Growing up Black 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. Given that Samara is a lifelong Mainer and Black woman, I asked her to reflect on what it was like growing up Black in Maine. It is a very common question that we receive here at BGIM from people looking to move to Maine and raise kids. 

I’ve recently been asked about what it was like growing up black in Maine. One way to describe my formative and adolescent years is as an often dissociative experience. To understand what I mean, you first should know that my mother is white, along with every relative I knew before the age of 18. And I grew up mostly in northern Maine, Penobscot county to be exact. My grandparents lived on the Penobscot River in the remote, ultra-rural town of Medway (blink once and you’ll miss it), where I lived for a few years with my mother before moving to Bangor. So, I was extremely isolated in my blackness. I feel deeply loved by my family to this day, especially by my mother and grandparents, who provided for me and nurtured me in ways many families are sadly unable to do for their children. I was always well-fed. I had all the books I wanted and help with my homework. I heard the words “I love you” and felt them with all the kisses, hugs, praise, and boundaries my young soul could crave. But while I was, as a whole, loved and accepted, there was a part of me not always embraced by the larger community, or even at times by myself.

I remember playing with a friend once. I don’t remember her name, just that she lived in Bangor with her parents and siblings, and her family was watching me one day. We had decided that we would pretend to be sisters, and I was excited, having no siblings at home and always wanting them. And I remember the way the light suddenly dropped from her small, round face when she realized a problem with our plan that had never occurred to me. “But wait. I don’t want to be Black,” she said.

And there was the time when some friends and I were swimming at a lake, like we did all summer, every summer, and we were joined by some other children who wanted to splash and play with us, until in the process, one of them decided to tell me, “You know, some people think Black people are gross.” Then he proceeded to educate me on Black jokes. “What did God say when He made a Black person? Oops! I burned one!”

And I remember my first “boyfriend” (we hung out for literally one day) who asked me how I felt about kissing, but then refused to hold my hand when he saw the difference in pigmentation between my palms and the backs of my hands. Or maybe it was just because my hands were next-level ashy. To be honest, nobody showed me how to really take care of my skin and hair, because nobody had the first clue about it. I listened to fellow teenagers almost proudly declare they were scared of Black men and that they couldn’t help it. I heard guys say they would be OK with dating someone who wasn’t white, like it was a rare compliment I should be excited about.

And there were adults, too. Some would openly, loudly discuss with my relatives various white supremacist, xenophobic apocalypse scenarios of “immigrants”(code for black, brown, and deeply beige people) pushing whites out of employment and living spaces across the country, only to turn pale as death when I approached and was given a proud introduction as a family member.

I was part of my family, and my mother and grandparents kept telling me how beautiful, intelligent, and capable I was. And I believed them. But I couldn’t escape the reality that I was also part of a wider social structure that both recognized me as Black and constantly reflected the violent lie of white supremacy: “Blackness is a deficiency; blackness a pitiful lack of whiteness.”

To be clear, I’m not calling my family abusive. But with the worship of whiteness so deeply woven into the fabric of our environment, the message accidentally transmitted everywhere was that I was OK, but my blackness wasn’t. THAT atmosphere itself is a constant assault on the self-worth and humanity of People of Color in this state. And it is the main source of dissociation I mentioned earlier. It creates worldviews like, “I’m OK, but my blackness isn’t OK.” Or “I’m acceptable, lovable, capable in spite of who I am.” Or even, “I’m not really Black.” Pardon my language, but that last example of mindfuck byproduct might be the most pervasive and most violent of them all. If you’re having a hard time grasping what’s so wrong with that statement, consider a part of your heritage that you take pride in. Something that is at the root of who you are. Something you envision passing down to your children like a spiritual inheritance. Then imagine having to divorce and distance yourself from it in order to convince yourself that you are fully human. Replace the world “Black” with that part of your heritage. How does it make you feel to say, “I’m not really Italian/French/Irish/whatever, so I’m OK. People can still love me.” How messed up does it sound to you now?

