As the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Senate, Avel Gordly has a unique perspective on politics in a state that’s only had eight African-Americans serve in the Legislature during its 152-year history.
Growing up in a city that’s had a historically small African-American population—6.3 percent in the latest census—Gordly also has a unique perspective on race in Portland.
Gordly, a 64-year-old associate professor of black studies at Portland State University, has drawn on all those experiences—as well as her own personal battles with depression—in her 176-page memoir, Remembering the Power of Words (Oregon State University Press, $18.95).
This Monday, April 4—the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—Gordly will be at Powell’s City of Books to sign copies of the memoir she collaborated on with PSU associate history professor Patricia Schechter.
Here are excerpts from Gordly’s book, the first in a “Women and Politics in the Pacific Northwest” series of books from OSU Press.
I have a memory of having something of a nervous tic. I used to bite my upper lip in a way that would leave a mark on my skin…. Something was literally eating me inside, being chewed away, and my habit made it visible on the outside….
I know my parents wanted “good girls”; the main definition of “good,” however, was “obedient” and this equation proved disastrous when I was being sexually abused by my uncle. It happened more than once and it always happened in the same place: my brother’s empty room, a space already haunted by loss and violence.
This uncle was my mother’s youngest brother. He was not particularly liked by my dad, who thought that he was kind of a ne’er-do-well. Later in life he got involved with drugs and went to prison. When I worked in corrections, I actually saw him in prison. In our adult relationship, I never said, “Clarence, I forgive you.”...
Connected to the struggle with Clarence is a memory of a friend of my father’s who used to come by the house when we were little girls. This man used to like to have my sister and me sit on his lap. I never felt comfortable doing that and always felt there was something not quite right about it. I spoke about it in the family, but nothing happened because he kept coming over and we were expected to be polite and not fuss. His behavior was “normalized” in our home. Looking back, I felt especially that silencing myself around my uncle’s sexual abuse has shaped everything else in my life….
When I was fifteen or sixteen I tried to take my life with an overdose of aspirin. It happened in the bedroom that my sister and I shared. I remember a very painful period of just wanting to go away. I don’t know if I became ill and then someone found me: I have no memory of exactly the sequence of events. My family knew something happened to me but they just didn’t talk about “it.”
Extremely important to me was finding language to discuss taboo subjects like skin color and hair texture. In Black Studies these subjects actually came up in our classes! One professor asked us students: “Does skin color matter in the Black community?” and “How does that issue get talked about in the Black community?”
I remember a huge discussion around skin color and my relief at being able to discuss color consciousness. I was able to make much clearer connections about assumptions I’d grown up with, like my mom’s light skin and features and how she was always talked about as a beautiful woman. In Black Studies classes we analyzed how these judgments get played out in the community at large.
So in a historical sense and also in a personal sense I connected historical references to darker-skinned women as being “less than” or part of a certain social class and women with lighter skin as part of another social class. I now understood that these judgments were tied to real status issues like club memberships and other social privileges.
Abuse And Depression
A complicating factor in my years in corrections was my relationship with Marvin McKinley, who was also a student at PSU. It was a hot and heavy relationship for a while, but it had a really bad ending. Today we would call it domestic violence. At one point he actually held a live gun to my head and threatened to kill me. He also raped me.
It was an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. It was horrible and had a horrible ending. The situation traumatized me in ways that I wasn’t even aware of for many years. Things got so bad that I finally told my father and my brother what was going on. The two of them confronted Marvin and I believe threatened him with his life in order to make him stop.
I married Richard Mayfield in August of 1979. Rev. John Jackson, pastor of our family church, Mt. Olivet Baptist, performed the ceremony in my mom and dad’s living room. Years later I said to Rev. Jackson about the wedding, “That was a terrible idea.” And he said, “Oh, you thought so too!” And I said, “Well, why didn’t you tell me!” He laughed in a way that told me he was in my corner. But back then I made poor choices that came out of low self-esteem. Richard was a former drug abuser and during our marriage he started up using again. I found evidence of his use around the house….
