An artist's campaign draws ire but also discussion about slavery
Thursday, October 11, 2007
ERIN HOOVER BARNETT
This story was picked up by the Associated Press (AP) and reprinted in over 50 news outlets
Frances Miller's early attempts at starting a conversation Wednesday were a little rough.
"Hey, sister, are you a descendent of slaves?" she called out to a woman who looked African American, scoring a glare.
Miller sat on Northeast 15th Avenue at Broadway -- a volunteer in the National Day of Panhandling for Reparations. She and others across the country asked white passers-by to pay reparations for enslaving black people, and then they gave money to black passers-by. Each got a receipt.
Many people walking by reacted with confusion, amusement, annoyance, offense. But for the people who stopped, the results were profound.
"Artists take the lead on social issues," said Portland-based performance artist damali ayo, who masterminded the event. "This is the way I'm taking the lead on a social issue. Taking it to the streets. Also to get the job done -- getting those reparations paid out."
The debate over paying reparations has raged since 1865 when, after President Lincoln was killed, the government took back the land it gave to former slaves after the Civil War. Ayo says that if the notion of begging on the street seems desperate, that's because after 150 years the situation feels desperate.
"It's already been demeaning," said ayo, 35. "This performance doesn't make it any more demeaning."
Ayo recruited 70 volunteers of many races in the United States, Great Britain and New Zealand, including a dozen in Portland. Through Web sites, the media, participants and people on the street, she hopes to generate greater awareness.
Annin Barrett said she agreed to panhandle "because it's difficult." It made her uncomfortable to confront people, but even more challenging was confronting herself.
"There is this onus of white guilt that I think a lot of white people carry with them, and it's touching that," said Barrett, 54, who is white. She and a friend panhandled across from Whole Foods in the Pearl District.
Miller, 32, signed up because she believes in ayo's work. But she fretted. She asked her partner to accompany her, concerned about harassment. Yet her biggest worry was not being "black enough" to be credible. Miller said she traces her heritage to slave owners and slaves as well as Native Americans.
"I'm relating to all of my ancestors today," she said.
She perched with her laminated "Reparations accepted here" sign, donned layers and packed an umbrella against the wet weather. Atop a boombox, she placed two postcards: One showed the inside of a slave ship, the other a slave, welts crisscrossing his back.
The first person who walked by was receptive.
In other places "people panhandle for beer money or drugs," said Joseph Oldani, 22, who is white. "Here you actually have people sitting out here doing something that's been widely avoided by the American people."
He dug out the 75 cents left after buying coffee en route to a job interview.
But after he left, men and women hurried by Miller, some on cell phones, some wearing earphones, many just ignoring her pleasant "Good morning. Taking reparations payments!"
Then came the woman Miller had greeted earlier who looked African American; she was accompanied by a woman who looked white. Both bristled at Miller's query, uncertain what to make of her.
"I'm still working on my approach," Miller said sheepishly after they passed.
The women later returned. This time Miller tried to explain, ending with, "So I'm taking reparations today."
The white woman, striding on, retorted, "You keep on being a (expletive) and you're going to get smacked today."
Miller swallowed hard but concluded that perhaps the next time the woman hears about reparations, she might realize what Miller was doing.
"You're going to get the salty with the sweet today," she said.
The sweet wasn't far behind.
Jeremy Butyrin pulled up to deliver beer and wine for Columbia Distributing. He passed by Miller several times with his case-laden dolly. He gave her $10.
"I'm Slavic. I kind of understand," said Butyrin, 29. "My dad had to escape oppression to come over here."
He said giving the money brightened his day.
"America's history hasn't been so kind to a lot of people," he said. "You can't always count on the government to take care of it. Sometimes you have to do it yourself."
Moments later, Porter Miller happened by.
"Good morning!" said Frances Miller. "Would you like a reparations payment?"
Startled, he stopped. He leaned closer so she could explain. Then he accepted the money.
"That's pretty neat," said Porter Miller, 58, reaching his bus stop. "It makes me feel better. Makes me feel we're appreciated here."
Erin Hoover Barnett: 503-294-5011; firstname.lastname@example.org