On being the Black friend

Today’s post is written by special contributor “Aya,” a Black Millennial making her way in Maine’s most populous city. 

Even before moving to Maine, I’ve spent most of my life in primarily white spaces. I’ve learned to accept that if I want to be surrounded by people who look like me, I have to deliberately seek those spaces out. I’ve come to live with the constant underlying discomfort of knowing that everyone is aware that I don’t quite fit in. It’s become my norm, to the point where I hardly recognize it anymore. And I’m used to people being “polite” enough to pretend they don’t notice it either. Which is why I was taken aback when a colleague interrupted a spiritual breakfast sandwich experience to proudly share a story where she used my existence as a Black person in the periphery of her life to one-up a friend in a game of Who Is More Open-Minded.

She’d gone with her friend to see “Get Out,” a movie I’d deliberately avoided discussing with non-POC, and one they only considered worth seeing when it was being shown for free at a rooftop bar. Over post-movie beers, the friend conceded that she kind of gets it; there are places where she feels uncomfortable too. To which my colleague apparently angrily replied “No you do not! I have a coworker who comes to work every day knowing she’ll be the only Black person in every room!” After telling me this story, my colleague looked at me, seemingly with the expectation that I will commend her for so bravely standing up for Black people everywhere. Instead I took another bite of my breakfast sandwich (seriously, don’t interrupt my meals, particularly pre-coffee, especially with nonsense) and told her I had a lot of work to get to.

First of all, we already know how rude it is to expect Black people to be happy to drop whatever they’re doing and take up the emotional burden of discussing race with you. Second, you don’t get any cookies for not being racist. It’s the correct way to be. If that is the sole purpose of you engaging in a conversation with me, don’t bother; you won’t get what you’re looking for. Now third, let’s talk about tokenism.

It’s bad enough when people assume all Black people share one collective brain. Whenever I’m asked to be the voice of all melanated people, I’m quick to reply with a “I have no way of knowing what any other individual thinks, but here’s what I think and why.” Normally people get it, and reply with an embarrassed “Oh, I mean you keep up to date with facebook/blogs/think pieces so you know what people are saying out there; I didn’t mean that.” And we generally leave it, both knowing they meant exactly that. I won’t even get into how I respond to people who claim colorblindness. But what I find especially frustrating lately is the people who use me, without my permission and often even without my knowledge, to make a point about themselves.

Here’s the thing: there’s a difference between the friend who happens to be Black and The Black Friend. Usually, I have an idea of which I am to someone. A friend who happens to be Black is someone you regularly interact with in a way that that does not center around their blackness AND has nothing to do with commitment to work/church/family/etc. You know what is going on in their life and they know what’s in yours. Maybe they’ve presented themselves as a resource for you to educate yourself, but even then, you’re respectful of the emotional labor they’re investing in you. The Black Friend is the person you apologize to for other people’s racism; the one to whom you make a point to prove how “woke” you are. They are the person you think of when the news is full of reports of another person unjustly victimized, and desperate to separate yourself from “those people, you send them a meaningless text that you’ve got their back, before you change the channel to GoT and move on with your life. The Black Friend is not really a friend at all, or maybe more accurately, you’re not really a friend to them.

In that moment at work, as my breakfast sandwich grew colder with every wasted moment, my colleague made it clear: To her, I am someone who exists solely as a symbol of how not-racist she is.


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Two sides of the same coin with a different value: a son’s perspective of Mother’s Day

Yesterday I wrote a post reflecting on what it means to be motherless as I grow older. My brother wrote his own reflections on being a motherless son and man and asked if he could share them in this space. Often we hear women discuss their feelings but far too often we don’t hear from men, so I am honored to share this space with him on a days that heavily weighted for both of us.
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First off I would like to thank Shay Stewart-Bouley for allowing me to write in her space. For those that don’t know I’m her brother.  She normally calls me “little” brother, and she doesn’t know i seriously abhor the title but today I will let her have it because i am in her space.

