blackgirlinmaine Archive

Open Letter to Gov. Paul LePage from a Black Mainer

Dear Paul,

I hope that you don’t mind, but I am going to call you by your first name. I don’t stand on formality and titles are so overrated. Besides, to be frank, using language like “Honorable” doesn’t quite feel right in the context of what I need to say to you.

Paul, I am hoping this post reaches you but seeing as how you have publicly stated that you don’t really read the newspaper and don’t care much for journalists or blogger types, I am not holding out much hope that you will actually read this. However, I am hoping that one of your handlers will get wind of this and share the contents with you. Because I think you need to hear what I have to say.

My name is Shay Stewart-Bouley and I am a Black woman who lives in Maine. I write a blog called Black Girl in Maine and I have written for publications such as the Portland Press Herald, Journal Tribune, Portland Phoenix and the now-defunct Dig Portland. I have even appeared in a few national publications as well as a few anthologies. However, I am not a writer by trade. No, my current day job is as Executive Director of Boston based Community Change Inc, the oldest continuously running anti-racism organization in the country.

I currently live in the Portland area on one of the islands of Casco Bay though I spent many years in Saco and still have a family home there.

Paul, I have a big problem with the false narrative that you have been constructing around Maine’s horrendous drug problem. First off, Maine really does have a serious drug problem. From York County up to The County, drugs are a huge problem. However, this narrative that  you are fixated on is wrong and it’s downright dangerous. You seem hell bent on blaming out-of-state Black people, specifically Black men, for bringing their drugs up to Maine…thus insinuating that these out-of-state Black folks are the ones causing this drug epidemic.

You keep waffling on the race piece. I mean, you have always had some issues around race. I won’t go into your past because presumably you recall, but to be frank, I don’t think that you think that Black people are part of Maine’s history. Which is pretty funny seeing as how books like H.H Price’s Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People does a marvelous job of documenting the history of Black people in Maine. Never mind that many of our fine institutions in this state such as the University of Southern Maine even has an African American Collection of Maine History. I am just saying Paul…Black people have roots here. Some of them very deep and long roots. We are part of the community, albeit a small percentage, but we do exist.

The thing is that right now you are clinging to a dangerous rhetoric that causes Black people to be “othered” and given how on-edge people are about this drug epidemic, frankly I think it’s only a matter of time before someone is going to get hurt. After all, you have cracked wise about Maine being an open carry state and that maybe Mainers should just shoot dealers. Of course, every time you make one of these highly offensive remarks, you attempt to spin it but frankly I am tired of it and your latest comment about how you had to scream at the top of your lungs about Black dealers to the state legislature was the final straw for me.

Look, you don’t have to like me, I don’t have to like you. But as the chief officer of this state, you need to mind the gap between thoughts and words. You actually need to be a responsible and reasonable human being in addressing the state’s drug epidemic rather than assigning blame to Black boogeymen. Yes, there have been some Black folks from out of state who have been caught dealing up here but how do you think they got here? Real talk, Paul…someone had to tell these characters that there was even a market up here. My guess is that some white folks in Maine made those connections to even get that ball rolling. Trust me Paul, while you may see Black people especially Black men as subhuman magical beings that just landed in Maine and set up a drug shop, the reality is that it had to start here and most likely it started with white people. Never mind that last year, there was a record number of meth busts; pretty much everyone I have seen arrested on meth charges is a white person. Hell, meth pretty much seems to be a white boy’s game if we are being honest.

The thing is, your rhetoric isn’t doing anything to get help for Mainers struggling with addiction. After all, you have made it virtually impossible for single low-income folks to access healthcare. We have few treatment options to begin with and that says nothing for addressing the reasons why so many in our state are going down this path to begin with. Instead you are going for the cheap fearmongering tactics which aren’t getting anything solved.

Frankly, it is hard to be Black in a state like Maine. Hell, I moved here back in 2002 for family reasons and it continues to be a struggle to plant roots in a place where I am from away and I am Black. Raising kids in this state, however, gives me a moral imperative to speak up because I want my kids to feel that this is a safe state for them.  My eldest at 24 has long had to endure the weight of Blackness and maleness in this state. Our story isn’t unique. I know more than a few Black families in Maine where the duality of Blackness and maleness causes our sons to flee this state. I know Black women here who are reconsidering if Maine is a place where they can raise their families. In most cases these are white-collar, college-educated folks…a demographic that this state could use given that we have the oldest population in the state.

