I have a confession

When my then-husband and I moved to Maine in 2002, the plan was to only be here for eight years. As soon as my son turned 18, and I no longer needed to be in the same vicinity as his father, I would be free to leave Maine. I’d be gone. For sure. Definitely.

Oh, how naive I was! 

It turns out that when you make plans, life happens—and let me tell you, life absolutely happened! In the summer of 2003, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and despite chemo, radiation, and surgery, she was gone by March of 2004—just days after turning 50.

Her death turned my world upside down, and I disregarded all of the advice on loss and waiting a year to make big decisions after a huge transformative life event. That’s how, less than three months after her death, we bought a 118-year-old Victorian home. The kind of home that no sane person lacking in handy skills should be allowed to purchase. It was a grief purchase, the ultimate in retail therapy when your young and vibrant mother is suddenly dead and your father is rapidly spiraling out of control in the aftermath of losing his best friend and partner. 

I desperately felt the need to create a home for myself, so—despite our plans to not stay put in Maine—we bought that home with the intention of building a life here, plans be damned. 

Because I am an overachiever in all things grief-related, mere months after the purchase of the money pit, on our first try, we got pregnant with our daughter. By the end of 2004, we had a house that we never should have bought and a baby on the way. 

Fast forward to July 2005: My daughter was born and six weeks after her birth, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) passed away unexpectedly. 

Barely three years into living in Maine and my notion of home was ripped apart and, at the age of 31, I became the oldest living woman in my immediate family. So, I really launched into creating a home here in Maine for my family and myself. 

Over the last 20 years, I have tried my best to make Maine my home. I became “locally” famous for my work. I have worked in community organizations. I have served on boards and even did a brief stint in elected public service. For some in this state and beyond it, Black Girl in Maine is an institution. My early work laid the foundation for so much of the equity work that is currently happening in Maine, and while I am proud to have added to this state and I have gained much personally and have grown living here, I must confess that it doesn’t feel like my home. It never has felt like it. 

When my marriage ended seven years ago, and I left our small city to move to the greater Portland area and the island I currently live on, I initially thought the feelings of never quite fitting in would pass. For a brief period of time, it did feel like they passed, except that in my attempts to fit in—and make friends as a divorced woman in my 40s—I started consuming more alcohol than I ever had in my life, other than the three to four years of my “wild youth.” 

The last seven years until recently have been a wild ride, as my professional star rose even beyond Maine and suddenly I met all kinds of people who seemed great. That is, until I started to realize that our conversations never went beyond the banal and superficial. Either that or the constant banter around equity and diversity, enough so that I started to think I was a professional Black friend to many. And there was so much alcohol involved in so many social interactions, enough that at one point I started to wonder if I actually had a problem with alcohol. Turns out, I don’t, but that’s another post for another time. 

My life may have continued at this breakneck speed of working, parenting, partying, and thinking that I had a community, but then 2020 happened. In January 2020, my daughter spent almost two weeks hospitalized. In March 2020, COVID struck the world and my aging father started having significant health issues. As I have shared before, Dad had a massive stroke in May 2020, and he was gone a month later. In that month before his passing, though, I spent almost every day at his bedside in hospice. A fair amount of that time spent recounting every argument that we’d had. At the time it felt like incessant haranguing me to grow the fuck up. I really didn’t understand it at the time, but in the years since his death, I understand now that Dad saw what I couldn’t see: The life I had created in Maine was only meant to be temporary. 

Maine is just one chapter in the book of my life and in recent months, it has become clear that there are more chapters to be written before I’m done. Despite very reluctantly moving here 20 years ago, this state has grown on me. And yet, for all the conversations on equity and inclusion, how does a middle-aged Black woman make a home and build community in a place where her existence is still an oddity? How does one grow old in a place that constantly demands that all Black and brown residents be professional race people? Always fighting and talking about our quest for humanity. 

