Maria Choban

Maria Choban is a pianist and teacher who advocates for and performs works of Oregon composers. She writes plays and musicals with her partner in crime, Brett Campbell. And she contributes articles about music, theater and artist-activists to Oregon ArtsWatch.

 

Brown in Black and White

Portland photographer Richard Brown’s new memoir depicts a colorful life of art and activism


Photos by RICHARD BROWN


Sometime in the early 1980s, photography plucked Richard Brown out of “retirement” and placed the Portland photographer into full-time activism. 

There was this one night when the city had organized yet another community meeting about schools, and at that meeting, as ever … [Black United] Front members were talking about racist bussing and racist curriculum, and white folks were saying the things white folks too often say, and I was off in the wings, crouched behind my camera, capturing it all. If things had stayed like that, it would’ve been just another night. But at some point, someone in the room said something particularly ignorant, and … someone else spoke up, and that someone was me. I’d dropped my camera to my chest and was standing tall, arms crossed, my words coming out fast and sharp as air from a punctured balloon. 

Being an activist can often feel like walking through a dark tunnel with no end in sight. But I have learned something over the years: you can make your own light. And you’ll need to. I’ve made my own light by taking pictures.

Two dozen of those pictures grace Brown’s new memoir, This is Not For You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience, by Brown and Brian Benson. The story details how art and activism have intertwined throughout Brown’s long and eventful life. Richard Brown’s portraits of the Black community in Managua, Nicaragua have hung in the Portland Art Museum. His collection of Portland’s Black youth is on permanent display at the Avel Gordly Albina Early Head Start Center

 “He’s right up there with one of the greats, in my mind,” says Intisar Abioto, who photographs and documents Portland’s Black community today. She wonders where all those youngsters in Brown’s pictures are now. She considers Richard Brown an important documentarian of Black Portland in the 1980s and ‘90s whose photos “could be in the Smithsonian collection, definitely need to be in the Portland Art Museum collection, definitely, like, Schomburg. It’s history!” It’s especially valuable in a state where white Oregonians pretty much shuttered the culture of Black Oregonians. 

Photography led Brown into activism, then provided refuge whenever activism grew too exhausting. Both his art and his activism have served Portland’s Black community — Brown’s community since Brown moved to Northeast Portland’s Albina neighborhood after he retired from the United States Air Force in 1976.  He’ll be talking about his book, his art, and his activism at this year’s Vanport Mosaic Festival, Wednesday, June 9 at 6 pm. 

The book reads fast, capturing Brown’s wry, careful delivery, propulsive explosions and unpredictable welling up of tears. It packs lots of entertaining stories and Brown’s a confident storyteller, so lots of times the joke’s on him; we’re all sitting on his front porch drinking beer and swappin’ lies. My mother used to say I got my first vaccination with a record needle,” the irrepressible Brown told ArtsWatch in an interview.

He’s vulnerable as well as voluble, allowing us into his basement —  strewn with tripods, clothes, everything but the thing he’s looking for. He gets distracted, opens a box of old photos, remembers people he never kept up with and starts to cry. He cries a lot. He marches us through the struggles of a burgeoning photographic artist, as well as the basic training of an early activist shooting off his mouth — “which went about as far as you’d guess it did,” to use one of Brown’s favorite phrases —  and how he evolved into a seasoned activist.

The title comes from a classroom memory. Brown’s English teacher waving the script of  Tea and Sympathy — a play about school bullying. She set it on the table in front of her desk, mentioned how powerful she found it, then casually added that since it was racy they probably wouldn’t like it. “I now jumped from my seat and snatched the script from the table,” he wrote. “All I remember about that day is how I felt and what I did when I got told, ‘This is not for you.’ “

The rest of us should follow his lead. His book is for all of us who care about Portland art and activism.

Developing Artistry

Born in Harlem in 1939, Brown, the shortest, scrawniest kid in his class, never got picked to play ball during recess, never got to play outside after school. The streets below his sixth floor walkup were unsafe. So Brown’s parents cloistered him and his four siblings within. Nose pressed against the window, Brown watched while kids forged friendships below.

When I did get to go out, I’d feel it: this invisible something the others all shared. They’d laugh at jokes I didn’t quite get, come up with the same bad idea at the same time, and generally just walk a step or three ahead. And though I tried and tried, I never could seem to catch up.

Trying to find a way in with his peers, he became the class clown. He would goof off, and daydream, and make smart remarks, or better said, stupid remarks that seemed smart at the time,” he writes, “talking stupid got me what I needed, and what I needed was attention.”

When Brown picked up his camera, however, his social insecurity manifested as shyness. Brown’s father, who knew the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, brought his son along on a visit. Brown brought along his very first camera — a Brownie. Robinson picked up the little guy and held him in his lap during the visit. Brown was too shy to take a picture. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts and loved his photography classes so much, he turned the only bathroom in the family home into a darkroom.

