The Pōpolo Project: Documenting the Black Experience in Hawaiʻi

Jul 31, 2017

Contributors to the Popolo Project at La Ho'iho'i Ea at Thomas Square in 2016. Dr. Akiemi Glenn is farthest to the right.
Credit Joy Enomoto

Black people have a long history in Hawai’i dating back to the 19th century. The state’s more than 21,000 blacks make up a little over 3 percent of the population. That compares to a national average of 13 percent and ranks Hawai’i 39th among all state in the percentage of its population that is black. These numbers are just one reason for such a unique experience for black cultures here in Hawai’i. HPR’s Ku’uwehi Hiraishi has this story.

36-year-old Dr. Akiemi Glenn a linguist and cultural worker moved to Honolulu from Brooklyn, New York, 14 years ago.

Dr. Akiemi Glenn. Moving to Hawai'i from Brooklyn, New York, was quite a change for a young black woman.
Credit Akiemi Glenn

"One of the most striking things that I ran into when I first got here was that everyone assumed that I was in the military all the time," says Glenn, "Another thing that kind of jumped out at me was how much black culture was here without representations of black people. And I found that I was really interested in the stories of other black people that I encountered here."

Glenn began asking black friends who lived here to share their experiences. She documented these “talk story” sessions on her website, and the Pōpolo Project was born. Pōpolo is the Hawaiian slang for black people and has its origin in a plant that produces blackberries.

Popolo berries.
Credit Akiemi Glenn

"Another thing that we heard a lot especially from mixed race black folks who many time were born and raised here is there wasn’t a place for them to be black," says Glenn, "There was a place for them to be Hawaiian maybe, and participate in traditional cultural practices or to be Japanese, but there wasn’t really a place for them to either learn about black cultures or to practice them."

Glenn decided to create that space. Not just for local mixed raced blacks but those who came from the mainland,, the Caribbean, Africa, Brazil, and so on. The Pōpolo Project morphed into an organization.

"We’re hoping that as a result of the Pōpolo Project people will not just see us but will want to understand us in terms of all of who we are so that we can more holistically be present in the local community here," says Glenn.

The first order of business will be hosting events in Hawaiʻi related to Black August, a month-long celebration of self-determination for black people that originated in the 1970s.

Credit The Popolo Project

"Folks know that February is Black History month where we kind of reflect on our ancestors and those who have gone before," says Glenn, "And Black August as kind of counterpoint to that is an opportunity to take the whole month to think about what our black future will be like."

Black August events will focus on fitness, culture, arts, but most importantly...

"That we see each other and that we start to build community," says Glenn, "Community as a place where we can practice culture, where we can recognize each other, where people don’t have to be invisible, and where they can authentically be a part of the community – authentically local and authentically black at the same time."

Visit www.ThePopoloProject.org for more information.