Besides being messed up, that lie is just plain ineffective at shielding a Black child in Maine from racism. When a peer shouts at you, in front of a family member, that you’re a “shit ass nigger!” it doesn’t matter to him or to you that your mom is white. In fact, there’s no such thing as being half white, because race does not exist in a genetic sense. The only thing that separates us from each other as human beings is the way we are perceived and the experiences created by the perception of those with social power.  Our likelihood to get a job, get a promotion, get a date, get arrested, get the death penalty, is infinitely more influenced by how we are perceived than by our genetics (which, again, do not differ consistently along the socially constructed lines of race).

So, since my whole person (not just half of me) was dehumanized and terrified by the boy shouting racial slurs at me, I went home and hid in my room. And this is where the whiteness of my family, or rather, my complete isolation from them in my blackness, was problematic. In my shaken and uncertain self, I didn’t have a harbor of blackness in which to be held and validated by a shared reality, an understanding that goes deeper than intellectual comprehension. Nobody could say to me from that place of knowing, “White supremacy is scary as fuck. It’s real, and it’s deep, and it is a force bent on destroying us, if not physically than from the center of our self-worth outward. Protect yourself, little sister.”

Instead, I was told by some that I was in the wrong, because I shouldn’t let bullying affect where I go and what I do. I was given examples of other people, other family members, who had been picked on for having big noses and whatnot. I was told that it was all the same, racism, bullying; told that there was no difference, and that my problem was that I expected everyone to like me. In other words, I was gaslit. Not by all. My mother is a ferocious mother bear. But others who wanted to encourage and support me effectively gave me the message that my pain, my struggle, my systematic dehumanization is insignificant and should not concern me. To this day, I encounter those who believe voicing my truth is an assault against them, and that I have no right to claim a struggle they themselves cannot understand. I still hear that racism is only one example of bullying. I said then, and I say now, “I don’t remember any news stories of a man being dragged to death from the back of a pickup truck because he had a big nose. I don’t remember anyone being lynched for wearing glasses.” Will braces or freckles get you shot at a traffic stop? Not likely.

Don’t get me wrong, bullying is a horrendous and important issue. It is real, it is deadly, and people carry lifelong trauma from those abusive experiences. But the abuse itself does not stretch back through the ancestors of victims for centuries. It is not guaranteed to continue to happen to victims and their children for the foreseeable future. Bullying in a general sense is not systematic nor systemic. It’s not a holdover of widely held beliefs and practices once invented to demoralize and dominate the people group they belong to so that others could stand on their necks. It’s not still quietly thriving because enormous masses of people are too threatened to acknowledge that the lives of bullying victims matter.

Part of the dehumanization we experience as People of Color in Maine (and elsewhere) is the dismissal and denial of the burdens we carry. As a Black child in Maine, I was partially floating in my own reality apart from those around me, and to be truly connected I had to divorce myself from very real experiences in order to remain relatable. It was a dissociation from a central part of me, from the very voice of my own truth, so painfully purchased, and it was a sort of hyper-association on the part of those around me, erasing my specific struggle by engulfing it in a general one in which they could share in the role of the oppressed, calling the oppression something familiar, something they did not receive privilege and protection in, something they had no power to change.

The exchange of self for acceptance is a survival strategy, but it is also a form of death, of course, and I have found myself, in recent years, crawling defiantly out of the grave.

The boy who verbally assaulted me also physically assaulted me at a children’s baseball game some time later. He slammed into my body, grabbing my breasts, almost knocking me to the ground, and ran away while a group of peers stood aghast and dumbfounded. I didn’t tell anybody else about it then. I never told anyone about it at all until a few weeks ago. Why bother? It was wrong of me to expect everyone to like me, right? And by like, of course, I mean see me as a human being.

*If the idea of race not being a genetic reality is foreign to you, check out this article:
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Say It Again: Black Lives Matter in Maine and Everywhere

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.

In July 2017, a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest took place in downtown Portland, Maine during which a confrontation erupted between pedestrians and a man in an automobile. (I’ll let that statement speak for itself). Local media described the incident as if the driver were an innocent victim, harassed by the hostile rabble while attempting to flee conflict. But eyewitnesses and the phone footage which was repeatedly removed from Facebook told a different story. An unconcerned driver glared defiantly at protesters who, in frustration but still calling him “Sir,” attempted to redirect his path around themselves. He pursued his course despite reason, continuing to plow directly into the crowd, eliciting reactive shouts and more insistent demands to change course (including slaps to the vehicle). This did not deter him. Not long after this show of entitled aggression, the driver completing his goal of physically forcing the crowd apart with a moving vehicle, the protest came to an end. Eighteen protesters were arrested and the 17 non-minors were eventually charged with obstructing a public way along with some other misdemeanors. The proceedings led to fines paid by protesters as well as a restorative justice agreement–discussions to take place between Portland police officers and defendants. The sessions did not move forward, however, as the specific terms became strongly contested. This conflict led to a reinstatement of the original charges and the arraignment I briefly attended last Monday.