I was scared to take pictures of people. Whenever I stuck a camera in someone’s face, I felt like an amateur. And I didn’t want anyone thinking that about me.

Taking Flight

At seventeen, he dropped out of high school and joined the U.S. Air Force, figuring it was the best way to earn enough income and retirement pay to let him quit working before he turned 40. His adventures in the Air Force included sneaking a rattlesnake on base — but it got loose; winning his first car in a foot race; diving into a barbershop in Saigon, asking for a manicure —  three steps ahead of the black-clad Viet cong. 

 But in his twenty years of military service, although he bought lots of camera equipment to complement his education at SIA, Brown took very few pictures of people. He rationalized that there would be plenty of time once he retired.

Amid the adventures, he mentored Black recruits on how to tuck their afros under a cap while they slept so that their hair fit under their Air Force issue hats by day so that they wouldn’t have to cut it. He helped organize a demonstration when the base held a banquet at a local restaurant for an outstanding recruit, who had to enter through the back door at his own feting because he was Black. Twenty years in the Air Force sowed the seeds for his future full-time activism. It also instilled discipline in the high school dropout who drove himself to become a vaunted radio and missiles technician in the Air Force.

Black Book Stacks interview with Richard Brown and Brian Benson

Brown moved to Portland when he retired in 1976 because Portland was cheap and his pension would easily cover his overhead of life. He had no idea how to fill the vast amounts of wide open time in front of him. He took a job with the Soil Conservation Service eight days after retiring from the Air Force. He memorized SCS rules and policies, quoting them to farmers who expected him to disregard those policies and give them more than their allowed allotment of whatever they were requesting. Farmers responded with complaints about inner-city welfare programs stealing their money and Brown immediately retorted with lectures about the SCS welfare programs farmers were abusing.  

Before long, the farmers were asking to work with my co-worker, Eldon, who’d been at the SCS forever and acted like their buddy. If I picked up when they called, they’d ask for Eldon. I didn’t like that. So one day when I got one of those calls, I said, “Eldon’s dead. What’s up?” 

“People Talk Back”

Evidently, Brown wasn’t ready to take it easy. When he first moved to Portland, Ronnie Herndon, co-founder of Portland’s Black United Front, solicited him for activism. Brown politely declined. He was too busy trying to figure out how to retire. 

But it was activism in the form of the Black Education Center — “a private Black-run school that was focused on Black history and culture and dependent on community support” where Brown volunteered, that finally drew him into photography.

Through the BEC, I was always hearing of events — block parties and barbecues, marches and rallies — and at some point, I just started showing up, camera in hand. I was still shy about getting in people’s faces, so at first, I mostly took long-range shots, quickly. And those pictures just sucked. They were poorly composed, blurry, boring. Which was frustrating. I mean, I’d built this darkroom, and it felt like such a waste, using it to develop photos no better than what I’d taken as a teenager. So at some point I made myself swallow my discomfort. I moved closer. I started taking pictures people knew were being taken.

Taking good pictures was so important to Brown that he was willing to face down his shyness in order to make his art right. He further honed his chops when he landed his dream job in the late ‘70s as the photographer for the Observer — one of Portland’s Black-owned newspapers.

Those first few months — or years — all my photos came out too light, too dark, or just bad. Part of it was, the Observer paid five bucks a shot, which wasn’t enough to justify making a contact sheet, so I’d just scour negatives, pick and print only the best-looking photo. But I also didn’t know, not yet, that to get good photos of Black folks, I’d need to expose for their skin, not just the light in the room. So in my early photos, the scenes were sharp, rich with contrast, but the subjects were lost in shadow.

Brown learned how to illuminate Black skin so that Black people’s personalities shone. His body of work illuminates Portland’s Black community, bringing it out of the shadows so that we see in his photographs the everyday reality and rich complexity of his community. 

Picnicking in Alberta Park, and jumping double-dutch in parking lots, and playing Jeff High football games, and thumbing through soul forty-fives at the House of Sound, and getting barbered at Jesse Roger’s shop, and celebrating tenth birthdays and fiftieth anniversaries, and lighting Kwanzaa candles, and arriving at church dressed like royalty, and swapping lies on porches, and grilling meat at daylong block parties.

Brown’s camera became his bestie: the friend who hauled him around, immersed him in healthy social interaction, protected him from feeling like an awkward wallflower by giving him something to hold onto, something to do — an identity in his new community.

