Current Events

Break the glass in Maine…A Black woman in our legislature?

Living in Maine as a Black woman is an adventure; at the very least, I get my fair share of ribbing. After all, are there even Black people in Maine? All jokes aside, there are more than a few Black folks in Maine and one in particular who is trying to shatter a glass ceiling here in our fair state.

The Talbot name is well known throughout the state of Maine. The Talbots are a rare Black family in Maine whose roots go back many generations. Gerald Talbot made history in 1972 when he became the first Black member of the Maine House of Representatives and today his daughter, Rachel Talbot Ross, is running for a seat in the Maine House to represent part of our most populous and diverse city, Portland.

Rachel Talbot RossRachel comes from a long line of hardworking, working-class Mainers who happen to be Black and who have dedicated their lives to making this state just a little better. As someone from away, when I first settled into Maine years ago, Rachel’s name was one that constantly came up. Rachel served as Portland’s Director of Equal Opportunity and Multicultural Affairs for many years and currently serves as the chapter president for the Portland Chapter of the NAACP as well as the lead director for the King Fellows, a group of youth working to advance racial equity.

After years of crossing paths with Rachel but never really taking the chance to talk to her, in the past year I have gotten to know Rachel better and her intersectional approach to change is one that I personally believe in. Rachel understands that when we look at inequity we must look at underlying systemic reasons for inequality and that our approach to change requires wholesale buy-in—not lip service, which too often is the norm even in our liberal and progressive spaces.

Yet the challenges that Rachel faces are real. There are few people who are without an opinion on the Talbot family, specifically Rachel, and as I know all too well as a Black woman that intensity and passion for change expressed by a Black woman is far too often read as anger. Rachel will be the first to admit that she has made missteps, yet she brings a desire for change to the race as well as decades of lived experiences. Her past success in her advocacy work include pushing for the legislature to ban racial profiling,  which led to the implementation of new training and policies in Maine’s law enforcement agencies. She has also worked against abuse of solitary confinement and restraints in jails and to protect the voting rights of incarcerated Mainers. You can read more about her platform here.

What I do want to talk about though is the uphill battle Rachel faces in a state that has little in the way of diverse representation. The state of Maine has had several Black men in the legislature, and we currently have Craig Hickman, who is a Harvard graduate turned farmer/small businessman serving in the state legislature. Yet we have never seen a Black woman serve in the state legislature…one might say it’s almost the last frontier in a year where we have seen Hillary Clinton bust through the last big barrier for women. But as we all know (or at least should, because actually, many people refuse to acknowledge it), not all women are created equal. For Black women, we wear the double crowns of our Blackness and our womanhood, a lens of duality. Given that Rachel is up against a young, progressive white woman and a former state representative, the challenge is real. Throw in the fact that Maine lacks the type of Black leadership and organizing that exists in spaces with larger Black communities and it’s one of the reasons that I am penning this post. Because while I am pro-equality, I am also a believer in supporting my own, especially when they traditionally have been kept out of the system or pushed to the side within it. People who are daring to make change against the odds and willing to stand in the fire knowing that it will hurt but who trust that we can make a difference.  

If we want to truly create change, we need to “dare greatly,” and I believe that voting for Rachel is that chance to dare greatly with a woman who lives on the crossroads and who walks the talk. Sadly, I am not in Rachel’s district so I can’t vote for her, but I would encourage all who can to vote for Rachel to look at her record and platform as well as her passion and dedication. In a year that many are with her, let’s be with the “her” in our own back yard. Let me make it clear: I am not saying to vote for my friend and colleague because she is a Black woman, I am saying vote for a woman who is tried and tested, who happens to be Black, knowing that in doing so, we our creating a new trajectory in our state.
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We aren’t ready to transcend race

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”– Muhammad Ali

Transcend: To rise above or go beyond the limits of; to triumph over or go beyond the negative or restrictive aspects. 

A couple of nights ago, the world received the news that Muhammad Ali—boxer, activist, unabashed Black man, Muslim and so much more—had left this realm. In a digital world that never sleeps, immediately the tributes and condolences started to pour in from all over the world. Ali was a man that touched many generations with his style, his grace his words and his actions.

Growing up, my dad was a boxing fan and so my own earliest memories of Ali are hearing about his prowess in the ring but later, as a teenager, I would learn about his actions and his outspokenness as a Black man in an era where we weren’t far removed from lynching Black men who didn’t toe the line that white folks set forth.

Ali, in refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army to go to Vietnam, paid a price: loss of his title, a draft dodging conviction, banned from his sport at the height his career, a heavy fine, etc. Yet in the end, the conviction would be overturned and his actions would make the world think and maybe even help more than a few people connect the dots of marginalized and oppressed people across the world.

Without a doubt, the world hasn’t seen too many like Ali and maybe we won’t ever again…who knows? Yet as a wordsmith, in reading the tributes and words being written about Ali, I was struck by terms such as “transcend race.”  Ali in his later years was so much more than just a boxer and civil rights activist, yet we as a nation are having a rather uncomfortable relationship with race; thus, we are far too quick to erase race even when it is very central to one’s identity.

For Muhammad Ali, part of his earlier fame was very much wrapped in his open confidence as  Black man in America. Ali would later become Muslim, without a doubt one of the most well known Muslims in America. To be a Black, Muslim man in America is very much part of one’s identity and to have that erased with words such as transcend race is frankly insulting even if that is not one’s intent.

Time and time again, when a famous Black person or person of color dies, we hear that their work transcended race. Yet rarely is such wording the norm when a famous white person dies. An uncomfortable reminder of just how whiteness is seen as cultural norm whereas people of color whose talents cross the color and cultural lines must be almost mythic and superhero like thus they transcend race. They rise above the special faults and limitations that too many people inherently believe exist in non-whites.

