Black in Bend: Ahjamu Umi’s new novel tackles the issue of race in Central Oregon
Wednesday, 16 March 2011 13:42 Mike Bookey
We don’t talk about it. We, at this newspaper, don’t often write about it. But here it is: Central Oregon is a very white place. It’s possible, if not easy, to go through an entire day in Bend only seeing a few non-white faces. For those from larger cities, this can be weird. For those who’ve grown up here, it’s just life as usual.
But for Ahjamu Umi, this phenomenon is something he deals with every day – because he’s black and very few of his neighbors share that quality. Race in Central Oregon is also a big part of Umi’s life for another reason. He recently published a novel, Find the Flower That Blooms, which addresses race issues through the eyes of a woman living in a semi-fictional town that we know in the story only as “Central Oregon.”
In the book, Ashley, a young white woman with a black boyfriend, is attacked because of her relationship. And during one of the attacks, her best friend is killed, something she continues to struggle with, leading her down a path of self-destruction, even after the couple, now married, moves to California, that eventually lands her in a coma.
Interestingly, the book is written from Ashley’s point of view, which proved a challenge for Umi, but does bolster the narrative and makes Umi’s creation all the more impressive. But when it comes down to it, Umi says he’s closely associated with this narrator.
“Ashley, the female character, in a lot of ways, she’s me,” he says.
With Find the Flower, Umi, who has also lived in Ghana and spent time in Libya, wanted to create a dialogue about race in our region, something he recognized as being absent when he moved here to take a banking job about three years ago. He hardly views Bend as an ignorant city, but says the problem lies in the way we talk about – or don’t talk about – race.
“There’s this thing going on in Bend where it’s really popular to say, ‘I don’t see race.’ It’s coming from this concept that we’re in a post-racial society,” says Umi, “but the first thing you see when you talk to someone is what color they are.”
And people do notice what color Umi is and that’s something his wife, Jennifer, who is white and a Bend native has had to adjust to. The two met at the downtown Bend hair salon where she works and quickly hit it off. It took some time for Jennifer to get accustomed to so many people turning their heads when they saw her and her husband entering a restaurant or driving down the street. Some stare and others have asked him bizarre questions about his ethnicity.
He doesn’t blame people for that. It’s ingrained in our society and we might not even know it, he says. But it’s something we can work on and discuss.
“The thing that’s really sad is that there are some really good people in Bend and for the most part people are cool, but these are the things that are systematic in the society. You can’t escape them. To me, it really corrodes the healthiness of the society. It’s one of my missions to expose it,” says Umi.
Since growing up in San Francisco, Umi has worked with different groups to help communities deal with issues of race and violence. In the past, this meant mediating between gangs in the Bay Area and also mentoring youth, something he still does here in Bend. Before 1984, he went by the name Richard Dewhart, but then became Ahjamu Umi, which translates to “he who fights for what he wants.” When he lived in Sacramento, Umi was also involved with the Congress of African Peoples, a group that gathered to assist African Americans in the region share experiences and ideas.
But here in Bend, he’s still looking to get some sort of dialogue started, and has done some of that with his new book. The novel, however, is just the beginning of what he sees as a push toward a more open and accepting society here in Central Oregon and beyond.
“Everyone keeps acting like [race] is a non-issue, but it’s imbued in every part of this society,” says Umi. “There’s a lot we can do to correct that, but we have to agree to engage in a real dialogue. And that doesn’t mean finger pointing.”
Find the Flower That Blooms
By Ahjamu Umi
Available at Barnes and Noble
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