The reason for writing today…Mothers Day.

If you follow her…you know how the loss of Marilyn has been a dramatic impact on her. I can only imagine the impact of what that is like of losing the parent of the same sex. My vantage point is that of the brother…

14 years ago, life was moving for me…just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree…on my way to grad school in another country, engaged…and it was like the last episode of the Cosby show…as when Theo was headed out to school…then the nightmare came…the details I wont bore you with but lets say there were moments were Guantanamo Bay would have been welcomed.

In her passing, in my sister’s case at 31 in my case 23, there was a forced maturity that I wouldn’t wished on anyone. The first year of everything was brutal, so much so in my case that in the first 18 months, after her passing I couldn’t eat a home cooked meal without literally breaking down into tears (To this day I don’t eat macaroni and cheese because it can stir those emotions.  Don’t judge me, if you had her mac and cheese, you’d cry too lol)

As well 18 months later, Granny aka my mom’s mom passed. So what did that mean for me as “Lil brother?” Well if death wasn’t enough, it came with learning lessons about a deceased love one you couldn’t elaborate on. Also in death as a young man it was realization that there was no fall back. At the time I was engaged (of which that situation didn’t work out) and there was no “going back home to mom”. Our father, was dealing with things that well we can NEVER imagine himself in losing his life partner, partner in crime, helpmate and every other term of 32 years and learning to live in a world that frankly, my sister and I were versed in already.

Over the years, unbeknownst to her, this moment in time destroyed my optimism and brought about some serious darkness in my life. Not just the obvious in the form of depression (which I was diagnosed with in 2007, the mild kind), but a certain lack of emotion that has played well for me professionally but not so much personally. The loss of our mom, has created three perspectives that now exist in three different sections of the country as we live in different places and has created a different impact. (Father, sister, and brother respectively)

14 years later, as the son of Marilyn, the youngest I reflect and it is in these moments the sting comes back anew. Why now? Life changes…my evolution as a man, as an artist and more is traced to that moment in time. In many moments i miss her wit and insight.  My sister valiantly attempts to be the matriarch, but in many ways that’s not fair to her, as the researcher in me observes her struggle, yet I empathize with her attempts to be better. Truth is, if you have not been made a motherless child, you can only imagine how it rewires you as a person. In my travels, since her transition, I myself have done things that she would be proud of and some well, not so much. Over the years i have sought counseling, positive and negative replacements and well nothing compares to the original O.G. I have had the pleasure of watching her impact and her legacy grown through my nephew and now his family, my niece, the work of our father who can bring tears to your eyes, when he says I am STILL married. (Fighting tears at the thought just writing that) and well if you know Marilyn’s kids, you know her.

If you wanted to know Marilyn Stewart, look in her kids eyes.  Its a fire to us…if your wanted to know her, watch our tenacity. We are both super stubborn lol.  Our  mom was a fighter to the end, and a person that would make things happen out of nothing. I learned more about her in death than in life. I learned why family was important to her so much as someone instrumental to her discarded her. I learned of the decisions she made that as her youngest i definitely didn’t agree with, but I empathize and understand. If you want to he know her, look at her children’s accomplishments. 2 kids, with a total of 5 degrees (3 master’s and one working on a PhD, because education was important to her). But if you REALLY want to know Marilyn’s kids, watch our smiles.. She had a way of disarming people even in the midst of the darkest situations and could make a true friend out of an enemy in a way that diplomats would envy.

So year 14, and we are at Mother’s Day. When folks sit in church all day, take mom’s to get cheddar biscuits and get cards…I am in the distant, pursuing my goals in one part of the country, my sister being a mom and now Grandmother in another, and Pops in the homeland in yet another, probably listening to Kenny Roger’s Lady (You’d have to know him to get that one)

Truth is, as a member of the motherless child clan, these moments provide a sting, and yet we know she lives on in us, and generations to follow. We grieve at painful and happy moments because she doesnt inhabit this space, yet inside she is with us. Somewhere in heaven she is sipping some good champagne, with her legs crossed shaking her food listening to Maurice White from EWF or having the angels play some steppers music.

