On Jan. 18, 2019, I was invited to share a story for The Blackonteurs, an all-Black storytelling showcase hosted by Minority Retort. For my performance, I shared how my first viral column as a professional journalist put me on the path to the work I'm doing today with Respond to Racism. Without spoiling anything, let's just say it was anything but a linear path. You can read the full remarks below (Disclaimer: contains some adult language) and for more, check out the related links at the bottom:
Any journalists in here tonight? When I was in school, they told me whoever controls the media, controls the narrative. You heard that before?
I’m a narcissist so that was right up my alley. Through one form or another, I’ve long had the goal of writing something bigger than myself. I wanna do good in the world in the process, but I’m not gonna lie, I wanna make a contribution that people talk about long after I’m gone. [Audio starts] You’re not supposed to say that but I have this optimistic belief that, if I’m honest about my narcissism, I can at least use it to actually do the right thing and check myself where needed.
With that said, when I got a job coming out of college at the Skanner, a historically Black newspaper in Portland, I thought I was well on my way. I got to meet countless Black business owners, artists, politicians, educators, activists, etc. doing all these great things in the community. I also got to use the platform to raise awareness on things like education policy and the disproportionate effect of homelessness on Black Oregonians.
Still, for all that was new and great about my first splash into journalism, what kept bringing me back to reality was the stat counter. On one hand, you think you’re doing all this important work, highlighting important people, businesses, and issues, but then you look at your views count and all of 8 people read your story. Do that over and over again and it gets a bit demoralizing.
Perhaps that’s why the one story I wrote that did go viral still sticks with me so much. Like anyone in the midst of their one hit wonder, I didn’t recognize the moment when I was in it.
You see, what happened was a story was spreading through local news about a Black Lake Oswego football player who had got called a nigger by his teammates. As someone who grew up in LO, which has the nickname Lake No Negro, you could imagine I wasn’t particularly shocked. Thus, when the principal at the time made a statement saying it was an isolated incident, I asked my editor if I could write a column calling bullshit. She gave me the go ahead, and to be honest, I thought little of it. I shared some stories, like all the racist things kids said to me on a daily basis, or the time LO students chanted “you can’t read” and “hooked on phonics” at a Black Lincoln basketball player, or when my teacher would separate the Brown kids away from the white kids in kindergarten when it was time to do reading lessons and have us play with blocks.
It’s funny. I share these stories some places, white spaces, and get the “Ooos,” “aaahs,” and “Oh my gods,” but I really don’t think much of it. I’ve seen it so much and heard so many similar stories from older and younger generations alike that it seems obvious. Thus, I figured the column would go the same way.
Yet maybe an hour or two after it got published, my editor hits me up saying the Oregonian wants to pick up the story. Next thing I know, it’s racking up tens of thousands of hits. Suddenly I’m getting interview requests, invites to speaking engagements, and a boatload of emails and DMs from, admittedly mostly white women, asking what can they do to fight racism. Side note: In a roundabout way, the article also led me to meeting my now wife, but that’s a story for another time.
Anyways, as someone who has lived here pretty much all of my life, I was keenly aware of this dynamic in Portland where it feels like everyone elevates a select few Black voices every now and then, whether accurately or not, as perceived leaders. I assume this is to make it easy for rich white people to identify who to give money to. Cool. It is what it is, I guess.
As such though, I thought this LO article was my moment. I didn’t have an organization, but this felt like the perfect opportunity to connect all these cool people I’d been meeting who were doing important work in the community with all these white people in the suburbs who were so excited about doing something to fight racism. Where better to start than sharing resources that LO people openly brag about having an abundance of, right?
So when I would get into these meetings, do these interviews, or give these speeches, I would inject that into the messaging. And that’s where things started falling off the rails.
It felt like everyone was fixating on my shitty stories but by the time we could get to talking prescriptions, there was nothing. It just wasn’t connecting.
I figured, maybe I just needed to switch my delivery up. I was trying to be laid back, conversational, but clearly that wasn’t getting people excited about this resource conversation. Clearly, I needed to be more of a showman, and luckily, I thought at the time, I had an upcoming speaking engagement at a Lake Oswego United Church of Christ.