Almost certainly someone will say: Why must we bring race into this? After all, can’t we just grieve the passing of a great? Given that this is a great who challenged us all think about race critically, I’d say not. He spoke up with enormous courage about racial oppression and white supremacy in a time when doing so could, even if it was less likely than in earlier eras to cost you your life, could certainly still cost you your social standing and acceptance by society. Ali’s courage and passion may transcend race, because we’re all human, and we share the same emotions, and that’s above color/race. But much of what he stood for specifically was all about race, so let’s no muddy the waters and dilute what he exemplified in terms of his race and his stance on it.
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The silo blinds us…what is normal or not?

In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans have been asked to be vigilant for suspicious activity, particularly in travel situations. Even in little ole Portland, Maine, at the local Transportation Center, a recorded voice goes off at regular intervals reminding us  that “If you see something, say something” which in theory sounds great yet is increasingly problematic.

What we see is often shaped by our perceptions, and in a world where whiteness is centered as a norm…with the vast majority of white people living in silos of whiteness…where anything that doesn’t fit into the norms of whiteness is often viewed with suspicion.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, an olive-skinned, curly-haired man boarded a plane to Syracuse, N.Y., and before the plane departed, he decided to start doing some work. Nothing out of the norm, as many travelers decide to work while flying, except in his case his seatmate (who has been described as blond-haired, 30-something year old woman in flip flops with a red tote bag) found the man’s work to be suspicious. In a story that sounds like something straight out of The Onion, it turns out the man was Guido Menzio, an Italian, Ivy League professor of economics who was hard at work on differential equations as part of a paper he was preparing on the properties of model setting.

This apparently very white woman apparently missed the advanced math offerings in high school and mistook Menzio’s scribbles as possibly being Arabic terrorist code and decided to follow the “see something, say something” advice which lead to the plane being grounded while Menzio ended up being questioned after the woman passed a note to the flight attendants. It seems that in addition to being hard at work at passenger-suspected terrorist math, Menzio didn’t answer the unidentified woman’s questions in a way that she felt was suitable. Thus, a plane load of people were delayed more than two hours because a man doing math on a plane was not the norm for one woman.

Menzio was far more good-natured about the disruption than I would have been if I were a math bad-ass. Instead, Menzio says he was: “treated respectfully throughout,” though he remains baffled and frustrated by a “broken system that does not collect information efficiently.” He is troubled by the ignorance of his fellow passenger, as well as “A security protocol that is too rigid—in the sense that once the whistle is blown everything stops without checks—and relies on the input of people who may be completely clueless. ”

Like I said, he was far more generous and good-natured than I would have been about the situation since the flight should have been only 41 minutes…yet he is right, we have a system that relies on the input of clueless people and in the vast majority of cases, it is clueless white people who are determining what is “normal” or “suspicious” without questioning why they believe what they believe. Instead, they see as “logical” that a man’s scrawlings could be threatening (even if it was terrorist code…which would look very unlike math…how exactly would that go from paper to threat on the plane when it isn’t transferred to anyone?). This system harms people and in most cases it is non-white people who are harmed. (And let’s not forget that since it was formed, the TSA and enhanced airport security hasn’t caught terrorists or prevented terrorism so much as it has allowed a fair number of TSA agents to mistreat and even steal from passengers)

However, the matter of perception and norms goes far beyond our traveling habits; it affects every area of our lives, including who we choose to extend compassion to and who is not worthy of compassion.

Lesley McSpadden, the mother of the slain Michael Brown, the young man shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, recently wrote in her memoir “Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil” that Michael Brown’s untimely death became the catalyst for the Black Lives Movement and helped open up the national dialogue on police violence and racism.  Given the significance of Brown’s death, it’s not unexpected that his mother would write a book. Yet in another instance of WTF?!, racist trolls took to the book’s Amazon page to leave hurtful comments and to refer to her deceased son as a “thug.” There are still far too many who still refuse to see the humanity of Michael Brown as a kid who did nothing to warrant what was essentially an execution at the hands of Officer Wilson. The fact is that he was a big Black teenager who didn’t meet someone else’s standards of normal, and even in death he is assaulted and his parents must live with the aftermath.

Earlier this year, Sue Klebold, mother of of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenagers who, in 1999, walked into Columbine High School and shot and killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before taking his own life, released a book. Sue Klebold’s book is about the aftermath of this heinous act that forever shattered a nation’s innocence around schools as safe spaces.

To be fair, Dylan Klebold was a perpetrator of violence and a killer whereas Michael Brown was a victim yet in the aftermath how their families have been treated speaks volumes to who we choose to humanize and who is forever othered because of our own perceptions of what is normal and what is not.

The Klebold family most certainly has endured much pain and heartbreak and even stigma yet there is still enough compassion in the well to attempt to understand and humanize this family. Meanwhile Michael Brown’s family continues to fight to be seen as human, to have their son’s memory be more than the imagery that the Ferguson Police Department and Darren Wilson tried to leave us with and unfortunately, because our sense of normal is shaped by our very small social words, we often can’t see the humanity of anyone who doesn’t fit into our silo of normal. And those limited viewpoints that control most of the social norms and dictate what is abnormal come from white people who have very little knowledge of other races or cultures and, frankly, don’t care to expand that knowledge.

Professor Menzio is right that the system is broken and that we ought not to rely on the input of clueless people, but I will add that the system has a name and its called white supremacy. And until we get serious about dismantling the system of white supremacy, any and all who don’t fit into “white norms” will be at risk. In the meantime, let’s hope that “Al-Gebra” doesn’t come for us…heaven help us if we are attacked by those pesky-ass quadratic equations.

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