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Elizabeth II: Queen of the world

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Queen Elizabeth II

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For billions of people, she was the one constant in a world of bewildering change, an omnipresent matriarch linking the past with the present.

While the enormous British Empire she once presided over shrank, her symbolic influence only seemed to grow, her mystique bolstered by films like “The Queen” and the Netflix series “The Crown”.

Against the tide of history and logic, she made a medieval anachronism somehow modern, a stoic old lady in a hat onto whom so much could be projected.

Perhaps only the pope held as much sway, and she saw seven of them come and go during her record-breaking seven-decade reign.

– Accident of history –

Although Elizabeth Windsor became the very definition of the word, she was not born to be queen.

An accident of history brought her to the throne.

Until her “Uncle David” — Edward VIII — abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson in 1936, she had only an outside chance of reigning.

Even as heir apparent, the birth of a baby brother would have sent her back into relative aristocratic obscurity under succession laws in place at the time that gave precedence to males.

All changed for “Lilibet” when she was 10 and her reluctant, stammering father became George VI.

Until the “shock” of the abdication, she had been brought up exactly like her more outgoing younger sister Margaret. The two were often dressed like twins.

Her tough-minded mother, also called Elizabeth, was her emotional lodestar. She made sure the girls had an “insulated and care-free childhood” in contrast to the suffocating Palace strictures their father suffered.

Nevertheless, she learned duty early.

“Princess Elizabeth was quite a good tap dancer and mimic and could be very funny when she wanted to be,” said royal biographer Andrew Morton, whose study of her close but often strained relationship with Margaret appeared in 2021.

And she “could be depended upon to do what was asked, keeping her toys and clothes in perfect order”.

– ‘Magnificent isolation’ –

An introvert, she adapted easily to the “magnificent isolation” of royal life spent surrounded by scores of servants and courtiers.

The royal family — George VI, Queen Elizabeth, princess Elizabeth and princess Margaret — referred to themselves as “we four”, Morton said, and were close.

Yet as queen, Elizabeth looked more to her steely and stolid grandfather George V — a reformer who believed in leading by example.

Her biographer, Robert Lacey, told AFP that like him she saw the decline of the English class system, and wanted to establish a direct relationship with the people.

George V began the royal broadcasts, which the queen used to hone her own mix of mystery and intimacy, inviting television viewers into Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle for rather stilted fireside chats surrounded by photographs of her children, dogs and horses.

– Young queen –

Her coronation on June 2, 1953 was the first major event of the television age.

The news that morning of New Zealander Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest made the celebrations all the more giddy.

The Union Jack had been planted on the top of world, as Britain financed the expedition, alongside that of the United Nations and Nepal.

But for all the glamour of the young queen — then just 25 — and talk of a second Elizabethan age, Imperial Britain was in trouble.

India — the so-called “Jewel in the Crown” — had already gained independence in 1947.

Hard-won victory in World War II had left the country exhausted and virtually bankrupt, its cities bomb-scarred and rationing was in its 14th year.

The Suez Crisis in 1956 would deal Britain’s status as a world power a final shattering blow.

While the Tudor-era Elizabeth I in the 16th century oversaw the birth of England’s imperial project, Elizabeth II’s fate was to watch the flag come down on the biggest empire the world has ever seen.

The latest to go was Barbados, which cut ties with the British Crown after nearly four centuries in 2021.

– Quiet reformer –

Such a retreat would have carried other monarchies with it, but the queen was the embodiment of British stiff upper lip and its “keep calm and carry on” spirit.

She had already done her dynastic duty by giving birth to an “heir and a spare” — a successor and a younger sibling — by the time she was crowned.

With the ageing Winston Churchill — the first of 15 British prime ministers to serve under her — at her side, she began to slowly reinvent the institution.

Decades sidestepping diplomatic bear traps on never-ending royal tours and state visits made her a formidable operator.

Those skills have been “capital” in holding the Commonwealth of incredibly diverse mostly former British colonies together, Lacey insisted.

Despite crises and conflicts, it still counts 54 countries with a combined population of 2.57 billion people.

