The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas

Black History Month

All photos courtesy of The Pōpolo Project.

Akiemi Glenn was already familiar with Hawaiian and local culture by the time she moved here as a grad student at the University of Hawaii. Growing up in a military family, local people were a constant presence throughout her life. She had visited Hawaii several times, and even had roommates from Hawaii as an undergrad student at New York University. Yet the islands continue to surprise and reveal, no matter how familiar we may be. While earning her masters in linguistics, Glenn began working with local communities.

“I was often the only Black person in the space that I was in. I became really interested in the stories that other people had to share about their experiences here in Hawaii.

“As I started to talk story with other Black locals, one of the things that came out was this idea of being perpetual foreigners based on what we look like — even for people who were born and raised here, and even for people who were also Hawaiian. People imagined that we were in the military, were new to Hawaii, didn’t know what was going on here, that kind of thing.”

Her curiosity was piqued. Naturally, she started a blog. Calling it “The Pōpolo Project,” she used it to record and collect the interviews and conversations she had with other Black locals. A mosaic of Black experiences started to take shape. Though no two stories were exactly alike, the aggregate picture was undeniable: being Black in Hawaii was a specific thing, different from being Black on the continent, or being a non-Black local.

“One of the hallmarks of those conversations was people saying ‘I know one other Black guy’ or ‘there was another Black kid in my school, I don’t know whatever happened to him.’ There was no real community space. I wanted to see if we could get everybody together, if people actually wanted to be in Black community.”

The answer, it turned out, was a resounding “yes.” In 2017 she organized The Pōpolo Project’s first event: an observance of Black August. 

“Black August started in the 1970s to bring communities together to learn together, to think about cultural technologies of resilience, and to strategize. We adapted it for us in Hawaii. We had an overwhelming response, and it seemed imperative that we make this into something more legitimate and had more staying power.

“That first year we offered programming that focused on what it means to be Black in Hawaii, what it means for Black people in Hawaii to have a connection to local culture and to the land, and especially to uplift the voices of Black people who are also Hawaiian.”

Blackness in Hawaii

In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr. hailed Hawaii as a “noble example” of “racial harmony and racial justice.” Indeed, many Black people have experienced a similar sense of ease in the islands, especially compared to the flagrant racism on the continent that defined American life for most of the country’s history.

“I often hear from Black people who come to Hawaii that they’re really struck by its safety,” Glenn said, “especially with their interactions with police. They often marvel at not having terrible interactions with police, because that’s something that’s an expectation in a lot of places on the continent. 

“I grew up in the south, the first generation post-segregation, and I’ve had very different kinds of experiences living in Hawaii. I feel safer here because it’s a cultural majority of people of color. There are a lot more people who look like me and are on the same spectrum of brown, but I also feel like there’s a genuine curiosity about difference here. People are interested in where you come from.”

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking with Dr. Akiemi Glenn

Still, not everything in Hawaii is the rosy paradise Dr. King once extolled.

“People often have…not the most flattering ideas about us based on representations they have received of Black people, often in popular media.”

In conversation with local people, she encountered “the run-of-the-mill white supremacist, racist ideas about Black people, often couched in local niceness.” 

“People were really surprised that I grew up with my father,” she explained. “I heard that from a lot of people. One of the stereotypes from the 1950s onward is that Black people have a pathological family structure. I’ve also run into a lot of assumptions that Black culture is not a thing in the way that we can recognize Japanese or Hawaiian culture.”

Rarely were these sentiments expressed maliciously. Rather, they often came under the innocent guise of typical local humor: poking fun at people of all backgrounds indiscriminately. 

“Often people would talk about these negative stereotypes in the same way that we talk about the differences of any other ethnic group in Hawaii. ‘Chinese people are like this, Japanese people are like this, and Black people are stupid.’ That was the way non-Black local people understood what they were doing. But for Black people it was a specific set of negative stereotypes that were related to our experiences elsewhere.”

Glenn saw the chance to turn ignorance into enlightenment.