I came to a point in that relationship where I realized that he was probably going to die of an overdose. And that is exactly what happened. After we had been separated for a few years I got a call that he had been found in the street. Whoever he was with when he OD’ed had just left him there dead, making me a widow….
I experienced a lot of self doubt and deep, deep, deep depression to the point of contemplating suicide. I even checked myself in for a couple of weeks to the Providence psychiatric unit. I was not able to tell anybody what was really going on with me in part because of shame. My mom had an awareness that something was going on; she tried to get through to me and talk to me but I just could not connect with her. During my hospitalization I started to wonder how being molested in my childhood had contributed to where I was and how my life experiences of physical and sexual violence were all connected. I’m still dealing with issues around self-esteem, worthiness, and shame rooted, I believe, in the experience of being molested by a family member. It was a really dark, dark passage. In 1980, the year that Mt. St. Helens blew its top, so did I….
There were counselors, therapists, and professional people around trying to get me to participate in a group. I was acutely conscious that everyone was white. But I checked myself into the hospital because I couldn’t function. At one point in my hospitalization, I collapsed on the floor of the bathroom. I found out later that I had been given the wrong medication. The matter was never named or dealt with, much less resolved. My poor treatment became part of the trauma of it all.
Working The Legislature From The Outside
As my African activism touched the state legislature, I learned several political lessons. In Salem I discovered the meaning of the old saying: “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”
Representative Margaret Carter was the first African-American woman legislator in Oregon, elected in a so-called Black district as a product of community organizing. She won her seat by defeating a number of Black and white men who also wanted it. Jim Hill had been elected in a very different district, Salem, which is predominantly white. I did not live in Carter’s district but she hired my sister Faye Burch to serve as her legislative assistant for a time….
I did encounter opposition in the capitol. We really wanted to push Governor Neil Goldschmidt on divestment. We had a conversation in Rep. Carter’s office in which she asked us not to do that. We couldn’t make that promise. I remember being surprised at her push back. She cautioned us about embarrassing the governor. POSAF [Portlanders Organized for Southern African Freedom] didn’t see it that way.
We wanted him to be more aggressive regarding divestment. While a vote for divesture was not a career-breaker for any Oregon legislator at the time, I was still surprised that Carter, our Black community’s representative, seemed to be more concerned about protecting the governor than taking even a symbolic stand for Black Freedom. Even more prominent in my mind at the time was Goldschmidt’s very troubling public statement about the leadership of the Black United Front.
He commented that the BUF leadership—meaning Ronnie Herndon—needed to be “squashed.” Goldschmidt used those exact words at a time when Ronnie was getting death threats. He and his family were afraid and a governor’s words carried power. Moreover, some saw Goldschmidt as responsible for patronage, and he took it upon himself to signal which Black folks were OK or not. His reputation among some Black folks was divided. Some saw him as an ally. There were others who saw through his charisma and said no, there’s something else going on here and it’s called paternalism. We’re not going to play that game and we don’t need a guiding hand for our agenda.
Carter was loyal to
Goldschmidt; I don’t know that I’d ever even met him up to that point in
time. But the incident was my first real encounter with raw politics,
the politics of covering for and protecting people.
Working The Legislature From The Inside
The fear was about using my voice out loud in public; it was about being public. It involved self questioning: Did I know enough? Was I smart enough? Why me? Am I ready to do this? Am I really prepared?...
I wasn’t a product of Democratic Party politics. I didn’t have a precinct person’s experience or party meeting attendance in my background.…
The party could recommend three to five people to the county commission, whose members then selected one from that group after a presentation and a vote. I was one of the candidates forwarded by the party. In my presentation to the commission, I emphasized how community-based activities had prepared me to work collaboratively in the legislative process, especially around human services. I received four of the five votes. The vote I didn’t get was [then-Commissioner] Gary Hansen’s. Gary voted for his attorney. This scenario was my introduction to ethics in politics....
