Delusions of Change…We Must Do Better Now

Today’s post is dedicated to all the women and girls color in the state of Maine who stand tall in the face of racism and continue to work in the face of hate. To the girls who steal shy glances and laugh the carefree laugh that only the young truly know. To all the Black girls in Maine because we are here and I see you.

Yesterday I was the keynote speaker at the YWCA Central Maine’s Stand Against Racism event, which was part of the national YWCA’s Stand Against Racism programming. At this stage in my career, I speak with groups on a fairly regular basis but nothing could  prepare me for the emotional heaviness that I felt at yesterday’s event.

Truthfully, my keynote wasn’t my strongest speech ever, owing partly to the fact that since my return to work after surgery I have, as usual, taken on too much (and/or been required to do too much). After several weekends in a row of work-related events, my cup is close to empty. It seems that in returning to a mostly pain-free existence, the key to staying pain-free is recognizing my own human limits and putting my Superwoman cape in the closet as much as often.

But back to the YWCA and Stand Against Racism.

The audience for yesterday’s event had more people of color than many of my events and as we moved to the panel discussion, that’s where my own mask came off and the collective weight of racism just slapped me in the face. A group of young Muslim women…students in the Lewiston-Auburn area mostly…had been gathered to ask me questions but early on it was clear that we were having a conversation as women and girls of color about the lived realities of racism and, more importantly, our very existence living in one of the whitest states in America.

One young woman shared about walking down the street and grown white men yelling nigger at her. Another talked about being involved in an extracurricular program to promote literacy and a young white child telling her that because she was Black, she couldn’t work with her. Stories of blatant and ugly racism being directed at teenagers. At young people trying to do better and make a difference. Young people whose only “crime” is their skin color. Then we opened the questions up to the audience and a biracial man shared how his white mother used to call refer to him as her “nigger baby” and he had always been an outsider because he wasn’t white. One of the last people to ask me a question was an elderly Black man who was clearly well known in the community (turned out that he was one of the first Black teachers in Maine, having taught for almost five decades, and having served in positions for several Maine governors). As a true elder, he has seen his share of racism and oppression and he came to bear witness to the change in Maine…that we now openly discuss racism and some of us are even working to create change…while also acknowledging how much hasn’t changed during all his decades.

Dialogues on racism, while informative and eye opening, are simply not enough. There are real people living with the real emotional and mental weight (and sometimes literal pain) of racism because racism in many ways is like high blood pressure. You know it’s there and it might not kill you today but if you don’t make changes over time, it will weaken the body and cause harm that will eventually kill you before your time.

Given the state of race relations in America at this moment, there is great interest in workshops and training on diversity, equity and anti-racism efforts, which are needed. But even more so, we need programs to help those who live with racism to craft whole lives, to learn to find the joy and to get out of the fight-or-flight response that in many ways is the normal unconscious conditioning for those of who feel the pain of racism. How can I truly relax when I know at any minute someone might attempt to steal my humanity by reducing me to nothing more than the color of my skin and a heap of stereotypes with words or perhaps ultimately even physical violence? How can I relax when a carload of white boys can yell that hateful N-word and steal my children’s joy in an instant and leave them an emotional wreck over it for weeks…even months…afterward?

Living in a small state like Maine, where every person of color is about two degrees of separation away from each other, I know that there are many of us toiling in the trenches, giving far too much of ourselves trying to make this space better for the next generation of Mainers of color. Still, the act of dismantling racism requires all hands on deck. It means that if we are sincere about racial equity, recognizing that righting the wrongs that were created long before any of us alive today were born means that to balance the scales we have to give up something that we hold dear. We decrease a little of ourselves to increase someone else to create wholeness for us all.  In other words, for the most part, it means white people need to give up a ton of unearned privilege, accommodations and access to systems so that everyone has a fair shot at those things (since most non-white folks are every bit as deserving). That’s a lot to ask and a lot to give and ultimately a barrier to change.

Lastly, I ask my white friends and readers to think about the toll it takes on people of color to work for racial change. One of the last people I met at yesterday’s event was Fahmo Amed. Her story was recently told in a local paper. She shared with me how, since her story of being Muslim came out, she has received support but she has also received hate mail. Even hate mail received at her place of employment that was so intimating the local authorities have had to get involved. Nothing she shared with me is surprising, given that I now avoid going to my own speaking engagements alone after several uncomfortable encounters (and heaven knows, every few months, I get a letter that makes me reconsider my stance on handguns and carrying them).  I know other women of color who do work similar to mine across the country and many of us have had encounters as result of the words we write and speak where we are reminded that there are people who would happily harm us.  Still we carry on because to do nothing is to surrender and change never happens if you do that. With that, I leave you with the words of that great orator, Frederick Douglass:

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others. 
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Moving to Maine…the Black Edition Updated for 2016

I originally wrote this post in 2011 back when I had all of 17 readers and most of the them family members. However, this post remains one of my most-read with requests asking for updated information. And, in light of a recent comment that was left on the blog, I decided to revisit this post. 

