Wade in

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our children to the Winter Wonderland display at the Maine Mall. The online ad promised a festive array of merry-making activities, and we weren’t disappointed on that end. The massive train table, holiday movie lounge, wall drawing stations, and jumbo chess and checker boards were impressive, all wrapped up in a North Pole Workshop ambiance. It was lovely to exhale for a moment and let the little people explore an open and engaging public space meant for them—or so we thought at first.

Moments after we arrived and set our tiny adventurers free to roam, however, I overheard a comment that sucked every ounce of holiday cheer from the air and pierced my gut with a visceral reminder of the unceasing vulnerability wrapped up in being black. It was a joke, told by a middle-aged white man, to and about the only other Black person in the room. The two men were coworkers, dressed up like workshop helpers, laughing and chatting with professional familiarity and with the pleasantness created for the benefit of customers—white customers as a matter of default, I suppose.

The Black man was tall, his voice was deep and warm. He wore dreadlocks and a disarming smile as he ran the trains, offering peppermints and other treats to children passing by. I was glad to see him. I felt an immediate modicum of relief in not being the only one.

Then the white man called out to him, nonchalantly, “My mother always told me to stay away from big, Black men giving away candy!” To which the Black man only chuckled. I felt my hands go numb and my insides begin to shake. I wanted to respond, nonchalantly, “Then I guess your mom was a racist bitch!” But with the fire of rage steadily building in my chest, I knew I would never pull off nonchalant. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would not end up on YouTube, a screaming, angry Black woman coming unhinged before a crowd of confounded white shoppers, suddenly devastated and aghast at me for exposing their sheltered babies to the subject of racism and to the use of the b-word.

Yet, here my own babies played in a room full of grown people who collectively failed to blink the moment blackness was openly equated with danger and suspicion. Where everyone could let a racist comment slide because it was just a joke, and (under the surface) because the premise of the joke hit a raw nerve of hideous truth, as jokes often do—the truth that white society is terrified of blackness. Which would be funny, in a twisted, satirical, “laugh so you don’t cry” kind of way, if this terrified bigotry didn’t end Black lives on a regular basis. It might even bring a wry smile to my face if race and systematic racism were not violently denied as factors in the death of innocent Black humans daily. But they are. And the blackness that’s so frightening to a society built on the assumed superiority and innocence of whiteness, is the same blackness beautifully carried by my children’s own gentle, affectionate Haitian grandfather, with whom they had just reconnected over Thanksgiving. It is worn proudly by their intensely sensitive, creative, protective mother. And by extension, this blackness lies quietly in the intricate foundation of who my children are.

And before you step in to remind me that it is, in fact, wise to teach your children not to take candy from strange men, let me remind you that the premise of the joke wasn’t, “Strange men are scary / dangerous.” It was “strange, Black men are scary / dangerous.” And whether you are comfortable acknowledging it or not, the fact that this qualifier had to be included, makes the joke racist.

So, this is how I came to stand in the middle of the Winter Wonderland display at the mall, debating whether to become an instant YouTube sensation, and more problematically, whether to create a hostile work environment for the subject of this racist joke in the process, or to be compliant in the silent violence that leaves deadly bigotry unchecked, only occasionally acknowledged by this sort of satirical ribbing which functions as complicity.

This particular incident ended with my white husband stepping in. Having chased our darting threenager to another corner of the holiday playland, he had escaped the pleasure of the spontaneous comedy show starring Santa’s helper. But when the Mr. wandered closer again, he could tell from my facial expression and body language that something wasn’t right. When he found out what it was, he said, “I’m going to go talk to him.” Calmly, but unwaveringly, he explained how damaging it is for children to absorb these kind of messages about Black men. When the white man explained that he and his coworker “joked like that all the time,” my husband just responded that it didn’t matter, because jokes can be harmful. Several apologies were given, and we left to let our children ride the carousel.

But the larger story doesn’t end there. In fact, there is no end in sight. Because, as much as I wish implicit, deadly lies about blackness lived and died in a single corner of the Maine Mall, and that we could all shield our children from their damage by simply avoiding such a place, this is not the case. These lies continue to thrive in the word choices and tone of news anchors, in speeches given by our elected officials, and in jokes told around the table at holiday feasts. And while some parents are busy making sure their children’s tiny feet remain untouched by the dingy waves of the moral crisis still flooding our nation, the rest of us are fighting to stay afloat with our babies. It’s time for more allies to wade in.


