Guest host Claire Carlson interviews Bruce Poinsette, an Oregon based writer, organizer, and educator whose work focuses on the Black experience in Oregon and the historic and current racial tensions that shape this experience. Most recently, Bruce was the Community Storytelling Fellow for Oregon Humanities, an organization that facilitates conversations and publishers writing from the perspectives of Oregonians who have been ignored or marginalized. I first came across Bruce’s writing in an Oregon Humanities article where he wrote about traveling to Eastern Oregon for his podcast, The Blacktastic Adventure, to tell some of the stories of the Black Oregonians who live in this very rural, very white part of the state.
Claire and Bruce discuss what it’s like to report on the people who have built rural America but have been excluded from its historical record, disrupt some of the misconceptions about living in both rural and urban Oregon, and talk about how to build more inclusive communities wherever you are.
Bruce Poinsette is a writer whose work is primarily based in the Portland Metro Area. A former reporter for the Skanner News Group, his writing has also appeared in the Oregonian, Street Roots, Oregon Humanities, and Eater PDX, as well as projects such as the Mercatus Collective and the Urban League of Portland’s State of Black Oregon 2015. He hosts the YouTube series “The Blacktastic Adventure: A Virtual Exploration of Oregon’s Black Diaspora” and “The Bruce Poinsette Show” on 96.7 The Numberz FM, Portland’s Black radio station. Poinsette also works with Respond to Racism LO, a grassroots anti-racism organization in his hometown of Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Welcome to Everywhere Radio, where we spotlight the good, scrappy and joyful ways rural people and our allies are building a more inclusive nation. I’m Claire Carlson sitting in for Whitney Kimball Coe. And today’s guest is Bruce Poinsette, an Oregon based writer, organizer, and educator whose work focuses on the Black experience in Oregon and the historic and current racial tensions that shape this experience. Most recently, Bruce was the Community Storytelling Fellow for Oregon Humanities, an organization that facilitates conversations and publishers writing from the perspectives of Oregonians who have been ignored or marginalized. I first came across Bruce’s writing in an Oregon Humanities article where he wrote about traveling to Eastern Oregon for his podcast, The Blacktastic Adventure, to tell some of the stories of the Black Oregonians who live in this very rural, very white part of the state.
Today we’ll talk about what it’s like to report on the people who have built rural America but have been excluded from its historical record, disrupt some of the misconceptions about living in both rural and urban Oregon, and talk about how to build more inclusive communities wherever you are.
So Bruce, thank you so much for being here. Please fill in any of the gaps I may have left in that intro and just maybe tell us a bit more about who you are and the work you’re doing in both the Portland Metro area and beyond.
Yeah, first off, good afternoon, Claire. Thank you for having me on today. So for people who don’t know, I’m from a town called Lake Oswego, Oregon, which has a pretty infamous nickname, Lake No Negro Oregon. It’s a more upper end, again, very white suburb. But I think one of the things that drew me to doing some of these stories, especially in rural Oregon, is just I had the opportunity to be a part of a project for the Urban League of Portland, “State of Black Oregon” back in 2015.
And for that, myself and photographer, Intisar Abioto, did a lot of case studies traveling around the state and going to places such Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon, going up to Astoria on the coast, again throughout the state. And I just noticed so many similarities between, even though again, I grew up in, it was upper class white suburb, as far as the black experience and specifically the isolation, the lack of black stories coming from these smaller places, just getting out there, I saw that.
I saw, I think, an interview with a student actually, a story really stuck out with me because they’re just talking about how they found just being isolated, not really feeling safe or comfortable to go out and just hang out in their community and finding a lot of their identity reading books, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and some of the same books I was reading and doing a lot of the same things I was doing to find myself at that age.
So when I got the opportunity for future projects, fast-forward to The Blacktastic Adventure podcast and project and Oregon Humanities Storytelling fellowship, I saw an opportunity to tell more of these stories and share not just … I think a lot of people get caught up in, there’s a lot of trauma and there’s a lot of pain and it’s very real and needs to be talked about.
