Stop shrinking us

I was brought to Maine to live a better life. Better than what, I’ll never know. I have many feelings about that. My mother gave me away so that I might live up here, among the trees and the ocean and the nice white folk. I am meant to be grateful. I gathered this from spending my childhood being told that I was ungrateful. As though I had a say in being born.

When I was in kindergarten kids used to tell me: I was Black. I knew my colors quite well (having had the opportunity to acquaint myself with all 98 Crayola crayon colors in the crayon box). I was very confident that my skin was brown and not black. I decided to do a demonstration. Pulling a black crayon and a brown crayon from the 98-color Crayola crayon box, I held each up to my skin. I would ask my classmates which color best matched my skin? They would point. I would then ask them to read the color of the crayon. Guess which one matched best? They still told me I was Black.

Most days it feels like I’m drowning. Hands pulling me under, bodies weighing me down.  Growing up in Maine does that to a person. Excuse me, growing up Black in Maine does that to a person. It shrinks us. Makes us smaller, more compact. Easier to move and use and throw away.

I am from a small town. Thirty minutes north of where I live now. A town of subtle racism.

You know I used to argue with people about the color of my eyes? My eyes which I stared at each morning, and again each night. I memorized the shades in them, the size of my pupils as they dilated. People said they were black. My hair too. I studied each strand and was certain, they were brown. I told people as much. People being classmates, friends, family. All white. All so sure I was black to the core. I suppose they were right.

In middle school I was finally able to get extensions in my hair. I was so excited. Finally, my hair (which I had no idea how to manage, and my white mother even less so) would be beautiful. Finally, I would be beautiful. My braided bliss endured for the car ride home. After that, my brothers laughed and called it horsehair. They took that taunt to bus and it followed me through to high school.

I played the violin and piano, sang, did drama, competed in track and field. I listened to Whitney Houston, Amy Grant, Jewel, Usher, and American Idol covers. I watched Star Trek Voyager, The Lost World, Sister Act (I & II). I was not allowed to listen to rap music or watch R-rated movies. I was raised by a white family, in a white town, in a white state.

Because of these things, my white friends (my only friends) called me an Oreo. Said they were blacker than me. Like they were the ones who were called a ‘nigger’ on a school playground at the age of seven, by a white boy with a knife. Like they were the ones who stared at themselves in the mirror, day after day, hearing voices deny the truth their eyes could see; trying to find the black in their brown.

Like they were the ones who lived in a house where everyone looked the same, except for them. Went to school every day taught by people who did not look like them. Had to learn that the only thing worth knowing about people whose skin is dark, is that we were were enslaved. Robbed. Slaughtered.

Look. I love my Black. I have always loved it. I just didn’t know it until now. Wasn’t allowed to know it until now. When I gave myself permission. Growing up, I let people shrink me. Allowed them to define what my blackness was. Gave them permission to judge what I am worth. We live in a world that is burning. In a state which is continually shrinking its brightest stars.

I met a kid last night. Their hair was kinky and curly and beautiful. They told me ‘I like your hair!’ I said, ‘Thanks! I like yours too!’ Then they said, ‘Thanks! It’s really curly. But if I put it in a bun before I go to bed it’s straight.’

It wasn’t until later that their meaning sank in. I love my Black. I want our kids to love theirs too. Please, stop shrinking us.


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#MeToo: The erasure and fetishization of the Black body

Sunday morning when I logged online, a fluttering ping of status updates rolled into a steady flow of trauma to my feed.

Ping

“Me too.”

Ping

“Me too.”

Ping

“Me too.”

Often accompanied with the words:

“If all the women who have been sexually harassed and/or sexually assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as their status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Reading these posts, I was affected and moved. Though not moved enough share, despite my long history with sexual trauma. I confess, when I looked at the updates, they felt like another thing which wasn’t meant for me, like pussy hats or the right to breathe. Each survivor posting was white, mostly cis-het, and comfortably using the term “woman” to describe who the posts were for.

It wasn’t until later in the evening that I spotted a Black femme on my feed had posted, “Me too.” I scrolled, another Black femme, and another, and another. As I scrolled more and more friend’s posts popped up. Black, queer, nonbinary, femme, woman, man. They flooded my feed. Queer friends online had changed the text to highlight PoC, include non-binary and femme folks, as well as those who are woman-identified. Some posts included statistics for trans folks, and PoC.

This shift struck home. I recognized the truth of our experience. Sexual assault is a thing we know happens. Often. Sexual trauma is deeply rooted in the Black experience.

The first thing I learned about my body was shame. Black children, Black girls (as they call us before we can learn to advocate for ourselves) are taught that we are sex objects. We are taught this by our homes, by our society and by our experiences. As a child I taught by my white mother to close my legs to be “proper” and not entice, by my oldest white brother that I was a tool for his continued sexual amusement, and by media and society that I was only good enough to be a sex object.

