blackgirlinmaine Archive

For My Mentor and All the Black Women Who Hold Us Up

There are people who come into your lives whose presence changes the entire trajectory of your life; for me personally there have been three such people, two of whom I married and the other who was my first instructor when I went to college in my mid-20s. As I have recounted over the years, I was not a stellar student in my high school years (partially a lack of dedication to class attendance and homework but mostly an inability to pass gym classes). So much so that at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I simply decided not to return, instead running off a few months after turning 18 and getting married and then becoming a mother a few weeks after turning 19. Statistically, my life should have been a wrap given that my decision-making at that stage in life wasn’t great but sometimes the universe has a plan that you can’t even begin to imagine.

My early adulthood journey would take many twists and turns and at 25, I would find myself enrolled the School for New Learning at Chicago’s DePaul University (a program aimed at older and other non-traditional students) where my first class was “Women in the Black Church,” taught by gregarious and warm, middle-aged Black woman with a deep laugh, a sparkle in her eye and a slow and measured way of speaking. Cynthia Milsap spoke with authority, but she was warm and inviting and in that first night of class, she asked us to share about ourselves and, in my self-deprecating manner, I said something to the effect that I probably wouldn’t be in this class too long because I wasn’t known for being too book-smart. Cynthia looked at me quietly and told me that “That was not going to happen” and that she would be with me on graduation day.

What can I say? If I had been a betting woman, I would have lost that bet because Cynthia was correct. Over the  years Cynthia would become not only an instructor but my adviser, my mentor and a dear friend. Cynthia saw me not only getting through my undergraduate years but excelling in a way that I could not have imagined. I completed my undergraduate degree in three years, working full time while mothering and being a wife.

During my last months as an undergraduate, Cynthia saw my passion for African-American studies blossom and strongly suggested that I consider applying to graduate school. I did and much to my own surprise, I was accepted to every program that I applied to, even ones that were extremely competitive.

From that point on, Cynthia would serve as my unofficial mentor over the years. When I relocated to Maine, Cynthia stayed in touch with me through the years and every major transition of my life since my late 20s. If too long went without contact, it was not uncommon to get a call (or several) reminding me that with faith all things are possible. Cynthia’s love and support has nurtured and nourished me over the years and she saw in me (and many others) infinite, unlimited potential when no one else did. Much of what I am right now is directly because of Cynthia’s unwavering belief in supporting Black women and all marginalized people. Cynthia was not merely an adjunct professor, she was a minister with a deep abiding faith. She also spent many years serving as executive director for a Chicago faith-based nonprofit, The Night Ministry, and over the years was a researcher and consultant who wore many hats and worked tirelessly for change.

Hence my surprise several weeks ago when I heard that she has been ill since late June and receiving care at Chicago’s free hospital since that time. Turned out that Cynthia had no health insurance and furthermore was at risk of losing her place since with her hospitalization, she hadn’t been able to work and her landlord was getting ready to start eviction proceedings. Several friends put together a crowdfunding campaign to stave off the eviction.

It shook me to my core that a woman who had given so much of herself over the years would be in this situation but it is the unspoken reality that affects far too many Black and Brown women who nurture and nourish others in a world where economics don’t favor women like us. It’s the unspoken reality that pushes me because I saw both my own mother and grandmother die with little in the way of material comforts.

Unfortunately my beloved mentor, Cynthia Milsap passed away this weekend after receiving a diagnosis of kidney disease and systemic lupus.

There are no words. There are only tears because, as I have learned with the other women whose shoulders I stand on, our time on this rock is limited and yet we carry the essence of our personal change-makers with us wherever we go, hoping that we can be half as good as they were.

There was only one Cynthia Milsap but in countless communities there are Black and Brown women like Cynthia whose unwavering faith and belief in nurturing the human spirit plants seeds that sprout in untold places. Women who give so much of themselves, sometimes to the exclusion of themselves, and we (like that greedy boy in Shel Silverstein’s dark story “The Giving Tree”) rarely think about how we can give back.

Rest well my dear friend, big sister and mentor. This is only goodbye for now, until we meet on the other side.
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Why can’t you hear us?

Today’s post is written by  Teddy Burrage, who joins the BGIM family as a contributing writer. Teddy is a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.

Ever since I was born, the color of my skin has been the subject of curiosity, envy, disgust, perplexity, and hate. My race has defined my relationship with people and institutions. And now that I speak publicly about my experiences—and those of other black and brown people—the scrutiny and challenges I face have only increased. But that’s okay; I’ve made the choice to be vocal. Though with all that in mind, I still find it very frustrating when people say that racism—particularly implicit racism—is all in my head.

