Lemons to Life and the Raising of the Collective Chorus

Living in Maine has been and continues to be one of the largest challenges in my life. Since my arrival in 2002, the sense of isolation and the racial homogeneity has at times threatened to take me to a very dark place. Yet my responsibilities to family and specifically my children have required me to put my personal feelings to the side and take the sourness and/or bitterness of life in Maine (it’s not constant, but it is all too common) and turn it into something sweeter.

In many ways, this space has been an attempt to turn that proverbial bowl of lemons into lemonade by using my voice to claim not only my own space but to create a space for all nonwhite people who call Maine home.  In a state where, far too often, people of color are viewed with suspicious eyes and perceived as “freeloaders” or “criminals”  there has been a need to create a narrative that pushes back against such thoughts.  A narrative that uplifts and affirms Black and other nonwhite people in the whitest region of the country.

I started writing for publication in 2003. After several pitches to local publications, my idea for a column on diversity found a home at the Portland Phoenix where, for over 10 years, I wrote a monthly column tackling all manner of thoughts on diversity (even those beyond racial diversity, such as economic, class and food issues). In 2008, I created this blog and eventually found myself writing far deeper pieces than I was allowed to do with the Phoenix.

When I initially started writing and later speaking about race and racism, it was a lonely scene given that there were few people of color in Maine publicly addressing racism and racial inequity. The demographics of this state don’t afford many the opportunity to openly address inequity without potentially affecting one’s livelihood.  Having spent five years heading up a small nonprofit in Southern Maine at a time when this blog started to receive attention outside of this state, I am well acquainted with the struggle. In 2012, when I appeared on the now defunct Melissa Harris-Perry show, I actively downplayed the appearance with regard to local people because I realized that I still needed to get along and exist in the town that I was living in.

My transition to running a Boston-based anti-racism organization in 2014 allowed me to amplify my voice without concerns for my job and later, when I realized that the end of my marriage had arrived, it meant I could leave the too-small, too-homogeneous town that I had been in years. That also meant I really became free to turn up the volume.

However, in recent months, I have noticed a shift; one that is welcomed and frankly long overdue: younger woman of color who are looking to raise their voices  to speak openly of the racism that they encounter while living in Maine. My Facebook feed is filled with women of color in Maine who are speaking up and out. A few weeks ago, a young, Black, Muslim student at the University of Southern Maine was verbally accosted by a white man who called her a dirty ni**er at the school library. The young woman not only reported him to the school authorities but she snapped his picture and shared the exchange on Facebook which caught the attention of the local news networks, and the school is taking action. If you are a regular reader, you may have read the piece written my first regular contributor Marena Blanchard who also has been spreading her wings over the Bangor Daily News. The chorus is filling up and together we stand and lend our collective voices and energy, knowing that together we are strong.

We are Black women who, young or old, straight or queer, Christian or Muslim, wealthy or poor, share a common thread of Blackness in Maine. That common thread is not the entirety of our existence but in a state like Maine, it is a strongly shared reality. We all know the pain of being the ni**er, we know the daily slights and microaggressions, we know the blatant acts of racism. And yet we also know the joys of Maine: the ocean, the woods, the simple pleasures that transcend race and make Maine home, no matter what our reasons for being here.

As I look out at a changing landscape, it means that after eight years of just writing, I am making changes as I look to accommodate more voices in this space. Starting in January 2017, I will be adding podcasts to the mix, and I am looking to move Black Girl in Maine from more than a blog and podcast but to a media hub for nonwhite voices in Northern New England. I have long held to the belief that we need to look at who creates the narratives that we read and believe. In most places, the narratives are fed to us by white people who are often unaware of the biases and prejudices that are often projected in the messages they share, which in turn tends to keep things like white supremacy and institutional racism alive and well, in both subtle and overt ways.  Now more than ever (especially as we see so many Black hosts in particular having their shows yanked recently from various channels like Comedy Central and MSNBC), there is a growing need for nonwhite voices to be heard and elevated, and my mission is shifting to do just that.

In the meantime, I continue to welcome your readership and your support as we make the shifts here. If you have ever thought about financially supporting this space, please consider a tip or becoming a monthly patron as I am committed to not only elevating voices of color but compensating them as well. Something that is missing far too often when people of color are offered “opportunities” to express themselves in media online or otherwise. In the act of dismantling racism, we cannot create further inequity and, in a world where Black women earn 63 cents to the white man’s dollar, asking Black women or any woman of color to work for free is simply unconscionable to me. 

For my Maine area readers, I am honored to announce that I will be one of the speakers at this year’s TEDxDirigo talk on November 5. If that sort of thing is of interest, here is the information.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.


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Longing for Becky’s good hair, or hair and cultural occupation

Ever since dipping my toe briefly in the “mommy blog” waters a few years back and realizing it just wasn’t for me…plus things like increasingly bright spotlights on me as I became one of the “official” Black voices in Maine…I’ve begun to shy away from writing about my kids. But things eventually circle back on you and intersect no matter how hard you try to keep them discrete, and so let me talk about my daughter’s hair for a moment.