Black people are taught that we are to be fetishized, sexualized and used. This is a thing which has been ingrained into this culture since its inception. From Black bodies being raped and abused on slave ships and plantations to the degradation of the Black femme and woman, to the oversexualization of the Black man. Think Jezebel, or the Big Black Cock (BBC) tag on porn sites. There is no mediocre white dick (MWD) tag. (For this I can think of many obvious reasons, chief among them is the lack of the fetishization of the white body.)

I recognize not all sexual trauma is racial. But because of the racial make-up of Maine, the struggles of Black and brown people to connect, and the general lack of understanding and appreciation for Black and brown people by white people in Maine and elsewhere, add to that my own lengthy personal experiences, I believe I can safely say that most of the sexual assault on PoC in Maine is racialized.

Given the deeply rooted trauma and intersection between Blackness and sexual abuse, as well as the consistent erasure of Black people and PoC in our stories and movements, it came as no surprise that #MeToo was started nearly a decade ago by a Black woman; try as the internet might to credit it to a white one.

Tarana Burke is a social justice advocate who has been slaying the game for years. She started her own non-profit called Just BE, Inc. which focuses on the “health, well-being and wholeness of brown girls everywhere”, contributed her magic as a consultant on the 2014 film Selma, and is currently working on a documentary entitled Songs Called Survival: The ‘me too.’ Movie. This documentary, as well as #MeToo, is tasked with bringing into the light stories of Black and brown survivors of sexual assault.

I feel it needs to be stated, for the sake of inclusivity and to stave off any arguments, that this is not the Oppression Olympics. One person’s sexual trauma is no more or less significant than another’s. Racialized or not, sexual trauma fucks a person up. Also, it is important to recognize that because of this, the issue of erasure needs to be explored.

I watched white woman after white woman after white woman post about their trauma. While I acknowledge the strength it takes to put oneself out there, I can’t help but see a community all too comfortable with leaving me, and people who look like me, love like me, and don’t love like me, out of the narrative. Can’t help but see how woman after woman was contented to see only themselves in the struggle. See how each post erased the experiences of people who are not white and do not fit into the “woman” box. Maybe women were just trying to raise awareness. Maybe they didn’t know the origins of the #MeToo movement, but to this I say, isn’t that the point?


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Changing Maine and the necessity of PoC spaces

To be a person of color in Maine is to eat sleep and breathe Whiteness. Despite the melanin of our skin, we still live, move, and operate within a reality which centers Whiteness above all things.

Because PoC Mainers operate within the long-endured rule of Whiteness, we have little to no opportunities to gather together outside of Whiteness, to address things which are also very much part of our reality. Issues which are so complex, deep, and intergenerational, while simultaneously heartbreakingly basic. Love of ourselves, for example. Love of our people. A deep understanding of our history and our worth. Learning to dream, to achieve, to accomplish in a space which does not reflect nor value us.

Unresolved we push these issues to the core of our being, allowing them to fester and run, infecting, sickening and killing us.

The good news is, self-love is on the rise. PoC in Portland and around the state are coming together to create and demand spaces which can be claimed for our own. We are beginning to foster an environment where spaces for us are not only expected, but encouraged.

Portland’s Q/PoC creatives and organizers are carving out spaces and events dedicated to, made for and in support of PoC.  Theater Ensemble of Color, which uses performance, art, community inclusion and social activism to explore and celebrate diversity; Kesho Wazo, a youth-led organization dedicated to impacting youth and expanding their minds; Black Artists Forum, which has recently found new life and is committed to sustaining the growth of Black creatives in Portland; and my baby, Bloodletting, a recurring poetry night committed to lifting up and empowering the voices of queer and femme PoC, to name a few.

When PoC come together, healing happens. This is a truth which for me can be traced most palpably to “A Distant Holla,” a month-long celebration which was held in May at the Abyssinian Meeting House (the third oldest African American meeting house in the country) and helmed by Daniel Minter, a celebrated local artist.

Only one word can describe what happened at the Abyssinian: Magic. The Meeting House swelled happily with Black and brown people from Portland and Southern Maine. There was art, music, food, wine, and people. Youth, elders, and everyone in between came together to be in community with one another. “A Distant Holla” was a necessary reminder of our power and our ability.

For too long, PoC in Maine have been pressed into misshapen versions of ourselves, attempting to contort our bodies and spirits into a version which is easily digestible to white people. Afraid to take up space, believing the lie that we are not owed any. More and more we are refusing to be reduced to stereotypes, reactions and tragedies.

To sustain our efforts, we must heal. We must have space free from the harm that Whiteness brings. I believe this is what led Samaa Abdurraqib, co-founder of For Us By Us (FUBU), to reach out to Resources for Organizing Social Change, and organize this year’s Changing Maine.

On Saturday Sept. 9,Changing Maine for Racial Justice: Centering Anti-Racism in our Movements” was held at the Lewiston YWCA. The all-day conference came just as advertised. With two blocks of workshops, each featuring a session for Black/PoC, Native American/indigenous, and white attendees (with the exception of the afternoon session, where Native/indigenous attendees merged with the Black/PoC group, due to lack of a facilitator).