Brown told ArtsWatch that he shoots in black and white to prevent distractions like pink ribbons from interfering with the photo’s focus. He has no interest in landscape. Many photographers, especially those living in the scenic West, look to the work of iconic landscape photographers for inspiration. Brown tried to get excited about shooting “trees and rocks.” He took field trips to the Cascades with Ansel Adams acolytes and snapped a few photos he liked — 

But I never got it. The Adams acolytes loved to wax about their photos of desert sunrises and windbeaten pine, about what their photos signified. And I loved to tell them what I thought: they were full of it. They only made up their stories after taking the pictures. Maybe, I’d say, that was why they took pictures of rocks: rocks couldn’t speak, couldn’t dispute the stories you shaped around them. But people? People talked back.

Brown’s photos provoke emotion. A father’s eyes challenge me and I stare back, defiant. My eyes sweep down to meet his baby girl’s troubled gaze. I whisper to her, “It’s okay.” In another photo, I belly laugh,  joining in the boss exuberance of two boys dancing with their cameras. “You feel connection, warmth, community, in his images,” says Abioto. You feel. And that is what an artist is able to make you do. And Richard Brown is an artist.

But white-owned galleries were slow to recognize the artistry — except for one month a year. In the past, when Portland galleries reached out to Black artists for Black History Month, Brown replied he was an artist twelve months a year and would love to show in their galleries March through January. It’s Brown’s way of resisting the checklist tokenism of white institutions during Black History Month. Without ever saying so, Brown put the spotlight on the hypocrisy: if my photos are good enough to display in February, then surely they’re good enough to display in January or March. Unless, that is, you’re choosing to exhibit them for some reason other than the one you claim. It’s Brown snapping a verbal picture of something without explicitly confronting it — showing, not telling — but making the listener realize it . . . maybe.  Crickets until the following January — when galleries repeated their request to Brown for Black History Month.  

With one exception. One of Portland’s most esteemed gallerists, Laura Russo , loved Brown’s work and showcased his photographs at her gallerynot in February.

From Photography to Activism and Back

The affection for his community’s children, so evident in his photos, spurred much of Brown’s activism. In the ’80s he marched with his Albina community to reverse racist busing and to keep Black schools open. That’s also about when Bloods and Crips took over Albina’s streets. Brown volunteered daily at The House of Umoja — an organization transitioning kids out of gangs. 

Boys with whom I’d built tiny sports cars, or watched The Nutty Professor,  or talked with about what couldn’t get talked about elsewhere — those boys would leave Umoja, and they’d get shot, often by another child I’d known and tried to get through to. Every time I went to one of those funerals, I’d find myself traveling back to my youth, to the boys I’d grown up with, boys who’d flown pigeons and played drums and talked big about all the things they were gonna do, only to end up addicted or arrested or dead. I’d wonder when and how and if any of this would ever change. And then I’d pay my respects, and I’d try to move on.

After one funeral, for a boy I’d known particularly well, I went straight to a meeting of the Citizens Crime Commission, which I’d recently joined at the request of Fred Stickel, the Oregonian’s publisher. The CCC was made up of mostly white businessmen who met monthly to talk about crime. Well, not five minutes after I took my seat, some of the others started talking about gang members, talking about them like they weren’t even people. And I just lost it. I don’t recall what, exactly, I said, because as soon as I opened my mouth, I started crying, and not just crying but bawling, which — at least at that point — wasn’t a thing I did in front of other people.  But I kept speaking, through hiccups and tears. I went on about respect and empathy and basic decency. And as I spoke, the other men did what men do when another man cries:  sucked their cheeks, looked at their hands. Finally, after who-knows-how-long, I sputtered to a stop. I slumped in my chair. And for the rest of the meeting, I sat silent, wondering where that’d come from and how long it’d be before it came back again.

Out of that vesuvial outburst, Brown started a foot patrol and cleaned up the worst gang street, Beech, in sixteen months. Patrollers marched up and down five hours a night, seven nights a week, driving drug dealers out with their stubborn presence. A few white folks from Hillsboro and other outlying communities joined him and the Black folks from the Albina community. Youngsters drove by in cars, joshing the yellow-jacketed patrollers: “Y’all look like a school bus.”

Just as he had to learn how to be a photographer, Brown also had to learn how to be an activist — when to talk back, and when to hold his tongue. Assessing when to talk back meant learning how much of his impulse was based on his own hurt feelings, and how much stemmed from the tears welling up, fighting frustration, fighting for his Black community. He learned how to wield his temper, to walk a fine line. He pushed for televising the Chief’s Forum: bi-weekly meetings started by police chief and community policing advocate (and later Portland mayor) Tom Potter in late 1990, on which Brown sat. 

I hoped folks would tune in and see that I wasn’t kissing ass. . . And now, whenever I’d take issue with something — like, for example, when cops talked about gang-affected youth like they were evil robots — I’d know I was doing double-duty: I was making my point to others on the forum, who needed to hear what I had to say, and to Black folks, who needed to hear me saying it. And they did. After every blowup, I’d get a call from someone Black who’d been watching and they’d say “You keep giving them hell, Richard.’”  