Honestly, it is tiring. Overall, outside of the white nationalist colonies springing up in the region, racism in Maine and most of New England is a subtle affair. But the subtle racism is the shit that will send you to an early grave quicker than Confederate flags waving proudly in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

New England is deeply attached to the fictitious belief that the region was cleaner than the South on matters of slavery and racism, but a new generation of historians and researchers in the region are clearly debunking that falsehood. Maine is proud of its maritime history, but few question the issue of what (or shall we say who) was the early cargo in those ships built in Maine. A great deal of old standing money in this state is tied to slave traders, many of whose names are celebrated in towns and hamlets across the state. 

Lately, as a grandchild of the Great Migration, I feel the spirit of my ancestors suggesting a return to the only place that we as the descendants of enslaved Africans know is where we do come from. The American South. My son and grandchildren live in the South, and what family I have beyond my immediate family is primarily in the South.

I actually just returned from a brief trip to Tennessee and, like every other time I have been in the South in the last decade, it feels like home on an instinctual level. I know who the racists are before they open their mouths and we don’t have to play the fine game of pretend that is so popular in the North. There are also enough people who look like me, enough so that a few mornings ago, I was smitten watching a glamorous 70-year-old Black woman and wondering what it would be like to grow old in a place where a Black woman can be old, glamorous, and unbothered. I was positioned to overhear her conversation and all I will say is it was refreshing to not hear the words diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism, or racial justice be the center of things. 

What strikes me in the South is that unless it is specific to the conversation, there is no incessant need to prattle on about race, it reminds me of my early years in Chicago. We were Black and we knew racism was real, but we also leaned into the fullness of living and our own humanity. 

The longer I live in Maine and do anti-racism work, it oddly feels dehumanizing. When I see younger Black people in this state and region working hard on racial justice, it saddens me to think of how much they are losing and how they are positioned to be nothing more than professional Black people. That’s so often what happens when your identity and existence is often reduced to just being Black—and what some see as the inherent lacking within blackness.

Or, for some Black people in predominantly white spaces, blackness itself becomes performative. Often because Black people in predominantly white spaces don’t have access to the full range of Black experiences and people—and blackness itself—in these situations are at high risk for becoming caricatures.

What’s even worse, white people in racial justice spaces often have the best of intentions, but often those good intentions are misguided. Regardless of the words exchanged, whiteness is positioned as superior and extending a helping hand to Black folks. Or it relies on Black people to lead and take charge, which is just more work for Black folks. 

Admittedly, I started a blog almost 15 years ago, and as a joke named it Black Girl in Maine. In hindsight, it was a bad joke, as I inadvertently turned myself into a professional Black person. Especially when you add in my actual day job running an anti-racism organization.  While I have no immediate plans to leave Maine, I am starting the exploratory process of looking at possible places in the South to consider for the next chapter in my life. However, in the meantime, I have one last kid to launch into the world and a few more things to accomplish while I am still here. So don’t get too distressed, just yet—or too happy and eager, some of you out there.

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7 thoughts on “I have a confession”

  1. I visited Greenville, South Carolina a few years ago, and I was horrified by the widespread mutual contempt between Blacks and Whites there. It is comforting to be around people where I am accepted for who and what I am but, at least in Greenville, there is a heavy price for it — for people of both races. I am writing a novel about a young woman who takes a job with a white supremacist organization that recruits young men to join their ranks. It’s a good-paying job with travel to Europe…but there’s a big price to pay.
    I am writing this book to talk to other white people. I live in a blue state, blue city, blue neighborhood. The people around me do not understand the pleasures of hatred (energy, feeling powerful, community) or the comfort of projecting one’s faults onto others that less virulent forms of racism often involve. Nor do they understand that there are psychological, emotional, and sometimes legal costs to holding them.
    It is not the job of black people to teach whites about their racism. But, as a white writer, I consider it my job to reveal as much as I can to excise this cancer from our nation’s bloodstream — at least to move a few steps in that direction.
    Thank you for all the work you’ve done to create an atmosphere of acceptance and mutual appreciation. Whatever your decision about where you will live, you will bring your understanding and wisdom with you. All best wishes, Joan VT

  2. “I actually just returned from a brief trip to Tennessee and, like every other time I have been in the South in the last decade, it feels like home on an instinctual level.”

