Portlander Damali Ayo has been dragging racial skeletons out of the closet for years. The artistic agitator's flagship performance, a satirical token-black-friend agency called Rent-a-Negro, was launched as a website in 2003. Two years later, How to Rent a Negro, the book, brought cadres of reporters her way (she made Bill O'Reilly visibly squirm on his show without even trying). She's part of a generation of black artists whose performances mock racial stereotypes by directly engaging in or re-enacting them. While she has received death threats by email, Ayo's work brings together others who crave open, creative discussion of race. This year, she surveyed 2,000 of those people to create a list of anti-racist meditations, called "Ten Easy Actions," which include encouraging black people to respond to racist behavior and white people to admit that they are white. The 10-step program will be taught at an October training series called "I Can Fix It!" But before that, on Tuesday, Sept. 30, she'll explore the intersection of social change and creativity at Bitch magazine's first "Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture" lecture series. For Ayo, who teaches yoga on the side and recently launched a sustainable-clothing line, the lecture is a chance to talk about anything but race for a change. Instead, she's tackling feminism.
WW: OK, how is a feminist perspective on pop culture different from any other?
Damali Ayo: It takes into account the real lives that women lead. I'd say a non-feminist person is just uninformed. We have these fictional women in our heads—but real lives are complex, with contradictions and hard choices. When we see women as flat, that's a non-feminist perspective.
Most people probably still think of a '60s-era Gloria Steinem when they hear feminism. Is feminism perceived to be a "white thing"?
I think women of color have made the mistake of allowing whiteness to be attached to feminism—when we abdicated the right to use the word "feminist," we did ourselves a disservice. As for white women…they're so used to the privilege and entitlement they have, why would they give it up? Antagonism grew between black and white women over feminism, and women of color ended up walking away from it. But in doing that, we certainly didn't find any less racism in the world. And now, women of all races think "feminism" is a bad word!
What do you think of Sarah Palin?
Palin is an unfortunate distraction from the potential healing that our country really needs. I'm praying that we can choose a path of healing by electing Obama. Because I'm so burned out, I have the utmost respect for Obama. If you take what I went through—in terms of being a black person in the public eye—and multiply it by 1,000, then maybe you know a tenth of what he's going through.… People think if you're a black person who can speak well and is smart, then you're elitist. And that's happening to Obama. As feminists and women, we've gone through that as well—how can you appeal to everyone? It's shocking that we would use someone's education against them. It's hard when someone uses a little thing, like, "Oh, you're rich," to just find a reason not to hear the important things you have to say.
Your performance piece "National Day of Panhandling for Reparations" is now an annual event taking place around the country on Oct. 10. How does it work?
If a white person passes by, they ask, "Can you give reparations money?" And when a black person walks by, they offer the money to them.
Does anyone not want reparations money?
I've had black people who say they're not interested, and others who are so tickled by it. And out of the cities I've performed it in—
Boston, New York, Chicago—Portland was the only place where I got yelled at, or felt unsafe. I was sitting in front of Nordstrom, and this guy was yelling at me: "You're living in the past, you're out of touch!" Another woman was yelling that I was uneducated. I have a pretty standard set of responses that I use, but that was my first day doing the piece, so I was really tested. Portland takes a lot of heat for its white-supremacist population, but to me it's the people who are just racially ignorant that are the problem. There's a lot of this New Age apathy: "I'm just doing my own thing and I don't understand why you're so angry."
Your "I Can Fix It!" pamphlet advises white people to admit they're white. Are all white people racist?
I would never say that's true. I don't call people racist. I just say that white people need to admit they have a race. The "I Can Fix It!" training is my way of passing the torch; I'm burned out on this.
What project raised the most controversy?
Rent-a-Negro, hands down. I got the widest range of responses: from people being really angry, to being excited and grateful. I set out to dramatize what's already in our society, and if people find that controversial, it's on them. I get threats all the time, and particularly during the Rent-a-Negro time I got emails saying, "I wish you would die, hope you get lynched, gang-raped," etc. I had originally intended Rent-a-Negro as a live performance piece, but then I actually got a threatening application through the website, with an Estacada phone number, and that's when I decided not to do it in person.
How do you actually survive working as a political artist in Portland?
I've never really had a straight day job. I've always found different ways to make the money come together, which was a goal when I started doing speaking work. I set out to speak about art and ended up speaking about racism, because people couldn't separate concept from content. All political artists face this. People have a hard time seeing you as an artist; they see you as a protester. But if you're an artist worth your salt, you'd better be pushing our culture forward or else you should go home.
magazine's "Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture" lecture takes place at Portland State University, Smith Memorial Ballroom, 1825 SW Broadway. 7 pm Tuesday, Sept. 30. $8 advance, $12 at the door. Call 888-845-8457 for tickets. Visit damaliayo.com and bitchmagazine.org for more info.
FACT: It's good timing for Bitch's inaugural "Feminist Perspectives in Pop Culture" lecture: The small but powerful Portland-based feminist journal recently sent out an emergency call to raise $40,000 to pay the printing bill for its next issue. It raised the funds in three days.