkad. This is hosted by Oregon Humanities, an organization who mission “connects Oregonians to ideas that change lives and transform communities.”
- Sign up to view the next talk on the role of schools and take part in a conversation.
- That conversation will be moderated by Paul Susi, a local actor/writer/director who wrote an article called “Notes on Surviving in Portland,” about his life and work as a Portland native, son of immigrants and an artist of color in this city. :
- Follow Walidah Imarisha’s work and buy her books.
- Support Vanport Mosaic and Damaris Webb
- Read Mitchell Jackson’s NY Times piece on who gets to be weird in Portland. Buy his books.
- Follow and support Donovan M. Smith’s work, who made the original Gentrification is Weird t-shirt:
- Support Kevin Jones and The Red Door Project:
- If your circumstance and health allows, attend a demonstration downtown at the federal building and witness the protests in action. Find local ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement, like PAALF (Portland African American Leadership Forum), Don’t Shoot PDX.
(thanks to David, Diana and Ben for feedback on this piece)