I thought racism couldn’t break me. Then I saw the poster.
When I started busing in 1987, my grandparents schooled me in the history of racism in the Pacific Northwest. How the Chinook and Coast Salish tribes had been decimated, along with their history. How White people shipped the entire Chinese population out of the city on trains in 1885. The internment camps that stored the Japanese in World War II; the long arc of housing discrimination and the Mother’s Day race riots in 1969.
Growing up with a poor, working-class White mother, I quickly saw within my own family that many White people felt they could get away with being racist. I remember Black folks in my family being beaten, harassed, and called “nigger” on a weekly, and at times daily, basis. Early on, I learned that racism in the Northwest was simply something you had to deal with; to expect White people to change was to expect the rain to stop because you wanted it to.
What few Black spaces there were, we held tightly. Communities that came to the Northwest from the South during World War II created replicas of the Black institutions in their home communities. The Jackson Street Jazz clubs where Ray Charles and Quincy Jones cut their teeth. Newspapers like the NW Facts, the Seattle Medium, the Skanner, and the Northwest Dispatch would be portals to Black life in the Washington area and beyond. Restaurants and dives like the Southern Kitchen, Ezell’s, and Bob’s Bar-B-Q gave people a small slice — or pot, or plate — of home.
Racism in the Northwest was somehow made more bearable if I could believe in Black centers as a sanctuary.
Until one day, at my old bus stop, in one of the most familiar Black spaces I have ever known, I saw a White supremacist “blood and soil” poster. I had a panic attack. A day later, when I saw that there was a tattoo parlor run by Nazi sympathizers four blocks away from my Aunt Virginia’s old house, I had another one. Racism in the Northwest was somehow made more bearable if I could believe in Black centers as a sanctuary. But when fascism and bigotry infested the places I used to do odd jobs for my Auntie, my hiding places shattered so violently as to make me never believe in a hiding place again.
That first stop on Commerce Street, where the bus started to go up the hill to the White neighborhoods outside of Tacoma, was where I’d see it all. Young sisters prepping each other for sales quota jobs at the mall; students, young and old, going over their homework on the way to Tacoma Community College or BJ’s Barber College; struggling folks waiting for temp jobs at the Labor Ready by the public library; elders going for breakfast at the Elks Club or the Southern Kitchen. In both their solitude and interactions with each other were a series of blueprints on how to be Black and function in society.
As an elementary and middle schooler, that bus stop was where I would organize the mixtapes I had recorded to zone out racial harassment at school, then try to sync the dial on my Walkman to try to get the Z-twins’ morning drive (1420 KRIZ/1560 KZIZ). As I got older, it would be the place where I would get records, tapes, and CDs at Buzzard, and sneak into the University of Washington Tacoma campus library to read (the police didn’t harass Black kids as much).
The difference between keeping your head on a swivel in my Hilltop neighborhood and in the rest of White Washington is that, outside the block, the punches come from unorthodox angles. The Department of Justice 2011 report on the Seattle Police Department only skimmed the surface; police brutality had long been ignored because of the Northwest’s image of tolerance. Nazi and fascist presence in the area had been such a given that it was a common belief that Black people shouldn’t risk camping in the woods. State Representative Matt Shea’s continued employment — in spite of his documented history of racism, fascism, and domestic terrorism — has convinced many Black folks to not even take the freeway to drive through rural Washington.
Meanwhile, daily interactions with ironic hipsters, performatively woke Whites, or the denizens of the intellectual dark web felt like upscale versions of Miss Millie’s negro cruising in The Color Purple; people corral you until they either get your acknowledgment or submission, with emotional hell to pay if you told them “no.”
The older I got and the more I had to deal with these interactions, the more I needed Aunt Virginia’s east side and the area of the first stop on Commerce. Hilltop wasn’t Eden, but it was a place where I could time the punches the world threw at me. A place where I could take in the array of feelings a human being experiences without the insidious burden of being Black in White spaces in the Pacific Northwest. If I was struggling with being Black in Washington, these were the spaces I could go read, listen to music, run errands. These were the places where I found myself. These were the places where I learned my history and learned to be a Black artist. These were the places where I learned how to live.
And there the pictures were staring me in the face. Blood and soil. In the same space where I discovered A Tribe Called Quest and finished the Library of America James Baldwin edition. Blood and soil. In the place where my uncle taught me to shoot craps, and Mr. Willie, the neighborhood mechanic at the Hillside Terrace housing projects, taught me how to tie a tie. A tattoo and piercing parlor owned and staffed by members of the neo-Nazi, White supremacist organization Northwest Hammerskins Crew. In the area where my grandfather and I got my aunt her fish sandwiches and Sunday newspapers.
I wasn’t naive about the changing dynamics of the city: I had seen gentrification decimate numerous Black businesses and organizations, and it never left my mind that President Barack Obama had put a detention center within seeing distance of where I used to live. But blood and soil? Hammerskins? Here? Fascists didn’t put their posters in chic restaurants and gentrified cafes — they put them up by bus stops and youth centers. In places where the undeserved and vulnerable stood a chance to be killed and tried on social media for their own murder. They later put the bulk of them by UW Tacoma as if to say to the remaining younger neighborhood black kids: “Nigger, don't you ever dream of having an inner life around here.”
It is in outrage of these spaces being desecrated by the outbreak of fascism in Tacoma that organizations like Tacoma Against Nazis came forth. A mosaic of people and groups both public and private, the group operates under the idea that Whites must be on the front line of fighting fascism and its outlets of hatred. Profiled on W. Kamau Bell’s CNN show, United Shades of America, they have been vital in leading marches against the tattoo parlor and raising community awareness in civic-minded community activities. Unlike many internet enclaves, they are people who don’t agree on everything but are unanimous in willing to fight for a beloved community.
The idea of community and allyship has a long history in Black Tacoma. From the Urban League quelling riots in 1969 to the Hilltop Action Network’s community-minded outreach to stop gang violence, Tacoma has been a hotbed of Black ascendancy politics — people more focused on a gettable inch of Black progress than crying about the hypothetical yard they couldn’t have. I see this tradition continue to this day with things like #SafeStreetsTacoma: Community members who want to take back any control they can over their own neighborhoods, no matter how woke or not their methods are.
For all the radical bromides the people in the group claim, Tacoma Against Nazis has much in common with the tradition of uplifting community in Black Tacoma. They are taking steps to attack the problem of White supremacy because it came from their house. Fascism in historically Black neighborhoods in Tacoma and beyond wasn’t a problem they started, but they are taking direct action to stop it.
“I for one will join with anyone — I don’t care what color you are — as long as you want to change the miserable condition that exists on this earth,” Malcolm X said to a crowd at Oxford College, mere months before his assassination. As he did, so will I. It is my obligation as a contributing member of society, but especially to Aunt Virginia, my grandparents, and every Black person in Tacoma who has ever loved me.