“Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?”: Speech at UO explores topic
Students, faculty and alumni lined the walls and filled the aisles in Lillis 182 Thursday evening to hear speaker Walidah Imarisha’s talk titled “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?: A Hidden History.” Many people were turned away due to lack of seating and encouraged to watch the live stream provided by the university’s Center for the Study of Women in Society, the primary sponsor of the event.
Imarisha said she knew there was a lot of interest due to the Facebook event’s following. But she said this kind of attendance “speaks to the desire people have to have conversations like this.”
Imarisha encouraged everyone in attendance to meet someone next to him or her and discuss the slideshow. She emphasized that it didn’t matter if they read every word on the screen because the discussions they had were more important. The slideshow featured an Oregon Black history timeline.
The project came from something Imarisha asked herself and something she heard students ask after moving to Oregon. She spent most of her childhood living at various military bases, which she said are disproportionately home to people of color. She moved to Springfield for high school and “the first question I asked myself was [this]” she said, gesturing to the presentation title on the projector.
“Black history is Oregon history, just like people of color’s history is the history of the United States,” said Imarisha. Despite this, when she asked how many Oregonians who went to public schools learned about this, no hands went up.
Student Tyler Green, echoed that he never had a formal education on Black history in Oregon. He said he learned about much of this oppression through conversations with his family over the dinner table. He and Alli Lau, who sat by him, co-direct the Peer Exchange Program, where they attempt to create a supportive space for underrepresented and marginalized communities on campus.
“It’s refreshing to hear it out loud in front of like 200 people,” said Lau.
The Center for the Study of Women in Society invited Imarisha to give this presentation as part of their role as a “convener of community on campus for people on the margins,” said Operations Manager for the center Dena Frazier. They have events like these for “anyone who feels like a square peg in a round hole.”
Although Imarisha outlined the immense progress Oregon has made from the injustices on the slideshow, she expressed how far the state, and country as a whole, has to go. “We often think of history as a linear progression toward greatness,” she said, but it’s not: she cited modern examples how the current presidential administration treats them as proof that history is “cyclical” in nature instead.
Although this event was a huge success, Frazier said she hopes the talk about this subject doesn’t end with Imarisha’s departure. “At the end of the days she leaves and we’re left with each other. The goal was to come, think, engage and leave with the ability to continue the conversation outside of the room.”
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