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HomeWine‘Simply go do it’: Portraits of Black Muslim neighborhood management in Oregon

‘Simply go do it’: Portraits of Black Muslim neighborhood management in Oregon

This text, used right here with permission, was written by Bruce Poinsette for Oregon Humanities and revealed at This text comprises excerpted interviews from The Blacktastic Journey, a YouTube sequence produced by Bruce Poinsette that explores Oregon’s Black diaspora; Half 1 of this episode options conversations with Mac Smiff and Nafisa Fai, and Half 2 options Nikki Brown. Bruce Poinsette is a present Oregon Humanities Neighborhood Storytelling Fellow.

Rising up, I discovered about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar—worldwide Black Muslim icons—alone, with no due to the Oregon college system. However the place did Black Muslims function within the story of Oregon?

Just like the icons I’d discovered about earlier than, this was a query I needed to discover solutions to for myself.

In late 2020, I began a Zoom interview sequence referred to as The Blacktastic Journey to spotlight the number of tales of Black life in Oregon. For the sequence’ second season, I acquired the assist of the Oregon Humanities Neighborhood Storytelling Fellowship and partnered with photographer Intisar Abioto and videographer Ifanyi Bell, by way of Open Sign Labs, to carry the interviews to life. I needed to function Black life in particular geographic areas of the state, hash out conversations taking place inside the Black Oregon zeitgeist, and create profiles of people from particular communities inside the Black Oregon inhabitants.

As a part of this mission, I needed to discover the tales of Black Muslims in Oregon—and why these tales weren’t extra well-known.

“Most individuals don’t perceive sufficient about Islam to be extra detailed of their Islamophobia,” says journalist and activist Mac Smiff. “I’m extra clearly Black [to them].”

“Oregon is simply so intrinsically racist and xenophobic that simply being a Muslim turns into a problem for lots of people. I really feel like plenty of Muslims in Oregon make being Muslim a secondary character trait.”

These portraits are by no means meant to characterize the complete tales of those people’ communities, by no means thoughts Black Muslims within the state as a complete. Reasonably, they’re a part of a sequence of snapshots that showcase the range of tales inside the Black diaspora in Oregon.

Nikki Brown works in in a garden

“Individuals don’t perceive how essential it’s to take care of our historical past as Black Portlanders,” says Nikki Brown.Intisar Abioto | For Oregon Humanities

“I can’t unsee the landmarks that was right here”

I met Nikki Brown in 2013 whereas writing a profile of her for The Skanner. Early within the interview, I discovered that Brown was a latest Nation of Islam convert and was preventing to be acknowledged as Nicole X at her then day job. As a younger reporter, I used to be excited to assist, in a small method, by printing her title as she desired within the article.

As of late, when reporters name, she goes by Nikki Brown. Along with being acknowledged statewide as a performer, she’s a foster guardian of three, a doula, a grandparent, and serves as caretaker of the Emerson Avenue Backyard in North Portland.

“I get pissed off after I hear, ‘We don’t have this and we don’t have that,’” says Brown. “Simply go do it.”

When Brown took on the caretaker position in early 2022, she didn’t know a lot in regards to the technical elements of gardening. She simply noticed the necessity and hoped her capability to carry individuals collectively would assist transfer the mission ahead.

The primary neighborhood actions that Brown led on the backyard have been cleanups to take away needles, trash, and different gadgets. A person who had been tenting on the website even helped with cleanup efforts.

Afterward, an older Black Muslim girl volunteered to show Brown and others about gardening, and the Emerson Avenue Backyard, which now contains an environmental classroom, has been energetic ever since.

On days when Brown is struggling to seek out the motivation, she loves getting calls from Black girls who’re interested by making an attempt their hand at gardening and organizing impromptu get-togethers. She additionally loves organizing gardening actions particularly for youth.

Understanding that Portland is a hub for transplants, Brown sees particular significance in Black Portlanders main initiatives just like the Emerson Avenue Backyard. She’s spent most of her life residing in Northeast Portland, the place her household moved to from Louisiana when she was six months previous. That is her second stint residing within the Emerson Avenue neighborhood.

