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.”


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Calling all white people, part 20: Appropriation is NOT appreciation

Calling All White People, Part 20

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Cultural appropriation isn’t some “little” issue and it’s not respectful  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

A lot of us white people have a problem with cultural appropriation.

Unfortunately, that problem is not that most of us are particularly bothered by doing it.

The problem is that we do it so seamlessly and casually and without regret or, for that matter, even forethought.

So, in other words, it’s a lot like the other racist and racially insensitive things we have, overall as white people, done for centuries. It’s as easy as breathing and we notice ourselves doing it about as often. Well, that’s not fair, actually. We pay attention to our breathing and concern ourselves with respiration way more often.

One can actually appreciate other cultures and engage in things related to said cultures without being guilty of appropriation. If an Indian family opens a restaurant, chances are they want more than just fellow Indian people to come in and eat there. A museum of African-American history is not generally going to be established with the sole purpose of serving Black visitors. And so on.

But then there is something like buti yoga which, to me, is the current poster child of the worst excesses of cultural appropriation.

First, if you are unfamiliar with buti yoga, what is it? Well, ostensibly it’s a combination of yoga and aerobics. Which is already weird, since yoga is about mindfulness, meditation, controlled breathing, poses and slow movements. In other words, almost entirely the opposite of aerobics. In practice, though, from almost every video I’ve ever seen of it, buti yoga is a combination of twerking and yoga. And shaking and jiggling one’s butt cheeks and thighs is definitely not in synch with yoga.

It’s already bad enough when white people latch on to yoga and then completely separate it from its spiritual components to make it just another hip form of fitness. Perhaps that could be forgiven because there is a bodily fitness component to yoga that is pretty important. But now buti yoga. And beer yoga. And yoga with goats (or cats). All things pretty much driven by white people who have decided yoga is all theirs.

But if you’re going to change it that much from what it was, why add “yoga” to the name at all? And therein lies the problem. That’s the appropriation. You are not even close to appreciating that piece of non-white culture. You’re not even participating in it on a meaningful level. You’ve taken it, claimed it, twisted it and perverted it.

And another reason buti yoga is such a glaring and disrespectful example of appropriation? The name. Buti is pronounced “booty” and that’s what it’s about…shaking the booty while nominally doing poses that are yoga-like. White people not only combined twerking and yoga but made up a word to make it “look” like some legitimate Hindi word and thus perhaps convince people buti yoga has some kind of traditional grounding, while at the same time making an obvious *wink wink* “See what we DID there? You know what we’re REALLY referring to.” That’s tacky and dismissive of a mental/spiritual/physical discipline with entirely non-white roots.

Now, I get that the line between cultural appreciation/engagement and cultural appropriation is sometimes a fine and blurry one. There’s never going to be an easy answer to apply to all situations. If you buy a poncho in a Mexican marketplace, does that mean you can never wear it? If you really love dancing and are drawn to belly dancing, is it wrong to take lessons or dance in shows? There are legitimate times the answers aren’t clear.

But what I want to see is more white people stopping to think about why they are engaging in other cultures’ practices and how they are interacting with them. To maybe at least do some research into something before just saying, “Oh, that’s cool; let me latch onto that.”

And even beyond that, to stop getting so sensitive and snippy when someone suggests that you might be engaging in cultural appropriation or calls you out on an obvious case of it. And, like with the mythical “reverse racism,” to stop accusing non-white people of having appropriated Western culture because, for example, they wear a suit to work.

Seriously, I saw a white guy argue this point online very recently. He was going on (of course) about how oversensitive non-white people are being when they talk about cultural appropriation. How whiny they are and how they need to shut up or, if they’re going to complain, they need to stop wearing suits and ties and such.

And here we have a prime example of white hubris.

Let’s take that suit and tie, example, shall we?

Who was it that basically decided that the suit and tie was standard male business attire? White people.

Who decided that they would refuse to take seriously just about anyone in a business setting who didn’t wear a suit and tie (with one of the few exceptions historically being Arab men from oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia who held for a time pretty much all the petroleum cards)? Yep, white dudes again.

So, we white folks made Western attire the acceptable and “normal” way of doing things, and we have typically looked down upon (or gawked at or ridiculed) people who, in America, have chosen to routinely wear attire from their own cultural background. “Assimilate!” we white people cry. Fit in!

And yet, we don’t have any problem taking other people’s cultural accessories, attire, etc. for our own. To play with like toys.

So, white women start wearing their hair in cornrows or other styles typically associated with Black women, and suddenly it’s a daring and sexy style. But when Black women wear their hair in afros or locs or braid it up…all of which are styles that lend themselves naturally to Black-textured hair…they are unprofessional or “ghetto.” No, Black women are often only considered appropriately coiffed when they subject their hair and scalp to harsh chemicals to straighten their hair and make it more Eurocentric.

