As a black person in Portland, I'm used to being "the other."
There's more attention put on my identity here than anywhere else I've been. I know I'm not the only one that experiences this. That attention may not be quite as negative and separatist as it used to be back in the day, but it's still a problem. And back then, at least, black people knew we could lean on each other. Not just emotionally, but for every other facet of daily living and survival. Nowadays, it's not that easy. In Portland, especially, supporting each other down to the dollar takes a lot of effort.
I started thinking more about this while watching Trigger Warning on Netflix, a show in which rapper Killer Mike tackles social taboos in unconventional and unexpectedly funny ways. In the first episode, he attempts to live entirely within the black economy near Atlanta for three days. Everything he ate, wore and used in any way had to come from black-owned sources—from the farms that grew and slaughtered his food to the soap he washed his ass with to the fabric of the clothes on his back.
Despite being in one of the country's African-American hubs, Mike struggled. He came across many black businesses, but often, the products they carried or the food they made had white origins. It's a side effect of desegregation I had never really considered before. Segregation forced black people to interact only within their own race for all their needs, meaning the black dollar stayed solely within the black community. Mike wondered why it's so difficult to live completely black anymore.
It made me wonder: If he had trouble pulling this off in the South, would doing it in white-as-hell Oregon be downright impossible?
I was curious to see how difficult it would be for me to live as much within Portland's black economy as possible for a day. I knew trying to re-create Killer Mike's experiment to the same degree—across three days, with items entirely black-made down to their original sources—wouldn't amount to much in one of the whitest cities in America. But at the same, there are black people and other minorities here. They have histories and memories and businesses, and I still wanted my money to go to those black folks in some way.
How convenient would this be for me? How easy would it be to live through my typical day, but in an almost entirely black way?
I have a pretty normal morning routine—wake up, hate it, force myself to get ready.
One of those mornings, I took a deeper look through my makeup bag and found it full of a vanilla spread of brands. While most makeup companies attempt to offer a select few shades of color, most don't even scratch the surface of providing options for the different hues of melanin.
Beaverton-based Hue Noir (huenoir.com) is a black, female-owned brand that specializes in makeup for women of color. Chemist Paula Hayes started the company a decade ago and has developed 25 true-to-skin-color shades over the years. My main makeup goal each day is evening out my skin tone, so I ordered two different foundation shades. My first guess of my shade was correct—I'm a Toasted Almond, with Mocha as my accent color. It settled into my skin as if it were naturally a part of it, which is exactly what you want in a foundation.
It's a feat I even made it out the door without coffee, but if I wanted to stay within the black economy, I couldn't simply visit any of the four coffee shops within walking distance of my inner Southeast Portland apartment. Thankfully, Deadstock Coffee (408 NW Couch St.), in Old Town, is less than a 10-minute drive from my spot. Former Nike janitor-turned-shoe designer Ian Williams opened the shop three years ago, going from cart to brick-and-mortar in just a few months.
His imprint is everywhere, from the sneakers and basketball posters on the walls to the names of the coffee blends, like "Fresh Prince" and "One Hunnit." That kind of cultural representation is something I don't get at any other coffee shop in town.
I decided to head back to the eastside, since hanging out downtown wouldn't really be conducive to my goals. Around lunchtime, I headed to Aberus Ethiopian Restaurant (438 NE Killingsworth St.), the only local Ethiopian spot I've had yet to try. The food is undeniable, and the two ladies working seemed really sweet, but a language barrier kept me from engaging with them any further.
After devouring a grip of injera and missir wot, I needed a pick-me-up—and I'm not talking about caffeine.
Located right up the street from Aberus, Green Hop (5515 NE 16th Ave.), Portland's only hip-hop-themed cannabis dispensary, opened only last year, but the vibes you get stepping inside make you feel as if you've been going there forever. Ice Cube's "You Know How We Do It" greeted me as I walked in. It was refreshing to walk into a business and immediately feel accepted, which doesn't happen as much as it should here in Portland.
"We joke that we're better than Olive Garden, because when you come in here you actually get treated like family," says Anthony, the budtender on duty. "We don't give you that zookeeper experience, where you go into somewhere and everyone stares at you like you're going to do something wrong."
I figured if I were going to find cannabis from a black grow, Green Hop would be the spot. Unfortunately, it didn't have any on deck—as Anthony told me, black growers make up less than 1 percent of the industry.
But Green Hop is trying to change that. Owners Karanja Crews and Nicole Kennedy started the Green Hop Academy, an internship program to teach black youth of legal smoking age the skills to help them break into the cannabis industry.
Anthony is a product of the program. He recommended the "Suga Free" strain for a day smoke. Another stop at home confirmed he knows what he's talking about.
A few hours and a faded high later, I wanted something a little lighter in comparison to my hefty lunch, so I decided to head up to Mama San Soul Shack (8037 N Lombard St.) in St. Johns. The travel was starting to exhaust me, but I wanted to check out this unique soul food-Asian fusion spot is co-owned by a third-generation Oregonian, Christopher Hopkins.
"I could've done the stereotypical African-American food people expect me to do," says Hopkins. "I knew there was a hole that could be filled in St. Johns, and I wanted to bring really good food to blue-collar people."
I ordered the special of the day, a bowl of ramen that incorporated black-eyed peas. It was delicious. While I waited for my order, I joined only two other customers—one black, one white—in singing along to Kendrick Lamar's "Alright."
I needed a drink, so I ditched my car and headed across town to Santé Bar (411 NW Park Ave.), a black, LGBTQ-owned bar in the Pearl, specializing in homemade ingredients and craft cocktails. The little space along Park Avenue is owned by Véronique LaFont, who has been working in the bar business for years in different places across the country and in Europe. She claims that of everywhere she's traveled, Portland is the only place where people are so concerned about the way she looks. She has a cool haircut and a trendy fashion sense, but her light skin complexion and light eyes make others question where she's from.
"I've never been in a city where people ask me what I am when they meet me," she says.
LaFont's bar is welcoming, community-driven and unapologetic about the demographic it serves. The majority of the crowd on the night I came in was up from Roseburg—a drag court hosting their own event.
I made my way back home for a personal nightcap, a bottle of pinot noir from Abbey Creek Winery (abbeycreekvineyard.com), Oregon's only black-owned vineyard. I spoke with owner Bertony Faustin, who told me that while a lot of the work at the vineyard is done by him and his family, he understands that operating solely within the black economy is a difficult task.
"When you begin to think about every layer of any business in general and about the role each person plays, the lack of an all-black economy and the disparity throughout our society could be portrayed as a bleak future," he says. "On the other hand, I see it as an opportunity for all minorities to fill these gaps in our global economy. Will we ever get there? I hope so, but what I can say for sure is that I will continue to do my part on this journey to encourage and inspire the next generation."
At the end of my day, it was clear that, for the here and now, we still need to make sure we do what we can to keep Portland's black businesses open and operating. Back home in Oakland, there wasn't a need to even say that, because we were already everywhere. It was natural to walk into just about any business and see a predominantly black staff. In Portland, you have to actively seek it out.
While the city's black population is growing, we're still having to fight to get a seat at the table. And while more spots are opening up, it's hard to know if we'll ever get a table of our own.