– Princess in love –

The queen was 13 when she fell for her 18-year-old third cousin Philip in 1939, then a dashing naval cadet preparing to go to war.

Her nanny noted that “she never took her eyes off him”. Letters were soon flying back and forth.

Despite the constant threat, the future queen experienced her greatest freedom during those teenage wartime years.

Relatively safe behind the thick walls of Windsor Castle, west of London, she became a volunteer driver and mechanic.

When victory was declared in 1945, the 19-year-old princess joined the crowds celebrating in central London along with her friends and her sister Margaret.

She later described it as “one of the most memorable nights of my life. I remember we were terrified of being recognised.”

Two years later, despite her mother’s reservations — the Queen Mother referred to plain-speaking Philip as “the Hun” because of his German wider family — she married the impecunious Danish-Greek prince.

She gave birth to Charles 11 months later and Anne followed in 1950. Andrew — said to be her favourite — arrived in 1960, with Edward born four years later.

The queen was a one-man woman, who “never looked at anyone else”, her cousin and confidant Margaret Rhodes said.

Philip’s marital fidelity was reportedly less sure, but his sense of duty was equally iron cast.

Their 73-year partnership, which lasted until his death in April 2021, was her “strength and stay”, the queen later confessed.

Both loved horses. The queen’s racing stables turned out some 1,700 winners, with the Racing Post occupying pride of place on her desk alongside state papers.

She only missed two Epsom Derbies in her entire reign.

Philip played polo into his 50s and raced carriages into his 90s. Fittingly both were obsessed with breeding.

On her highly sensitive royal visit to Ireland in 2011 — the first by a British royal since its independence — the queen met almost as many horses as people after asking to take in two famous stud farms.

– Humanising the royals –

Thoroughbreds can be difficult to handle. And this was also to prove true with members of the royal family, known as “The Firm”, who would become more visible than ever under Elizabeth’s reign.

The world got its first glimpse of their private lives in 1969 when BBC cameras were allowed around the Buckingham Palace breakfast table.

The documentary was part of a bid to “humanise” the monarchy masterminded by Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and the former viceroy of India’s son-in-law, film producer John Knatchbull, the seventh Baron Brabourne.

Since the beginning of her reign, the Palace had sought to portray the royals as a family like any other, a more well-born, well-appointed version of a modern British household.

But “Royal Family” lifted the veil further than ever before, revealing some surprising quirks — behind her shy and dutiful exterior, the queen was actually a rather racy driver.

Not for the last time, it was Prince Philip who delivered the biggest bombshell, telling viewers how the queen’s father King George VI would take out his rage on the rhododendrons.

“Sometimes I thought he was mad,” he deadpanned.

Critics, including Princess Anne — who called the film “rotten” — blamed it for opening the door to the tabloid voyeurism that would soon dog the clan.

– Tabloid troubles –

The queen’s rather unruly and resentful sister, Margaret, was first in the firing line, her colourful private life making her prime paparazzi material.

All the royals, apart from the “untouchable” queen herself and Prince Philip, would in time feel the swipe of the media’s double-edged sword.

Yet the queen seemed to float above it all, her life a carefully guarded secret.

Beyond her love of horses and rather snappy Corgi dogs, along with a fondness for crossword puzzles and a Dubonnet and gin cocktail before lunch, very little about her private life was known.

In later life she developed a fondness for television soap operas, and while self-isolating in Windsor during the coronavirus lockdown is said to have become a fan of the police corruption drama “Line of Duty”.

She even reportedly watched the upper-class period drama “Downton Abbey”.

In 2021, when she was forced to slow down because of ill health, The Times reported that late-night television had left her “knackered”.

She even stopped drinking her lunchtime gin and martini in the evening.

– ‘Annus horribilis’ –

For a time, there was much to celebrate in her children’s lives.

The “fairytale” marriage of Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was a massive global media event, as was the wedding of Andrew to Sarah Ferguson five years later.

Yet the couples’ private lives would soon provide endless fodder for the voracious British tabloids.

Both marriages very publicly fell apart in 1992, as did Anne’s to Captain Mark Phillips. To top it all, Windsor Castle was badly damaged by fire.

The queen called it her “annus horribilis”.

