Of a crumbling house and bended knees

We can all agree that this country is not perfect. Some parts work very well. Other parts are very broken. Naturally, because we want a more perfect union, we want to fix what is broken. Because there are so many of us, it is difficult for all of us to see all of the problems. The first step in solving a problem is recognizing it. Awareness. But because there are so many of us, sometimes it takes a lot of us to solve a problem. We need to spread awareness. One of the many ways we do that is through protest.

“Why are all those people in the street?”

“What does that picket sign say?

“Why is that man kneeling?”

Why is that man kneeling? I’m glad you asked. So many people don’t.

In broad terms, the kneeling man is a citizen who sees a problem with the country that, unfortunately, a lot of other citizens don’t yet see.

“What is the problem he sees?”

He sees that a system, while lauded for its equality, actually serves and protects some while brutalizing and victimizing others.

He’s drawing attention to an emergency.

He wants the country to be better.

He strives for a more perfect union.

You’re an American. You want that.

“Is it the right time?”

There’s an emergency affecting Americans. It needs to be fixed as quickly as possible. Now is always the time to help a fellow American. It is always the time to make this a better country. Plus, that’s the thing about emergencies: they’re…inconvenient.

“Oh, but it’s not so much the ‘when’ as it is the ‘where’.”

Ah, well, again, that’s the thing about emergencies.

“Well, it’s more the ‘how.’ It’s the method of communication.”

OK. Listen, if you get a text that someone’s breaking into your car, and you decide not to do anything because that’s not the kind of thing you like to get texts about…Honestly, you’re starting to sound like you’re not very patriotic.

I mean, you’re being told there’s a crack in the foundation of your house. And I’d hate to think you’re saying that, not only do you not want to fix the crack or even address the crack, you don’t want anyone to even tell you about the crack.

I’d hate to think that you would rather live in a house on the verge of collapse than even hear someone talk about fixing it.

I’d hate to think you had such a self-destructive mind set. That would mean you didn’t care about this country at all. That much would be obvious, but that wouldn’t even be the problem. I mean, if you had that self-destructive mind-set, it would also be obvious that you didn’t care about your fellow Americans. But that also wouldn’t be the problem.

I’d hate to think you had that self-destructive mindset because it would mean that you didn’t even care about yourself.

For the rest of us it won’t matter much. We’ll fix the foundation. It’ll take longer without you, but one way or the other it’ll get fixed.

But for you, you’d be lost. Your fellow citizens would have a difficult time seeing your value. You’d be abandoned and alienated. Your self-destructive behavior would invalidate even your opinions.

I’d hate to think that could happen.

What’s that? It sounded like you said that you believe in his right to protest, but you disagree with the message. It sounded like you said that he can tell everyone about it as much as he wants, but Black people should continue to die in the street– Did I say “Black”? I don’t mean to make this political. Some people don’t like to discuss politics or have their views known. Some people wear their politics on their skin, a skin that loudly shouts their views, even while they sleep.

I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.

“It’s not about me. This is offensive to the veterans.”

Honestly, if you’re going to bring up the veterans as though you are defending them, I can only hope that you are actually defending them as well. I can only hope that you’re donating your time and money to veterans’ issues. I can only hope that you’re donating your time and money to fight homelessness. I can only hope you’re donating your time and money to suicide prevention. Because if you’re not actually defending the veterans, but instead only invoking the idea of veterans so you can garner pity for yourself…well, that would mean you value being pitied above being an American. That would mean that using nothing but your own putrid bigotry, you’d reduced yourself to just a vulgar thing…

I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.

You know, my father’s favorite athletes, like a lot of men of his generation, were Jackie Robinson and Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammed Ali…

My father was a veteran.

While serving in Viet Nam, he was wounded physically, mentally and emotionally. Those wounds never healed. They bled the rest of his 71 years. Those wounds bled so people could enjoy the full benefits of this country– Pardon me, his wounds bled so some people could enjoy the full benefits of this country.

But he was not one of those people.

My father was Black.

I hope you’re not saying that his wounds bled so you could point to them as evidence that he was undeserving of the same rights you possess. I hope you’re not saying that the blood from his wounds only serves as a currency for your convenience, but does not even signify his own humanity. I hope you’re not saying that the only use for nigger blood is to ensure and sustain white leisure…because I’ve heard that before.

We’ve all heard that before.

But that’s probably not what you’re saying and if it is, I’m sure you didn’t mean it like that.

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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.

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Navigating racism, or Hate exists everywhere whether you admit it or not

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago, there were neighborhoods and nearby suburbs that I knew, as a Black person, we were never to enter. Bridgeport, Marquette Park, Mount Greenwood and Cicero for starters. These were areas where being caught in them as a Black person could mean your life. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said the following about Marquette Park: “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen–even in Mississippi and Alabama–mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

As a teen in the late 1980s, I found myself in Marquette Park and Mount Greenwood, and I ended up being called a nigger and considered myself lucky that I fled relatively unscathed.   Even by the mid- to late-1990s, race relations still had not improved, as every Black person in Chicago who read or watched the news at that time was aware of the 1997 case of Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old Black boy who rode his bike into Bridgeport and ending being savagely beaten by two white men. The attack left Clark brain damaged.

As awful as this all sounds, it meant that when navigating Chicago as a Black person, you had a general idea of where things could go terribly wrong and you tried your best to avoid those areas.