Changing Maine this year embraced the power that PoC spaces hold, and in doing so, created an experience which left many people changed. Changing Maine moved me. I felt nourished, fulfilled, and achy with new thought patterns and possibilities for healing. How did such a powerful experience find its way to white-occupied, previously white-organized, Changing Maine?  I reached out to Samaa Abdurraqib to ask:

LD: I understand that you attended Changing Maine in 2016; what was it about that experience which led you and For Us By Us to partner with CM this year?

SA: It actually wasn’t the previous experience I had at CM that led me to partner with ROSC. I’d heard that ROSC wanted to focus this year’s summit on racial justice, and I was concerned that ROSC–a white-led, white-staffed organization with limited resources–wouldn’t be able to create an event that felt like it was addressing racial justice in a way that would help White organizers and organizations make the shifts necessary to introduce more racial equity into their work. I was also concerned that the summit wouldn’t address the needs of Black, brown, and indigenous people in Maine.

LD: Maine is a predominately white state, and by extension, most of its organizers are white as well. You were the driving force in bringing PoC/Native-only spaces to the conference. How did you approach bringing those spaces to CM?

SA: Well…I just asked. I stressed the importance of having a separate space because of a couple of different reasons. 1) The work Black/brown/indigenous people need to do when it comes to racial justice is different from the work that white people need to do. 2) When Black and brown people are in majority white spaces talking about racial justice, they’re inevitably looked to (by white people) to help lead them through their own processes of navigating and negotiating white privilege and white supremacy. Sometimes that means that Black/brown/indigenous folks are asked to speak for “their people.” Sometimes that means that PoCs/indigenous people are asked to manage white people’s emotions as they process the guilt, anger, fear of recognizing how they might be implicated in furthering white supremacy.

LD: This year, Changing Maine had two workshop sessions. The morning session (for PoC) was Love and Dismantling Internalized Oppression, facilitated by Durryle Brooks, and the afternoon session (for PoC/Native) was Oppression & Privilege in Multi-Racial Movements, facilitated by Yamila Hussein. 

Explain briefly why these two workshops are important to the overarching theme of centering anti-racism in our movements.

SA: Durryle’s session on love was HUGELY important to the anti-racist work Black and brown people need. Being immersed in the Whiteness of Maine can make self-love difficult. Being immersed in Whiteness also makes it difficult for us to articulate our love for each other. Durryle’s session was important grounding work. We told stories to each other about how we define love and where those definitions come from (family, society, culture). We talked about what love for ourselves (as Black/brown people) and each other (as Black/brown people) actually looks like. We talked about how we can put love into action in our social justice work. Durryle gave us much needed space to talk and dream about what we needed for ourselves and each other. It was beautiful.

Yamila talked with us about how PoC work with each other when white people are not in the room. She began with the premise that, even when white people aren’t in the room, Whiteness remains in the room. She’s totally right. This session was important because it gave us an opportunity to speak frankly about how Whiteness and proximity to Whiteness continues to divide us when we try to work together across ethnic and racial differences. Her session also allowed us to speak frankly with each other about the divides that occur that aren’t connected to Whiteness (ageism, for example).

LD: With these themes in mind, how do you feel [attendees] benefitted from experiencing PoC/Native only spaces?

SA: I think attendees felt heard, held, and supported in these spaces. I purposefully asked the facilitators to keep their agendas loose; I wanted us to have space and time to be together without spending all of the time thinking about the to-do list that we might generate. One of the attendees  (a HIGHLY experienced organizer who’s lived in Maine ALL of her life) said that she’d never been in a PoC-only space before. She said that she felt nourished and supported. Hearing her say this helped me feel like I met one of my goals.

LD: After attending CM last year, and again this year, how did your experiences differ?

SA: Well…this year felt good. It felt nourishing. It felt enabling and empowering. Last year felt perfunctory. Last year, I attended CM because I thought I might learn something that would enhance my work as an organizer. This year, I was given tools to help me internally. I was given tools to help me make stronger connections with other Black and brown people. A little over a year ago, I’d made the decision that I was going to (as best I could) shift my priorities so that I gave more of my energy to supporting, loving, and prioritizing Black and brown people in Maine. This year’s CM is a step in that process.

LD: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?

SA: I am filled with gratitude for all of the Black and brown people who showed up, despite the fact that CM (and events like CM) traditionally feel marginalizing and othering. I am grateful that Black, brown, and indigenous people trusted what I and the other organizers envisioned, took a chance, and showed up. I was moved by what happened in that PoC/indigenous space, and I’m excited to see Black and brown people continue to grow, building on all of the work, knowledge, and love that has come before us and laid foundations for us to be beautiful and dope.

Bottom line: When PoC come together, healing happens. When we stretch that power into white spaces? Well, to quote Tracy Chapman, we’re “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution.”


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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.