From the outset of my parents’ relationship, before I was born, the evidence was clear that racism was alive and well in Maine, including even within my own family.

One of the first few nights that my parents started dating each other, they were accosted by skinheads in Portland’s Old Port. Heading back to their vehicle in the parking garage, they were followed as the white supremacists aggressively yelled and approached them. Apparently, there had been a White Power rally in Portland earlier that day. Seeing a white woman with a black man must’ve drove them over them edge. Trying to get in their car to drive away, one of the men grabbed my father, attempting to drag him out on to the pavement. Luckily, my father was able to issue a few devastating blows to the back of the man’s head, and they sped away.

When my parents got married in 1989, they were the only interracial couple in both my mother’s paternal and maternal families. Just twenty-two years after Loving v. Virginia, the union was a bit controversial, too much so for some members of the family who protested by refusing their invitation to the nuptials—people who I would eventually grow up to know as my own family.

Soon after the wedding, I was born. My white mother often faced questions from strangers when out in public alone with me. “Is he adopted?” “is he Greek?” and “whose baby?” were among the few she told me that I can recall.

Fortunately, my parents instilled in me a pride for my skin color and heritage, teaching about the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and also having taught me to recite the phrase, “I’m black, I’m white, and I’m proud” at a very young age. It’s this pride that I frequently had to refer to as I grew older.

Growing up in Maine, spending a lot of my childhood in rural areas, much of the time I was the only child of color in my classrooms and extracurricular activities, including my neighborhood. I can’t say that I experienced the forthright sort of discrimination that my parents did when they started their relationship, but I was reminded by my peers that I wasn’t exactly the same as them on a fairly consistent basis.

Prodding at my hair, conversation about my “tan” and being called “the black kid” were more than enough to confirm that I was different. Even adults would participate in what felt like an othering of my body. This is when I was first started noticing the subtleties (and sometimes explicitness) involved with the way many white people talked about other races.

At a very young age, I started to notice that when a white person told a story of someone they met or saw, it was always prefaced by the person’s skin color or ethnicity—but only if they weren’t white—and even if it had no real importance to the story. I quickly learned to assume everyone was white when being told a story unless otherwise noted. I learned that being white (heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender) was the standard and everything else was a deviation.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard someone say “big black guy” as way to convey fear in an account of an incident, or heard people talk about women hanging out with “black guys” as if it were some sort of egregious taboo.

I’ve even been told by many white people that referring to someone as “nigger” isn’t a racialized act. They told me that even whites could be described using this expletive. But the unsurprising part is that I’ve never heard anyone call a white person this word that I, a man who’s half black, rarely utter or write.

Raised in almost exclusively white environments, I was often confronted with the tasteless jokes and mischaracterizations about black people like “what do you call a black boy with a bike? Thief!” and the absurd notion that black people are good a basketball because of an extra bone in their leg. I even heard them from my family.

Living much of my life at locations on lakes and the ocean, I learned to love swimming. I spent (and still spend) my summers on Sebago Lake. One of my relatives used to recite this joke, “what do you call a black man in a scuba suit?” The answer: “Jacque Custodian.” I remember one time I was fully outfitted in snorkeling gear—goggles, flippers, a little bag to collect rocks; the whole bit. Pulling myself out of the water onto the dock, I was asked by the same individual, “what do we have here? A little Jacque Custodian?”

I was too young to even understand the meaning behind the quip at the time and later in life I grew to learn the essence of what he was trying to say. As lighthearted as it may have been intended, that’s nothing you say to a 8-year-old. It’s experiences like these that I increasingly became aware of as I moved through my life.

The culmination of these instances have confirmed for me that my skin color—and that of other POC—is either at the forefront or the back of many white people’s mind during our interactions. I’m not saying that it’s abnormal to see color or that people’s thoughts are always bigoted. What I’m saying is I’m not delusional and I know my skin color is often the subject of conscious and unconscious thought processes.

In a recent article written by Black Girl in Maine, Shay Stewart, entitled “The $62 no-meal, or Racist tacos in Ogunquit,” Shay described how she and her family faced an implicit racial bias at a local restaurant. In the article, she said “The thing is that I think these women are not intentional racists. They probably don’t think of their actions as racially biased. But I do think the server held biases that affected her interaction with us.”

For Shay and other POC such as myself, our race literally colors many of the encounters that we have. We’ve had lifelong lessons on what that looks and feels like. But still, many white people default to the notion that racism is somehow rare and isolated. They believe that POC are too quick to pull “the race card” because after all, they never see racism.

Understandably though, it is only the explicit instances white people actually see. The implicit biases are difficult to spot when you are not the target.