But I feel like a lot of times when we do these stories, it stops there. And I really wanted to just talk about the people who’ve built community, who’ve built just these great foundations in terms of not just business, not just maintaining and celebrating history, not just community building, but just building Black space in these places where you don’t think Black space is being built, where you’re not hearing about Black space being built.
That’s really helpful to hear from you some of the work you’ve been doing because over the past week, it’s funny, I’ve been watching a lot of your videos so it’s weird being able to actually talk to you. I’ve seen your face on the screen so often, but I haven’t been able to talk to you. So it’s cool to actually have that engagement.
And I actually have the magazine right here where I first read some of your work and you talked about how … so you visited Eastern Oregon and interviewed some folks who are there who are kind of carving out their own space, recording some of the history of rural Black Oregonians. And I’m wondering if you can talk about that, especially as it relates to The Blacktastic Adventure. You touched on this a bit, but what first sort of inspired you to start talking to rural Black Oregonians? And tell us a bit about who you’ve been talking to and the stories that you’ve heard.
Just to give a background for those watching who may not have read the story, Gwen Trice is a founder of the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, which documents the history of the Eastern Oregon logging community kind of in general, but then specifically just the diverse community that was especially black Eastern Oregon loggers, which is actually also very important as far as when we talk about migration stories. And that was one of the first, I believe, big black migrations to Eastern Oregon to work in logging, in timber. So again, it’s a story a lot of people don’t know about, but very important as far as understanding the economics, understanding the history and that.
Anyways, she’s turned again, a space where you don’t think of, a lot of people in Oregon don’t think of black people in eastern Oregon, but she’s made a whole award-winning tourist destination talking about this history, maintaining and engaging people with this history and in the process being able to talk with Gwen and just there’s the work she’s doing, but then her own story is just so, it is hard to put into words how powerful it is growing up in eastern Oregon, having seen, experienced some really horrific things.
And we talked about a little bit in the article where she left for a time because of that and just to find another career. But coming back and in part building Maxwell Heritage Center, but then just going into her father’s history, who she didn’t know was a logger until he died, even though that was a huge part of his legacy as well, and just how that process was so healing for her.
With Oregon and its legacy, you mentioned sort of the dark history. So just to give people brief background on that, Oregon’s the only state in the union to pass black exclusion laws in its constitution. It actually passed three of them, the first one in 1844, and then subsequent ones in 1849 and 1857. If you want to understand lack of black people in Oregon, you want to understand the legacies of systemic racism and all the layers to them and just ideas of exclusion, these ideas of erasure that we knowingly and oftentimes more often than not unknowingly participate in, you have to go back to those laws.
So when it comes to spaces, again, we talk about what Gwen’s doing, it’s fighting basically the urge and the sort of defacto reaction we have to just thinking black people haven’t done anything in these spaces or just erasing each other. And you also asked me a more general question of why I think it’s important to cover these stories. And again, I kind of come back to my own upbringing, when people don’t think you exist in these places, it’s a lot easier for you to be mistreated in these places. It’s a lot easier for people to say, “Well, you chose to live there so you get what you get.”
And I found that when you start telling these stories, you start putting your face out there, I don’t say that to say it’s easy or that it’s a given, but when you start really putting faces out there, when you start showing people who’s out there, it gets a little harder to do horrible things to people in silence, I guess is the easy way to describe it.
Another story I did in southern Oregon, the recent renaming of Ben Johnson Mountain, which used to be up until I believe, a couple years ago, was Negro Ben Johnson, or no, it was Negro Ben Mountain, which was an update from N-Word Ben Mountain. And these are just very real for anyone who’s listening. Like, you’re kidding, right? No I’m not.
But after Oregon Black Pioneers spearheaded the effort to get the mountain’s name re-changed, they had an event whereas had people coming and hiking the mountain and learning more about Ben Johnson’s story.
It was just, again, it’s sort of a mix of getting black history, but also the same things that people come to Oregon for, like exploring the nature, seeing just … I’ve grown up here so I take for granted how just lush and green it is, but enjoying that, all these things can come together and they’re opportunities for that and people doing that. So it’s kind of this effort of connecting the dots and at least … trying to telling these stories, getting them published in these statewide regional publications where people outside of my immediate circle are going to see it is hopefully me trying to make some contribution to connecting those dots.