Having spent the first 30 years of my life in Chicago, it was jarring to move to Northern New England learn that there were no known geographic boundaries where the most rabid racists kept themselves tucked away. Instead, any place is fair game for racists in New England and thus the potential both for outright danger and also for “death by a thousand cut” situations like microaggressions is amplified. White New Englanders like to think that racism isn’t a big deal here (either because of the relative lack of people of color or because they associate racism with the South and places with a more recent history of slavery) but I can say that no matter how much white people in New England may deny or grapple with accepting the truth, this is not a particularly welcoming space for people of color (POC).

Which brings me to the story of an 8-year-old biracial boy from Claremont, New Hampshire, who was hung by his neck from a tree by a group of white teenagers. He didn’t die, but he was literally lynched, and has the scarred neck (and psyche, no doubt) to show for it.

As this story makes the news rounds, many are expressing shock: How could this happen in 2017? Specifically how could this happen in an idyllic New England locale? After all, New Hampshire isn’t Gardendale, Alabama or someplace even worse!

While New England doesn’t have the same known hostile relationship to race and racism that permeates the Southern United States, let’s be frank: Racism in New England and particularly Northern New England exists strongly, even if it is a sort of quaint and polite affair at times. The Puritan ethos still runs strong  in these parts, along with a stiff upper lip, so for many there is an avoidance of talking about race. Or a stubborn insistence that race doesn’t matter. But that lack of conversation or desire to “not see color” (as if that’s possible) should never be mistaken for acceptance of POC, especially Black people.

Several of our contributors here on the blog were born and raised in Maine and all of them have recounted tales of being singled out early in life for being either Black or biracial. Even my own son, who spent a good chunk of his childhood in Northern New England, has his own stories of being called a nigger or variations of it, all designed to let him know that he was considered inferior.

For Black and biracial people in this region of the country, there is little surprise about this horrific story coming out of New Hampshire and while it’s easy to lay blame on the current climate of white supremacy in the era of Trump, this really cannot be fully laid on Trump and his white supremacist rhetoric.

White supremacy is the foundation on which our country was built and white people are steeped in white supremacy unless they intentionally work to do better and to dismantle the idea (and practice) of treating whiteness and white traditions as the best and as the norm, as well as to stop giving white people almost all of the benefit of the doubt and almost all of the opportunities. White people need both to actively change within themselves and to change the environment around them.

That means that the same behavior that has made harassing Black people a thing in the South is just as likely to happen up here except that in many locales, there are few if any Black people to harass. If you think I am kidding, have you ever noticed the proliferation of Confederate flags in places like Maine? Random pickup trucks flying that flag are a real thing here and have been. The only difference is that now we are seeing more of them. I am sorry, but in this region of the country, choosing to rep that flag is not just about capturing the rebel spirit; it is also a not-so-quiet declaration of your belief system which says: “I don’t like nonwhite people.” If you choose to believe that, that’s your screwed-up choice but to nonwhite people and specifically Black people, when you rock overt symbols of oppression like that flag, we see it as your open declaration of hate. Especially because there are so few POC in a place like Maine. Why get so angry over such a small population of people to begin with? A group of people many New Englanders can go days, weeks, months, years or even lifetimes avoiding ever seeing in person. That’s how deeply racism runs; there is a undeniable urge to let the hatred, fear or distrust show, whether in big ways or small ones.

A few days ago, I found myself engaged in the type of social gathering small-talk that puts me on edge. Inevitably, I am in a predominantly white space and a well-meaning white person (or one who presumes they are meaning well) wants to learn more about my work and, within five minutes, I am desperately wanting the conversation to end as I vacillate between: Can I enjoy this tasty beverage in peace vs. it’s time to teach. And, in this case, the person’s curiosity about my work baffled me, given that they seemed to have no interest in grasping or learning the issues (Really, when I say racism permeates all of the systems in society and you can only ask, “What do you mean by systems?” that doesn’t bode well). By the time the conversation was over, I was reminded of how many well-intentioned white people who think themselves beyond race harbor racial views that are strongly negative and/or packed with presumption and judgment, even if they aren’t in the same category as people like Richard Spencer and his merry band of hatemongers (the same person who cornered me in that painful conversation I just mentioned, for example, asked very perplexedly how I could have possibly met and married a white man with New England roots, as if there is no conceivable way in modern times for a guy whose family is directly connected to some of the oldest and most notable families in Maine and Massachusetts could come in contact with a Black woman in the Midwest). Many white people are only about three degrees of separation from the Richard Spencer/Steve Bannon type of racial belief system by virtue of choosing to live in the silo of whiteness that keeps white people from growing beyond their personal world.

They say they don’t see color, but it’s obvious they do; they say they don’t hold racist views, and then spout them all the same.

Most of New England is filled with these sorts of people. People who can recognize the evil of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently and what happened to the young boy in New Hampshire but who don’t see how their own racial ignorance is part of the larger system of white supremacy that allows the racist machinery of society to not only survive but also thrive. It’s why during the 2016 campaign season, despite engaging in a particularly virulent strain of dog-whistle politics, most liberal and progressive white folks laughed at the idea that Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. But most POC knew the odds were pretty damned good, and we were right. Good intentions combined with a lifetime spent in the silo of whiteness, when mixed with a side of progressive politics, has rendered many well-meaning white people unable to read the racist road map ahead of them.

As such, it’s so easy for them to get lost, and we POC are left stranded by the sides of roads where we are anything but safe.

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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