After I received the appointment, I asked newly elected Governor Barbara Roberts to perform my swearing in ceremony. Initially, she said yes. Then I heard that she changed her mind. The story was that Barbara’s then husband, the late state senator Frank Roberts, intended to support Tom Novick, another sitting member of the legislature, for the District 19 House seat the next year (with redistricting coming up!)…. Roberts was also getting advice from her chief of staff, Patricia McCaig, to the effect that, if the governor swore me in, it could be seen as giving me a political advantage compared to Novick....
The next summer, the governor called the legislature into special session to consider her revenue reform package.… The Democratic caucus meetings during that special session were my first. The doors to the meetings were closed. There were no media and no public in there; nobody except the members…. Those who spoke—and they were mostly male—expressed anger because they had not had enough “face time” with Roberts and had instead met with McCaig. Tom Novick was part of the caucus, so was Mike Burton. Vera Katz was there, and Margaret Carter. I looked around the room and I saw these other women.… Some members wanted to “show her” who was in charge on the first vote. After that first procedural vote to show the governor who was really running things, then, on the second vote, the caucus would vote for the package and carry the day.
Larger Thoughts On The Legislature
Most people in the legislative process do a lot of talking. I can remember any number of times sitting in a party caucus meeting with the same two or three wonderful people droning on with their Type A behavior, personality, and opinions….
What also impressed itself upon me in the legislature was nepotism and how it blocks equal employment opportunity. Oregon statutes require the state, including the legislature, to be a leader in modeling equal employment opportunity. How can we do that, I started to argue, if elected officials hire their relatives—husbands, wives, cousins, girlfriends, boyfriends—to work in the capitol? Questioning nepotism put me in a very awkward and uncomfortable place with my colleagues….
While I understood the argument that members don’t earn enough money and that hiring family members helps them make do and keep their families together I disagreed with the principle. My disagreement made it really difficult to raise the issue with Margaret Carter. We come from the same community but practice a different set of principles. She hired her daughters and other relatives. I sat in caucus, trying to make an argument against nepotism and back in the community and my district, I got a reputation for not going along just to get along, so to speak. It was very, very awkward and isolating at times….
It was difficult being compared to Margaret Carter in media settings and elsewhere. Difficult in the sense that I wasn’t Margaret Carter. Our styles were very different. She’s more outgoing and a wonderful singer. Singing is part of her ministry and she has used her voice effectively in that manner. I think we’re both personable but in different ways. I don’t sing. It didn’t surprise me—but it surprised me—that folks in Salem expected me to sing….
But I also respect Margaret Carter for who she is. She is the first African-American woman to serve in the Oregon legislative assembly and she had to invent a way of being in that setting. Her role models were white women who were trying to outdo the white men in order to be effective in their role. They had to cuss as hard as the men and “develop balls.” There were old boys and these were the new old girls.
That’s what I observed and that’s where Carter was coming from. I came to respect that but I also knew that model was not who I am. I refused to allow people to project onto me some behavior or expectation that was just not me. Once I was walking from one chamber to the other in the capitol. I would look up in the gallery on the House side. As I was walking, a group tour came through. The guide said: “Oh, there is Senator Carter,” adding, “She’s the one who sings for us all the time.” She was referring to me. And I said, “Oh no, no. I’m Gordly.” And she said, “No, you’re Carter.” And I said, “No, I’m Gordly.” And a third time—a third time!—she told me that I was Carter.
The people on the tour had looks of disbelief on their faces. Later, I ran into one of the men who witnessed this scene, Joe Uris, who had been in Salem lobbying for higher education. He said to me: “How do you stand this? Does this happen often?”
His words acknowledged the pain and shame of that moment, all-too-frequent feelings for me since so many white people in Oregon simply haven’t had experiences working with Black people or even knowing any, anywhere in their lives.
Q&A: Avel Gordly
WW: How hard was it to do honest appraisals of people you know and in some cases like and respect?
Avel Gordly: For me, the whole process of telling my story was a healing journey working with Patricia [Schechter, who collaborated with Gordly on her memoir]. What was important for me was to reflect and speak the truth as I experienced it.
But wasn’t it hard to speak aloud and then read on the page your memories of being molested as a child and raped as an adult?
