Hawai`i has become a nation of mixed heritage. The plantation era in the islands introduced a variety of rich cultural histories of which today’s modern Hawai`i is made up. Among them is a shared story of the effects of colonization, a story Native Hawaiians know too well. This era also birthed a story around racial identity and discrimination in the islands that is layered and nuanced, and in recent years, there also exists an organization working to unfold these layers and offer healing.
Akiemi Glenn started the Pōpolo Project in 2015 as a way to learn about the Black experience in Hawaiʻi after moving to Honolulu from New York. At the time, the Black community represented less than 4 percent of Hawaiʻi’s population and Glenn “wanted to support her community by creating a space where people could talk about their stories and culture.”
[Akiemi Glenn, founder and executive director of the Pōpolo Project — a Hawai‘i-based nonprofit organization that redefines what it means to be Black in Hawai‘i and in the world through cultivating radical reconnection for Black folks to themselves, their community, their ancestors, and the land, changing what is commonly thought of as Local and highlighting the vivid, complex diversity of Blackness. ]
“We don’t necessarily have an agenda or really want to be able to have a definitive representation of the Black experience in Hawaiʻi. It’s really about creating a space for us to ask questions about what it means to be here, what it means to be in our bodies here, what it means to be representatives of our different lineages here.”
Since its beginning, the Pōpolo Project has grown into a collective of community members with a board of directors. “When Pōpolo Project members talk about their experiences, there is a palpable sense of relief, a meditative exhale in the midst of tension. The opportunity to do so is one some have not had before.”
Throughout the year, and especially during Black History Month in February “Black August”, the Pōpolo Project holds events like film screenings with panel discussions or art exhibits featuring works by members. Glenn continues to seek out stories of Black people in the islands and gather research about Black history in Hawaiʻi.
“In Hawaiian, many words for plants and animals come in pairs and these doublets help us to see what is true of them both. Pōpolo, whose leaves were famine food and whose black berries stained kapa, the medicine that grows wild in the underbrush and restores the breath on contact. This pōpolo reverberates with its human counterparts, whose Black cultures invigorate politics of sovereignty, shape Local art and culture, and continue to be linkages between Hawai‘i and the rest of the world. Blackness is not always salient in Hawai‘i but it is always there, growing, flowering, ripening, and healing.”
At early Pōpolo Project events, people shared their painful histories with the word “pōpolo.” Also a Hawaiian indigenous herb with rounded leaves, white flowers, and edible black berries, time and context have given the word an uneasy racialized weight. Although “pōpolo” is sometimes used plainly as a marker of Black race, people told Glenn that there are racist connotations to the word. They cautioned her about including “pōpolo” in the project’s title.
As a linguist and a Black woman, Glenn understands this difficult relationship with language very well. Elders in her family still don’t like using “Black” to reference their community because of how negatively it was used in the past. Yet “Black” has undergone a cultural restoration, and is used to symbolize strength, unity, and celebration. The Pōpolo Project aims to add more layers to the word “pōpolo” by sharing the stories of black people in Hawaiʻi. If a harmless word for a medicinal herb can be weaponized as a slur, there is an equal chance that, with the right treatment, it can be used to empower.
The information in this blog post is composed from an article by FLUX magazine “The Lineage of Language” by Kelsie Pualoa and from information on the Pōpolo Project website. Photos by Chris Rohrer