    Hi, Shay, Thanks for sharing your experience. What came to mind as I read your e-article is the Back-to-Africa Movement. We’re told that the movement failed because Black people refused to return for a variety of reasons.

    For my part, I have never felt at home here in the U.S., not out West nor in Texas, the state where I was born and raised. In fact, I’ve never felt at home anywhere here in the States, and, more than likely, I wouldn’t feel at home anywhere in this world, inclusive of Africa.

    To be honest, I’ve only felt at home in one place: the Kingdom of God. At an early age, well before I became a teenager, I connected with my Unlimited Higher Self, my True Self.

    Since that propitious meeting, my life has been a spiritual roller-coaster ride, a ride that I’m still enjoying as each day may bring with it an astonishing spiritual event.

    Thanks to my Unlimited Higher Self who revealed it to me, I now know “the Complete and Irrevocable Truth,” his description, not mine.

  3. Yes, yes and yes. This is what I felt when dating someone of Cuban descent that identifies as white. He constantly felt the need to educate Me on black issues and “teach” me. Why couldn’t I just be the chick he was dating? I don’t want to constantly be reminded of my blackness…it’s like telling me every five minutes the sky is blue. GRRRL has a T-shirt, “Hell hath no fury like a mediocre white male.” I would also include white people that deem themselves allies or educators of our struggle. Just don’t be an ass and let me be me!

  4. I’ve felt the same thing in Iowa and Minnesota. I also realized a lot of my interactions with people were friendly, but not friends involved alcohol. During the pandemic I significantly cut down on drinking, now it seems mainly strange to me. I have to be in Minneapolis for a few more years then hopefully I can leave. maybe move to Atlanta where strangers made me feel at home in just a couple of minutes. I’m glad you are thinking of what the next step is for you.

  5. Dear Shay,

    Thank you for being as much you in Maine as you can be.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, despite never being at home. You deserve to be home.

    I look forward to hearing about your journey.


  6. I have a question on your comment “white people in racial justice spaces often have the best of intentions, but often those good intentions are misguided. Regardless of the words exchanged, whiteness is positioned as superior and extending a helping hand to Black folks. Or it relies on Black people to lead and take charge, which is just more work for Black folks.”

    I am very glad to have RL Black friends who I can talk with about what we see on YouTube and Twitter. With the antisemitism it became very scary and I know much of it is not mainstream opinion or trolls stirring up hatred.

    Salem Maritime has a ranger that has been doing a lot of work, I’m really impressed, especially what she is doing this year.

    Her first act I am aware of was holding a book group on Kendi’s Anti-racist book. At first I was uncomfortable about a bunch of white people spewing an opinion (often without reading.) But in conversation with anonter attendee we discussed the idea of speaking for Black people vs educating each other because that is our job and nit Black people’s work.

    At the same time there is a lot of discourse I see online from Black folks is how white “allies” often come to “help” and immediately center themselves and speak over Black people, try to take over. In many groups I am in, friends let me in but I really don’t feel it is my place in a Black space to have certain opinions because it is not my conversation to have, and I mostly feel like I need to listen respectfully. I feel privileged to be invited at all.

    I have done pretty heavy reading since the 90’s (Manning Marable was at my school before he took a better job; I am so grateful that and my english curriculum were at a time when culture war was raging in the department, feminists vs the “classics.”
    My friend of decades joked “since you want to be Black” (she’s mixed and we get drunk and sometimes she talks about her experience being Black and Irish in the 70s, when people only see her Blackness and she is closer to her Irish side. She went through busing and said it was the first time she had been called the n-word. By her own people.
    Because we get drunk and laugh, but also get high and have conversations better had with folks you love, at least before going out in public and spout off. I replied “you forgot what Chris Rock joked “nobody wants to be Black like me and I’m Rich!” I also asked her if she has done the same work to understand MY Jewish half and we had a great conversation and one about this online Twitter discourse that terrifies me from what the elders told me when I was seven, and here I am realizing they were right. They dropped all vestiges of Judaism and Became Xian passing.” I’ve been mad at losng culture and community but they had their reaons and now my feelings are complicated.

