Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dad: Not a Book Post

I keep thinking about my dad.

He would be 85 now, and he would be pissed, but not surprised.  (He would also not like me using the word "pissed," but that's a story for another day.)

Sure, there may have been some naivete in his younger days.  When he thought that the reason the black kids entered and left his high school through the back door was because it was closer to their homes.  When he thought that hiring a black woman to help out with infant me when my mom had a heart attack would teach my sisters and I to not be prejudiced.

(News flash: the black kids were expected to use the back door, even if there was no actual rule.  Hiring a black home nurse is a great way to teach kids that black people are there to serve you.  He worked out both of those things after the fact, and was open about how clueless he'd been.)

He was a news photographer, so he saw more of Portland than the lily-white neighborhood I grew up in.  He knew the stories behind the stories, what was reported and what was accepted.

He's the one who told me about the incarceration of the Japanese Americans during WWII.  He also told me that when the residents of Hood River realized that one of the names on their monument to fallen soldiers was Japanese, not Finnish (all those vowels), they chiseled it back off.

He's the one who told us about the Vanport Flood, which was a Katrina-level fuck-up and abandonment of Portland's African American neighborhoods, not an unfortunate act of God.

He's the one who told me about Oregon's shameful sunset laws, ban on black settlers, and  ongoing KKK presence.  He told me about how the local Native tribes were wiped out with smallpox blankets.  He loved this state and instilled a deep sense of place in all of us, but he didn't whitewash our history.  Nor did he deny the racism that still infects us.

I don't know if he knew the phrase "driving while black" or would have immediately known what black people mean by "the talk" they give their children.  But I do know how pissed off he was when his friend Nic was pulled over on our street when coming over for dinner. We'd lived on that street a good 25 years by then, and none of us had ever been pulled over.  None of the neighbors, none of the other guests and visitors.  But Nic, a news photographer just like my dad, driving a family car just like my dad, was pulled over, because he was a black man driving down a residential street in SW Portland.  My dad didn't question for an instant that this was racism, pure and simple.  And he made sure his family knew that this went on all the time, all over town.  He was completely unsurprised when I moved to Canby and pointed out how many of the traffic stops reported in the local daily were for Latinos, and for stupid things like a missing tail light or expired tags--again, things I have yet to be pulled over for.  "That's how they do it," he grumbled.  "Just look for any reason to hassle brown people."

I should note here that both his best friend and his brother-in-law were cops.

Another good friend, Max, is Hispanic.  His last name is Gutierrez, his ancestors immigrated from Spain to the US, and he doesn't speak a lick of Spanish.  They were covering a mine disaster in Idaho in the 1960s when the locals called Max a "Jap" and told him to be out of town by sundown or be found face-down in the river. The National Guard suggested he follow their advice.  My dad the photographer wrote an article exposing the incident and got his editor to publish it.  This is what's known as "calling other white people out" and he was not afraid to do it.

By the time Obama was elected president, my dad was wheelchair bound and foggy most of the time.  He took pictures of the televised inauguration, the closest he could come to covering this story.  "You know, Daddy," I told him, "There are people who say this means racism is over."

He stared at me in disbelief, then sputtered, "They think just because it's not a problem for THEM, it's not a problem!"

Nobody needed to tell my dad about white privilege. He worked that out a long time ago.

So I think of him a lot these days.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Side of Home: Gentrification, Wokeness, and Hometown Literature


Reading a book set in your hometown is probably not that unusual if you live in New York, London, or even LA.  But fewer books are set in Portland, so I was excited to pick up This Side of Home, by   Watson.  Even more enticing, Watson is a person of color, and her book addresses issues around gentrification in NE Portland.

My dad grew up in that neighborhood after WWII, when it was mostly working class white, although his high school was the most racially diverse in town at that time.  White flight started in the sixties and by the time I was visiting my grandparents in the seventies, they were one of the only white families left on the block.  Bars went up over windows and doors, although, my mom grumbled, that probably said more about the prejudices of the neighborhood's original homeowners than the habits of the newcomers.  When we sold my grandparents' house after they died, we were horrified by the clause on the original deed that stated it could not be sold to "Negros or Jews," glad that the law now invalidated it.  Besides the moral implications, it would have been hard to find a white buyer in 1980.

