Tonight is our final performance of Vanport, the Musical, written and directed by (my best friend and soul-sistah) Shalanda Sims. And I am feeling some kinda way because I still have problems with “good-byes”.
For the past three decades we the descendants of Vanport have had to say our good-bye’s. We have had to say “good-bye” to Ma and Pop restaurants, school buildings and parks. We have had to say “farewell” to Grandmother’s house, beauty salons and the unspoken hangouts like Walnut Park Fred Meyers and corner stops like 15th in Alberta. We have said “see you on the other side” of church buildings and funeral homes. We have grieved and recovered, grieved and recovered until our tear ducts have dried and there is nothing left to hold on to.
So I return weekly to Woodlawn Bakery the place that use to be Sis. Ransons dry-cleaners. I slowly drive down Prescott and I beg my mind to recall every memory of Granny’s house, Mt. Sinai Baptist Church and Marantha musicals. I sit in front of 3207 NE 11th and count every family member in place on the porch. I can see my neighborhood still in tact and all of my family members vivid in my head-however these cherished visions are not the reality of what is staring back. And I feel lost all over again. Forgive the cliche-but I am -“we are -Vanport descendants and we are lost (again)-without a home”.
But for three little months-we felt found.
My family and I have had the privilege to dive deep into the sights, sounds and spirit of a “once upon a time” place created by The Sims. Our special place, free of princesses and castles has a foundation built on cultural traditions, oral histories, everyday legends, hard work and beauty of soul and art. It is a place Shalanda wrote about to honor not only her family journey but so many other’s-including my own.
As gentrification jungles continued to swing and expand on Williams,Vancouver and Martin Luther Kings Blvd we built our set, our spirits and our community-alive again. Long meetings, late practices and lingering meals centered around representing our people strong, stabilizing our voices and re-connecting our youth to their history and who they really are- left us satisfied and recommitted to “the struggle”. The struggle being the very hard work of preserving the remnant of a people who have been flooded, pushed out and gentrified with not only one wave of loss, but three in the last three decades.
But we are still here. Deeply grieved we are no longer in a centralized neighborhood but we are centered strong in no longer keeping quiet, watering down or allowing others to speak for us about our story.
My parents and Aunt Jean, now a vibrant 70+ years of age (who was only six years when the flood hit Vanport) gave big hugs and proud knods of approval and praise for the hard work our cast took in preserving the integrity of Vanport last night.
“You made us so proud. You all keep telling our stories.” Aunt Jean beamed with pride.
With those words, I was instantly transmitted to the living room carpeted floor of my Granddaddy’s house. I was nine years old again and I was smiling back with pride in hearing the accounts of my grandparents life in Vanport. My whole life I wanted to know what it felt like to live deep in community with people who treat you like family and will be there for you in times of trouble-the way Granddaddy had. And we had done just that!
So as the curtain falls tonight and my three children and I take our bows and hang our costumes for the last time-I will take the “spirit of Vanport” with me. My prayer is my children-our children have caught what was taught through the lives and the legacy of those who trailblazed before us. Here are a few survivor lessons that have weathered time, space and loss:
1. No matter what is taken from you- you can always rebuild.
2. You are only as strong as the respect you give to your elders-honor them always.
3. Long prayers, a song in your heart and good fried chicken can ALWAYS make everything instantly alright.
4. Love and longing is the only way to survive “the storms of life”.
5. A consistent hard work ethic will always set you high above the rest.
6. Always remember where and who you come from.
7. Live today as if tomorrow was never promised.
These are the ways we will once again piece ourselves back together.
These are the ways we will find peace and move on.
These are the ways we will honor those who blazed the trail for us to follow.
These are the ways we will keep telling our stories strong.
Bye bye Vanport…
The beautiful lady above is Mrs. Shalanda Sims.
We’ve been friends since the 4th grade (30 years baby!).
She is my longest, lasting BFF.
From the pressing of our hair, surviving pimples, attending parties and proms -to bible studies, babies and broken dreams-we’ve experienced some of our greatest joys and deepest sorrows together. And yes, biggest fights too?!
Only a true friend can cuss you out and love you up all at the same time! LOL!
She is one of the very few people in my life that will tell me, if I have a booger in my nose. You know what I’m saying? She is not afraid to tell me if I am wrong, being selfish or acting like a wimp. I know how to make her laugh and I know how to pray when she’s crying.
When she is prospering and accomplishing her dreams, I feel like I am too. She is an extension of the places and spaces that are not mine to walk. I cannot sing like her (seriously y’all she sounds like a angel) nor can I direct a show like she can (love you Tyler Perry but it’s time to share the stage) and she wouldn’t want me to.
What I love most about our friendship is that we have never competed against each other. We have honored, celebrated and promoted each others strengths and successes. At the same time, we know how to cover, protect and shield each other from our own weaknesses and intentional darts of the evil one.
Our friendship is as close as blood-it has roots that have gone deep. When I am missing the “old” NE Portland-the people, the history, the legacy of stories told on Alberta, Killingsworth and Prescott-I call Shalanda. She is from my “hood” that is no longer. It is in the preserving of story we have found a way to deal with gentrification. We can no longer live in the vibrant black neighborhoods that grounded our childhood but we can create, commute and communicate our history through the arts. Educating and empowering our children to know themselves in deeper ways like we were challenged by our elders. I believe Dorothy Mackey and Joe Frazier and all our Vanport forefathers and foremothers would be very proud of our commitment not to forget our past.
We are cut from the same cloth-yet we are uniquely tailored into our own styles.
We finish each others sentences, read the same poetry and have fallen in love with our families, faith and forefathers.
This week, Vanport her newest play will be hitting the stage. It is a work of art, sacrifice and labor. It is also the story of our native history and how we got here. Had it not been for our descendants who migrated to Oregon in hopes of a better life our paths may have never crossed.
I am grateful for our shared history, legacy and longing to preserve where we are from.
I adore you Sis.
To learn more about Vanport and Shalanda R. Sims productions go to http://www.shalanadasims.com