Killing a child’s spirit or growing up Black in Maine

Living in Maine as a non-white person has at times meant swallowing bits and pieces of my own humanity in order to survive and keep the peace with the inhabitants of this place. In the real world, there is no transporter or magical pot of money to whisk me away from this place that often feels like a jail cell and a life sentence. Yet one day, I will leave this place and as hard as my experiences have been here, I moved here as a fully grown person whose existence was not shaped by growing up in a space where I was always “other.” Instead, I came here as a fully formed person and eventually I will leave here as a fully formed person who has learned a great deal and discovered a level of resilience I would have never imagined.

However, for children of color being raised in places like Maine, to find oneself in a place where you are labeled early on as “other” can make that journey to self and adulthood difficult. Especially  when you rarely see yourself mirrored in others, particularly the adults near you.

My adult son, who spent a large portion of his time in Maine as a child, is home visiting and resting with us. There is a 13-year age difference between my two kids but despite the age gap, my two kids love each other and my daughter looks up to her big brother. Which is why a few days ago, my son decided to go pick my daughter up from school. But an interaction that he witnessed is a reminder of how easy it is to destroy the self worth of a child with careless words. Even more so when a white adult decides to put a label on a child of color.

As my daughter was saying good-bye after school to some friends, my son observed a young boy of color who was somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade (the only grades at my daughter’s school) walking with two “friends” who happened to be white. The white boys were walking towards a man who was standing near to my son, when my son overheard the man say “What are you? A rapper or a gangbanger?” My son, whose back was to the kids, initially assumed the man was speaking to him; after all my son at 6’4 and brown-skinned might have fit whatever perceptions the man may have held about both rappers and gangbangers. As my son turned to respond to the man, he realized that the man was not speaking to him but to the Black child walking with the two white boys. My son looked on in horror as the child stumbled to find the words to reply but instead hung his head down. What can a child say in that moment? My son, aware of his own presence as a Black man, wanted to speak up on behalf of the child and ask the man what had possessed him to say such a thing to a child. Yet aware that as the lone Black adult on school property, his words of concern could be seen as threatening in a white space, he said nothing but stared the man directly in his eyes until the man became visibly uncomfortable and hurried away to his car.

However, the damage was done, as my son saw the young boy continue slumping where only minutes earlier he had simply been a child walking with friends getting ready to meet the father of his friends. In that moment, his two friends started to ask about his dreadlocked hair, specifically asking the young Black boy how he washed his hair with that stuff on? Sigh…

My son eventually walked away and gathered up his sister but not before noticing the young boy visibly fidgeting with his hair. As my son recounted the story to me, he said that he was reminded of his own childhood in Maine where careless comments on Blackness were a near-daily occurrence, often equating his Blackness with animals.  For many years he questioned his own self-worth and value, and it took leaving Maine halfway through high school and landing in place where he was no longer an “other” but simply a person before he could see the worth and value that I, along with my family, had worked so hard to instill in him.

I worry about my daughter and what scars this state will leave on her soul, but in truth I worry about all non-white youth being raised in this place, especially when they have no parents of color in a place where there are few (if any, depending on where you live) teachers of color, doctors of color or pretty much anyone of color some days. I am reminded of an old friend of mine who raised her two Black sons in Maine. Both left the state for college. While one son did eventually come back to the general area after college, he settled down in the slightly more diverse state of New Hampshire. The other son left and refuses to ever come back to the state. As he told his mother, he loves her, he doesn’t fault her or his father for choosing to raise them in Maine, but all the so-called “goodness” of Maine that people often tout when talking about why they choose to raise kids here meant giving up his very self worth as a human being. Much like my son, it was only when my friend’s son left the area did he find his own humanity as a person and not an “other.”

Maine is a beautiful place with a host of wonderful attributes but for children of color, the good is often an illusion masking a place that is only good for those who can blend in and not stand out.

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