To those with a mother….be thankful,…if you she is on this plane, and you don’t talk, kill the bs…because there are those that would give every accolade back to have a convo with her…I’m one of em… to those that share in the grief of the day, you are not alone. We cry and we laugh together in the memories of our mothers. To my sister, life has come full circle from a daughter who lost her mother to a grandmother with generations that seek your wisdom and guidance. I pray that their wisdom is with you as much as their ability to cook (you still owe me that recipe book too I AIN’T FORGOT WOMAN lol)

Respectfully submitted
“Lil” brother
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Showing up for us in meaningful ways

Today we have a new post from contributor Marena Blanchard. It’s a very personal piece in the sense that it focuses heavily on her home city of Portland, Maine. But while some of the names and circumstances may be specific to that city, I think many of the issues she touches on will resonate with people of color and those who support them as far away as the “other Portland” in Oregon and oh so many communities in between in the United States. By the way, Marena is a community organizer, working to resist and dismantle the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy in Maine. She focuses on racial justice and immigration rights.
–BGIM
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Here we go.

I love you, Portland. I love you so much that I choose to live here and have committed to raising my precious daughter here. Liberal and progressive white people of Portland, I love you so much that I am willing to expend significant emotional labor to remain in dialogue with you, over and over. I love you so much that I put my Black, queer, femme body in white-only spaces to provide a perspective you can’t imagine. I love you so much that I’m willing to make you uncomfortable and navigate through the consequences that has for me. My love is actively working toward King’s Beloved Community.

Here we go.

I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to learn how white supremacy permeates all things. (Shout out to the Black folks who invested in teaching me outside of the institution of public education). Truth is, America is and always has been a country rooted in white supremacy. Since its genocidal founding, the institutions that make up this country have been built and maintained to keep a Black person down and keep the white man on their neck. There is not a single American system, law, code, etc. that exists outside of Racism. There is not a single region, state, county, or city that exists outside Racism. See where I’m going with this?

There’s this pervasive myth that Portland is a progressive bubble devoid of the racial strife present in other cities. It’s not. Portland stays hella problematic and perpetuates white supremacy in ways you may not recognize. Yet. More on this below.

Chances are your analysis of race has deepened due to your exposure to PoC [people of color] writers and thinkers, like Shay. There is a local lineage of leaders who have taught and mentored us, directly and indirectly. Gerald E. Talbot, Rachel Talbot Ross, Pious Ali, Leonard Cummings, Bob Greene, Keita Whitten, Regina Phillips, Daniel Minter, Rev. Kenneth Lewis, Samuel James, Rene Johnson, Samaa Abdurraqib, and the organizers of Portland Racial Justice Congress are just a few who have influenced me. You also have relied on their labor, perspective, insight, and persistence to gain understanding, whether you are conscious of this or not. It’s in this tradition, and that of my own familial ancestors, that I attempt to pop this myth about the Portland bubble.

Here we go.

Let’s talk about white saviors taking up space, the value of civil disobedience, and grounding anti-racist work in a human rights framework which centers the voices and perspectives of marginalized and frontline communities.

Are you ready?

Local white folks are so concerned with the anger expressed by some Black folks, specifically Black women. I have been prompted to address this so many times that I need to declare publicly, at the onset of this discussion: civility is not the greatest good. Black people are humans. With the full range of human emotions. Black women are humans. With full human rights to life. Black women should be angry. I, personally, am angry as fuck. And I will remain so, as long as my people remain oppressed. White folks, understand that you are also bound by white supremacy and will not be free until I am. Our liberations are interwoven.

The ways white supremacy manifests internationally, nationally, and locally should make us all mad. I am here for normalizing anger and normalizing its expression. I am here for the motivation it can provide to us. I am here for what it can tell us about ourselves and the world around us. And ultimately, I am here for transmuting it into the deepest kind of love. Feel your feelings, Black fam; they are valid and I will never shame you for it or tone-check you.

