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.
Whenever I have the chance to really get to know a sister in Maine, the “escape plan” always comes up. Always. I never skip the “Get Out” talk with another Black Girl in Maine unless I am unable to make a sincere connection. Sometimes, the escape plan is hypothetical, as in, “If I start getting serious death threats/if my kids start drowning in overt racism at school/if I can’t take another second, THIS is where I know I can go” (Boston, New York, Hartford, Chicago; almost literally anywhere more diverse). Sometimes it’s more of a fantasy–a vague yearning for a diverse city in Canada where healthcare and education won’t bring a sister to bankruptcy or an island nation where we aren’t a minority and where misogynoir isn’t so fierce and ceaseless. Sometimes it’s a solid, practical, step-by-step, “I’ve already had way too much of this, and I’m moving by this specific date” kind of plan. The point is, there is always a plan. There’s always an inner debate about whether or not, and for how long, we should each continue living as a Black girl in Maine, and there is an obvious reason for that.
If you are a regular reader at this site, you probably already know that Maine, for all its rocky coasts, blueberry fields, lupine hills, and forest sanctuaries, isn’t an easy place for people of color. It’s not the five months of winter or some fabled fear of nature that shifts our sight to cities far away and further still. The natural beauty here is actually a kind of tonic and can be deeply healing. Neither is the entire reason a pervasive sense of isolation in living as one of a handful of people of color in your own neighborhood. As long as I’m not the only black woman in the grocery store, children aren’t pointing in awe and wonder, white nationalists don’t view my public appearance as their one and only opportunity to express violent hate, loud and proud, I feel as safe here as I probably would anywhere in the nation. But, related to this isolation, and pointed out on this very publication by Shay Stewart-Bouley herself, is a unique Maine atmosphere of highly insulated whiteness. It’s a whiteness untouched, unchallenged, by any perspective or reality in which whiteness is not the center or the norm.
To put it another way, most white Mainers have never had to think about race critically. And, having no need to do so, simply haven’t done it. Some have told me as much, explicitly. And while I can’t say I blame them for skipping the draining work of paradigm shifting, especially when the perspective they hold now is so peaceful and comfortable, it makes living with a different perspective (and living inside a separate reality) a maddeningly lonely and heavy burden to carry. This burden reaches its peak when white discomfort with our black and brown reality triggers hostile resistance to our voices, which is basically every time we speak out. I feel it when I’m accused of whining, playing the race card, or “politicizing” social issues by acknowledging racism as a factor. I feel it when I see people calling Black Lives Matter protesters selfish, angry, and without a message, as if speaking the truth that we are human beings and deserve to be treated like human beings by authorities is equivalent to saying nothing at all. I feel it when I when I go to a community meeting about student suicide and encounter fierce resistance to the idea that racism could possibly exist in a given community and should be addressed by adults within that community in order to keep our children safe. I feel it constantly, and it makes me want to scream.
What I have to say next, I say directly to white readers, and I say it with all the love in my heart and with a sincere desire for your own greater freedom and understanding: Not having to think about race is a privilege. Choosing not to think about it, or to dismiss, downplay, and deflect it every time the subject is broached, is an example of compliance with racial oppression. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to really examine the ways in which this country still profits from systematic injustice. It’s overwhelming to realize how extensive discrimination and inequity are and the extent to which America embraces it. From educational inequity to implicit bias in hiring practices, from police brutality to voter suppression, from privatized, profit-driven prisons to housing, and even to the mainstream language we use to describe human beings, our society thrives on oppressing, scapegoating, and exploiting minorities and underprivileged populations. The enormity of the crisis is enough to drown us in despair, and nobody wants to feel that way. But if thinking about this crisis is overwhelming to you, and you aren’t the one receiving a direct blow, how difficult do you think it is to live everyday in country where you ARE on the receiving end of this crisis, and where most of the people around you don’t want to be bothered to even acknowledge that reality?
If you don’t live in fear of losing your job for not chemically treating your hair to make it straight, or fear of not getting the job you want because you chose to put your given name that “sounds Black” on a resume…if you don’t live in fear of loved ones being deported, jailed for profit, executed by some law enforcement officer with something to prove, all because their appearance matches the national image of “dangerous” and “guilty”…if you don’t live with the certainty that at some point another white supremacist WILL see you in public and target you with verbal assault and threats to your physical person (AGAIN)…then you are privileged. If you refuse to acknowledge that reality of such a high level of social privilege every time we bring it to your attention as we demand social change in an effort to make life safer for ourselves and our children, you are contributing to our oppression and choosing your own comfort and rosy perspective over our safety.
So this is the crux of the issue for many Mainers of color: When you live in a state where the majority of residents choose compliance over resistance to social injustice, choose to silence you rather than listen to you whenever you bring up your oppression, you begin to understand what it means to be unwanted in a place. That’s why there’s always an escape plan.
One force preventing us from acting immediately is not as obvious, but it is equally powerful, hence the dilemma over whether to stay or go. The unwanted have a way of finding each other. Over the past several years, I have begun to reach out from a place I hardly acknowledged before (See my personal story of growing up as a Black girl in Maine). Something inside me was literally dying for Black and diverse community. And as fate would have it, my awakening arrived as communities of color (intentionally, painstakingly cultivated communities) began to surface in the Greater Portland area. Since the last election especially, and the subsequently heightened danger and despair hanging over the heads of the marginalized, Black writers, artists, performers, and activists invigorated with a fresh urgency, deadly serious about creating space for our voices and safety for our children, even if the communities around us would rather we shut up and sit down, have been showing up and showing out. Organizations like For Us By Us (www.facebook.com/fubufund/), Theater Ensemble Of Color (www.facebook.com/Theater-Ensemble-of-Color-136946773355353/), Lala Drew and contributing voices in the literary/performative event series known as Bloodletting, Daniel Minter and other visual artists featured in A Distant Holla at the Abyssinian Meeting House (www.pressherald.com/2017/05/14/a-distant-holla-is-a-deeply-spiritual-show-on-hallowed-ground/), and the expansion of the BGIM blog itself are some specific examples of our diverse community blooming against the grain. And these are just the beginning. Art and stories, voices and truths singing from our souls to the edges of the universe are giving birth to an alternative plan, an escape to a place we create for ourselves rather than a destination we find and flee to elsewhere. Something revolutionary is happening here, and it kills me to think about missing it.
I can’t say for sure that 10 years, five years, or even a solitary year down this road I will remain a Black girl in Maine. There are too many potential twists and turns ahead to make that kind of prediction. But for now, as the inner battle rages on, as our community grows and perfect insulation from it begins to falter, for better or worse, this is where I am. And I intend to co-create space for us as long as I’m here.
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