WALIDAH IMARISHA made news this summer when she called out creators of the Whitelandia documentary for appropriating material from her own eye-opening curriculum, "Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon?" (Short answer: Lash Laws, a staggering Klan presence, and an early vision for the state as a "white utopia.") As a professor, radical activist, and historian, Imarisha gives one hell of a lecture, and shines just as brightly in her poetry and spoken word performances.
We recently sat down to discuss her incandescent new poetry collection, Scars/Stars, and Octavia's Brood, a forthcoming anthology of radical science fiction.
AGENDA: How did you end up in Oregon, and what was it like coming of age here?
WALIDAH IMARISHA: I grew up on military bases; my mom was a teacher for the US Department of Defense. The bases were in places like Iceland and Germany that were very, very white, but they disproportionately recruit people of color, so there were a lot of brown folks. It wasn't until we moved to Springfield, Oregon, for high school that I was like, "Wow, I can count the black kids on one hand with a couple of fingers broken; what's this about?" The transition was very formative in shaping my political framework, and shaping me as a person.
Tell us about Octavia's Brood. Not many people would draw connections between sci-fi and radical activism.
I've been a nerd my entire life. There are multiple Halloween pictures of me wearing Star Trek uniforms: Uhura every time. I was always very much into science fiction, but once I became politicized, I thought I had to put it aside and be serious. Luckily I let that go. With this book, co-editor Adrienne Maree Brown and I came together because we feel like all organizing is science fiction. Every time you envision a world without police brutality, a world without poverty, a world without war—that's science fiction. Being able to have a shared vision of it allows us to move toward it and to figure out how to take those next elegant steps. We're thinking about where we want to be in 50 years; we're thinking about how to be visionary rather than reactionary, and we feel like science fiction is absolutely key in that.
One of the poems from Scars/Stars that struck me most was "Wade in the Water," about post-Katrina New Orleans. You also made a documentary film, Finding Common Ground in New Orleans. How did these works come about?
I went down to New Orleans about three weeks after Katrina hit. I didn't go to make a film; my goal was to volunteer and try to do as much as I could. My partner at the time was a filmmaker; he was like, "Just take my camera and see." I didn't think that was going to happen. But once I was there, I saw the magnitude of the devastation. I was also seeing the media images that were prevalent about the survivors, who were 80 percent black. The coverage completely ignored the self-agency of those folks. It was these black women, who were being referred to as "welfare queens," who were organizing through their networks to make sure that Mrs. Johnson, who lives by herself, didn't die, that someone went and checked on her. That was what I really wanted to highlight in the documentary and the poem.
Scars/Stars has a conceptual kinship with Toni Morrison's Beloved. Can you talk about that?
I love the book Beloved. There's a scene where [the main character] Sethe reveals her back, where she'd been whipped as a slave. The scars rose on her back and looked like a tree. I definitely had to put the book down and sit with that. It was one of the most powerful images—that these horrific scars could be something living and even beautiful. We're told we should hide our scars. Physical, emotional, psychological scars: Cover them up, hide them, pretend they don't exist. Instead I think that if we just bring out all of our scars, we can move through them, and we can be guiding stars for other folks. Within the black tradition, the North Star was the star that led you to freedom.
Threaded through the poems in Scars/Stars are real moments of connection and hope amid tragedy. That's so much of what this book is about. So I'm wondering about causes for hope in Oregon, which has such a long history of racism and dislocation. Are any scars being transformed into stars here?
Yeah, great question. A lot of times people focus on the horrific oppression that remains a living legacy here. It's important to recognize that. But it's just as important to recognize the resilience and the resistance of communities of color. The very fact that there are black communities in Oregon at all is amazing, because they were never supposed to exist. When Oregon passed the first exclusion law in 1844, they told black people they'd be publicly whipped every six months until they left. There were still over 100 black folks who stayed. They said, "We'll deal with what comes, but this is our home, and we won't leave it." Karen Gibson calls black history in Portland a continuous thread of resistance. That's what I hold onto: that rich history of resistance in the black community, in communities of color, with white allies. We will keep pushing; we will find ways to create community and joy, even within the darkest night.
Imarisha will present "Why Aren't There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History" in six rural Oregon counties from Sept 4-9 as part of the Oregon Black History tour, a partnership between Oregon Humanities and the Rural Organizing Project. See her website for more details on upcoming events.