In 1977, Lawanda Jackson and Darcelle XV got dressed up and went downtown.
"My best girl, she let me borrow her Jefferson High School cheerleading costume. Darcelle had all her white hair, in her glory. We made the news but it wasn't easy." Jackson told the Mercury.
"They called her all kinds of things, N-word-lover. Everything under the sun, but we had to do it. She wanted to show the East coast: 'We are with you.' A lot of people were scared, but I was tough. Black. Strong. I was ready." Jackson continued.
A Portland-born performer, Jackson left our city in the '90s to pursue a pageant career in the Southwest, but in the '70s and '80s, she worked at LGBTQ+ night clubs like Darcelle's, Embers Avenue, and Silverado.
Tonight, Friday June 16, Portlanders have an opportunity to hear Jackson relate her memories of Portland drag at an event presented by Race Talks, a local organization leading the work of uncomfortable but important conversation.
The night unfolds in three parts: Jackson will host a panel of Black drag artists—T’Kara Campbell Starr, Arcadian Campbell Starr, Kourtni Capree Duv, and Epiphany Valentine Dupont—and lead them in a discussion about Black drag in Portland. Afterward, they'll offer the audience chances to ask questions. And after that, the queens will each perform.
"The whole show is just to give people an 'aha!' moment. Give them awareness that we exist," Jackson said, describing plans for this year and what happened the year before. "People that were on the panel, [last year], I thought I knew them, but some of the stories just gave me chills. I was like 'you never told me this!'"
Last year—and for many years before—Portland Pride overlapped with Juneteenth: a holiday that marks the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. Race Talks' executive director Shaina Pomerantz explained that a colleague had taken Poison Waters' PCC class on Black drag in Portland. The topic struck her as a deeply relevant intersection of race, sexuality, and gender identity.
"I'm a former high school teacher," Pomerantz said. "I taught humanities, history, writing, and so I know that many of our kids are not being taught accurate history, to understand—how did these things come about?"
"There were tears in the audience," Jackson said. "There were young people there who were trying to find someone who looked like them. Then they saw and heard us. It was powerful for me. Way more than my brain could handle, I was out-of-body a couple times."
The first year, Race Talks reached out to primarily Black, queer, and trans communities to fill the audience. The event that followed was so moving, the organization added a second night this year, specifically inviting all community members. If the stories Jackson shared on our short phone call were any indication, the panel has stories to tell that you are guaranteed never to have heard.
For instance, the three-article rule: Jackson recalled Portland police requiring people to have three items of clothing that matched their supposed gender beneath whatever they were wearing. In many places, it wasn't even a law on the books, just something that police enforced discriminately.
"They stopped us at the bars. They stopped us with a big floodlight," Jackson said. "We had to show them our underwear, whatever we had on underneath had to be male-gendered clothing. Because we were of color, not because we were gay, because we were of color. It was terrible."
Now it was Pomerantz's turn. Solemnly she cut in with a phrase that seemed to be a theme for the upcoming event: "I had no idea."