I feel like that also really shows why it is so important to actually document these efforts toward carving communities in carving black communities in spaces that might be unexpected. And it sounds like the folks, at least that you have been recording on are doing just that. And to take language that you use of doing that necessary work in helping black Oregonians see themselves wherever they choose. That to me at least, really helps articulate why telling the stories of rural black Oregonians is really important because it can show that there are spaces for you anywhere.
But I’m wondering if you have thoughts on how you can help build these spaces where people can see themselves in that aren’t always going to be cities or maybe they are cities, but what have you seen that works in building spaces that actually can welcome people, or at least a bit more inclusive than they are now?
I mean, I was having this conversation with a friend the other day how sometimes it feels like community building as a practice is you almost have to trick people into it. We know it’s important, but it’s not … People have jobs, people have families, life is busy and we’re all looking for less stuff to put on our plate. So when it comes to community building, which doesn’t have always have tangible deliverables and whatnot, it can be hard.
But with that, I looked to some of the examples I had mentioned before with the Food Truck Friday event or hiking Ben Johnson Mountain. Sometimes it’s kind of putting on events as you would in any other place where it’s sort of a mix of having entertainment, having food, and tying it to these opportunities to actually educate yourself about the space, about the community, about different individuals.
A lot of the stuff, it takes resources, it costs money. And I would hope for organizations who, certainly white-led organizations with money who are looking at this and saying, “Well, this sounds nice, but where do I fit in?” The resources. I’ll just say it doesn’t have to be with, not to trail off into a whole nonprofit rant here, but sometimes it really is as simple as you can sponsor these things.
You can put money towards these things without having to ask for something that kind of serves you, the white sponsor, especially in a way that just recreates these problematic power dynamics. You can just support something without having to have this fundraiser or people have to put on a show for you to get the money.
And we all have a role to play. I think more importantly, it’s not just a chore. I feel like we’re all better for it. We’re a healthier society for it, we’re better connected for it, at the very least, hopefully we’re also a little more educated than we left or we went in. All these things also have very tangible societal benefits.
Well, and I think that … really a lot of organizing efforts like that, I feel like at least what the general public will hear about is organizing that’s taking place in more urban spaces. But what I think is cool about Oregon is that there are a lot of really tangible examples of organizing happening in more rural places that aren’t white led. And I think that right there is just another reason why actually reporting on those stories is so important because it shows that it’s actually, it’s possible and it’s happening and it’s worth supporting.
What do you feel like is important for people to know about the work that you’re doing and how you actually maybe support rural black Americans or rural people of color? What have you seen that is helpful perhaps?
Let me put it like this, so an organization I work with, Imagine Black, they operate with what’s called a black queer feminist lens, which to simplify it basically is just like if you prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable in the community with your policies, your advocacy, then everyone benefits.
So the way I compare that or square that up with these stories, especially with black rural Oregon, is again, if you look at the work being done by communities who are the most marginalized in a space that is already marginalized, you’re going to get these solutions, these policies that end up one, making those people safer and supported but then also end up benefiting everyone.
And I think it just feels like with a lot of framing of rural stories is often comes out in a lot of code word media discourse where we say rural and you say white. And it’s a way for people to be like, well this is how we can prioritize white people without saying we’re prioritizing white people and we can use rural white people as the face of these policies often that actually don’t support rural white people either.
Forget the statistic off the top of my head. But there’s this perception of extremist who is this extremist conservative voter base or who are the majority of Trump voters? And you get the picture, if you see the framing on the news, it’s rural white people. The numbers say it’s white people with money, it’s white people likely similar from white people I remember growing up with, white people I know in Lake Oswego, that’s where a lot of this support, a lot of that is coming from. But it’s not the perception.
