Many of us like to think of Portland as a progressive hub that welcomes people of all races, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds. But Oregon was founded as an all-white “utopia”; slavery may never have been legal here, but people of color were explicitly excluded from taking residence. What does that history mean for Black people currently living in Portland?
Justice Rajee, who has lived in Portland for 13 years, is confronting this discussion head-on by teaching a course at Portland Underground Graduate School (PUGS) in February for Black History Month. In this four-week course, Portland’s African American Boys: How to Be an Ally, Justice and course attendees will examine the history of Blackness in Oregon, along with perceptions of Black men in the media and throughout our communities. By the course’s end, students will have plans for constructive actions they can take beyond the classroom to support the livelihoods of Black men and boys in Portland.
“Black men and boys are not usually the focus of discussion unless we are talking about a deficit,” Rajee says. “Then, we tend to talk about the deficit, and what the deficit looks like, and how we may be able to impact the deficit. Meanwhile the thoughts, feelings, and aspirations of those same Black men and boys are not treated as worthy of study.”
During the day, Rajee is the CHI Elevate Program Manager at Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center (POIC). The organization provides one-on-one case management and mentoring to African American gang-impacted men ages 17 to 25. Because of his day job, many people end up asking him how they can help Black Portlanders without causing more harm. That was a big inspiration for creating the course with PUGS.
“My response,” he says, “is to place myself out there to share my slice of understanding and experience.”
To give participants a solid background, the course will begin by examining data on the lives of Black Portlanders—and by talking through individually held biases honestly.
“We live in a racist society that taught me terrible things about myself that I had to unlearn as a necessity for personal survival,” Rajee says. “We have to confront the ideas that we have ingested in society in real time, in my view, and challenge them.”
Portland Underground Graduate School is a community-based organization dedicated to lifelong learning. Portland’s African American Boys: How to Be an Ally starts Tuesday, February 6 at 7 p.m. at Taborspace. Sign up here.