In the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder and the mobilization of Ferguson, Brittney Cooper wrote this in defense of Black rage: “Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger. It won’t show up in mass killings. It will show up in overpolicing, mass incarceration, the gutting of the social safety net, and the occasional dead black kid. Of late, though, these killings have been far more than occasional. We should sit up and pay attention to where this trail of black bodies leads us. They are a compass pointing us to a raging fire just beneath the surface of our national consciousness. We feel it. We hear it. Our nostrils flare with the smell of it.”

The trail of Black bodies has led us to this election. Donald Trump is our very own fascist president. Yeah, I’m fucking angry about that. And also terrified for my physical safety and that of my daughter. And also realize that even I, as a Black queer femme, am still less of a target than disabled PoC, trans PoC, Muslim PoC, and LGBTQ+ Muslim PoC.

After checking multiple news sources to confirm his victory, I was immediately triggered by the sense of not being able to protect those I love. I became instantly obsessed with figuring out how best to address the safety concerns of my community and change the system that made the concern a reality to begin with. In dialogue with another organizer, Samaa Abdurraqib, we formed For Us, By Us.

Liberal and progressive white folks in Maine also sprang into action. Suddenly, there was an excess of energy and ideas. Which is great and inspiring and part of the reason why I love Portland. There were meetings, events, and action plans made to protect marginalized communities. But y’all, the spaces were almost exclusively cis hetero white, as was the leadership of these initiatives. As a principle, I need you to understand that nothing about us or for us, should be without us. Liberal and progressive white folk do not have the perspective or lived experience to fully understand the challenges facing communities y’all don’t belong to. So how can y’all set priorities or frameworks? The assumption that you can save us is Peak White Savior mentality. We need to dead that shit; no more white saviors.

Recognize where your learning around race comes from, give credit where it’s due, don’t set up initiatives that compete with PoC initiatives and yet claim to benefit PoC. Don’t take up space and collect coins for initiatives that claim to benefit marginalized communities. Again, nothing about us or for us should be without us.

In these weeks and months directly following the election, I have been SO BUSY. I made it my mission to interrupt predominantly white spaces. I’ve had mixed results. My goal was and is to center the experiences and priorities of marginalized communities in their struggle for full human rights. Another goal was and is what is referred to in the organizing community as “the slow build.” The slow build acknowledges that white folks have more access to the financial and social capital required to begin a project as quickly as possible and that members of marginalized communities largely don’t have that access.

The idea of a slow build says slow down. It says don’t just do outreach to token and visible Black folks, LGBTQ+ folks, etc., in order that they may join and support your project. Rather, show up for us, in the spaces we curate, and figure out how to support us. Build mutually beneficial relationships, not exploitative ones. Figure out how to leverage your resources and connections, so that you may further initiatives led by members of marginalized communities. That is the work of an accomplice.

So here we are.

We’re about a month into the fascist presidency. Locally, we’ve seen our “moderate” Republican Sen. Susan Collins kiss the ring in a multitude of ways, KKK flyers manifesting in your suburban neighborhoods, hate crimes against PoC youth, a bomb threat against a Jewish preschool, the Portland Police Department chief holding a press conference in which he elevates rallies and condemns civil disobedience, and recruitment at the University of Southern Maine (USM) by a group listed on Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map. Insert spinning Mr. Crab meme. Do you still think Portland is a bubble? I need to know where y’all white saviors at right now on this.

Last I checked some of y’all were still asking whether racism is a problem in Maine…where exactly the line is between cultural appropriation and appreciation…and characterizing the occupation of a commercial center as violence. When I think about where the needle is on these conversations, when I observe how basic civic engagement in participatory democracy is labeled as resistance, when I see the commodification of movement moments…my anxiety sets in. I wonder if you are prepared to address what’s happening. I wondered if you are prepared to stand with those of us who are most affected by this regime’s policies. My fear is that you are not.