Lately, I have gotten a few inquiries about life in Maine as a Black person Specifically, Black folks looking to relocate who want to get the scoop before they decide to actually move here. One of the many reasons that I started this blog was because back in the dark ages of 1999 or so when I realized I might have to move to Maine, there was very little online that gave me a clear picture of what I was getting myself into. I decided to move to Maine in 2001; I had been here a few times but nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare me to what I was in for when I landed in Portland in 2002. So I consider it a service…hell almost my duty…to keep it real so if you are Black and looking to move to Maine you won’t end up like me, where my first two years here felt like I had landed on Planet What the Fuck.

Many but most certainly not all Black folks in the US live in one of two places: down south where many of us have deep roots, or major urban areas like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Philly, etc. But don’t get it twisted. We are everywhere; there is no state where you can’t find us!  But yes, by and large, Black folks in the US are found in urban areas or the south and as such there are certain expectations of what we expect. I mean if you live down south or in a big city, you know you can find yourself a church where you won’t feel like a learning moment for all the other congregants, and you can get your hair done or go to the beauty supply shop (now we all know Sally’s don’t count) where you can pick you up some discount Yaki or whatever ever you need to stay gorgeous and magical.  We are generally used to being able to go to a specific geographic location in these areas and we know we will see people who look like us. We will even be able to get some food that we might like…me, I love my soul food and being from Chicago I was used to being able to go to the Southside or Westside and get myself a plate of greens, Mac and cheese, and rib tips.

The first thing you need to know about Maine: it’s really, really white. So white you will be like oh my! Oh, this past decade we have had a huge increase in the Black population but that is primarily African immigrants. Yep, they are our peeps and while we are connected in many ways, in some ways we aren’t. After all, we do have separate cultures and all people with Black skin don’t come from a cookie cutter; we aren’t a monolith.  However, as far as actual Black Americans, African-Americans, Afro Americans…you get what I am saying…sorry, but we are far and few. So what that means practically speaking is there is no Black hood. You will not find King Drive Blvd and know that you have found your peeps. Black folks in Maine are geographically spread out, though the vast majority of us are found in the Greater Portland area. Portland is the largest city in Maine with a population of around 60,000 folks.

So now that you know not to go driving around to find the neighborhood where we live, I have some more bad news. If you need your hair done, we have two salons in Southern Maine and one Black barber and white folks like to go to the brothas and sistas too. So whereas back home you were used to calling your hair person up and her fitting you in tomorrow or the next day, that does not happen in Maine. Book two to three weeks ahead (so no sweaty sex for you if you are a relaxer-wearing sista). Brothas, start practicing home haircuts now. Back when I originally wrote this piece there was one lone Black barber in Portland and that cat was unreliable, he might be open, he might not and unlike back home wherever that maybe for you, this brotha can do that….why? Do you really want to drive 2 hours to get lined up every few weeks? Yeah, I thought so. So keeping the coif done here is hard. However Trish at Blended Beauty is a braiding goddess and I recommend her though I often get my hair done in Boston these days.

On the faith front, we do have a Black church in Portland, the historic Green Memorial AME Zion, but the last I heard it is a mixed-race congregation. It is a Black church in that historically it was always considered a Black church, and the pastor is Black, but it does have significant numbers of white congregants. Unlike most of the United States where the church hour remains the most segregated hour in America, that isn’t the case in Maine. Granted you can also find yourself in some pretty uncomfortable spaces where a Black person might never have entered the sanctuary, depending on where you go for spiritual edification.

Now you want to make yourself a home-cooked meal…y’know, some comfort food? Get ready to make a real expensive pot of greens. Seriously, when you do find collards (mustard and turnip are very hard to find) you can expect to pay a good $2.50-3.00 a bunch and you know how many bunches it takes to make a pot like ya Granny used to make cooked in fatback or salt pork. So rather than try to recreate what you used to eat, do what I have done and just start sautéing your greens with mushrooms and onions. Besides, it’s healthier! I won’t even talk about what it’s like for a sista with Mexican roots, the lack of spice around here most of the time turns me into a real sad panda bear. Good thing I like to cook, but even cooking myself there are limitations. However, while we lack soul food joints and taquerias, much less Cuban eateries, we do have a fabulous Salvadorian hole-in-the-wall place and the Salvadorian sista who runs the place is good people. I go there and feel like family. Last time I was in, hell I thought she was gonna ask us to wash the dishes.