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We are not the problem

Experience has taught me that humans notice my brown skin before all else, and see all else through the lenses of what my brown skin means to them. For instance, while walking through a department store with my two young children, one of whom is continuously running circles around our cart and every object within a three-yard radius, the other one banging on his seat and alternately singing and screeching at the top of his lungs, myself at my wits end, trying to grab everything on our list and get out of the building alive, I have received warm smiles of empathetic understanding from those who have been there before me. And I have received scoffs of disgust and proclamations of, “There goes another breeder!”

In other words, as a brown woman living among white folks, I am frequently read as “the problem” in our society. To translate what the middle-aged white lady said about me in the previous paragraph: Since I am a mother of two young children, I must be a welfare queen, breeding for the purpose of mooching off hard-working white people. My husband and I are assumed not to be in a committed relationship, as I am reminded when a camp site receptionist refers to him as my boyfriend, or when a vocal Trump supporter glances pointedly at our family in a restaurant while loudly griping about their own warped, unfounded reality, in which immigrants ruin American values by moving here and having children without getting married.

But weighing more heavily on my shoulders than the constant barrage of casually violent assumptions about my existence being a burden and blight on our society is this: the blame POC constantly carry for our own oppression. At this point in American history, it would take an extraordinary level of intentional ignorance to not acknowledge race as a serious point of contention in our country. People everywhere are being forced to wake up to this centuries-old reality, even if they didn’t want to see it before. But we have a president and a large portion of the population focusing on the complaints of those suffering injustice, reacting to our complaints as if we are the cause of all that is currently wrong.

NFL players like Collin Kaepernick were called “sons of bitches” recently, by the Bigot-in-Chief himself, for daring to protest police brutality and the systematic white supremacy ruling our land. All over Facebook and in everyday interactions, I hear people expressing rage at Black Lives Matter protesters for blocking roads and showing any amount of anger, calling for us to be run over or shot down like animals. Even when white supremacists rise up, threatening our very existence with deadly displays of force, as witnessed in Charlottesville, people of color must share the blame. Can you wrap your head around this abominable distortion of the concept of fairness? There is a side of this “racial conflict” which wants to wipe non-white, non-Christian, non-straight/cis/patriarchy-worshipers off the face of the planet, and there is side standing up and refusing to let that happen. And both sides are seen as equally at fault for any violence that this “conflict” creates–the conflict over whether or not I have the right to exist. The length to which this white supremacist society will go in order to absolve itself of any responsibility for the destruction it creates defies the limits of logic and human decency.

The absurdity even bleeds into progressive circles, where POC are asked to defend our motivation in standing against those who want us dead. We are told that if we hate the people who want nothing more than to our children off the face of the planet simply because our children dare to exist, we are just as bad as those terrorists and just as much to blame for the struggle we are simply trying to survive.

We are always the problem. We are always to blame.

This is a theme tackled perfectly by June Jordan in her devastatingly poignant piece entitled, “Poem about My Rights.” In it, she describes many ways in which rape occurs. On international, intranational, community-wide, and intimate, personal levels, people are constantly oppressed and violated, simply because of our existence, non-compliant as it is with social standards of normalcy–white, straight, westernized, carefully dressed. Jordan righteously rages over the blame leveled on the disenfranchised for our own exploitation, saying:*

I have been raped

be-

cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age

the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the

wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic

the wrong sartorial I

I have been the meaning of rape

I have been the problem everyone seeks to

eliminate by forced

penetration

In other words, I know this play like the back of my hand. First, you violate my right to be. Nation-states, government agencies, social majorities, men who are physically stronger than me–you overpower me and take away my right to say, “No!” Then, you tell me it was my own fault for dressing or being a certain way that you just don’t like. You make me the problem to justify your own crimes against me and absolve yourself from the guilt. Jordan brings her indictment against continuous human predation to a magnificent crescendo, asserting, “I am not Wrong; Wrong is not my name.” In other words, “Yes. Something is most certainly fucked up, here. But the fucked up thing is not my existence, and I will not let your misplaced blame shackle me any longer.”

I have been thinking about this poem a lot lately. It seems to settle more deeply into my bones with each passing day, with each new wave of blame crashing over Black and brown communities, poised to finally drown marginalized groups everywhere. I was thinking about it the other day in the pediatrician’s office when I was given a form to fill out about our family dynamics, and I had to come up with a response for how often I’ve been feeling hopeless or depressed. I didn’t have room to write “Of course I fight hopelessness and depression every damn day. I’m a Black woman living in a white supremacist nation-state. The logical, human response to the constant psychological violence we face is hopelessness and depression. And, guess what? My response to rampant social cannibalism, to this accepted and applauded destruction and demonizing of the disenfranchised, is not the thing that’s wrong here. My hopelessness is not the problem that desperately needs to be addressed.”