It. Was. A. Fucking. Disaster. I tried to mix in preacherisms and get super dramatic in moments where it made no sense, and it all ended up coming off as some schizophrenic mess.
Afterwards, people gave me the typical “thank you for sharing your story” and all that, but I knew I’d blew it and being me, I let that shit out in a blog post not long after. I remember, it was called the New New Black Theater. I basically said all these people really want is a show. They just want to come to some confessional/BDSM show where they can get flogged for their white guilt in a safe environment. If that’s the name of the game now, I guess I’m out. Consider this my resignation from the Matrix.
Between that and the growing frustration from feeling like no one’s really reading my work, I quit the paper a few months later. I figured I’d made enough connections and could make better money doing other writing anyway.
To some extent, I was right. Freelancing helped me make enough money to move out of my parents’ house. While on one hand, I got to work with foundations and nonprofits that were totally in line with my priorities, I also had gigs like a business blogging job where I basically promoted plastic surgery for children… So it was a mixed bag. But I did what I needed to do.
Thankfully, as I put in more time, I was able to pick and choose my gigs a little more. While I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get to meet and interview many an inspiring person or group, there was one thing I observed that really brought me back to that spirit I had coming out of college.
Fittingly, it was through working with the equity department at my alma mater the University of Oregon. Back in 2015, a group of frustrated Black students got together, formed the Black Student Task Force, and demonstrated on campus. They even came with a list of 12 demands for the school to better serve its Black students. The demands included changing the name of a building named after a Klan leader, improving hiring and recruiting, and creating, among other things, a Black Opportunities Program, Black Cultural Center, Black Academic Residential Community, Black Studies Department, and Black Speaker Series. Usually these stories end there, but these kids then worked with administrators and kept the pressure up to the point where a few years later, 8 or 9 of those demands have been met or are well along in the process of being met.
Watching these kids taught me that maybe this bigger picture shit, building things that can last well after you’re gone, is still possible and still worth it. You can carve your own space into these seemingly impossible communities if you have a vision, a game plan, and a solid team that’s on the same page.
It’s funny how things align in your favor sometimes, because not long after, I was granted a second opportunity to truly make a mark when, of all people, my mother, Willie Poinsette, and another person named Liberty Miller founded the group Respond to Racism in the summer of 2017. I’ll be honest with you, when mom first told me, I wasn’t interested. I was good on trafficking my trauma for white people, especially for free. I’m almost ashamed to say this now, but I even skipped the first meeting.
Still, mom and Liberty brought in about 50 people and got a glowing review in the LO newspaper, so I quickly jumped on the bandwagon.
A year and a half later, I’m glad I did. This has become the art project I wanted so desperately to be part of, mainly, helping reshape a community in the image of what I and so many others hope it could be.
Respond brings in 75-100 people a month at the same LO UCC I bombed at years ago. While yes, I do spend some time dumping on people for aggressive acts of whiteness, only this time, without the expectation or burden of converting them into woke philanthropists, I also get to do what I got into this for, which is help provide support and resources to young people, organize events like candidate forums and a student panel we have upcoming on Feb. 4, and create things like our RTR storytelling project that gives direct voice to people of color especially in the community. I’ve also got to witness things I would’ve never dreamed of coming up in LO, like student walkouts and demonstrations, and the creation of student diversity councils and Black Student Unions, and even with the adults, some women who had been coming to our meetings created a Black Women of Lake Oswego and Surrounding Suburbs group.
Make no mistake, are we where we want to be, or even close? Hell no. But I’m learning to trust the process and trust people, and the more wisdom I accumulate, the more I believe we can build and push forward.
So that’s where I’m at right now. And unlike so many other points in my life, I’m good with that. Thank you.
Related links: https://www.oregonlive.com/lake-oswego/2012/03/personal_essay_lake_oswegos_wo.html http://www.brucepoinsette.com/2013/09/14/the-new-new-black-theatre/ https://www.dailyemerald.com/news/black-student-task-force-releases-list-of-demands-for-administration/article_c379f527-73b5-540e-baf3-78d16f1e90c9.html https://around.uoregon.edu/content/angela-rye-opens-years-african-american-lecture-series https://around.uoregon.edu/content/turn-shovel-new-chapter-opens-uo-history