In an effort to win back public support, she began paying tax and Buckingham Palace was opened to the public for the first time.

But the rancour between Charles and Diana became poisonous as they settled scores in rival TV interviews in what became known as the “War of the Waleses”.

And then the unimaginable happened. Diana’s tragic end in a car crash in Paris in 1997 not only shook confidence in the monarchy, but in the queen herself.

– Diana –

A series of missteps in the days after her daughter-in-law’s death left the queen looking cold, uncaring and out of touch.

“Show us you care,” said one newspaper front page after the queen opted to stay in her Scottish summer retreat of Balmoral rather return to London.

“Speak to us Ma’am,” headlined another, in criticism that would have been unthinkable only a few years before.

And her decision to strip the so-called “People’s Princess” of her royal status in the wake of Diana’s bombshell 1995 BBC interview came back to haunt the monarch.

But through it all, the queen kept her counsel, sticking doggedly to the royals’ reputed mantra of “never complain, never explain”.

It may have helped maintain the institution’s mystique in past but here it badly backfired.

A major Palace overhaul followed.

Help in restoring faith in the monarch was to come from an unlikely source — the self-confessed “old republican left-winger” Stephen Frears.

His Oscar-winning 2008 movie “The Queen”, set against the backdrop of the Diana crisis, did much to explain her position and rewrite the narrative.

Helen Mirren — another republican — won an Oscar for her moving portrayal of the queen’s struggle between duty and family, winning her sympathy even from people who had little time for the monarchy.

– The problem with Charles –

Rehabilitating Charles would be trickier. As early as 1977, during her Silver Jubilee marking 25 years on the throne, the queen had vowed to rule until her death.

While this promised stability, it also seemed to undermine the Prince of Wales, whom some saw as unfit to follow her.

His buttonholing of politicians over his hobby horse causes seemed to challenge the unwritten rule that the royals stay out of politics.

However, as many of his once “fringe” ideas, such as on the environment, became mainstream, Charles has shown a more relaxed, self-deprecating side, particularly after his 2005 marriage to his lifelong lover Camilla.

With his mother in her 90s, he began to take over her duties as the most senior royal on overseas trips.

– Family –

Despite the consolation of grandchildren and great grandchildren in the twilight of her reign, her greatest headaches continued to come from within her own family.

Now the longest serving British monarch ever, the marriages of both of her grandsons William and Harry to commoners seemed to offer another phase of modernisation and renewal.

However, within three years of Harry’s mould-breaking marriage to the mixed-race American actress Meghan Markle in 2018, a rift with the Palace became horribly public.

A month after allegations of racism within the family were raised in a television interview with Oprah Winfrey, Philip died aged 99 in April 2021, leaving her ever more alone.

With Andrew also mired in underage sex allegations over links with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, it was another “annus horribilis”.

– Last of her kind? –

Yet the monarch herself remained hugely popular and admired, an embodiment of traditional values and all that seemed eternal about England.

In his book on her and her sister, Morton recounts how Margaret burst in on the queen’s weekly audience with the prime minister early in her reign.

“If you weren’t queen, nobody would talk to you,” Margaret fumed, angry at being left out.

Time and again since, Elizabeth proved the contrary, that she was infinitely worthy — the first and perhaps the “last global monarch”, as the New York Times put it in 2021.

The unknowable mystique she cultivated in a world ever more demanding of transparency may well die with her.


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The Courage to Counter Castro

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REVIEW: Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba

• September 11, 2022 4:59 am

What would I be willing to risk or endure in order to live a life where free political discussion and action is possible? This is a question that readers of David Hoffman’s Give Me Liberty might put to themselves after thinking through the life of Oswaldo Payá and his battle with communist tyranny in Cuba.

Payá was 13 years old when the Castro regime seized his father’s newspaper distribution business in 1965. Oswaldo’s father Alejandro was arrested. This was the beginning of a campaign against private businesses that lasted three years—the implementation of a socialist morality that denounced and punished vendors and businessmen as parasites. Young Oswaldo had been the only boy in his class to refuse entry into the Jose Martí Pioneers—the communist youth organization in Cuba. The family’s observant Catholicism only added to the stigma the Payás experienced. Alejandro was released after one week and told his family not to express any complaint. He recommended a strategy of public compliance. He urged his children to do well in school, work hard, and prepare for the future. “You have to yield—in order to triumph,” he said. This was not a strategy Oswaldo would adopt.