“Individuals don’t perceive how essential it’s to take care of our historical past as Black Portlanders,” says Brown. “I can’t unsee the landmarks that was right here.”

It shouldn’t come as a shock then that what drew Brown to the Nation of Islam again in 2012 was the group’s fame for neighborhood outreach and the chance it offered her to personally dive into Black historical past. Considerably mockingly, the next journey led her to embrace the title Nikki Brown.

“I now not need to struggle to show that that is what a Muslim is,” says Brown. “I spotted {that a} good Muslim is only one who submits to God, and if I’m doing that, my work will communicate to it, and other people will see that.”

Seated, Mac Smiff holds a flower as he speaks

Since taking the helm at WOHM, Smiff has put a serious emphasis on participating the town and nation alike with the story of Portland hip hop.Intisar Abioto | For Oregon Humanities

“You need to say what you need to be heard”

When Nikki Brown speaks about her name to serve the neighborhood, I can’t assist however consider Mac Smiff, one other individual I met throughout my time at The Skanner. It was 2013, and Smiff was transitioning from a younger rap profession to a writing profession. He recollects performing on the Portland State College park blocks throughout his lunch break, nonetheless sporting his work uniform.

Within the early 2010s, he started running a blog, and shortly after, he began writing for We Out Right here Journal, a Northwest hip-hop way of life weblog, the place he ultimately turned the editor and proprietor. Since taking the helm at WOHM, Smiff has put a serious emphasis on participating the town and nation alike with the story of Portland hip hop.

Seeing and filling neighborhood wants was one thing instilled in Smiff early on. In 1992, his household moved from New York to an space of Clackamas that’s now Pleased Valley. They discovered neighborhood on the Muslim Neighborhood Heart of Portland, and his dad and mom have been concerned in serving to construct the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington masjid in Vancouver.

At WOHM, Smiff has created a platform for a variety of rising writers (full disclosure: I wrote as a columnist for WOHM on and off between 2014 and 2016) and used the platform to affect politics. Particularly, the positioning has shone a highlight on Portland’s police profiling of hip hop, in addition to police brutality and corruption on the whole.

The weblog, together with native companions akin to DJ Verbz, Vortex Music Journal, and Portland State College, has additionally fostered the rise of The Thesis, one in all Portland’s premier hip hop showcases. The month-to-month occasion at downtown Portland’s Kelly’s Olympian has been lauded for consciously incorporating native photographers and an unwritten “no extra straight dude reveals” rule, guaranteeing each present highlights the range of the native scene.

“Individuals have mentioned The Thesis is activism, in a method,” says Smiff, “as a result of it does search to show by instance.”

When Portland’s racial justice protests started in 2020, Smiff used his media expertise and abilities as a “connective tissue individual” to offer common protection on the bottom and function a constant mouthpiece to voice the feelings of the neighborhood to the press. Actually, he emerged as some of the quoted individuals in the course of the 2020 protests and amassed a big following on Twitter.

Smiff tries to maintain the eye in perspective. “Most of those individuals are following me as a result of they only need some type of protest information,” he says. “They need some info on what’s occurring with the cops. They need some rhetoric to run with.”

A bit over a decade in the past, Smiff was rapping in his work uniform on the PSU Park Blocks. Now, his imprint may be discovered throughout the town, from the crowds he addresses on the Multnomah County Justice Heart and Kelly’s Olympian, to the youth he educates on the Numberz FM content material camp and his WOHM artistic workplace.

Finally, he says his talking acumen comes from a easy lesson discovered whereas on stage and from working for years within the media: “You need to say what you need to be heard.”