I can’t say it was painful compared to the way I actually endured those things. I come back to the word “healing.”
What surprised you as you looked back?
I won’t use the word “surprised.” What I celebrate is I had, and have, the ability to invest trust in Patricia in telling the story. We clicked. That was a real blessing.
You mention your son Tyrone Waters in the book, but never discuss a judge sending him to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment after he pointed an unloaded pellet gun at police and police shot him with a beanbag round. Why leave that out?
It’s his story to tell. He’s shared it. When I do the second book, the emphasis will be on living with mental health challenges and there will be more of the story here. There was no decision not to tell his story. His story has been told in his own words.
Do you ever think about getting back into politics?
You didn’t even hesitate about that answer.
(Laughs) The way I think about it is I’m encouraging others to get involved in public service. Politics is a feature of that. There’s a whole host of emerging leaders out there who need to be encouraged not only to think about running for office, but to do it. Take the risk, run for the school board, the county commission, Metro, the Legislature, run for mayor. I’d like to use any influence I have in encouraging others. There’s no shortage of talent, creativity and genius in our community. What we have is kind of a malaise. We’ve settled for mediocrity, for kind of a good-old-boy, good-old-girl mode of politics. We’re better than that. We must do better.
Who are some of those leaders to watch?
Tricia Tillman [state director of multicultural health], Charles McGee, Johnell Bell [McGee and Bell co-founded the Black Parent Initiative], Nichole Maher [executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center], Carmen Rubio [executive director of Latino Network]. There are a whole host of young ones who are involved in public service now. When I say opening up opportunities, I think about the Metro opening that just occurred. They finally decided that [ex-Gov.] Barbara Roberts would be their compromise choice. I love her, I respect her and she has much to bring to the position. But it was a missed opportunity to look around for an emerging leader and bring that person on board. We have to be “intentional” about bringing in new leadership.
So why don’t you have the taste for being in politics anymore?
I’ve come to understand my role at this stage of my life is one I enjoy. It’s teaching through my work at Portland State University—I’ve developed a course on black leadership, public policy and community development. That’s where I find my joy.
But you got involved in the second attempted recall last year of Mayor Sam Adams.
The recall was about integrity and character. I was deeply troubled that we had a situation where an adult in power in an elected role asked a young person to lie for him. That was just totally unacceptable. The fact we live in a city where most of the people are willing to give that a pass deeply troubled me.
I got the sense from reading your memoir that you grew tired of being the requisite go-to person when somebody wanted to get the “black perspective” on something.
It was frustrating to be kind of pigeonholed. People assume you are capable of talking about issues of race, and certainly I can talk about that. But my interests are much more varied than that.
EXCEPTED with permission from Remembering the Power of Words: The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader by Avel Louise Gordly with Patricia A. Schechter, published by Oregon State University Press, 2011.
Gordly speaks at Powell’s City of Books (1005 W Burnside St.) 7:30 pm Monday, April 4.
Book collaborator Patricia Schechter’s husband is city Commissioner Nick Fish, who praises Gordly as Oregon’s “resident contrarian.”
Gordly went back to school, attending PSU, a few years after giving birth to a son as a teenage mom in 1966.
Before being appointed to a state House seat in 1991, Gordly worked for the Urban League and was active with Portlanders Organized for Southern African Freedom, a group working to get government bodies to divest themselves of investments in the apartheid regime of South Africa.
A vacancy in the state House created by the retirement of Rep. Ron Cease (D-Portland) led Gordly to seek appointment to that seat from the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.
Gordly won election to the House in 1992 and was reelected in 1994. She ran successfully for a state Senate seat in 1996 and was reelected in 2000 and 2004.
Gordly changed her party affiliation in 2006 from Democratic to Independent because of her distaste for partisanship. She rejoined the Democratic Party in 2008 so she could vote for Barack Obama in the party primary.
Gordly in 2010 was the chief petitioner and spokeswoman in the second recall campaign of Mayor Sam Adams. That campaign and its predecessor both failed to collect enough signatures to put a recall on the ballot.