Hoffman interweaves two other stories around the central tale of Payá’s confrontation with the communist regime. First, he encapsulates Cuba’s post-colonial history, focusing in particular on the story of the Cuban constitution of 1940. We meet Gustavo Gutiérrez, an advocate for constitutional democracy who wrote a draft constitution for Cuba in the mid-1930s. Important for Payá’s story, a key provision of Gutierrez’s draft found its way into the Cuban constitution of 1940: new laws could be proposed by congressmen and Senators, but also by citizens—in this latter case, the initiative would require the endorsement of “at least ten thousand citizens having the status of voters.”

Second, Hoffman explores Fidel Castro’s rise to power and his construction of Cuban communism. Castro initially presented himself as an agent of Cuban democracy, promising elections in the aftermath of a successful revolutionary seizure of power. He even pledged to make the 1940 constitution the “supreme law of the land.” By May 1961 he declared that constitution dead and promised a new “socialist constitution” that would introduce “a new social system without the exploitation of many by man.” This purported end of exploitation would of course require extraordinary levels of surveillance and coercion. Already in 1960 Castro put in place Committees for the Defense of the Revolution—what he called a “system of collective vigilance.” These organizations could be found in neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools. Hoffman calls them the “foundation stones of the police state” as they created a vast network of monitors and informants. By the mid-1960s the regime had built the UMAP (Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción) labor camp system to house anyone hostile or even potentially hostile to socialist revolution.

Oswaldo Payá ended up cutting sugar cane in one of the camps in the summer of 1969. After a year he was flown to the Isle of Pines, which housed a prison complex built in the 1920s where he would work breaking rocks in a quarry 10 hours a day. The restrictions here were less onerous than in the UMAP system, so Payá and some of his fellow prisoners were able to explore the small town of Nueva Gerona on the weekends. They stumbled on a library across the street from a church and read Orwell’s Animal Farm, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the works of the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. These men who had been declared enemies or deviants found a refuge and “reveled in the freedom to think and talk.” As Hoffman puts it, “The forced labor camps attempted to ‘reeducate’ and ‘retrain’ the outsiders, to coerce them to believe in the revolution. But for Oswaldo Payá, the experience was the opposite. They had not conquered his soul. They had nourished it.”

It’s not clear whether Payá would share the sentiments of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (one of his heroes), “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life,” but he did find the atmosphere in Havana suffocating by contrast. He hoped to study physics at university but campus life was so conformist and ideologically charged he couldn’t stand it. “They didn’t kick me out but they asphyxiated me,” he noted. He eventually got a degree in electrical engineering via night school in 1983. Shortly thereafter he found his vocation through the Catholic Church.

Castro’s revolution had brought the Church to the brink of destruction. Prior to the revolution there had been about 1 priest for every 9,000 people in Cuba. By 1980 that figure was about 1 priest for every 45,000. Fewer than 1 percent of Catholics were practicing. In 1985 the archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega, invited Payá to be one of 173 delegates to a conference on the future of the Cuban church. With his then-fiancé Ofelia, he prepared a document called “Faith and Justice.” In it he argued that Catholics must be free to speak the truth about injustice and oppression and to resist being pushed to the margins of society. He presented his ideas at a meeting of the delegates before the conference and was immediately denounced.

Just over a decade later Payá launched the Varela Project, a citizen petition demanding freedom of assembly, amnesty for political prisoners, the right to engage in private enterprise, and the establishment of a new electoral code allowing for free elections. The movement culminated in Payá submitting a formal citizen’s petition to the National Assembly on May 10, 2002—with over 11,000 signatures.