Showing up in Meaningful Ways:

I see Rep. Larry Lockman’s speaking engagement at USM as a test. Read about his background here. I’ve heard your arguments about freedom of speech and the slippery slope toward absolute censorship for us all. I’ve heard your warnings that he’s down here solely to get a rise out of leftists and repeat what happened at UC Berkeley. And honestly, y’all got me fucked up with all that and I call bullshit. Lockman’s down here to spread his anti-immigrant message. Successful recruitment will have real impacts for our neighbors. Worry about THAT slippery slope. Y’all keep talking about the need to make inroads into rural Maine while the hateful and violent are out here making their own inroads into our community. Hate speech incites violence and USM shouldn’t be used for recruitment in this way. It’s already a dangerous environment for PoC and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Go ahead ask me about that, I got stories and receipts for days.

Let me connect a couple dots for you. Remember the Islamophobic graffiti that appeared in USM’s student senate office late last year? One of the senators forced to resign due to his efforts to cover up the incident is listed as the primary contact for this newly formed student group, Young Americans for Freedom. And one of their first acts is to invite down this motherfucker Lockman. In a public Facebook post, a student senator revealed that the event is privately funded. Further, this group is paying for their own security for the event. Where’s this money coming from? Y’all wanna talk about freedom of speech, tho.

In a recent Maine Beacon piece, Teddy Burrage asks, “To what extent should we allow freedom of speech to become an incubator for violence, particularly with the genocidal undertones within the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement? At what point are we responsible for snuffing out the embers of hate despite our commitment to freedom? Our answers to these questions may determine whether or not we repeat history.”

Let’s talk about history for a quick minute. White supremacists have been using the “freedom of speech” argument to spread hate and recruit for their cause for over 100 years. When “Birth of a Nation,” a horrid film which glorified the KKK and set a new bar for racist imagery, first debuted it was widely protested. The brand new NAACP worked tirelessly to prevent showings. This prompted the director of the film, D.W. Griffith, to pen “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America.” Let me emphasize this: the very argument that hate speech is free speech was popularized by the white supremacist filmmaker credited with the spread of the KKK in America 100 years ago and y’all out here repeating it.

Further, did you catch that Portland Press Herald article about how the resurgence of the KKK spread throughout Southern Maine and resulted in significant influence over Portland’s City Hall? It started with speaking engagements. We cannot afford to sleep on this. We cannot afford to normalize this. We cannot afford to appease this. As a queer, Black femme, daughter of an immigrant, the stakes feel very high for me.

This needs to be, first and foremost, about standing with those most affected by the threat Lockman’s views represent to our lives and our human rights. We need to stand with women, PoC, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ folks. Portland Racial Justice Congress, #USMfutures, and other student groups are calling for a nonviolent protest of the event. We should follow their leadership. They are centering the most affected voices and we should stand with them. You should stand with us.

Portland, I love you and I’mma need you to get your shit all the way together and fast. I need all of you to fiercely defend the rights of affected communities to protest if and when they so choose. If you can fix your mouth to defend the free speech of someone like Lockman, I better see you at the protest too. If you are able, don’t leave the marginalized to stand alone, surrounded by police. I’m going to need you to understand the value in civil disobedience and show up for it in a way that makes the most sense for your body. That’s what this moment requires. That’s how you leverage your privilege. That’s how you resist.

You are not powerless.

We are powerful. All power to the people.

#BlackLivesMatter

Six resources for going deeper:

Reframing Faculty Criticisms of Student Activism

White Progressives: It’s time to be transformers, not just have opinions

PBS Independent Lens Documentary: The Birth of a Movement

A Public Menace: How the Fight to Ban the Birth of a Nation Shaped the Nascent Civil Rights Movement

Some Garbage I Used to Believe About Equality

The Trump Era will Test us. What are you willing to risk?
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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.