My dad's old high school became a magnet school for dance, a program that was hugely successful in the eighties, when I was in high school, although the "regular" part of the high school, for the neighborhood kids, started to struggle.

The nineties brought gangs to Portland in full force.  Jefferson High lost funding for their dance program, and quickly gained a reputation as the lowest scoring school in town.  The school was reconstituted (every single staff member fired, then a new staff hired) at least once.  Leaders with great visions for reform were hired, only to leave again a year or two later.

In this century, gentrification has spread across the east side.  The last time I visited the house my dad grew up in, on my way to a pre-wedding yoga class in the bride's friend's yard, every single house on the block had gardens in bloom and quaintly painted porches.  Portland's hipster reputation stems from these neighborhoods, with their street fairs, green fennel and maple ice cream, and kilt-wearing, bagpipe playing unicyclists in Darth Vader masks. (Not even kidding--google it.)  Whatever the opposite of white flight is, that's what's going on.  "I love this part of town because it's so diverse!" we exclaim, as if we don't notice that our black neighbors have been relocated by rising housing costs.

This is the neighborhood Nikki and Maya live in.  Richmond High is Jefferson High.  Jackson Avenue is Mississippi Avenue.  The chi-chi ice cream place with lines around the block is Salt & Straw.  And if it's a bit jarring to hear the girls refer to "Oregon Museum of Science and Industry" instead of OMSI or "Portland Community College" instead of PCC, well, that's the price you pay for living in a town that is off-the-beaten-path enough that we can't assume others know our acronyms.

Reading this book is getting me to think hard about the We Need Diverse Books movement, and my own commitment to reading more widely.  I can read about prejudice in other times and be outraged.  I can read about injustice in other parts of the world and be heart-broken and indignant.  I roll my eyes at white fragility and explain earnestly that racism = prejudice plus power, so reverse racism is a nonsensical concept.

But when I read about a complex, racially charged issue in a place I have strong connections too, all of a sudden I'm conflicted.  I'm all "Yes, but..." and "On the other hand..."

THIS.  This is we we NEED diverse books.  It's easy to be anti-racist and pro social justice when the issues don't affect you directly.  No DAPL!  Black Lives Matter!  Those are easy.  There is no benefit to me, nor am I personally implicated in putting in a pipeline or murdering children of color, so it's simple for me to pick the right side in those arguments.  But pointing out the downside of gentrification of the part of town with all the cool old houses?  That's stepping on my toes.

Which is waking me up.  "Woke" is a word that's been tossed around a lot lately, but I didn't fully realize how appropriate it is until I felt myself coming awake to an issue right here in my world.

Change is inevitable and not inherently evil. The neighborhood whose passing Maya mourns replaced the one my dad grew up in, which replaced another era's culture as well.  But who benefits, and who loses?  In every iteration, it seems that the white Portlanders benefit while the black Portlanders get screwed.  In the same way we kept pushing the native Americans onto crappier and crappier pieces of land, reneging on promises and treaties to satisfy our own lust for property, we do the same in the neighborhoods of our cities.  Sure, in our more "enlightened" era, black folks who make good money and assimilate into white culture are welcome to stick around the gentrified neighborhood--but why are poor whites more welcome than poor blacks?  Why are they expected to act like us but never the other way around?

Watson brings up all of this and more in just the first 1/3 of the book, all I've read so far.  By positioning twins Nikki and Maya on opposing sides of the debate, she keeps the issues complex and--sorry but it has to be said--less black and white, more shades of grey.  The more proudly African American Maya seems to be falling for the nice white boy whose family moves into the house that was gentrified out from under her best friend.  I wonder if Nikki, with her straight hair and fondness for fro-yo, is going to renege on their lifelong plan of attending a historically black college.

It's challenging and rewarding to read a book in which the setting is so familiar, but the point of view is so different.  I hope Watson continues to write and write and write about our city, which has always been home to a wider range of people than Henry, Ramona, and Beezus.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Movie Quiz

My favorite daughter* learned how to make a Google Form tonight and is hoping we can find people who are willing to take her survey.  It would mean a lot to her to get some actual answers to analyze, and we will certainly share the results with you!

What are your favorite movies? (And can you possibly figure out what HER favorite movie is?)

*aka my only daughter, but that's okay