I couldn’t stay long, because I had other obligations, but I needed to be near the sisters and allies as they entered the courthouse. They had submitted their personhood and reputation to public scrutiny, enduring ridicule, misrepresentation, and disregard for their religious practices in the case of the Muslim women (as pictures of themselves with their hijabs removed were circulated without their consent) to say for all Black men, women, and children: “We are human; we deserve to be treated as humans.” And Monday I had the chance to place my body in the line of the public gaze and in a city courtroom with others to say, “Thank you.” That was it, really. My presence wasn’t an instance of heavy lifting. It was simply a gesture of gratitude and support.

While I was there, several mildly annoying things happened. For one, those gathered for support encountered a verbally hostile, severely misinformed, maddeningly vague, middle-aged white man leaving the courthouse. Punctuating his sentences with expletives, he asked, “Are you kidding me?!” Followed by, “They’re going to bomb us!” I’m still not sure who he thought “they” were. Also, when I went through security to enter the courtroom and had the nerve to ask about what personal items I could take in with me, the security officer (who refused to look me in the eye) ripped the messenger bag out of my hand and ordered me to put my phone inside.

But the most frustrating part of my brief hour downtown took place when Judge Fritzsche took his seat and began explaining what BLM is about (you know, our perception of injustice) and why he thought sitting down and talking things through between the defendants and the Portland PD, creating some kind of mutual understanding and a new, restorative justice plan, was the only way to make things right. Have you ever instinctively known you were being handled rather than addressed; placated rather than heard? That was the mood in the courtroom. The judge insisted on pursuing this restorative justice course, as opposed to moving forward with a trial and giving the defendants the chance they sought to argue their case, ignoring the context of constant silencing, dismissing, and erasure faced by POC [people of color]  which makes “mutual understanding” a joke. With the kind of gross imbalance of power permanently lodged between police officers–those publicly respected, revered, and regarded with the “good faith” in which Judge Fritzsche kept imploring the courtroom to engage–and those of us so often regarded with a complete lack of credibility whenever we bring up any instance of injustice (“us” often meaning Black women), “mutual understanding” usually means those with less power holding our peace so that those with more power feel less threatened by our grievances.

Perhaps most bizarrely, Judge Fritzsche repeatedly referenced the struggle of young Black men; with oblivious condescension, by the way, as though implicit bias and disproportionate violence at the hands of authorities were a matter of opinion rather than a terrifying, reality hanging over the heads of POC in this country everyday. And he pursued this topic of Black men despite the fact that not a single defendant in that courtroom was a Black man. I wasn’t sure how much further he could have removed himself from the personal struggle of the defendants before him while claiming to understand.

That is, until he brought up Chance Baker. That part almost did me in.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Chance Baker, he was a young homeless man who bought a pellet gun in Union Station Plaza this winter and was brandishing his purchase in the plaza parking lot when Portland Police were called. The specifics of what happened at that point differ, depending on who you ask. The police knew the weapon was a BB gun, or they had no idea. Baker was clearly not under the influence of any chemical substance, or he was obviously intoxicated. The pellet gun was in his hands and he refused to set it down, or it was on the ground. It’s hard to find clear answers. Everyone agrees, however, that Chance Baker was shot in the forehead by Sergeant Nicholas Goodman and that this kills shot was the sole shot fired. Also, despite the bizarre assumptions of several mistaken bystanders, Chance Baker was a light-skinned Black man.