That is what is so screwed up about white people and the way they tap into non-white cultures and traditions. When the people from whom those traditions, styles and the like originate do those things or wear those things, they are refusing to fit in. But when white people do it, they are “appreciating” the culture.

That is how white people approach the world far too often. We see it and we want it, and then we take it even when it isn’t sensitive, fair or even makes sense. We get to own and use what we want and change it however we want, and then dictate to others whether they can use their own stuff and how.

That’s not appreciation. It’s theft and abuse.


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The importance of AfroPunk

“We, the people commit ourselves to uphold and fight for the rights enshrined in our code. Let us honor those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and hold accountable those who curtail our liberties. Let us walk in the footsteps of the Warriors who came before us and strive to create a society based on fundamental human rights.”

– AFROPUNK
AFROPUNK FEST:
NO SEXISM
NO RACISM
NO ABLELISM
NO AGEISM
NO HOMOPHOBIA
NO FATPHOBIA
NO TRANSPHOBIA
NO HATEFULNESS

The world is a scary place. It has always been. And if we continue the way we are going, it always will be. To be Black and to have a safe space to gather, particularly en masse, is a contradiction in terms.

As Black people, we are taught that white people have claimed ownership to our bodies and culture since before we were shackled into the bowels of the first slave ships. We are conditioned to believe that our presence in this country is a gift; not that we give to the culture, but that white people have given to us. The true story of our exodus is at best whitewashed, at worst completely rewritten.

Black people are conditioned to believe that we have no place in society; that our voices, our bodies, our lives don’t matter. We are taught we are less than nothing. The language we use to express ourselves is watered down, the grit and soul tortured out of it and cast aside, deemed unimportant. We are taught that our base impulses are unnatural, the way we express ourselves savage, and our beauty barbaric. Then, we are meant to watch, docile, as our language, impulses, our expression and our beauty are watered down and sold back to us in the form of blue eyes and blond hair, at the total cost of which cannot accurately be calculated.

All that is to say: Black people need a reprieve. Black people need a moment to fucking breathe. To be joyous. To love ourselves and what we create. We are not allowed this peace in everyday life. So, we are forced to create it.

Enter: AfroPunk. AfroPunk is more than music, more than a festival. AfroPunk is a movement. It is a glimpse into a land of blackness that we are so often told doesn’t exist.

People like to laugh at us when we say that we are descended from kings and queens, yet one look around an AfroPunk festival and it becomes clear (if there was ever any doubt) that we are denied our legacy out of fear, not for lack of truth.

Everywhere I looked I saw the magic of my people. Every shade of brown represented, from the lightest tan to the deepest black. Melanin poppin’, afros glistening, edges laid, locks wrapped, fades lined, beards trimmed, hair twisted into works of art. And the clothes? Forget about the clothes. We don’t have time for the clothes. Just trust me when I tell you they were fire, you better believe they were fire. AfroPunk is filled with kings and queens and every kind of royalty in between.

AfroPunk Brooklyn had three stages and a lineup which made my dreams come true including SZA, Solange, Sinkane, and Macy Gray, just to name a few. There was tent after tent filled with black excellence. There were people braiding hair for $15, giving extensions for $18, reading tarot, providing healing sessions. I found a rad comic by Ry-El Nagasta and Anthony A. Anglero called Indigo Clan, which is about a girl who lives in Oakland who discovers she has spiritual powers and has to save the world. I scored some sweet shades which actually cover my nerd glasses, some serious blacktivist swag, and a tee shirt that reads: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I love my people. I love the way we walk. I love the way we talk. I love the way we laugh and dance and sing and breathe. Being surrounded by thousands of us? Well, I just about died and went to heaven.

Being in community is crucial to our survival. Being in a space where we can feel safe to be who we are–unapologetically, without reserve, judgment and without being turned into some kind of an exhibit–is damn near unheard of. AfroPunk provides that space. I am honored to have been able to be there, to sit in community with a people who are no strangers to struggle, but who always seem to find a way to vibrate above it.

I wonder, what happens when we truly realize our power? What happens when we wake up, rise up, and truly rebel against the truth of what history has done to us? AfroPunk is a key to the door of this truth. Through it we are shown in a brilliantly concentrated way, the culture, history, ancestry which was beaten, raped, and lynched out of us.

AfroPunk is not just a music festival, or an experience. AfroPunk is what happens when Black people are given spaces just for us where we can love each other, create, and sit in community with one another. AfroPunk is for the people. By the people. And it is growing.


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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