Current Events

Primetime Blackness and White Discomfort

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin 

America is a nation in the midst of seismic change—a change so great that it threatens the very soul of this nation and, to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creation of America is the result of whiteness centering itself as the norm. Whiteness as an ideology and as a people created a system that disproportionately favored whites while creating laws and policies that actively oppressed and discriminated others and while that uncomfortable truth is a bitter pill to swallow, we are all living with the aftermath of decisions made long ago.

To be white in America in 2016 is to have the privilege to choose whether to engage on matters of race. For people of color, our proximity to white skin often determines how much latitude we have in choosing to avoid matters of race. Personally, as the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper’s son, race is has never been an optional discussion for me. My first awareness of race and the notion that this brown skin I wear could be seen as a negative by some occurred when I was around 4 or so.

There are few topics that make White America as a collective squirm as talking about racism and race outside of a white lens. It’s not nice, it’s not polite, it doesn’t feel good. For some, it’s a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the sins of the past still affect the lives of today, for some it’s a fear of fumbling and offending and coming across as racist. For others, they are so steeped in the silo of whiteness that they are unaware of just how unaware they are on matters of race. After all, to be white in certain segments of America means you can live your entire life with little to no interaction with people of color except as something to be consumed through the media.

Which is why when unbridled, unabashed Blackness and joy of Blackness meets up with one of America’s biggest events, the tensions flow and people will do everything to avoid naming their reality. Millions tuned in to see this weekend’s Super Bowl 50; even for the un-sports folks like myself, the Super Bowl is a time to nosh on treats, watch the latest commercials and enjoy the halftime show.

Well, this year’s halftime show was a bit more than some could handle but that’s okay because it was a public declaration of a piece of American history that is often hidden and our collective wholeness as a nation requires that a change occur. It is time for a full embrace of all Americans in all their very unique experiences, even if they aren’t white ones.

Beyonce, the superstar who makes even other superstars shrink, dropped a new single this weekend and then performed that single at the Super Bowl. That single, “Formation,” is a song that does not run from the Black American experience. It’s an open embrace of them, especially many aspects associated with the Southern Black American experience.  Visually (in the video) she paid homage to multiple aspects of the Black American experience, including our tragedies, and in the halftime show she was joined by a group of Black backup dancers dressed to invoke the imagery of the Black Panthers…it was a Black experience.

I wouldn’t say that I am a Beyonce fan, but with the release of “Formation,” she brought unabashed Blackness to the mainstream. We witnessed Blackness as worthy of being centered in primetime where normally it is the white aesthetic that dominates center stage. As we say in some Black spaces, yasssssssss! I am here for it despite the fact that the backlash was almost immediate.

Since the blessed event and thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to know what people are really thinking and, sadly, for many white folks in America, they did not appreciate having their primetime family experience “ruined.” As @yeloson tweeted on Twitter Think hard on this re:Black hypervisibility: “Servants are supposed to entertain, not advocate for survival.”  Because… that’s what it is.”

Blackness and by extension Black people are increasingly demanding to be seated at the table of full humanity that our white brothers and sisters take for granted. Half-assed laws with a few token players who are allowed to succeed (provided that they assimilate into white norms) is no longer enough. We are the descendants of those enslaved people who were forced against their will to build this great nation and we carry that pain, that strength and that grit in our souls. Our stories and our lives are just as American as anyone else’s and if our truths and our ways offend than that is not our problem. We are more than marionettes who dance on demand for the white gaze and this weekend’s half time show gave a glimpse into the rich tapestry that is part of the Black American experience.

Growth often requires discomfort, and right now we bear witness to a nation experiencing racialized growing pains that may eventually lead us to a place of true racial equity. But I suspect that the journey will be rocky. As for me, damn, send me a plate of collard greens and cornbread! I do carry the hot sauce in my bag!

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Musings on D-Money, Shifty, Smoothie and Maine’s Governor…or Why The Hate Thrives

“These are guys by the name D-Money, Smoothy, Shifty. These type of guys that come from Connecticut and New York. They come up here and sell heroin, then they go back home.”
“Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we’ve got another issue we have to deal with down the road.”– Maine Gov. Paul LePage

Sigh…double sigh. Back in 2002, when I moved to Maine, I had no illusion that Maine was a racially diverse or even necessarily a racially welcoming state, but the need to end a protracted custody battle and create stability for my then-minor son led me to pack up my life in Chicago and tell my then-new husband that I was moving to Maine whether he joined me or not. Luckily he understood that sometimes we go places we would rather not go because it is the right thing to do. Needless to say that if I were in a relationship with the state of Maine, our Facebook relationship status would no doubt be “it’s complicated.”

This spring I will celebrate 14 years in Maine; I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that fact. This isn’t where I saw myself being at this stage in my life. Then again, life rarely gives us the order that we placed according to our specifications.

What I do know about my time in Maine is that this is a state where the stiff upper lip of many Mainers creates an environment where the ugly isms continues to find a home. Outside of certain coastal locales and our most populous city, Portland, there is a level of ugly that lies beneath the surface and in recent years has found a spokesperson in the form of our current governor, Paul LePage.