Payá’s stature grew internationally as he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Human Rights and Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. He met with Václav Havel and Pope John Paul II, and the Varela Project continued adding signatures to its petition. Cuban state security was not unprepared for this challenge. In the 1980s a Cuban named Jacinto Valdés-Dapena had gone to Potsdam to study with the Stasi—East German state security. There he learned a strategy for dealing with dissidents known as Zersetzung or decomposition. He brought back to Cuba techniques of covert psychological warfare to infiltrate dissident movements, sow distrust among members, and exploit envy and jealousy. Hoffman relates the grinding battles between Payá and his allies and Cuban state security in riveting detail.

Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash on July 22, 2012—a crash many suspect was orchestrated by Cuban state security. Like many prominent dissidents of the 20th century, Payá embodied an extraordinary combination of courage and humility. Hoffman’s book is a powerful antidote to delusions about the reality of Cuban communism. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a study of character in action—a test of virtue in a soil of unfreedom. One hopes that the seeds of virtue left by Payá will bear fruit soon.

Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and His Daring Quest for a Free Cuba
by David E. Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $32.50

Flagg Taylor, a professor in the department of political science at Skidmore College, was editor, most recently, of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, and hosts the Enduring Interest Podcast. You can find him on Twitter: @FlaggTaylor4




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House deal for Trump records lets accounting firm decide what to release

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A deal announced early this month by House Democrats for years of Donald Trump’s financial records allows his former accounting firm to interpret how to satisfy a congressional subpoena that was narrowed down by a federal appeals court in July, according to a settlement filed late Friday.

Under the proposed deal, Trump and several of his business entities will end litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A three-judge panel of the appeals court had upheld a lower-court opinion that said House lawmakers can see a limited range of Trump’s records with accounting firm Mazars to review his compliance with presidential ethics and disclosure laws.

Both Trump and the House Oversight Committee agreed that “Mazars and its counsel shall exercise their independent judgment in determining” what documents to turn over under four categories first sought by a House subpoena in April 2019.

If approved by a judge, the settlement will end a precedent-setting battle over how far Congress can go to investigate alleged corruption by the nation’s chief executive, after courts ruled on Trump’s claims that he was the victim of a political persecution and laid out protections that former presidents retain after leaving office from lawmakers’ probing under the Constitution’s separation of powers.

A six-page proposal by the parties submitted to U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta fleshes out a bare-bones announcement by House committee’s chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), on Sept. 1.

“After numerous court victories, I am pleased that my committee has now reached an agreement to obtain key financial documents that former president Trump fought for years to hide from Congress,” Maloney said in a statement.

The proposed court settlement — signed by Trump attorney Patrick Strawbridge, House General Counsel Douglas Letter and Mazars counsel Thomas Manisero — says that:

  • Mazars will turn over records, source documents and engagement letters from 2014 through 2018 that “reference, indicate, or discuss any undisclosed, false, or otherwise inaccurate information” about Trump’s assets, liabilities or income as reported in his executive branch financial disclosure forms to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) from 2015 to 2018, or as reported in the Trump Organization’s voluntary payments to the U.S. Treasury Department in 2017-18. Records to be turned over do not have to refer to the OGE or Treasury Department reports themselves. Mazars is to turn over communications related to any concerns raised in the preparation, review or auditing of such documents or the information they contain.
  • Mazars “can use all available information, including all documents in its possession and publicly available records” to identify responsive records, the sides agreed, but it is not required to undertake any new analysis. The stipulation also allows for Mazars to answer the subpoena for documents related to the federal lease for the former president’s recently sold Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office building in downtown Washington, spanning the period from his election in November 2016 through 2018, but only from the business that held the lease, Trump Old Post Office LLC.
  • Mazars will turn over documents from Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, through 2018 related to financial ties or transactions between Trump or a Trump entity and “any foreign state or foreign state agency, the United States, any federal agency, any state or any state agency, or an individual government official.” Such ties do not include payments to tax authorities. Mazars must redact unrelated information and cannot disclose information about “relationships, transactions, or ties” between Trump or his businesses with purely private individuals or entities, unless Mazars “has a reasonable belief” that they were acting on behalf of a designated government, agency or official, the agreement states.

Regarding the foreign ties and transactions, Mazars may use lists provided by the House of foreign and domestic officials to search for, as well as “reliable proxies” for government officials such as hotel guests charged a “government rate” or those “known or reasonably suspected to be acting for or on behalf of” a designated entity or official. Mazars is to exercise additional care in assessing guests known to have ties to about 90 State Department-designated “Major Money Laundering” countries, according to the agreement.