Instead, I circled an option to indicate slight to moderate hopelessness and added, “Since the election.” That part was bullshit. White supremacy has ruled this land since long before Donald Trump took his first breath. But the election briefly sums up for me everything that is wrong and has been wrong with this nation since its inception: Namely, the systematic dehumanization and exploitation of non-white, non-normative human beings for the benefit of the socially privileged, and the blame placed on us for our own oppression, and all the evils that flow from it.

The checkup happened, my kids got their flu shots, and when screams of outrage from my smallest ensued, I was assured they would be given stickers at the front of the office. They were not. Instead, as I nailed down the next appointment, making a casual remark about how quickly the year has flown by, I received a monologue from the receptionist about how she has no choice but to work, her pay rate won’t keep up with the cost of living, and that it’s just the world we’re living in today. I hustled our crew out to the minivan, sifting through the woman’s response, trying to decode it. Perhaps she is a progressive working woman, discouraged that the minimum wage is lagging behind inflation rates. Or maybe she sees me dressed in leggings and a stained tunic, not wearing a wedding ring, struggling to get through the door with my two young children, both of whom are insured through the state, three minutes late for our appointment, complaining about the election results, and she thinks, “Here comes another breeder!”

I wanted to tell her that my wedding ring hasn’t fit since my second pregnancy, and I just haven’t found the time to have it resized. I wanted to tell her that I work my ass off as a mother of two, and that, while we can’t afford childcare, I do babysit and write to help our family make ends meet; it’s just not always consistent and not enough income to insure my children. I wanted to show her degrees and certificates and make her see how, although I am most definitely a mess who struggles to keep herself dressed and get to my children’s appointments on time, I have worked hard for the recognition I rarely get, and I make contributions to my community. I wanted to defend my right to exist.

But I why should I have to? My existence is not the thing that’s wrong, here. We are not the problem.

*Lines cited are 92-101 and 109, Jodan, Poem about My Rights. You can read the poem in its entirety at this link https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48762/poem-about-my-rights, from the Poetry Foundation website. And you should.


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To be or not to be…a Black girl in Maine

Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon.  Samara has been a Black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.

Whenever I have the chance to really get to know a sister in Maine, the “escape plan” always comes up. Always. I never skip the “Get Out” talk with another Black Girl in Maine unless I am unable to make a sincere connection. Sometimes, the escape plan is hypothetical, as in, “If I start getting serious death threats/if my kids start drowning in overt racism at school/if I can’t take another second, THIS is where I know I can go” (Boston, New York, Hartford, Chicago; almost literally anywhere more diverse). Sometimes it’s more of a fantasy–a vague yearning for a diverse city in Canada where healthcare and education won’t bring a sister to bankruptcy or an island nation where we aren’t a minority and where misogynoir isn’t so fierce and ceaseless. Sometimes it’s a solid, practical, step-by-step, “I’ve already had way too much of this, and I’m moving by this specific date” kind of plan. The point is, there is always a plan. There’s always an inner debate about whether or not, and for how long, we should each continue living as a Black girl in Maine, and there is an obvious reason for that.

If you are a regular reader at this site, you probably already know that Maine, for all its rocky coasts, blueberry fields, lupine hills, and forest sanctuaries, isn’t an easy place for people of color. It’s not the five months of winter or some fabled fear of nature that shifts our sight to cities far away and further still. The natural beauty here is actually a kind of tonic and can be deeply healing.  Neither is the entire reason a pervasive sense of isolation in living as one of a handful of people of color in your own neighborhood. As long as I’m not the only black woman in the grocery store, children aren’t pointing in awe and wonder, white nationalists don’t view my public appearance as their one and only opportunity to express violent hate, loud and proud, I feel as safe here as I probably would anywhere in the nation. But, related to this isolation, and pointed out on this very publication by Shay Stewart-Bouley herself, is a unique Maine atmosphere of highly insulated whiteness. It’s a whiteness untouched, unchallenged, by any perspective or reality in which whiteness is not the center or the norm.

