To be Black is to be of the African diaspora yet it is so much more. To be Black in America is to share some universal truths, especially if one is African American or a descendant of enslaved Africans—but even that does not result in a shared reality for all. As a Black woman raised in the Midwest but currently living in the Northeast, I know that the Northeastern Black experience is not entirely that of the Midwestern Black experience.
To be Black in America yet to not be a descendant of enslaved Africans—that is, to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants (or even a descendant multiple generations on)—results in another experience and other challenges. However, because of the universality of Blackness in the public perception (whether because people’s personal assumptions/inherited biases or media representations), our experiences all meld together, which often does a great disservice to all. But still, even though that melding of our experiences and conflation of our experiences may often be inaccurate, we do often carry some commonalities and similarities in how we experience America, how we move through it and how we are treated…a few “universal truths,” if you will. Truths about we must all be aware of our safety in ways that our white peers will never know. To understand the need for special talks and healing that only exist in all-Black spaces.
In the aftermath of a recent Black Lives Matter protest here in Maine several nights ago and the public backlash facing the organizers and participants, I find myself thinking about what the weight of Blackness and how it impacts us regardless of locations, thus creating a universal reality of Blackness even though Black people are not a monolith of one set of beliefs and goals.
Right now, the collective Black America is hurting; our wounds have never been given the attention that they rightly deserve. There is a real generational pain that is passed down within Black America. I have witnessed it firsthand in my own family as I have watched family members born and raised under Jim Crow struggle for life and breath. I see that pain manifest in my own family of creation and in myself. I take that pain with me wherever I go. And, like someone living with physical chronic pain, the pain that is inherent in the Black experience is never far from the surface and it never really goes away.
Maine is a state with a relatively small Black population. The majority of Black-identified people live in Portland. While we have had few cases of overt police brutality in Maine, it is a mistake to assume that being Black in Maine divorces us from the larger Black experience, including the Black Lives Matter movement. To be Black in Maine is to live with a never-ending stream of microaggressions. Microaggressions on the surface may seem small, but a steady stream of microaggressions is death by a thousand small cuts. Things like culturally incompetent teachers in elementary school, well-meaning but culturally ignorant neighbors and friends, and the unnecessary traffic stops or sidewalk interrogations by police that never happen to your white friends. To always inhabit a space where you give up a piece of your soul to get along. To have a governor who uses language that essentially paints the majority of Black people in our state as thugs, dealers, and welfare mooches.
Blackness in Maine is an especially challenging journey as Maine has Black Mainers whose families have never been elsewhere, it has the transplants like myself, and it has Black immigrants who embody the American immigrant experience but who must always deal with a double identity and the burden that comes from being “other” because they are Black (and, for many, even more an “other” if they are Muslim).
The recent protest in Maine is the natural consequence of a voiceless group: Black youth and young adults needing to assert their own humanity and declare that they too matter. Just like Black Lives Matter as a national movement, the need to be acknowledged and affirmed exists even in Maine. Sadly, in the public backlash, this is being erased from the larger narrative which has distilled the recent protest down to violence (of which there was little) and the arrests of the Black organizers and white allies. Yes, the group shut down one of the busiest streets during the busy season but the fight for justice is never convenient and despite what many think, the civil rights icons of the 1960s that so many people now revere and quote did indeed disrupt the flow of things in the same kind of way Black Lives Matters and other protest movements do today.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that a riot is the language of the unheard. We as a state and nation would be wise to set aside our individual grievances and annoyances and start listening to these voices both in Maine and across the nation who are clearly speaking to us. As I write this piece today, the news reports that there has been more loss of life in our nation: Three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge. In this moment, we are experiencing something that is eerily reminiscent of the summer of 1967 when racial tensions ran rampant. History is repeating itself because in many ways, our collective memory is short and our hearts are short on the courage needed to do the hard work that is needed so that we can all be free and human. Because America didn’t do the work it needed to do in the past, the unrest that came before is bound to come again. The only way to stop it is to finally knuckle down and change the way we deal with race and the way we center whiteness as the “norm.”
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