    I’m so lucky to have a friend I can have these conversations with someone I love. I also understand skepticism when any white lady opens her yap in a Black space.

    Since I learned of your work and I live between Boston and Maine, I often thought about asking if I could volunteer, especially when you were really looking for support staff (I’m on SSDI and cannot work.)

    I’m sure you know that Salem just celebrated the 350th year of The Picnic, and Negro Voting Day (it’s antique language.) A bunch of politicians showed to have their face shown and it was kind of sickening, fake allies. I asked to volunteer for setup and cleanup because that was a way I could participate and not interrupt joyous a Black space. Unfortunately the organizer only saw my message after the event but I’m going to pay attention going forward.

    But the first time that flag flew in our most honored space where important historical flags are flown and that was beautiful. That’s outside but everyone I love single living alone has LC and I feel like I need to be the one to hold us up in old age.

    I almost contacted you to see if you were attending, or interested, but it’s not my place to invite you into that space, and I didn’t want to contact you as a stranger going “Hey you are Black!” If you want to stay appraised I can let you know next year. It was very moving. We also celebrate the Remonds at Hamilton Hall, NPS has been doing good teaching of real history and not Salem’s savior narrative. On NVD a lot of truth is being told. MHS really did a lot of work on being honest with our “no slavery in the North” lies. They had an exhibit of NVD in Hamilton Hall but it was early into COVID and that place is tight.

    But I love my friends that I can make mistakes or have deep conversations, who know me enough to at least ppoint me to go educate myself. They aren’t antisemitic and we can talk about the shared history between the communities, esp the labor movement and what the ADL did in support when there was a mass shooting and hte authorities stood around holding their ass. They came in within a day or two with their “Synagogue Attack” playbook, and shared what they already had long since been developing, obviously.

    This divide and conquer rope a dope is exhausting and people keep falling for it and I don’t know what we do about that.

    Sorry for the screed, The last three years I have gotten to do a deeper dive into my reading, and I want to put this knowledge into action without being a condescending elder.

    I’m sorry I didn’t inquire about volunteering, I’ll stuff envelopes or whatever day-to-day tedium might help until people really get to know me. I’m sorry.

    If you want to keep track of the Picnic and flag raising this year, I can give you the name of the organizer if you would like. If you are still even in Maine.

    But I’m glad I hear more than just the scary stuff on Twitter that certain celebrities have exacerbated. I hope it’s not just oldheads. “The wisdom of the elders and the energy of the young” a young woman once said to me, and I want to support those young people not yet disillusioned beyond discourse. One thing that I have found awkward on zoom is lots of “talk to a Black person” events. If you have to pay to talk to a Black person, how do we ever talk?

    But you know Boston well, obviously, and the challenges. I moved from Oakland, read the demographics, and had a totally different experience. Oakland isn’t kumbaya but people at least interact by Lake Merrit (which is why BBQ Becky being there was shocking as hell, I used to teach at Laney and WTH.)

    Again sorry to go on, I’m gonna keep reading, keep watching talks like bell hooks and Dr West, but I long since need to put it into action.

    If you don’t close down and need volunteers, you have my e-mail. Monetary support is simply not an option on disability. Not that it matters, but I will be rooting for you whatever you do, and wherever you land and thank you for the education this newsletter has given.

    -Jen Salem, Mass

  7. I am in Arlington, Virginia and I could have written so many pieces of this myself. I just want to BE. I just want to see myself reflected in the people around me — empowered and living their happy Black-ass lives.

    I look forward to seeing where the next chapter takes you. I think if I had to leave VA, and remain in the south, I’d probably consider Charleston, SC or Savannah, GA. I have a strong urge to be near the ocean and where the cold doesn’t sink into my bones as much.

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