Party House, Grow House, Room with a View

Exploring the History of a Home and a Neighborhood

Race in the Oregon Wilderness

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I wrote a blog post last year that I never posted. It seemed too raw to post then. It still does. But the armed white protesters occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge inspired me to revise and post it now:


I am writing this without internet from Fivemile Butte Lookout Tower, one of the fire lookouts the Forest Service rents to tourists. It is a smallish room, but surrounded on all sides by windows it feels spacious, a magical tree house. When we go to sleep, the tops of Lodgepole and Ponderosa pines outside the windows are silhouettes against the sky’s sprinkling of stars. When we wake at dawn, the clouds are a pale pink on the horizon, Mt. Hood a snow-covered peak in the distance. In my dream the climbers summiting Hood are within shouting distance, roped in, wearing crampons and bright blue parkas. In my dream I wave at them.

In the quiet of the tower we just finished reading Claudia Rankine’s new book, the brilliant, award-winning Citizen: An American Lyric, a lyric account of both racial microaggressions and the extrajudicial killing of black men and women.


In the drawers of the tower are games and puzzles. One of the games is “Ghettopoly,” copyright 2002. In the center is a picture of a black man wearing a red bandana, brandishing a machine gun and a bottle of malt liquor. Each stop on the board is a racist and classist caricature, with “Weinstein’s Gold and Platinum” and “Trailer Trash Court” standing alongside more racist caricatures of blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

I burned the game in the wood stove.

It seemed like it should have been satisfying, but it wasn’t. The existence of the game was too awful, too violent. I wanted to write my anger down in the Tower’s journal, but as my wife pointed out, to write it down would re-inscribe its message to any person of color who visited: you are not welcome here. That was the message of Oregon’s constitution; that is the message of too many of Oregon’s land use policies since. In Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful poem, “Race,” it is Oregon’s “cool, sagey groves” the pale Great-Uncle moves to when he begins passing:

Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life. . .


At a reading Claudia Rankine gave recently at Reed College, she told the audience that many of those who shared stories of microagressions had never told their spouses the stories they were telling her. Remembering them, holding on to them, would get in the way of their success as high powered professionals. They knew how to get things done. They knew when they needed to forget. What, then, does this American Lyric do by remembering? Among other things, Rankine tells us, it exposes to the white reader the sources, the incitements for an otherwise inexplicable rage.

Years ago, when I was very sad and trying not to be, I shared a summer sublet with my sister. The room was a bump-out on the second floor of a Craftsman in a now-expensive part of town. Perhaps the room had once been an open deck. Now, it was all windows. Windows surrounded by oak and maple and sunlight. It felt like living in a treehouse. Sleeping in that room, working at the public library, nourished like the leaves that surrounded me by Portland’s summer sun, I slowly began to remember to be alive.

One day, my little sister invited three boys over. I don’t remember where or how she met them. They talked a tough game, looked uncomfortable and out of place. They made me nervous, and I assumed my nervousness was racism. I offered them each an IPA and one laughed a little, expressing a discomfort that I remembered vividly from visits to my grandmother’s house as a child: Here I am, the bull in the china shop, the poor girl in the rich house.

Later that day, I got a call from the owner of the home, a lesbian who had bought before the neighborhood came up. Her downstairs renters had seen us invite into her home boys who had been loud. Did she say thugs? Or some polite circumlocution? I don’t remember.

Later that day, my sister realized they had stolen her phone.

At the time, I felt angry at those black boys for the distance between us. Like most white girls I knew, I had shoplifted a thing or two in high school. As long as it was from a corporation, what did it matter? It was disconcerting to think that those boys saw us as as far away from them as we might be from K-Mart. Were we that? Just capitalism’s white, impersonal facade?

Now, though, I remember one of the most shameful acts of my adolescence—stealing a three-volume set of the collected works of Nathaniel Hawthorne from a small used bookstore. The owner behind the desk had been kind to me, talked to me about the books. She had gone to Bryn Mawr, a school that two years later I didn’t apply to, convinced they would not accept me. How could I have stolen from her? It’s taken me a year to publish this post because this theft goes against every part of my self image.  Looking back, I wonder if it was about not distance but identification. I don’t remember what I was thinking, only that I felt empty and wanted to fill that emptiness. It was the year I spent in the closet after my parents told me being a lesbian was against the Bible. I wanted to be like the bookshop owner. I wanted to be her. Instead, or perhaps because of this, I stole the volumes and never went back. Did I ever read from them? I don’t remember.

When the homeowner called about us inviting the three boys in to her house, she said, “they could see my stereo equipment and come back to steal it.” I wanted to say, they would never do that. But I didn’t know. After all, they had stolen my sister’s phone. So instead I apologized. I didn’t say, the only things you know about them are their color and their class. I didn’t say, your renters are being racist. I thought all of that, but said only, we are sorry, it won’t happen again.


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