The long-running case began in April 2019 when Trump sued to quash a House subpoena for eight years of his financial records dating to 2011, which said that his presidency exposed weaknesses in oversight that could be addressed only with the information. The committee said it sought the documents to corroborate testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the reported value of his assets for personal gain.

Those allegations have mushroomed into a series of challenges to Trump and his businesses by New York state authorities. Mazars cut ties with Trump in February, saying a decade’s worth of his financial statements “should no longer be relied upon” after scrutiny from the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).

In August, Trump invoked more than 400 times his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions in a deposition by James’s team about his businesses, property valuations and loans in a civil investigation of his finances. And longtime Trump Organization top financial officer Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty to state criminal charges and agreed to testify in an upcoming trial against the company, although he refused to cooperate with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office against Trump himself.

Trump was the first major party nominee in decades to refuse to release his tax returns, even as he declined to divest himself of his business holdings, stonewalled congressional Democratic investigations and oversaw the government leasing agency for his flagship Washington hotel while his businesses took in millions from both the federal government and foreign powers.

The July appeals court panel headed by Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan revisited the case after the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in July 2020 upholding Congress’s authority generally to issue subpoenas for a president’s personal financial records, but returning the matter to lower courts for further proceedings.

Trump filed suit in May 2019 to block the release, arguing that he enjoyed absolute immunity from legislative inquiries and that House Democrats only wanted to expose his data for political gain.

Srinivasan wrote that the committee had “amassed detailed evidence of suspected misrepresentations and omissions” in Trump’s required disclosure forms and provided substantial explanations of how requested information could inform changes to federal law meant to protect taxpayers and police self-dealing and other conflicts of interest among political officeholders, adding that if the level of evidence did not suffice in this case the court doubted that any Congress could obtain a president’s papers.


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‘Just go do it’: Portraits of Black Muslim community leadership in Oregon – Here is Oregon

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Nikki Brown holds gardening shears in a garden setting

(Intisar Abioto/Intisar Abioto | For Oregon Humanities)

This article, used here with permission, was written by Bruce Poinsette for Oregon Humanities and published at oregonhumanities.org. This article contains excerpted interviews from The Blacktastic Adventure, a YouTube series produced by Bruce Poinsette that explores Oregon’s Black diaspora; Part 1 of this episode features conversations with Mac Smiff and Nafisa Fai, and Part 2 features Nikki Brown. Bruce Poinsette is a current Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellow.

Growing up, I learned about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar—international Black Muslim icons—on my own, with no thanks to the Oregon school system. But where did Black Muslims feature in the story of Oregon?

Like the icons I’d learned about before, this was a question I had to find answers to for myself.

In late 2020, I started a Zoom interview series called The Blacktastic Adventure to highlight the variety of stories of Black life in Oregon. For the series’ second season, I received the support of the Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellowship and partnered with photographer Intisar Abioto and videographer Ifanyi Bell, via Open Signal Labs, to bring the interviews to life. I wanted to feature Black life in specific geographic regions of the state, hash out conversations happening within the Black Oregon zeitgeist, and create profiles of individuals from specific communities within the Black Oregon population.

As part of this project, I wanted to explore the stories of Black Muslims in Oregon—and why those stories weren’t more well known.

“Most people don’t understand enough about Islam to be more detailed in their Islamophobia,” says journalist and activist Mac Smiff. “I’m more obviously Black [to them].”

“Oregon is just so intrinsically racist and xenophobic that just being a Muslim becomes a hassle for a lot of people. I feel like a lot of Muslims in Oregon make being Muslim a secondary character trait.”

These portraits are in no way meant to represent the entire stories of these individuals’ communities, never mind Black Muslims in the state as a whole. Rather, they are part of a series of snapshots that showcase the diversity of stories within the Black diaspora in Oregon.

