The Dark Side of Race Talk

Back in 2003, I submitted my first piece on race to the Portland Press Herald and was eventually asked to become a rotating columnist for a now-defunct column called “Community Voices.” I had a degree and professional expertise, but no background in writing; however, being married to a career journalist with a degree from a top J-school allowed me to learn about writing and also gave me access to an in-house editor to help me figure out the mechanics and to even learn the difference between a lede and a lead.

I soon went on (later the same year I started writing in “Community Voices,” in fact) to write a long-running column for the Portland Phoenix “Diverse City” which only ended early last year. Along the way, I started this blog and, well, the rest is history as they say. I have contributed to anthologies, I have had my work analyzed in academic spaces, and I have even appeared on national television.

However, for all that I publicly share, what I often don’t share are the hateful, threatening emails. The calls that come into my place of work, the creepy people who have shown up at public discussions and gotten a little too close. Early in my writing career in Maine, a letter was sent to my editor that was so hateful that he contacted the police immediately. In the past couple of years as word of this space has spread in spaces such as Facebook so has the number of people reaching out to give me a piece of their minds in some of the ugliest ways imaginable. To say that I find such correspondence disturbing is an understatement.

Last year’s viral story about my family’s unfortunate nigger experience raised the level of vitriol directed at me. I still remember the Facebook statements referring to my children in words that made me want to take a baseball bat to the skull of the writers. I seriously considered shutting the blog and all my public social media accounts down at that point. I enjoy writing but I don’t enjoy hateful words. I don’t enjoy people popping into my office to “talk” to me in a day and age when frankly random violence is too high. One of my deepest fears and concerns is that one day someone will harm me because of my words.

Yet I am the descendant of people with a strong will and I rarely back down. After many discussions within our family, I did decide to keep this space open and to keep speaking truth to power, because words can make a difference.  However, I have drawn the circle around myself a little closer. I am less apt to meet a reader for coffee anymore unless they share mutual contacts with me. I have always been circumspect about things like my children’s names and our locations (the adult son is different as he is a public figure). With the shift to living alone, safety looms large in my mind at all times.

However, today I read something that made my blood run cold and reminded me of the very real risk of writing and speaking about race and racism as a woman of color. TV show host and professor Melissa Harris Perry, whose show I appeared on many years ago, narrowly avoided an assault while at the Iowa caucus. A man comes too close and starts talking, it becomes immediate that his intentions are not good. Thankfully Melissa was not harmed yet as she states in her writing of the encounter, she receives hate mail and threats so when a person gets too close, you don’t brush it off. Yet what was disheartening is that when she got up and went to hotel security they listened but did nothing. Having went to my local police several years ago when I was being followed by a local man, I know that experience well.

The thing is that these are not isolated incidents for those of us who speak on the ills of racism; just yesterday a prominent white blogger who is the mother of both Black and white children had her Twitter feed overrun by white supremacists and racists because of a video she made about her white children playing with Black dolls. America’s relationship with racism is at a crossroads as it becomes clear that the work of previous generations has not leveled the racial playing field and not really softened the hatred and disgust for people of color, especially Black ones. It’s only really reduced the most overt and obvious forms of racist activity, and it’s a long way from truly eliminating even that factor. We are light years away from racial inclusion, and the desires of many of us to move the needle to a more racially inclusive society is occurring at the same time that White America is dealing with its own unchecked baggage.

To speak up and speak out does not come without risks and, while it’s easy to say dismiss the haters, the truth is that it is easier said than done. When your personhood and very essence is under attack, it isn’t easy to turn away. It most certainly isn’t easy to turn away when agitated and hateful people invade your physical space. Yet the struggle for freedom and justice has never been easy, so we carry on knowing that silence never changes a thing.
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Ooops…he did it again! Maine’s governor and his mouth

“Unlike race and racial identity, the social, political and economic meanings of race, or rather belonging to particular racial groups, have not been fluid. Racial meanings for non-European groups have remained stagnant. For no group has this reality been truer than African-Americans.” – Angela Onwuachi-Willig

Since moving several months ago to what could be described as an urban island in Casco Bay, I dropped my kid off at school and then walked over to the island’s lone cafe for my morning coffee and breakfast sandwich as I have taken to doing since moving here. It’s my wake-up time as well as my time to try to connect with the other residents since this starting over at middle age gig means a pretty lonely existence at times for me.

As I grabbed my coffee, I couldn’t help but noticing yet again that the island cops who are often in at the same time as me were once again giving me the eyeball. Truth is, that when my son came home last month and came to visit the island, he too noticed and felt the eyes of the island cops on him as well.

I have been hesitant to say anything or even write about the experience because, overall, the island has been the balm for my soul. Yet with a governor who is the laughingstock of the country and essentially “untouchable” and with my intimate knowledge of implicit bias,  I can’t just mentally brush off the stares of  those cops, especially when our governor has indirectly implied that Maine’s drug problem is the fault of people from away who go by the names of Money-D, Shifty and Smoothie (and then emphasized how they impregnate Maine’s white girls before they leave). Now when the heat got too hot after that verbal blunder, LePage tried to say that race was not an issue but let’s be honest, this is race-baiting, dog-whistle politics, connect-the-dots-style racism at its finest.

Maine has a drug problem; I knew it had a drug problem back in 2013 when I was still working with low-income (mostly white, by the way) families in Southern Maine and saw used drug needles in areas where kids played outside. Despite coming from a large city, I had never seen that type of thing before so blatantly. Drugs are an issue but a stagnant culture with a lack of equitable resources and a sense of hopelessness along with a desire to get a kick are some of the many reasons that people end up on the road to drug addiction.  Maine has the oldest population in the United States and in too many Maine communities, keeping the tax burden low and maintaining a way of life that isn’t always compatible with the realities of modern day life aren’t making it easy for our young people.