Seated, Nafisa Fai folds her arms as she poses for a photo

“In relation to leaders, I prefer to assume we’re getting smarter, studying from previous experiences and unifying to say, ‘We’re Black,’” says Nafisa Fai.Intisar Abioto | For Oregon Humanities

“Coming to America, I had this concept that anybody who’s Black is from Africa”

For as a lot of a tradition shock because it was for Mac Smiff and his household to maneuver from New York to Clackamas, it was that rather more of a transition for Nafisa Fai and her household. They immigrated from Somalia within the Nineteen Nineties, when Fai was seventeen, to flee the nation’s civil battle. Earlier than starting the immigration interview course of, she’d by no means even met a White individual.

As soon as in Portland, Fai’s household was positioned in a housing growth occupied largely by different African immigrant households close to Northeast Portland’s Dawson Park. Early on, she spent plenty of time listening, making an attempt to choose up on the nuances of American tradition and her new neighborhood.

She recollects the best way women at her highschool would observe her and her sister round as a result of they have been holding arms. Her uncle instructed she write the ladies a letter to ask them what they needed. When Fai did, the ladies wrote again that they thought Fai and her sister have been lesbians. She later transferred to a different college, the place a classmate thought she was Samoan, and so they received right into a confrontation. The 2 would in the end develop into good mates, but it surely was all a part of a social studying curve. This was very true when it got here to understanding the complexities of Portland’s Black neighborhood.

“Coming to America, I had this concept that anybody who’s Black is from Africa,” says Fai. “I discovered in regards to the completely different ethnicities inside the Black neighborhood.”

Fai ultimately translated these experiences into founding the Pan African Competition of Oregon in 2017. She was initially going to name it Marcus Garvey Day however settled on an umbrella time period that particularly highlighted all Black communities. That includes meals, companies, and dwell performances showcasing the African diaspora, the Pan African Competition has since develop into an annual occasion and a Portland favourite.

With the success of the pageant, Nafisa turned her eyes to politics. She went by means of the Emerge Oregon program, which recruits and trains Democratic girls to hunt public workplace, after which efficiently ran for Washington County Commissioner in 2020. As the primary Black and Muslim girl to carry the place, she and her marketing campaign acquired a extra virulent model of the bigotry she confronted rising up—this time from a good portion of her largely White constituents.

“Once I was operating, anti-Blackness was actual. Islamophobia was actual,” says Fai. “They accused me of being a child killer. A terrorist. You title it.”

Fai has prided herself on not permitting the hatred to distract her. Likewise, she rejects notions that search to divide both Black or Muslim communities from inside.

“In relation to leaders, I prefer to assume we’re getting smarter, studying from previous experiences and unifying to say, ‘We’re Black,’” says Fai. “Disaggregating Blackness is a distraction and doesn’t assist us. The purpose is to get as many sources as doable funneled into our neighborhood.”

“The kids nonetheless deserve magic”

Whereas they could appear to characterize completely different sides—the politician and the activist— Fai and Smiff reveal that management is a puzzle made up of a wide range of items. A kind of items may even put on inexperienced hair and a clown nostril.

Regardless of experimenting with clowning and changing to the Nation of Islam across the identical time, Nikki Brown personally struggled to embrace her clown character early on. Particularly, she appeared on the work of her friends like Imani Muhammad (who inspired Brown to hitch the NOI), Mattie Khan, and Michelle X Pratcher and felt like clowning didn’t measure up.

That every one modified when she was invited to carry out on the Nation of Islam’s Nationwide Savior’s Day conference in 2013. She discovered peace in her position, she says, strolling by means of the Savior’s Day youngsters’s village and observing younger individuals taking part in video games, getting their faces painted, and using the carnival practice.

“In any activism, there’s youngsters,” says Brown. “In our struggle for freedom, the youngsters nonetheless deserve magic. The kids nonetheless deserve enjoyable.”

She likens the youngsters’s interactions along with her to these of theme park mascots like Minnie Mouse or Spongebob Squarepants. The massive distinction, after all, is that Nikki Brown Clown seems just like the Black youngsters she serves.

“Black youngsters hardly ever get to expertise icons who’re human,” says Brown. “To face subsequent to Nikki Brown Clown is to say, ‘Possibly that may very well be me,’ or ‘Hey, that’s my buddy.’”

— Bruce Poinsette, For Oregon Humanities



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