Nikki Brown works in in a garden

“I can’t unsee the landmarks that used to be here”

I met Nikki Brown in 2013 while writing a profile of her for The Skanner. Early in the interview, I learned that Brown was a recent Nation of Islam convert and was fighting to be recognized as Nicole X at her then day job. As a young reporter, I was excited to help, in a small way, by printing her name as she desired in the article.

These days, when reporters call, she goes by Nikki Brown. In addition to being recognized statewide as a performer, she’s a foster parent of three, a doula, a grandparent, and serves as caretaker of the Emerson Street Garden in North Portland.

“I get frustrated when I hear, ‘We don’t have this and we don’t have that,’” says Brown. “Just go do it.”

When Brown took on the caretaker role in early 2022, she didn’t know much about the technical aspects of gardening. She just saw the need and hoped her ability to bring people together would help move the project forward.

The first community activities that Brown led at the garden were cleanups to remove needles, trash, and other items. A man who had been camping at the site even helped with cleanup efforts.

Later on, an older Black Muslim woman volunteered to teach Brown and others about gardening, and the Emerson Street Garden, which now includes an environmental classroom, has been active ever since.

On days when Brown is struggling to find the motivation, she loves getting calls from Black women who are interested in trying their hand at gardening and organizing impromptu get-togethers. She also loves organizing gardening activities specifically for youth.

Knowing that Portland is a hub for transplants, Brown sees special importance in Black Portlanders leading projects like the Emerson Street Garden. She’s spent most of her life living in Northeast Portland, where her family moved to from Louisiana when she was six months old. This is her second stint living in the Emerson Street neighborhood.

“People don’t understand how important it is to maintain our history as Black Portlanders,” says Brown. “I can’t unsee the landmarks that used to be here.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that what drew Brown to the Nation of Islam back in 2012 was the group’s reputation for community outreach and the opportunity it provided her to personally dive into Black history. Somewhat ironically, the subsequent journey led her to embrace the name Nikki Brown.

“I no longer have to fight to prove that this is what a Muslim is,” says Brown. “I realized that a good Muslim is just one who submits to God, and if I’m doing that, my work will speak to it, and people will see that.”

Seated, Mac Smiff holds a flower as he speaks

“You have to say what you want to be heard”

When Nikki Brown speaks about her call to serve the community, I can’t help but think of Mac Smiff, another person I met during my time at The Skanner. It was 2013, and Smiff was transitioning from a young rap career to a writing career. He recalls performing at the Portland State University park blocks during his lunch break, still wearing his work uniform.

In the early 2010s, he began blogging, and soon after, he started writing for We Out Here Magazine, a Northwest hip-hop lifestyle blog, where he eventually became the editor and owner. Since taking the helm at WOHM, Smiff has put a major emphasis on engaging the city and country alike with the story of Portland hip hop.

Seeing and filling community needs was something instilled in Smiff early on. In 1992, his family moved from New York to an area of Clackamas that is now Happy Valley. They found community at the Muslim Community Center of Portland, and his parents were involved in helping build the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington masjid in Vancouver.

At WOHM, Smiff has created a platform for a number of emerging writers (full disclosure: I wrote as a columnist for WOHM off and on between 2014 and 2016) and used the platform to influence politics. In particular, the site has shone a spotlight on Portland’s police profiling of hip hop, as well as police brutality and corruption in general.

The blog, along with local partners such as DJ Verbz, Vortex Music Magazine, and Portland State University, has also fostered the rise of The Thesis, one of Portland’s premier hip hop showcases. The monthly event at downtown Portland’s Kelly’s Olympian has been lauded for consciously incorporating local photographers and an unwritten “no more straight dude shows” rule, ensuring every show highlights the diversity of the local scene.

“People have said The Thesis is activism, in a way,” says Smiff, “because it does seek to teach by example.”

When Portland’s racial justice protests began in 2020, Smiff used his media experience and skills as a “connective tissue person” to provide regular coverage on the ground and serve as a consistent mouthpiece to voice the sentiments of the community to the press. In fact, he emerged as one of the most quoted people during the 2020 protests and amassed a large following on Twitter.

Smiff tries to keep the attention in perspective. “Most of these people are following me because they just want some kind of protest news,” he says. “They want some information on what’s going on with the cops. They want some rhetoric to run with.”