I think in his mind, throughout the proceedings, Judge Fritzsche was validating the awareness of injustice looming over BLM supporters in his courtroom. I’m not sure. But when he explained that there was no way to know how much, in the intersection of race, homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse, we could tell which factors had led to Baker’s death, the fire in my bones nearly propelled me out of my seat to shout, “It doesn’t matter!” Because when you, as a POC, learn that a young man desperately in need of help, living in your own small city, has been shot IN THE FOREHEAD by an officer, a human being shot down like a paper target at a local fair, the detectability of his blackness is not the factor dropping the weight of loss like a cannonball into your own gut. It’s the disposability of his entire life. It’s the fact that alternative paths of resolution were never pursued (a non-lethal, disabling shot for instance). It’s the way so many people in the community shake their heads and say, “Oh, well. It’s sad, but it couldn’t have been helped,” when his death clearly could’ve been helped. It’s the lack of accountability. It’s the total, unquestioning acceptance. For whatever combination of reasons (blackness, mental illness, substance abuse, homelessness), a human being’s life didn’t matter in that ugly and terrifying equation which played out at Union Station Plaza. That’s the part that stays with you when you live your every moment wrapped inside the stunning and glorious but systematically dehumanized skin of the marginalized.

I left the courtroom and returned to my own daily chaos, later learning that Judge Fritzsche had recused himself from the case. And while I was glad about that for the defendants’ sakes, I also couldn’t help thinking he was letting himself off the hook on a personal level. This could have been an opportunity for Judge Fritzsche to broaden his own understanding, to listen and learn what BLM is really about, specifically here in the city of Portland, Maine, and for the women and men who had come to make their case in his courtroom on Monday. But when someone drives their preconceptions full-speed toward the brick wall of an unimagined reality, something has to give, either the preconceptions themselves or the nerve of the driver and his determination to engage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Judge Fritzsche’s preconceptions survived the day, highlighting the necessity to continue speaking the truth others still don’t know they need to hear: Black lives matter.

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Whose art world is it anyways?

Welcome our newest contributor to the BGIM family, Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
Maine is a place where the arts are looked upon as a way of life; much like the state motto. The arts here stretch from galleries and museums in Portland, Rockland and others scattered along the coastline. The scene is old, but becoming more contemporary with the passing years.

I lived in Philadelphia/New Jersey and the surrounding areas for all my life, and when I encountered the arts scene here, I was questioning the lack of diversity and medium. Coming from communities where there was a vibrancy of diversity, styles, and mediums to a place where these things are limited stifled my creativity and thinking.

This is not to say that the scene here isn’t changing; it’s just taking a little longer than expected because of the amount of white people explaining what the art scene should be and how POC [people of color] should navigate it. This is the worst kind of silencing: when one is refusing–especially white liberals–to check their own privileges.

“When POC make work from their own experiences and for their own people, it often becomes very misunderstood and even receives a hostile response,” says Elizabeth Jabar, artist and educator. This led me to think about when Beyoncé released Formation upon us in all its glory. Black people were (and still are) praising this song; it kept hope alive in Black communities even while many whites condemned it. One such person was Rep. Pete King (R-NY), when he said:

“Beyoncé may be a gifted entertainer but no one should really care what she thinks about any serious issue confronting our nation. But the mainstream media’s acceptance of her pro-Black Panther and anti-cop video “Formation” and her Super Bowl appearance is just one more example of how acceptable it has become to be anti-police when it is the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line for all of us and deserve our strong support.”

To say that Beyoncé cannot comment on “any serious issue confronting our nation” is pure bullshit. To say that she cannot have a voice and a message on her own terms for Black people, by a white man, is racism at its worst.

There is always a white person behind POC saying that their work is validated and accepted and “we don’t have a problem with racism” here as long as it doesn’t transform or upset the white narrative. Once you hit that nerve within the white community, then it becomes about correcting and explaining the proper historical narrative to the POC without letting that artist speak from his/her own experiences. It almost always circles back to white cultural norms.

The arts community here is Maine is vibrant, but it could be even more so with the inclusion of POC who dictate their own work and lives as artists; I know many who do so successfully. This community feels the need to “help” others who are “less fortunate.” They feel as they are doing something and pat themselves on the back for giving “the less fortunate a voice.” What they have forgotten is that we have voices of our own that can be used. They feel the need to build a platform for us to stand on when we’re capable of building one ourselves. But the narrative seems to be that we aren’t able to tell our own stories without “help” from them. If we don’t get help, then we’re doing it wrong and must be corrected.