Yet Maine’s governor would rather avoid talking about real solutions to Maine’s drug epidemic and instead lay the blame at out-of-state drug dealers who, in his small world, are Black. This might have been the end of the story except that LePage suffers from a chronic case of verbal diarrhea where his mouth just releases and runs with no forethought.  Common sense and good advisers are usually a cure for this illness but in LePage’s case, nothing works. However this latest verbal blunder is one that increasingly leads to people being profiled and heaven forbid harmed. “I tell ya, everybody in Maine, we have constitutional carry,” LePage said. “Load up and get rid of the drug dealers. Because, folks, they’re killing our kids.”

In the past several weeks, Maine’s chief executive has implied that shady Black men are coming to Maine to do nefarious deeds including getting Mainer’s hooked on drugs and leaving white girls with half-Black babies that are somehow, in his mind, a special drain on the state’s resources. Now the governor is telling Mainer’s to take the law into their own hands and get rid of drug dealers. Joke or not, he said the words and has put that energy out into the universe.

Unlike my many white associates in Maine who often brush off LePage’s words as foolish drivel, I can say that his words create tension for those of us with Black and Brown skin in Maine.  We know the looks and the stares when we travel outside of our known safety zones here in Maine. All we need now is some fool pumped up and looking to eradicate drug dealers trying to bust caps in our asses when all we are doing is trying to see some of our beautiful state.  Or finding our movements receiving extra scrutiny for no other reason than the color of our skin.

I am tired of the governor’s race baiting but I am even more tired of the white silence that has given LePage the space to say these things.

For now the comment section on this blog will remain open but this is my digital home and you are a guest. My words and thoughts are not for everyone; that’s okay. However, if you feel the need to insult me in any way, you will be banned and depending on the nature of the words, I will follow up with the proper authorities and take action against you. 
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On words and celebrations, reflections from the past week

Some weeks just gut you and leave you raw and exposed to the elements. This has been that type of week for me. I have been laid up battling ick since last Friday; so much ick that I actually refrained from going to my office all week for fear that I might pass out in the middle of Boston and no one would give a damn.

My first illness post-separation has been a real adventure. Thankfully, the estranged spouse has been as supportive as ever which while great also brought home a painful reality: that in the event of a true emergency in this new life, who would I call? My aging dad doesn’t have the ability to get to me, my son is off on the road more days than not and even my brother is often in transit. My closest and oldest friend in the world lives up in Minnesota and is currently working 40+ hours a week while raising a family. Even my old backup support, the woman known as my first mother-in-law, has recently relocated out of New England is currently probably wondering why the snow keeps following her in her new state.

I spent one very scary night alone in my tiny abode on the island with a racing heart, soupy head, fever and barely able to shuffle off to the bathroom. The next morning, I managed to pull it together long enough to give a sermon on Black Humanity before the ex picked me up and brought me back to the old family abode and took care of both our daughter and me.

It’s a week later and I am on the other side of this brutal bug with the realization that after a year of going nonstop, I was going to collapse from sheer exhaustion (as my healthcare provider warned me several months ago).  Lesson learned, but a lesson that in the midst of great change has opened me up to more reflections.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and birthdays have always been very touchy for me because of my upbringing. The cliff notes version is that for the bulk of my childhood, birthdays weren’t days of celebrations in my household. It’s admittedly a sore point for me and one that I still struggle with, but my own views on birthdays shifted after my marriage when my then husband made a point of always celebrating the day and making me feel special.  Of course in the post-separation world, there is a huge void in that category and one of the many ways that I am learning life shifts and it leaves you feeling frankly like a throwaway human being.

So I made the decision many weeks ago that I would celebrate myself and make my own plan for the day much like I decided on my 40th birthday to create my own special day and, frankly, invite any and all to share in the day with me.  Now, I wouldn’t have thought much about sharing any of this in this space but a reader left a comment on this post that frankly hurt me.

Years ago I would have done anything to avoid admitting to being in a vulnerable and emotionally tenderized state but I am old enough now where I can admit to not having any shame in being open with both myself and even strangers.

Increasingly, my views and my words have made me a target in online spaces where spineless cowards feel emboldened to do an emotional drive by with words. I know…haters gonna hate; ignore them. In the end, I suppose that is my best course of action but these words struck a note with me: You were born?! Wow. So were billions of other humans. It seems so childish, a middle-aged woman making a fuss over her “born day.”

Frankly as a collective, we don’t celebrate people enough. We are never too old to feel appreciated and valued regardless of how old we are. A few weeks ago here in Maine, there was this sad story of a lady found dead in her home after her neighbors not noticing her missing for two years. How do you live in a small town and no one notices that you just vanished? That means for two birthdays and other holidays, no one noticed that this woman who had been, by all accounts, a gifted musical teacher before her retirement…was just gone.

I don’t want that to be my fate, I don’t want that to be anyone’s fate. Yet in this hyperconnected world sometimes it feels like we are moving further apart instead of closer and the new reality of not having a built-in mate has brought that home to me in a very painful way. When we strive to be authentic, it seems there are those who rejoice in cutting us down, never realizing that words can be weapons. Yet, as a writer I take those words, catch them in my hand and turn them into something that can be hopefully used for good.

So on this weekend, I celebrate another year of life because I know all too well that the next day is never promised. I strive to find some joy in each and every day and trust me the other day, breathing freely from both nostrils was quite joyous. More importantly as I enter my 43rd year of life, I hope to find joy in the presence of others because this new stage of life is teaching me to value human connections far more than I ever have. After 20 years of companionship, sometimes the silence of this new life, while healing in many ways, is also the loneliest feeling ever.
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