By the way, if you plan on moving here and you do not have a life partner, unless you have no desire for companionship, you must be open to interracial dating. Let me repeat that again, you must be open to dating white or else your chances for dating are about as good as winning the Powerball. A sista friend of mine spent 10 years here before she found a man to date and that was only when she decided she better go white, otherwise what few brothas of sound body and mind are like joints at a party. They have been passed around. Believe me, while the Black community in Maine is not geographically centralized, we know each other and people talk. Now you can go to Boston, but do you really want to get a boo two states over? But I should also point out the I know very attractive white women who say dating here sucks, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Though one sista I know lucked out and found a Puerto Rican brotha who she promptly took to another state once they settled down.

When it comes to working in Maine, it can have its moments. Up until 2014, I was worked in the state of Maine but working and living here took a toll on me. For far too many of us, the workplace politics and microaggressions are very real and it’s something you need to be aware of. Within weeks of moving to Maine back in 2002, I landed a decent gig but I also had people referring to me as the colored girl. During my time in Maine, I have worked as a non-profit consultant, executive director and teacher and the snipes and disrespect at times nearly overwhelmed me. I hear from others that they too have faced similar challenges. It can be hard to be the only non-white person in a work space up here because unlike in other places, the odds are that even in other parts of your life here, you will be one of few if not the only one. To never see yourself reflected in the world around you can be a challenge and it’s something one needs to consider before calling the moving company.

People often ask if I can recommend areas to move to. I spent over ten years living in Saco, a town just 20 minutes south of Portland that honestly might as well been the moon when compared to Portland. Outside of Portland, it can be far easier to decent-sized home for far less than what you would pay in Portland but you do have to think about your quality of life. What will it feel like when you show up for PTO meetings, the grocery store, etc.? Will you be greeted and treated with respect or will you always be an outsider? I spent years trying to be active in my community. For five years, I headed up a community program for local youth and at the end of my tenure, it was clear that I was never going to be accepted. Similarly a sista friend who once lived in Kennebunk who also went the same immersion route eventually left Maine when her then eldest son started to reach the middle school years and suddenly was seen as suspect simply because he was well on his way to becoming a young Black man. My friend, having been an active and involved parent at her local PTO, eventually concluded that she was fighting a system that was simply too much for one woman to handle. They are now living well down in Southern New England and her sons are thriving.

As for me, after the breakdown of my marriage, I moved to one of the barrier islands that is technically part of Portland and its been like night and day. I sometimes wonder if my marriage could have been saved if we had left small-town Maine sooner. It’s hard to thrive in a place where just a family walk feels like you are being put under a microscope waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So why move to Maine? It’s a gorgeous four-season place, where nature is accessible and, compared to many other places such as Boston and New York, the cost of living is far lower. The pace of life is humane and it’s a place where you can feel your own humanity. Growing up in Chicago, Lake Michigan used to be the balm for my soul but now that space has been filled by the ocean. I walk to the end of my block and there sits the ocean and I can afford to still eat. Maine in many ways is a magical state and despite being known as a shit-disturber around racial issues, I ultimately live here because what Maine gives me is far more than what it takes from me. But it is an imperfect space. Then again, I am an imperfect being.  There are some good people here who are white and I can say that despite having a clown of a governor who keeps Maine in the spotlight with his bigotry, the needle is moving on race in this state, albeit slowly.

So with that welcome to Maine! (Or maybe not if I’ve scared you off…)
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On Black women, girls and a side of Lemonade

Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s; I often felt like I didn’t belong. Sure, I had my family, which was for the most part loving and no more dysfunctional than any other family…though we might have been financially broker than most. But as a Black girl who dreamed of being the titular character in Harriet the Spy and later a bounty hunter or assassin…yeah, I was different.