Paul, I guess I should wind this up but I would love to sit down and talk about race relations and give you some professional guidance wearing my professional hat. Though I suspect this post is nothing more than me spitting in the wind. However, I believe in the power of faith and I believe in the possibility of change so perhaps you or your handlers will reach out  to me so we can start a productive dialogue that will result in you not demonizing Black people and in real solutions to addressing the drug issue. Thanks for your time!

Shay Stewart-Bouley, M.Ed, aka Black Girl in Maine

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Primetime Blackness and White Discomfort

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin 

America is a nation in the midst of seismic change—a change so great that it threatens the very soul of this nation and, to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creation of America is the result of whiteness centering itself as the norm. Whiteness as an ideology and as a people created a system that disproportionately favored whites while creating laws and policies that actively oppressed and discriminated others and while that uncomfortable truth is a bitter pill to swallow, we are all living with the aftermath of decisions made long ago.

To be white in America in 2016 is to have the privilege to choose whether to engage on matters of race. For people of color, our proximity to white skin often determines how much latitude we have in choosing to avoid matters of race. Personally, as the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper’s son, race is has never been an optional discussion for me. My first awareness of race and the notion that this brown skin I wear could be seen as a negative by some occurred when I was around 4 or so.

There are few topics that make White America as a collective squirm as talking about racism and race outside of a white lens. It’s not nice, it’s not polite, it doesn’t feel good. For some, it’s a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the sins of the past still affect the lives of today, for some it’s a fear of fumbling and offending and coming across as racist. For others, they are so steeped in the silo of whiteness that they are unaware of just how unaware they are on matters of race. After all, to be white in certain segments of America means you can live your entire life with little to no interaction with people of color except as something to be consumed through the media.

Which is why when unbridled, unabashed Blackness and joy of Blackness meets up with one of America’s biggest events, the tensions flow and people will do everything to avoid naming their reality. Millions tuned in to see this weekend’s Super Bowl 50; even for the un-sports folks like myself, the Super Bowl is a time to nosh on treats, watch the latest commercials and enjoy the halftime show.

Well, this year’s halftime show was a bit more than some could handle but that’s okay because it was a public declaration of a piece of American history that is often hidden and our collective wholeness as a nation requires that a change occur. It is time for a full embrace of all Americans in all their very unique experiences, even if they aren’t white ones.

Beyonce, the superstar who makes even other superstars shrink, dropped a new single this weekend and then performed that single at the Super Bowl. That single, “Formation,” is a song that does not run from the Black American experience. It’s an open embrace of them, especially many aspects associated with the Southern Black American experience.  Visually (in the video) she paid homage to multiple aspects of the Black American experience, including our tragedies, and in the halftime show she was joined by a group of Black backup dancers dressed to invoke the imagery of the Black Panthers…it was a Black experience.

I wouldn’t say that I am a Beyonce fan, but with the release of “Formation,” she brought unabashed Blackness to the mainstream. We witnessed Blackness as worthy of being centered in primetime where normally it is the white aesthetic that dominates center stage. As we say in some Black spaces, yasssssssss! I am here for it despite the fact that the backlash was almost immediate.

Since the blessed event and thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to know what people are really thinking and, sadly, for many white folks in America, they did not appreciate having their primetime family experience “ruined.” As @yeloson tweeted on Twitter Think hard on this re:Black hypervisibility: “Servants are supposed to entertain, not advocate for survival.”  Because… that’s what it is.”

Blackness and by extension Black people are increasingly demanding to be seated at the table of full humanity that our white brothers and sisters take for granted. Half-assed laws with a few token players who are allowed to succeed (provided that they assimilate into white norms) is no longer enough. We are the descendants of those enslaved people who were forced against their will to build this great nation and we carry that pain, that strength and that grit in our souls. Our stories and our lives are just as American as anyone else’s and if our truths and our ways offend than that is not our problem. We are more than marionettes who dance on demand for the white gaze and this weekend’s half time show gave a glimpse into the rich tapestry that is part of the Black American experience.

Growth often requires discomfort, and right now we bear witness to a nation experiencing racialized growing pains that may eventually lead us to a place of true racial equity. But I suspect that the journey will be rocky. As for me, damn, send me a plate of collard greens and cornbread! I do carry the hot sauce in my bag!

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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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