Portland State alumna Walidah Imarisha spoke at “Living the Legacy: Afrofuturism and Possibilities for Oregon” Monday, Jan. 22. PSU’s Global Diversity and Inclusion department hosted the event as part of an annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tribute series. Imarisha discussed the history of racial injustice in Oregon and how local communities can envision diversity and justice for the future.
Imarisha has also taught in PSU’s Black Studies Department, as well as at Oregon State and Stanford University.
“This feels like coming home,” Imarisha told the sold-out audience. “This evening is just incredibly beautiful. Y’all are beautiful.”
The event’s masters of ceremonies included Assistant Professor from PSU School of Social Work Dr. Roberta Hunte and political science undergraduate Alex Herrera.
The night’s program began with PSU graduate student Alexis Lawrence asking the audience to stand and sing along to the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson. Afterward, children from the Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe performed.
Director of Diversity Education and Learning Lisa Grady-Willis took the stage to thank individuals within the GDI department and MLK Planning Committee for making the event possible.
PSU President Dr. Rahmat Shoureshi echoed this appreciation and announced 2018 to be known as “the year of celebration of innovation at PSU.” According to Shoureshi, January’s theme was diversity in honor of MLK and Oregon’s most diverse university.
“You cannot have justice if you don’t have racial justice.” – Walidah Imarisha
The predominate scope of Imarisha’s keynote speech involved the intersectionality between fiction literature, the historical relevance of racial inequality in Oregon and the greater United States, and how the legacy of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” provides the framework for understanding how communities can move toward a shared vision of justice for all.
“Dreaming and imagining is the most powerful thing you can do,” Imarisha said. “Once imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”
Imarisha thoroughly explained the word polarized and key misconceptions of MLK and other Black liberation leaders such as Malcolm X, Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party as a whole.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the Martin Luther King Jr. that we often represent is a very sanitized version,” Imarisha said. “It is a version that is safe for the powers that be—for the very powers that determined him to be such a threat to United States government—to our way of life. That he was considered public enemy number one by J. Edward Hoover, who was head of the FBI at the time.”
“We have a Black Extremist Index now with the FBI. MLK was at the top of that during his time period,” Imarisha continued. “So I think that when we honor his legacy, we have to remember that he was considered to be…the most dangerous man in America. And the question becomes, ‘Well…why?’”
To provide context for why leaders like MLK could be considered so dangerous, Imarisha presented her YouTube slideshow “Oregon Black History Timeline,” which explains how historical false narratives erase identities of indigenous peoples while manifesting white supremacy and reinforcements of racial injustice.
“When I travel and tell folks I’m from Portland, Oregon, they say, ‘What—are you one of two Black people?’ The reality is, communities of color have always existed here,” Imarisha said. “We are on stolen indigenous land. Folks were here before anyone else got here. There was no discovering of anything.”
Imarisha went on to state the importance of understanding Oregon’s Black history because of the “Northwest nice,” which markets Portland as, “this open, liberal place. The idea of Portlandia that gets exported internationally.”
According to Imarisha, this image places Portland in a juxtaposition against other regions in the U.S., such as the South. However, Imarisha emphasized, “Racism is an American problem. It is not confined to any one region in this country.”
Imarisha continued, “We have to understand…The ways these triple evils that MLK talked about are built into the foundation of Oregon, the [NW] and into this country.”
Imarisha explained such foundations include the Oregon Black exclusion law and Oregon’s historical Lash Law that permitted the annual public lashing of African-American citizens in order to deter them from living in Oregon. These discriminatory practices later evolved into municipal fines and imprisonment as a means to criminalize and oppress non-white communities.
Imarisha discussed gentrification as a violent symptom of capitalism and as another lesser-known concept shared between both MLK and Malcolm X as a fundamental truth of understanding the obstacles the U.S. must overcome in order to achieve justice, unity and the ability to dream collectively.