My earliest school memories are of being in kindergarten and being seated behind a girl whose name was “Kate.” Kate was everything that I wasn’t: blue eyed and blond with a cool lunch box and even cooler school supplies. Even at five, I had started to internalize the deceptive and destructive messages that white was better, though it would take decades before I could even begin to unpack that. I just knew that the girls who looked like Kate seemed to be treated better than me.  As the years went on, the Kates of the world were my nemeses; they were everything that I could never be. In high school it only got worse. When I should have been discovering young romance, I was doomed for a life of always a friend and never more because I was seen as “pretty for a Black girl.” That is a phrase all too often used for Black women whether directly or indirectly but , in fact, a young dude used that exact wording with me in the 10th grade and I have never forgotten the sting of those words and the feeling of rejection. The truth is even now, occasionally my 16-year-old self rears up inside my 43-year-old body. I am too rarely seen as a pretty woman but as someone who would only truly be pretty if I were white. Too often I’m only desirable as some fetish object or as an exotic distraction, if I’m found desirable at all.

Always an avid reader, I immersed myself in books only to still find myself longing to be what I could never be because at that time far too many of the fun and desirable characters in books were always white. Sweet Valley High anyone?

No, I could never be pretty enough but damn it, I could most certainly be weird enough. So in the late ’80s, I attempted black girl Mohawks and I wore Doc Martens and black lipstick while chain smoking my non-standard little cigarettes. I wore my grandfather’s old trenchcoats to my grandmother’s horror and I listened to music that scared the shit out of my folks and occasionally wore chains as necklaces. Fake ID allowed me to dance all night and drink too. It was my pushback against a norm that I knew I could never meet.

It would only be that when I finally made it to college in my mid 20s after marriage and motherhood that I would encounter classes that would shift my perspective and that would allow me to understand that this culture was the result of white supremacy and that women like me would never find a home in it. We would have to push back against it and work to claim and even reclaim our personhood and womanhood as Black women.

The thing about this system is that, to be honest, it’s not good for any woman. But it is downright toxic for Black women and girls. How do you exist in a place where you rarely if ever see yourself modeled? Where your representation is flat and two-dimensional and lacks wholeness? Where your humanity, dignity and worth is rarely validated or even acknowledged?

Raising my second and last child, my now-tween daughter, I am utterly aware of how Black girls in particular have to fight to be seen. How their intelligence is not assumed, how their soft spots are not recognized and how utterly dehumanized they are. And as a Black girl who has now become a Black woman raising a Black girl, I refuse to let this system have my girl…yet I know I am fighting a war that I may not win. There are moments when my daughter and I are talking when I have to fight my instinct to scream out and punch the air against this system that is already starting to sow the seeds of doubt in her despite my efforts to keep her safe. The subtle messages that she is just starting to internalize that subtly tell her that girls like her don’t have place. To live this life as a Black woman raising a Black girl understanding the psychic scars is something that only another Black woman knows and understands fully.

It’s why when Beyoncé’s latest album “Lemonade” came out that it has resonated so deeply with Black women beyond the story of alleged infidelity. “Lemonade” is an acknowledgment of Black womanhood put on display in a way that has rarely been captured. It is a celebration of Black female personhood in our full spectrum of human emotions with no hiding. I am hardly a Beyoncé fan but watching the visual album  caused emotions to well up in me that have long been dormant and, based off the many pieces I have now read on this album, I am not the only one.

I have written before about how vitally important it is to see representations of ourselves and increasingly we are turning a corner where representations of Black womanhood beyond Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire are starting to happen. While it gives me hope for the future, there are many of us for whom this shift is too little, too late. In the same week that we celebrate Black womanhood thanks to Beyoncé, pictures surfaced of rap star and legend Lil Kim who over the years has transformed herself from a gorgeous brown-skinned woman to a caricature of a white woman. Her appearance is heartbreaking because over the years, Kim has spoken about the pain of being just a regular Black girl and the pain of being dismissed because of it. This is the legacy of white supremacy and the toll it takes on Black bodies. Some of us reach a place where living in these Black bodies becomes too much.

Which brings me to the last story this week that has just gutted me as a person, a Black woman and a parent. A 16-year-old Black girl, Amy Inita Joyner-Francis was beaten to death in a school bathroom.  A young girl walked into a bathroom at school and left on a stretcher being airlifted to a hospital and, within hours, is dead. We live in a world where even among ourselves seeing our own humanity has become increasingly harder to do and instead violence becomes our norm. Yet in many ways, violence against Black women and girls has been the norm since our ancestors, enslaved Africans, were brought to a  land that was not theirs and forced to work and give life against their will. Many times having their children taken away from them. This is a nation and a culture that has normalized violence and dysfunction against Black women and girls.

But the pushback has started. And it begins with the recognition of Black female humanity and a tearing down of all that holds us back from full participation in the human experience. We’ve been here a long time; soon enough, we are going to make sure society does not ignore or disregard us any longer.

So, if you have been, wake up and take notice. We’re not going away; we’re not going to cringe in the shadows.
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