A little over a decade ago, Smiff was rapping in his work uniform at the PSU Park Blocks. Now, his imprint can be found across the city, from the crowds he addresses at the Multnomah County Justice Center and Kelly’s Olympian, to the youth he educates at the Numberz FM content camp and his WOHM creative office.

Ultimately, he says his speaking acumen comes from a simple lesson learned while on stage and from working for years in the media: “You have to say what you want to be heard.”

Seated, Nafisa Fai folds her arms as she poses for a photo

“Coming to America, I had this idea that anyone who is Black is from Africa”

For as much of a culture shock as it was for Mac Smiff and his family to move from New York to Clackamas, it was that much more of a transition for Nafisa Fai and her family. They immigrated from Somalia in the 1990s, when Fai was seventeen, to escape the country’s civil war. Before beginning the immigration interview process, she’d never even met a White person.

Once in Portland, Fai’s family was placed in a housing development occupied mostly by other African immigrant families near Northeast Portland’s Dawson Park. Early on, she spent a lot of time listening, trying to pick up on the nuances of American culture and her new community.

She recalls the way girls at her high school would follow her and her sister around because they were holding hands. Her uncle suggested she write the girls a letter to ask them what they wanted. When Fai did, the girls wrote back that they thought Fai and her sister were lesbians. She later transferred to another school, where a classmate thought she was Samoan, and they got into a confrontation. The two would ultimately become good friends, but it was all part of a social learning curve. This was especially true when it came to understanding the complexities of Portland’s Black community.

“Coming to America, I had this idea that anyone who is Black is from Africa,” says Fai. “I learned about the different ethnicities within the Black community.”

Fai eventually translated those experiences into founding the Pan African Festival of Oregon in 2017. She was initially going to call it Marcus Garvey Day but settled on an umbrella term that specifically highlighted all Black communities. Featuring food, businesses, and live performances showcasing the African diaspora, the Pan African Festival has since become an annual event and a Portland favorite.

With the success of the festival, Nafisa turned her eyes to politics. She went through the Emerge Oregon program, which recruits and trains Democratic women to seek public office, and then successfully ran for Washington County Commissioner in 2020. As the first Black and Muslim woman to hold the position, she and her campaign received a more virulent version of the bigotry she faced growing up—this time from a significant portion of her largely White constituents.

“When I was running, anti-Blackness was real. Islamophobia was real,” says Fai. “They accused me of being a baby killer. A terrorist. You name it.”

Fai has prided herself on not allowing the hatred to distract her. Likewise, she rejects notions that seek to divide either Black or Muslim communities from within.

“When it comes to leaders, I like to think we’re getting smarter, learning from past experiences and unifying to say, ‘We’re Black,’” says Fai. “Disaggregating Blackness is a distraction and doesn’t help us. The goal is to get as many resources as possible funneled into our community.”

“The children still deserve magic”

While they might seem to represent different sides—the politician and the activist— Fai and Smiff demonstrate that leadership is a puzzle made up of a variety of pieces. One of those pieces might even wear green hair and a clown nose.

Despite experimenting with clowning and converting to the Nation of Islam around the same time, Nikki Brown personally struggled to embrace her clown character early on. Specifically, she looked at the work of her peers like Imani Muhammad (who encouraged Brown to join the NOI), Mattie Khan, and Michelle X Pratcher and felt like clowning didn’t measure up.

That all changed when she was invited to perform at the Nation of Islam’s National Savior’s Day convention in 2013. She found peace in her role, she says, walking through the Savior’s Day children’s village and observing young people playing games, getting their faces painted, and riding the carnival train.

“In any activism, there’s children,” says Brown. “In our fight for freedom, the children still deserve magic. The children still deserve fun.”

She likens the children’s interactions with her to those of theme park mascots like Minnie Mouse or Spongebob Squarepants. The big difference, of course, is that Nikki Brown Clown looks like the Black children she serves.

“Black children rarely get to experience icons who are human,” says Brown. “To stand next to Nikki Brown Clown is to say, ‘Maybe that could be me,’ or ‘Hey, that’s my friend.’”

— Bruce Poinsette, For Oregon Humanities


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