A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”

Black History Month

The word “pōpolo” is a source of discomfort for a lot of local people. There’s an inherent sensitivity, especially for white people, in using a word that refers to a historically-marginalized group based on the color of their skin. Pōpolo is often compared to another word, so unspeakable it’s been sanitized into a hyphenated euphemism. That connection is understandable, but it isn’t accurate.

Whereas the n-word is rooted in the history of enslavement, lynching and segregation, pōpolo is rooted in the earth itself.

“Pōpolo is the Hawaiian word for a nightshade plant,” said Dr. Akiemi Glenn, a linguist and founder of the nonprofit The Pōpolo Project. “It’s a small little shrub that produces black berries.”

Although pōpolo is a Hawaiian word, the plant itself is not endemic to Hawaii.

“There’s a particular variety that has developed in Hawaii, but it grows all around the world in tropical and temperate zones. It’s in the Americas, it’s in Asia. You have pōpolo plants all over the pacific. 

“It was intentionally brought here. It didn’t come with the birds; humans brought it here. One of the ways we know that is that it showed up with its name that we can see across the Pacific. People recognize it as the same plant that they had cultivated elsewhere.”

The pōpolo plant

When early Polynesian voyagers paddled into the horizon over a thousand years ago, there was little room on their canoes for sentimentalism. For something to have been brought to Hawaii at that time, it had to have held significant functional value. The multi-purpose pōpolo plant was no different. 

Berries from the pōpolo plant. Picture: The Pōpolo Project

“The berry itself produces a black, dark purple dye that was used to dye kapa bark cloth,” Dr. Glenn explained. “The berries can also be ingested. Many people use them in plant medicine for respiratory complaints. Laʻau lapaʻau [traditional Hawaiian medicine] practitioners say the plant is useful for people who have asthma, or during vog, or if you have a cold and need to clear up your lungs. The leaves can also be cooked and eaten. There are some descriptions of the plant being sought out during times of famine as a means for nutrition.”

Beyond its variety of uses, part of the pōpolo’s value is in its ability to grow and survive in a wide spectrum of environments. For land as geographically diverse as the Hawaiian Islands — home to climate zones ranging from tropical to tundra — such resilience is invaluable.

“Pōpolo grows easily in a lot of places,” Dr. Glenn said. “You’ll see it pop up on the sidewalk in little cracks. It’s hardy in that way. Because of the way its seed dispersion works, it’s easy for it to spread. It can live in both mauka and makai regions.”

Pōpolo plants have a long history in Hawaii, and remain a ubiquitous part of island scenery. Now, however, the word pōpolo is most commonly known as a reference to Black people.

Pōpolo people

It’s hard to pinpoint when pōpolo became more than just a plant; the science of slang is inexact.

“What we do know about the use of pōpolo to describe people with dark skin is that it’s an analogy of the color of the berries, which probably originated from a joke or euphemistic use to refer to people,” said Dr. Glenn.

Members of the 369th “Harlem Hellfighters” stationed during WW2.
Picture: National Archives/Army Historical Foundation.

“Anecdotally, it really picked up when there was sustained Black presence here. The first moment of that after the overthrow would have been during World War II, when there were Black troops stationed here.” 

Wars and the subsequent increase in American military presence also coincided with Hawaii’s shift away from the plantation economy, creating a turbulent social atmosphere.

“We can imagine there were more interactions between Black soldiers and local folks at that time. And some of them were contentious, we do know that. We can imagine that a word like pōpolo was used during that time because it is a Hawaiian word and it could have been used in the presence of Black people without them knowing what they were talking about.”

This context makes it easy to understand the negative reputation of the word, and how it could be used to disparage. Whether or not it is derogatory, however, is not a simple “yes” or “no.” 

Is pōpolo derogatory? 

“Polynesian languages don’t have a class of words that are off-limits in the same way we think of curse words in English,” Dr. Glenn said. “They just don’t function that way. The idea of words being derogatory in and of themselves is an importation from the European or English language perspective. It really is contextual: who’s using it, who’s hearing it, what they’re talking about.

1984 “Popolo Suntan Lotion” parody commercial from Pidgin To Da Max.

“Naming Blackness is always a difficult and fraught thing. Classifying a certain group of people based on phenotypical traits — melanated skin, dark hair, facial features — made those people available for exploitation. My grandparents in the rural south were loathe to call themselves ‘Black’ for many years, even after the Civil Rights revolution. ‘Black’ was seen as a very derogatory term. It was more polite to call them ‘negro’ or ‘colored,’ which is now so out-of-date.

“Pōpolo  is caught up in that. It’s not so much the word itself — there’s nothing intrinsic to the word. It’s the association with people who continue to be marginalized. Whatever those people are going to be called will become derogatory to some people because it refers to people who are socially marginalized. Or, at least in Hawaii, people who are seen as others and outsiders. Even though there have been people of African descent in Hawaii for a long time, we’re seen as perpetual foreigners.” 

Musician and singer Kamakakēhau Fernandez. Photo: Shuzo Uemoto

The idea of belonging is key to understanding the experience of being Black in Hawaii. There is no history of African enslavement here, but “pōpolo” can be — and has been — used to otherize Black people, and to say they are not authentically local. Yet “go back to where you came from” is not the same for white people as it is for Black people; the American continent has been home for whites in ways that it has not been for Blacks. 

Ultimately, whether or not pōpolo should be used in casual conversation is up to the individual.

“It’s really important to have the larger social context and understanding of Hawaiian culture and Hawaiian language. The word itself does not necessarily have any intrinsic derogatory value, but it’s really about the context of usage. I’m not saying every time someone has said the word pōpolo it’s been totally neutral and friendly, but I think it really does depend on who’s saying it, how, and why that differentiation is being made about the particular person who’s being referred to as pōpolo. All those things are really important. Many Black people who grew up in Hawaii have had that word lobbed at them as an epithet, so I don’t want to minimize people’s negative experiences with that word,” said Dr. Glenn.

One word, many meanings

For all the negative baggage that the word pōpolo carries, there’s also a metaphorical beauty to be found in it. Though the plant’s dark coloration was the impetus for pōpolo becoming a descriptor for dark-skinned people, there are more apt parallels. 

In the same way the plant was valued for its various contributions to traditional society — as food, dye and medicine — pōpolo people have added a richness to Hawaiian culture in vital ways — through education, industry and music. And just as the pōpolo plant was spread throughout Polynesia and beyond, able to grow in even the harshest environments, pōpolo people have likewise been taken from their ancestral homelands and forced to plant new roots throughout the world. More than any hued distinction, the pōpolo plant represents the beautiful resilience and enduring strength of pōpolo people.

This is the first installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about Black history and identity in Hawaii. The other stories are linked below.
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts
Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible Blackness
Black music in Hawaii: reggae grows Hawaiian roots 
Local musician perpetuates the culture that adopted him
Black music in Hawaii: hip-hop’s Hawaii connection
Black identity in Hawaii: the conflicting experiences of being Black and local
Black futures in Hawaii: envisioning a beautiful, equitable horizon for everyone

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