My recently turned 11-year-old increasingly tween girl had a hair crisis recently. I had let her take on responsibility for her own hair without my meddling (like braiding it at night before bedtime) and all seemed well, even if her desire for long hair almost always ended up with her making a big, uninspiring curly ponytail or letting her hair hang loose and long and coily once or twice a week when weather and such cooperated.

Some days back, she told me she had a knot she couldn’t get out. What she had, it turned out, were two large portions of hair that had dreadlocked, but not into organized locs. No, they were dread-clumps for lack of a better term. Turns out she wasn’t paying attention while brushing and when she thought she had all the tangles out, it turned out she had only gone halfway down her head.

I did some emergency deep conditioning but couldn’t loosen the dreaded hair. A couple days later, while she was with her dad for a few days, he went in with some products recommended by some of my Twitter followers and after more than three hours of intense work managed to loosen up most of the smaller clump and a very small amount of the large clump. The rest had to be snipped off, giving my girl the most asymmetrical look ever (and not in a good way) and an emergency trip to the hairdresser a couple days later to give her a short, bouncy bob-like cut to save what she had and set her up for a fresh start at growing.

She hated it. No matter how much me, her papa and one of her best friends told her how cute it was; how much it showed off her face and eyes and made her look older; how much easier it would be to take care of; and even that she didn’t have to love it, just accept that it was a flattering look she might not want to keep…she insisted on hating it.

She went out of her way to put her short hair into a ponytail one night and then let it loose when her daddy tried to talk her down from her hatred again, then fluff it out purposefully and claim she looked like Larry from the Three Stooges. Admittedly, she kind of did when she forced her hair to look that way but otherwise, she was a cute girl hearkening back to some of the short, cute, classy cuts of models in the 1920s but with a modern twist.

In the days since, she’s calmed down and, even if she might want to grow it out a bit still, she admits it has advantages and she likes it a little now.

That’s good, but it brings me to a place of remembering how much white standards of beauty drive us Black women…and our daughters…to places of self-loathing and hair choices that sometimes burn our scalps, leave us with early-life hair loss and more.

My daughter has always dug long hair. No matter that her hair isn’t that so-called “good hair” too many Black people still covet; she wanted it to hang long and not to have to go through hoops to keep it from dreading up. She always liked herself more when her hair was loose and long, even though shorter cuts and buns and pony-poofs and such were often much more flattering. Even her grand-dad (her white grandfather) has commented to my co-parent how he likes pictures of her with her hair down more.

This is a subtlety of white supremacy that too many of us, white or Black, don’t notice often enough. Black girls and women are reprimanded or punished at schools and workplaces still for things like dreads or afros, even though those are natural ways for their hair to grow when chemical straighteners aren’t involved.

I think my daughter wants long hair not so much because it’s a true desire, but because it’s a desire to fit in and adopt the prevailing cultural norm of society. Long hair, straight hair, etc.

It’s an insidious and real threat to the self-worth and self-images of ourselves and our daughters. How many of us truly want to have hair like white people, and how many of us just don’t want to stand out or be ridiculed? How many of use alter our hair to fit something unnatural to us just to be seen as more attractive when we’re already beautiful as we are and should be demanding to be seen as such?

I’m glad my daughter is beginning to like her shorter hair. I hope she begins to love it. More importantly, I hope that she soon embraces letting her hair be what it should be and helping it to stay there, rather than trying to force it into an unnatural mold.
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What happened Wednesday night at Cumberland and Washington?

For eight years, I have managed Black Girl in Maine the blog and related social media as a labor of love and as a one-woman operation (aside from the very rare and sporadic guest post) but in recent months it’s become clear that this site and the related social media has grown larger than my original vision. Thanks to a dedicated readership and those who have gone one step farther to become patrons, I am now able to add a contributor to the site. Today’s post is written by Marena Blachard. Marena is a dynamic “Black girl in Maine” herself who is also a mother, model, creative force and early childhood educator. 
By the time I got there, almost no one remained at the scene. A man was sweeping broken glass in a restaurant doorway. Two men were smoking by a car at the gas station. A small group of people sat on a stoop. I paced.

A Facebook post from a friend brought me out into the humid night air in this part of Portland, Maine, close to midnight.

“Something’s happening at Cumberland and Washington…” it read.

I met Susanna Rajala, who was standing on Cumberland Avenue, looking down on Washington. A police car was parked in a lot to her left, facing Northeast, headlights on. It was slightly foggy, humid, and surprisingly quiet.

Her eyes were alert.  

“What happened?” I asked, out of breath from my cross-town jog. I’d questioned some of the people around, but Susanna was the only one with an answer.

Below is my brief interview with her from the following day. In it, she describes an emotional scene and talks about police conduct.  