Being Latina, I’ve never felt white enough to be with the white girls or Black enough to be with the Black girls (I should say that I could pass as white if that were my inclination, so I often get the privilege of that even though I don’t seek it). I’ve always been in this nebulous area where I have seen and heard the conversations about race, but have never had a place where I could feel I belong in the conversation. Even as we are all coming together at this time to fight and resist the powers in Washington, it still feels like we’re only doing this for white feminism. We’re all (White, Black, Latina, Asian) not coming together and still becoming more and more marginalized throughout this trying time.

Art is our way of inserting our experiences into history. We are placing ourselves in history. Not White history, all history. Eurocentric/white narratives are still privileged and representations that challenge are still marginalized. We still too often look to white experts to “explain” POC experiences and positions. Even as I write this, I think back to a time when I said to myself as a grad student that I would only be studying WOC artists to better get a sense of my own personal narrative as a Latina/Italian woman. But I was told that this was a terrible idea because I am leaving out so many other histories. What? The Eurocentric, white-privileged male history? The narrative that I, and many others, have been force fed all our lives? I just wanted a different lens to view my work through. One that I had never seen or experienced before.

One effective way of stopping the normal, Eurocentric conversations is to stick to the rule of “don’t talk, listen” which is something that doesn’t often happen. What’s not realized is that support and dialogue is help enough. Discussing our work, and coming to an understanding that all stories are different and beautiful and that there are more narratives than the whitewashed ones we’ve been fed all of our lives.

I’ve been in situations before that have opened my eyes to how often people here do not want to be invested in others’ lives, especially when they outshine their own. The crossover culturally and artistically does not compute with individuals. I don’t want to sound bitter, but I want to explain that before you dismiss these notions as an artist’s ramblings that there is an important point here:

I don’t think it’s the people in Maine, it’s the rhetoric we were fed when we were young.

Artist Emma Sulkowicz, said “The people with the most power in the art world tend to be the most privileged.”

Sulkowicz talks about transparency and how we can fix the art world by not just talking about “one art world” but about many art worlds that all look different. These different worlds aren’t just run by the privileged who in turn decide who gets the shows and who doesn’t, but negotiated by individuals who have been hidden in the shadows for so long.

This gets into dicey territory because those in power begin to give a “voice to the voiceless” or who they perceive as not having a voice. They feel that at this time this is the most impactful work that will also make money at the art fairs and galleries. It should be the artists using their own voices but instead it gets run through the gamut of the privileged and never seen by the viewers who the work is meant for.

This has turned into a conversation from working and struggling as POC within the Maine arts scene to the art world at large and how it becomes about privilege (Maine is just a small dichotomy but representative of a larger scene) which is the backbone of the conversation here. It’s not about togetherness but about competition and the privileged get to make all the decisions. It needs to become about supporting others, empowering others, learning about each other. But how? How can we, within the smaller dichotomies that create the art world, make the line disappear?

Wendy Ewald, photographer and educator says, “What is wrong with the art world is that it doesn’t include the rest of the world.” Ewald has a huge point here. There is such an exclusion within the “inclusive” art world. Artists, who are supposedly the most open and accepting, are sometimes the most rigid and closed off. They draw those lines between themselves and others. Privileged artists are empowered enough to tell a POC that what they are doing is cultural appropriation without even understanding that this is their culture. Much like saying painting and sculpture can’t mix or that one is better than the other, privileged artists draw lines between things like art and race and appropriate and appropriateness. They begin to divide within themselves.

Maine isn’t the only place (as I said, this is a part of a larger issue) so before you pull out the pitchforks, hear me out: Let others speak about their own experiences. How you and I experience something is going to be completely different. Art is a place to let each of our narratives have a place. We need to begin to come together, to an understanding that we all can work together, while listening to different voices. It’s simple gestures–acceptance and understanding–that are becoming misconstrued as appropriation and misinformation.

These new narratives in art (or at least narratives that are getting more attention) can be the impetus to begin talking (and sometimes more importantly, as I noted earlier, listening) and to start tearing down the walls. The path to letting art be art, on the artist’s terms, and not pigeonholed by white privileges and assumptions.
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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