I notice when three people in front of me at the convenience store get a full smile and welcome and when I approach, the cashier is suddenly flat-faced and silent. When a retail associate asks me if they can help me find anything, I know when it’s genuine and I know when it’s just an excuse to keep a closer eye on me. I don’t expect everyone around me to see when these things happen, but I expect people to believe me when I say it happens.

The sooner people begin to err on the side of believing POC, rather than looking at racism like it’s some kind of antiquity from yesteryear, the sooner we can collectively begin to unpack this complex and destructive scourge. It’s hard enough for many POC to speak out when these things happen to them. Let us not make it worse by applying a burdensome skepticism that only breeds more silence, fear, and resentment.
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Why we share, or The value of our stories and the price of silence

These are strange times that we are living in. Technology has allowed us to start having conversations that previously were held behind closed doors…and often in the company of only our nearest and dearest friends and family. No longer do we have to wait until the end of the day to return home to vent about what happened and, for some people, hearing the uncomfortable moments is more than they can bear. Yet our discomfort with reality doesn’t make the need for the conversation any less real. One might argue that the more uncomfortable you are with certain topics, it might be a sign that there is a need for self-examination.

The past week has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride for me as I dealt with the aftermath of deciding to publicly share an uncomfortable private moment. As usual, the cowardly keyboard brigade came out to play with someone (or someones) deciding to attack me on Twitter.  I shouldn’t let such people get to me but the truth is, I am very much a human and not a machine and when my integrity or character are attacked by those who hide behind fake names and pictures, it pisses me off. I speak my truth and I don’t hide and neither should you.

That said, it has been a week where I have been heartened to see others speaking up about their uncomfortable moments. A local Black pastor in Maine wrote about an encounter his adult daughter had with a white man and how uncomfortable it left her feeling. I read about yet another Black middle-aged woman who had a “dining while Black” moment. I have heard from more than a few people of color in Maine who are admitting that they don’t feel safe here right now.  For some of us, the uncomfortable moments are a daily occurrence and in the current climate, we are already simmering pots of anxiety, anger, frustration and/or fear that then have the heat turned up on us and threaten to make us boil over because we have to deal with a steady stream of microaggressions, often by people who refuse to understand that racism and hate are more than burning crosses on the lawn and white men hiding under white sheets.

To further complicate matters, there is this current drive towards false equivalencies. It’s why some hear Black Lives Matter as an erasure of all other humans instead of recognizing that historically Black Lives have not mattered to most of American society and, therefore, all that Black Lives Matter is meant to express is, “Black lives matter just as much as the other lives and you need to stop treating them as if they don’t.” The fact is that across just about every indicator, Black life is not afforded equivalency to white life, Furthermore, this is not the result of Black inferiority but instead an intentional design (and constant unconscious reinforcement of that design as well) in society and in systems and in daily behaviors that has given white folks a leg up while continuing to tie 50-pound weights around the legs of Black people while telling them they should run harder to catch up.

Our insistence on avoiding the uncomfortable is why we have a man running to become President of the United States who is openly embraced by white nationalists and whose “dog whistle” style of racism is barely disguised. Yet if you call Trump or his supporters racist xenophobes, people will tell you that you are wrong. Those of us whom Trump and his supporters see as broken, weak, useless or problematic know that “Make America Great Again” means makes make America great again for beleaguered white America (and really, the fact that white Americans think Trump wants to do anything to truly empower them or life them up materially is ridiculous in itself). But still, our media continues to hem and haw on naming that uncomfortable reality and keeps using the same standards for Trump that it does for entertainers, instead of the standards it uses for politicians.

A few nights ago as I was on the train heading back to Maine, I found myself engaged in a conversation about racism with a white man who told me that he just didn’t understand all the race talk that is going on. He told me how growing up in Boston, his father had been a cop with a Black partner and how his dad’s partner was like an uncle to him and as a result he just didn’t grasp all the “hate.”  It was the type of conversation where there could be no resolution because to talk about systemic racism requires more than 45 minutes. But in that time, I shared a story, more of a “day in the life of BGIM” moment and the other Black woman in the cafe car with us just nodded along as I detailed how racism affects me and most Black people. Is it the totality of our being as people? Hell no! But does it impact us? Is it tiring? Does it make ya wanna holler as Marvin Gaye once sang? Hell yeah.

These are strange times and no mere conversation (or even several) can erase 400 -years of intentional, systemic denial of a group of people. Yet by telling our stories and asserting ourselves and our humanity in the face of hostility and denial, we start the process of chipping away at the silos that keep us apart as individual groups and threaten us all as a collective society. Talk is cheap sometimes; but at the same time, we can choose to let it be the start and not the end, and thus make it worth something again.
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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