“I realized there was an opportunity for us to not only change representations of Black people in Hawaii as a part of the local landscape, but also to give some of those folks who were feeling isolated in their experiences — sometimes in their own families or communities — an opportunity to build a different community with each other. That’s when The Pōpolo Project moved from being just a blog on a website into an opportunity for us to challenge our local community to think about how we understand who belongs here, what Hawaii looks like, and also to give us a space to build a community that allows us to be our full selves.”

The Black-Hawaiian connection 

There has been significant cross-pollination between Black and local cultures. Some of the connections are obvious, like the prevalence of reggae music, which can be traced back not only to Jamaica but also to West Africa. Other connections are in such plain sight they are easy to miss.

“There are a lot of African trees here on Oahu, and as far as plants as a part of our landscape, there’s a lot of connection there. Even things like our food. People in Hawaii know kalo as a traditional Hawaiian staple, but taro is also a staple throughout the African diaspora, especially in West Africa.”

The most striking cultural similarities, however, are much more essential to the history of American colonization that impacted Hawaiians as well as Africans. 

“Hawaii has its own separate history of colonization that is related to the colonization of Africa and the Americas. I’m a linguist so the first thing I always think about is language. Language is the operating system for culture. Everything that we learn is connected to how information is transmitted from other people, and language is the vehicle for that.

“Hawaiian language was outlawed after the overthrow and it was illegal to teach in Hawaiian for a really long time. The same thing happened to many people of African descent who were caught up in human trafficking and enslavement in the Americas. Our languages were forcibly, legally denied to us. The exact same tactic around legislating that our traditional languages couldn’t be spoken also happened here.”

It’s fitting, then, that February is not just Black History Month, but also ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi Month. Yet the interconnection between Blackness and Hawaiian history is closer than experiencing similar colonial tactics.

“There’s a long history of oppression and enslavement and compulsory labor in America, but in Hawaii even though that didn’t happen, the knowledge of that experience was brought here and used as a categorical threat. 

“During the time of the overthrow period and the early territorial period, Queen Liliuokalani was depicted in grotesque minstrel fashion as a Black woman with thick lips and gold hoops and a certain texture of hair. Which is not what we look like either, but it was part of this racist visual vocabulary, and that was something that was drawn upon to de-legitimize the monarchy. It also happened to Kalakaua. There were rumors of him being illegitimate, having been fathered by a Black person who was in the royal court. This happened when wealthy white interests were not excited about the reforms that Kalakaua had instituted.

“So it was really important that even though there weren’t that many Black people here, the idea of Blackness was applied to Hawaiians.”

More than the shared history of oppression, though, Dr. Glenn sees a similar beauty in how both Black culture and Hawaiian culture responded to their respective historical traumas.

“What resonates with me is not just the resilience, but the innovation people are willing to engage in. At the core of these cultures is a kind of boundless joy that pushes us to think about what could be. People continue to imagine futures that allow them to be safe and healthy and whole. Hawaii has limited land with pressures of tourism and military, but people have the imagination to bring back traditional culture in ways that affirm their humanity.”

Black futures

In many ways, Black culture has enmeshed itself in Hawaii to the point it is now part of the natural flow of local culture. 

“Pointing this stuff out isn’t to say that Hawaii owes anything,” Glenn said, “but really to say there are these beautiful synergies and connections that we’ve been living with so far, so why not celebrate them and why not use them to help contextualize black people here who have been here for some time and have already contributed. Let’s open up a space to see what else they can contribute.”

The Pōpolo Project is a vital part of that effort. In a place as diverse as Hawaii, understanding each other is necessary — in more ways than one.

“We call it The Pōpolo Project. We’re very much a work in progress. We’re not the arbiters of how anyone should receive Blackness or Black people. What we’re trying to do is create space for people to explore and build, to learn not only about Blackness and about Black people in Hawaii, but also about themselves.”

Although February is known for its celebration of Black history, The Pōpolo Project is part of a wider movement focused on bridging the past with the future. This effort has been called Black Futures Month, celebrated in conjunction with Black History Month. The Pōpolo Project has been around for only three years now, but it is already carving out an important role for itself in Hawaii’s future.

“I’d love for The Pōpolo Project to be a place where ideas can be interrogated in a safe space. We hope that we’re able to create space for people to ask questions.”

This is the second installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about Black history and identity in Hawaii. The other stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
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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