To put it another way, most white Mainers have never had to think about race critically. And, having no need to do so, simply haven’t done it. Some have told me as much, explicitly. And while I can’t say I blame them for skipping the draining work of paradigm shifting, especially when the perspective they hold now is so peaceful and comfortable, it makes living with a different perspective (and living inside a separate reality) a maddeningly lonely and heavy burden to carry. This burden reaches its peak when white discomfort with our black and brown reality triggers hostile resistance to our voices, which is basically every time we speak out. I feel it when I’m accused of whining, playing the race card, or “politicizing” social issues by acknowledging racism as a factor. I feel it when I see people calling Black Lives Matter protesters selfish, angry, and without a message, as if speaking the truth that we are human beings and deserve to be treated like human beings by authorities is equivalent to saying nothing at all. I feel it when I when I go to a community meeting about student suicide and encounter fierce resistance to the idea that racism could possibly exist in a given community and should be addressed by adults within that community in order to keep our children safe. I feel it constantly, and it makes me want to scream.

What I have to say next, I say directly to white readers, and I say it with all the love in my heart and with a sincere desire for your own greater freedom and understanding: Not having to think about race is a privilege. Choosing not to think about it, or to dismiss, downplay, and deflect it every time the subject is broached, is an example of compliance with racial oppression. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to really examine the ways in which this country still profits from systematic injustice. It’s overwhelming to realize how extensive discrimination and inequity are and the extent to which America embraces it. From educational inequity to implicit bias in hiring practices, from police brutality to voter suppression, from privatized, profit-driven prisons to housing, and even to the mainstream language we use to describe human beings, our society thrives on oppressing, scapegoating, and exploiting minorities and underprivileged populations. The enormity of the crisis is enough to drown us in despair, and nobody wants to feel that way. But if thinking about this crisis is overwhelming to you, and you aren’t the one receiving a direct blow, how difficult do you think it is to live everyday in country where you ARE on the receiving end of this crisis, and where most of the people around you don’t want to be bothered to even acknowledge that reality?

If you don’t live in fear of losing your job for not chemically treating your hair to make it straight, or fear of not getting the job you want because you chose to put your given name that “sounds Black” on a resume…if you don’t live in fear of loved ones being deported, jailed for profit, executed by some law enforcement officer with something to prove, all because their appearance matches the national image of “dangerous” and “guilty”…if you don’t live with the certainty that at some point another white supremacist WILL see you in public and target you with verbal assault and threats to your physical person (AGAIN)…then you are privileged. If you refuse to acknowledge that reality of such a high level of social privilege every time we bring it to your attention as we demand social change in an effort to make life safer for ourselves and our children, you are contributing to our oppression and choosing your own comfort and rosy perspective over our safety.

So this is the crux of the issue for many Mainers of color: When you live in a state where the majority of residents choose compliance over resistance to social injustice, choose to silence you rather than listen to you whenever you bring up your oppression, you begin to understand what it means to be unwanted in a place. That’s why there’s always an escape plan.

One force preventing us from acting immediately is not as obvious, but it is equally powerful, hence the dilemma over whether to stay or go. The unwanted have a way of finding each other. Over the past several years, I have begun to reach out from a place I hardly acknowledged before (See my personal story of growing up as a Black girl in Maine). Something inside me was literally dying for Black and diverse community. And as fate would have it, my awakening arrived as communities of color (intentionally, painstakingly cultivated communities) began to surface in the Greater Portland area. Since the last election especially, and the subsequently heightened danger and despair hanging over the heads of the marginalized, Black writers, artists, performers, and activists invigorated with a fresh urgency, deadly serious about creating space for our voices and safety for our children, even if the communities around us would rather we shut up and sit down, have been showing up and showing out. Organizations like For Us By Us (www.facebook.com/fubufund/), Theater Ensemble Of Color (www.facebook.com/Theater-Ensemble-of-Color-136946773355353/), Lala Drew and contributing voices in the literary/performative event series known as Bloodletting, Daniel Minter and other visual artists featured in A Distant Holla at the Abyssinian Meeting House (www.pressherald.com/2017/05/14/a-distant-holla-is-a-deeply-spiritual-show-on-hallowed-ground/), and the expansion of the BGIM blog itself are some specific examples of our diverse community blooming against the grain. And these are just the beginning. Art and stories, voices and truths singing from our souls to the edges of the universe are giving birth to an alternative plan, an escape to a place we create for ourselves rather than a destination we find and flee to elsewhere. Something revolutionary is happening here, and it kills me to think about missing it.

I can’t say for sure that 10 years, five years, or even a solitary year down this road I will remain a Black girl in Maine. There are too many potential twists and turns ahead to make that kind of prediction. But for now, as the inner battle rages on, as our community grows and perfect insulation from it begins to falter, for better or worse, this is where I am. And I intend to co-create space for us as long as I’m here.
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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.

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