To call Paul LePage a character would be an understatement. He is product of his environment but at the same time, he speaks for those who are uncomfortable with a shifting racial and social climate in both our country and in the state of Maine. LePage’s “everyman speak” is the same type of homeyness that makes GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump an attractive candidate to some. LePage’s time in office has been marked with verbal blunders since day one. LePage’s Maine is a place where people like yours truly don’t exist (except when you want to blame problems like drugs on anyone but the overwhelmingly white population) though according to the Maine Revenue Service, I very much exist. In LePage’s Maine, Maine is a white state for white people and when in white spaces, LePage feels very comfortable expressing his “truths” which apparently resonate with many.

LePage’s latest gaffe though is no simple gaffe. Maine is in the middle of a drug epidemic and a drug epidemic in a rural state with few resources is both a problem and a tragedy. However, at a recent public meeting, LePage felt comfortable laying our state’s drug issues on the feet of characters named: D-Money, Shifty and Smoothie who allegedly come up to Maine to peddle their drug wares and impregnate young white girls. Of course in typical fashion, after being called out on his comments, LePage said that he was misunderstood. Of course in the midst of the “faux” apology, LePage continued to sound his dog whistle as he informed the world that we all know that Maine is a white state.

LePage’s initial comments rely on racial tropes that have prematurely ended the lives of many Black men throughout the history of the United States. Black men and boys have been killed when even at the mere hint the idea that they would lay with a white woman. Emmett Till was a young Black boy who in 1955 was killed for whistling at a white woman. The idea of sexual relations between Black men and white women still strikes fear in the hearts of many though we are too polite to have that discussion.

I won’t dissect LePage’s comments piece by piece because he has a track record of saying ugly things and being offensive. He governs by a type of shock and offense protocol that his base accepts as “straight talk” or maybe even “common sense.” While many are saying that he has gone too far this time, I think he is an example of what happens when those who aren’t pining away for the “good old days” (when whites made the rules for white benefit in openly oppressive fashion and got away with it) do nothing and let the people who do pine for those days go unchecked. Racism continues to thrive in part because white people on average are not comfortable with racial discomfort and instead use words to explain away such racialized actions or they resort to silence as in the case of LePage’s audience the other night (and silence is often implicit consent when it comes to racism). It took almost a full 24 hours for LePage’s latest gaffe to go public despite the fact that the room was packed full of people by all reports and there were members of the local Maine media in the room.

In a room full of people, not one person had the courage to stand up and tell LePage that his words were racist, hurtful and disgusting. That in an overwhelmingly white state, you don’t explicitly mention the whiteness of supposed “impregnation victims” unless you are juxtaposing that whiteness with something else and clearly pointing the finger at non-whites, and Black people in particular. That, combined with the almost 24 hours of silence, is far more unnerving to me than our buffoon of a governor running his mouth in a case of verbal diarrhea.

Of course now, in the aftermath, Maine is once again the laughingstock of the nation. For Maine’s nonwhite community, many of us are tired of feeling invisible most of the time and then being the targets of blame for the state’s problems, and feeling as if we must justify our continued presence in a gorgeous state that we choose to call home. Sadly, I fear this isn’t the last we have heard from LePage and his ilk, after all when we allow such ugly words to go unchecked, we encourage the hate and the fear to settle in and plant roots.
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A child is dead and I am angry

A child is dead and no one is responsible; instead, it’s deemed a perfect storm of human error. A child is dead and instead of accountability, the dead child is blamed for his own death. A child is dead and his mother is judged for her “bad” judgment in allowing the child to go outside to play at a playground. A child is dead and people want to ignore that this child’s death is not an aberration but is really part of an ugly legacy that for hundreds of years has prematurely taken the lives of Black children and told us that no one is responsible. A child is dead and I am tired, I am gutted, and I am scared because I know that this cycle of premature death and sorrow is never-ending. I am mad that so many of my sisters raising Black children are grappling with keeping their children safe in a world where we cannot keep them safe. A child is dead and I told my child why that child is dead and once again saw the fear and shame in her eyes as she looked at her skin and mine as she asked me if her lighter skin would keep her safe. No, baby, it will not keep you safe.

We are mothers, fathers, and caregivers raising children that we cannot keep safe. Our degrees won’t keep our children safe, our good jobs and suburban homes won’t keep our children safe. All the money in the world will not keep Black children safe. To be honest, it won’t even keep us safe.

Should they safely reach adulthood, even then they are not safe. We send them off to “good” colleges that will attempt to strip them of their humanity through a battery of microaggressions and sometimes outright cries of racial epithets and threats. Hopefully they will make it and find the joy but we cannot assume this and we most certainly cannot guarantee it.

A child is dead and I am angry as hell. A child is dead and knowing that many of you cannot understand the depth of my rage and my pain makes me even madder…knowing that to those with the white hue, your children are safe. Your children are valued, your children are allowed to make mistakes. Your children are seen as humans and the brown and black babies are seen as beasts.

A child is dead and I am so angry and so tired, knowing that we will meet again in this space and that all I can do is write these words.
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Black Girl in Maine runs on love and reader-support, if you appreciate this space, please consider a one-time gift or becoming a monthly patron. Thank you.

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