After fifteen years, the Observer’s management fired him because, Brown writes, he questioned the proliferation of cigarette and alcohol advertisements on its pages. His eventful ‘retirement’ continued for the next three decades. In 1991 Brown founded the organization Hope and Hard Work where citizens and cops and city administrators met weekly for fifteen years to brainstorm how to fix problems together — and fixed them. He served on the board of the Willamette Riverkeepers from 1995 – 2002, where he fought to clean up the Columbia slough so that poor people could continue to fish for dinner and not be poisoned. 

He became a board member on the Metropolitan Arts Commission in the 1990s, when the commission was beginning to look beyond its whiteness, Brown did not shrink from the withering gaze of Jacob Avsholomov, conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic (whom Brown is too gracious to actually name in his book):

After we told the director of the Youth Philharmonic that he had to diversify his office and orchestra, he told us, “Classical music isn’t a part of Black people’s culture.” Well, I remembered, clear as day, listening to classical music with my teacher in the fourthgrade. But I didn’t try to argue with the guy. Didn’t need to. I just sat back, and folded my arms, and I told him, “Well, you find a way to change that, or you’re not getting any money.”

For all his success as artist and activist, however, at age 82, Brown continues to fail at achieving the goal that brought him to Portland 45 years ago: retirement.

Richard Brown. Photo: Antonio Harris.
  • He observes classes at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards — the police academy in Salem. Since 2007, he’s driven down and back twice a week. For the first seven years he served on the board of directors. He was asked to continue observing as a civilian when his term was up. Among his accomplishments at the academy, he pushed for and finally got the class on the History of Policing instituted.
  • He sends out a weekly newsletter about Black history and current events to hundreds of subscribers.
  • He facilitates a group for parolees every Thursday.

Photography as Refuge

And he keeps taking pictures. Throughout his years of advocating for his community, Brown never stopped portraying it. 

In those days [Portland, early ‘80s] I still saw myself as a photographer, first and last, and so my activism — if you’d even call it that — was just a sidebar,  just a thing I’d happen into here and there while getting my pictures. Sure, I’d go to meetings and marches. I’d feel what I felt while I was there. But inevitably, I’d slip away to go shoot a piano recital or a library opening or the polar bear exhibit at the zoo. And I don’t think I understood — not quite, not yet — what a gift it was to be able to do that, to escape. 

Brown keeps close tabs on how he’s feeling. There have been weeks when he hasn’t made the drive to Salem. There have been hard months:

…the sort that made me ask questions I still can’t fully answer. Questions about how change happens. And whether it’s possible to work the system. And whether I’ll die trying. 

Activism is a roller-coaster and you can’t control the outcome. Success often depends on the responses of other people. Art, on the other hand, is under the control of the artist. As Brown grew into a photographer, he realized that art was his salvation when his frustration with activist duties threatened burnout. And that resentment is an early warning sign. If he is still stewing over something someone said to him at the Academy in Salem that day, still sputtering as he moves into the right lane to take the exit off the I-5 northbound, into his Portland neighborhood, he knows it’s time to take a break. 

I learned that when you’re a Black activist in Portland, Oregon, you don’t win too often. And so when you do, you better take the time to celebrate.

To recuperate, Brown scrolls through the activities he loves. Most of the time, it’s taking pictures — no longer for the Observer or any other publication. Now he’s learning how to take pictures with a digital camera. Often, he’ll make his way to the Boys and Girls club and build model cars and airplanes with the kids. He still collects stamps. He reminds activists who want to remain in it for the long haul, that the stuff they loved doing growing up will most likely be the stuff that should be on their checklist. 

Brown gives this same advice to cops.

For years now, at graduation, I’ve been giving a talk for the families of officers-in-training — husbands, wives, fiances — and what I tell these people is that they, the civilians who love cops, have a job to do. I tell them they need to help their officers hold onto their humanity because police work, every day, threatens to steal it away. I tell them that the divorce rate for marriages involving a cop is over seventy percent. I tell them to make a list of what they enjoy doing and revisit it, often, to make sure the good stuff hasn’t fallen off. I tell them all of this because isolated, depressed, angry police are much more likely to make the worst kinds of mistakes. 

Brown knows his love of his art makes his activism sustainable. Through his photography and his activism, Richard Brown creates the world he wants to see — Black people living normal lives.

I thought of what the teachers had said at that Ansel Adams workshop. You figure out your desired image, they’d said. And you find a way to create it.”

Powell’s Books interview with Richard Brown and Brian Benson

All quotations and photos taken from Richard Brown’s memoir, This is Not for You (Oregon State University Press). Consider buying it from a Black-owned bookstore like Portland’s Third Eye Books. That’s what I did. They ship.

Tune into the Vanport Mosaic Festival as Richard Brown recounts his life as an artist-activist 6 pm, Wednesday, June 9.

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