And they’re using, again, using rural white people as a whole, which spans so many very different political approaches, perspectives. But using that as a blanket face for this and misusing that as a blanket face for some of these overtly white supremacist policies, actions. To bring it back to when you lift up the work that these groups are doing, organizing in these various different ways.
And again, it’s across the board, we just talked about it today. Whether it’s renaming a mountain, a public mountain that people come to hike on, whether it’s having food truck events, whether it’s putting on all kinds of educational events, doing city advocacy work, that again, just by nature of lifting up people who are the most vulnerable in the community ends up serving everyone.
So I think again, when we talk about the importance of this and what’s to be taken away is that I think it just, I want to help contribute and spur on more reporting, more coverage with the depth it deserves of these types of stories for the benefit of people in general. Because it does, when we know these stories, when we’re connected to these stories, we’re better informed. We have more blueprints for things that are working.
I have two last questions for you. My first is, what are you working on right now? And my second is, what are you reading, listening to, watching, engaging with that has either challenged you or made you laugh or just brought joy?
So first one was, what am I working on right now? So I’ve got a profile coming out for the Buckman Journal on a artist originally from Atlanta, Madame Golong, real name Crystall Martin, her shows are a whole experience. But it’s talking about her, one, her experience as finding community specifically in the music scene in Portland. But just in general, that importance of finding community as a transplant, building in her case, why she chose Portland of all places to build out her solo brand as an artist.
That profile’s coming out, I believe in June for the Buckman Journal. So I’m excited about that. I’m getting ready to launch season two of the Bruce Poinsette show on The Numberz FM, which is Portland’s black radio station. And the show is a mix of interviews and some social commentary, some news both around the Portland area as well as just some commentary on stuff and the national zeitgeist, but bring people to The Numberz FM studio, which is in the Portland Art Museum.
So also, not to plug too hard, but also provide an opportunity to support my independent work on patreon.com/brucepoinsette. And recently started a new series, we’re four episodes in, it’s called the Working Artist Working Title Project, where I talk with other working artists of color, not just about their journey and what they’re doing in Oregon, but also we really dig into the economics that affect decisions.
So I’ve talked with a couple people in the theater community about what does it actually take to get original plays off the ground? What does the process look like? What are the impediments, what are the obstacles, what is different about maybe doing this work in Oregon versus other states if you’ve worked in other states? So that’s one of the things.
Just to get to the second question…I guess let’s go most recent thing, because I recently was catching up on the Wutang Clan series on Hulu and to this idea of building a brand from scratch and being able to … I think what’s amazing about that show is that it’s very much a blatant commercial for all Wutang products, but there’s a way to weave story in there and actually make it a compelling thing from that, that they do that a lot of people who are making shows to sell their stuff don’t do.
And it’s hard to explain, but I just think it’s really well done. There’s a show, the Toys that Made Us, that talks about how watching Transformers and wrestling and all these things were basically all these programs were designed to sell toys, sell merch, and they just did it so well that we’re just so enmeshed in these stories and I very much think when I look at this Wutang series, it’s very much like that. I feel like it deserves its own episode of that show.
Also, but on a more local level, [inaudible 00:54:11] earlier, and I want to just shout her out again because she’s doing this, well, she’s doing these works around lifting up the legacy of Beatrice Morrow Cannady in particular, black woman who among other things hosted … she’d have people like W.E.B Du Bois and other people when they come to visit Portland. She’d host these salons where people just get together, black people sharing ideas and building and again, to that community building work.
So she’s been doing a lot of work around, again, lifting her up, Beatrice Morrow Cannady up in particular, but then also kind of promoting, again, sort of this idea of salons and black salons and that particular form of community building. Again, I think it’s really important work. I’m really excited to see where it goes.
Thank you so much, Bruce. This was really fun to be able to talk with you today. I am really just looking forward to continuing to follow your work and I appreciate the time you just gave us today. This is really great.
Yeah, thank you. Thank you again for having me and I appreciate that you’ve been reading, watching and enjoying the work. It’s what you hope for. Sometimes it feels like you’re just screaming in the middle of a forest sometimes.
Screaming into the void.
Yeah. So I really appreciate that.