The events of the night of Wednesday, August 10, are unclear. I expect that there is an ongoing investigation but I have so many questions. Where does one go for answers? It’s not been reported in any media, as far as I can tell. In working through my feelings of confusion and concern for members of my community, in this national political climate that feels dangerous for people with black and brown bodies, I am led to ask the seemingly age-old question: who is policing the police?  

There aren’t any national standards for powers and features of civilian oversight of law enforcement. But, there are organizations working toward that end. A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice was recently published by a group of over 60 organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter. The publication is thorough, detailing both problems and policy solutions on local and national levels. The document demands “direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, ensuring that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information.”

What does our local community oversight look like? Earlier Wednesday evening, I’d gone to the police station on Middle St. to attend a meeting of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee (PCRS). I was a few minutes late but when I arrived, there were 17 people in the lobby. We were dismayed to find out a few moments later that the meeting had been cancelled without any notice.

In recent interviews including this one, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has cited the PCRS as an example of the Portland Police Department attempting transparency. I’d never been to one of their meetings before and was really curious about its purpose and function.  

While at the police station, I met a local woman who was even more curious. She described how she’d attempted to find information online about the subcommittee. She’d emailed city councilors, searched for meeting minutes, tried to locate the required annual report, and couldn’t find much information beyond the basic offerings of this site.  

Later, I was able to find an interview with Kelly McDonald, Portland lawyer and PCRS chair, in which he stated, “We do not have a lot of power as a subcommittee.”

From what I could tell, this subcommittee is tasked with reviewing the process involved with each investigation into a complaint, but not the outcome, and reporting to the city manager. Since Sauschuck became chief, McDonald said they haven’t had any misgivings about a single internal affairs investigation. Sauschuck’s tenure began in January 2012.

I wish I could give you an informed analysis of what that means, but I’m not an expert in this area. And, I guess that’s why I’m writing this post. The past few days have been a blur of trying to get information and as an average citizen, I don’t feel well-equipped to launch my own personal investigation. My reliance on institutions, like the media, for information about that night reveal that there is opportunity for events like this to go entirely unnoticed. Unreported.

I’m concerned that there are eyewitnesses in my community recalling unimaginable police behavior and the entire incident seems invisible. What would it take for it to become visible? An official complaint? Has anyone filed one? Is there even a point in doing so? If you feel an injustice has been done to you, you have to report it to the police… and then the police decide whether or not there was any wrongdoing. If you’re a person who feels wronged, how can you be expected to trust completely in the system that wronged you? Especially if you have any past trauma involving the authorities, experienced on American soil or abroad.

Here in Portland, we were recently visited by Trump. He used the opportunity to cast suspicion on the local Somali community and immigrants in general. His message resonates with and emboldens bigots. Anecdotally, there seems to be an increase in the frequency of personal stories of black and brown people being harassed locally. This is an atmosphere of fear and traumatic stress. So many in Black Portland and Black America are in the depths of a crisis. Living while black in 2016 feels like at any moment you or a loved one can become a hashtag.

In the aftermath of the July 15 Portland Racial Justice Congress’ protest, there were folk questioning the need for disruptive protest in town. As if “The Forest City” were an exceptional enclave of racial harmony. Or as if the fact that black people are only 7 percent of the population meant that the national movement for black and brown lives is somehow irrelevant here. Or as if access to the police chief or other officials for meetings and conversations was the highest attainable goal in the fight for equality.

“This is Portland,” these folk said.

The erasure of local racial experiences directly mirrors the national issue of white silence. The intersection of Cumberland and Washington may be physically located in Portland, Maine, but it is really Anytown, USA.

On Friday, in Portland, a  young Muslim woman was verbally assaulted in a library. A white man called her a “nigger bitch” and told her to go back to her country. Her story made it into the paper because it was spread on social media and the University of Southern Maine issued a statement. The majority of the newspaper article is dedicated to the administration’s response. What was missing was any mention of how the USM police navigated the situation. What steps did the police take to address the issue in the moment? Why was the young woman compelled to post on social media? Ignoring crucial facts is one example of the erasure I mention above. Only telling part of the story is white silence or worse. Our reliance on the media for this information and it’s inadequacy is institutional racism. Yes, in Maine. (Also, as a side note to the Portland Press Herald: she posted about it on Facebook, not Twitter. Smh.)

This young woman’s courage in speaking out wasn’t without consequences. Almost immediately, she was a victim of online harassment over the incident. That was also missing from the newspaper article. Shay has written extensively in this space about the consequences of speaking out about experiences of racism. Online harassment and death threats are not uncommon for our local black leaders. Is it any wonder that victims are afraid to come forward with their stories? They face a press that can choose to ignore key details, a largely ill-informed public, and a powerless citizen oversight subcommittee. What recourse can they dare hope for?

Portland Racial Justice Congress made demands for more accountability when they shut down a segment of Commercial St. during high tourist season. Traffic patterns were upset. People were enraged. Disruptive protest is a known tactic to gain visibility for civil rights issues. I wonder how many events like Wednesday night’s remain invisible? Unnoticed and unreported. No complaints filed.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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