Maine is changing and diversifying

Over the years, people have asked many times what brought me to Maine. I used to tell folks that I was in the witness protection program, but when people started taking me seriously, I started giving the short answer: family reasons.

Family reasons indeed are why I landed in Maine almost 20 years ago, but even that simple answer is far more complex. I moved to Maine in 2002 due to a then-nasty and protracted custody battle with my first husband. The sanitized and public version is that we needed to be in the same state and he wasn’t coming back to Chicago—and regardless of who did what, our son deserved better than to be a frequent flier before the age of 10. 

Suffice to say, moving to Maine didn’t bring me joy. But as a mother, I would walk the depths of hell, literally and figuratively, when it comes to my children. There are three people in this world who I would lay my life down for if I had to: my son, my daughter, and my grandson. Given the length I will go to for my kids, moving to Maine wasn’t such a bad sacrifice.

However, the daily reality of Maine in 2002 was otherworldly compared to my life in Chicago. Believe it or not, despite the questions I’ve gotten over the years about it, the weather here has never been an issue. Look, I was born in the dead of winter in Chicago. The city’s nickname is the Windy City, and the wind in Chicago isn’t just the wind, it’s called the Hawk. Growing up, winters with temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of 20-below were not uncommon. Long underwear was a staple of my youth. And snow? Before the acceleration of climate change, snow and lots of it was part of my winter life. I will never forget starting a new job in 1998 and needing to call out on my first day due to 18 inches of snow and the city buses being delayed. My new employer was not pleased. In the Chicago of my youth, 18 inches of snow didn’t stop the show. 

No, the weather was fine; winters on the Southern Maine Coast were temperate compared to the brutal winters of Chicago, and summers were a delight—again, before the acceleration of climate change. 

What was otherworldly to me was how utterly white Maine was at that time. How the state was physically so white and how the culture of whiteness was so deeply embedded that it didn’t even allow for the possibility of others to survive and thrive in this state. Things as simple as buying a tube of flattering lipstick or getting a proper haircut in the state’s largest city were virtually impossible in the early aughts for Black folks. I often would trek down to Boston to get my hair done and just to see Black people. 

It was not uncommon in my early years to go days without seeing another Black person or any person of color. I have never forgotten my camping trip to the Millinocket region in 2009 or so, when we went to a diner on Main Street in Millinocket and there was a Black man in the diner. He literally ran over and hugged me and said “Hello sista!” Everyone in the diner thought I was a long-lost family member. But I understood him, even though having a stranger hug me was weird. 

Around the time I moved to Maine in 2002, Somali immigrants relocated to Maine—primarily in the Lewiston area—and frankly it was scary times, as the then-mayor of Lewiston was openly hostile to the newcomers and white supremacist activity was visible. Despite living almost 50 miles south of Lewiston, I was terrified—and yet, I had to be in Maine. For my son. 

When I started my now defunct “Diverse City” column in 2003 for the Portland Phoenix, I was immediately met with pushback and death threats. Starting this blog in 2008 and gaining national visibility in 2012, thanks to the blatant racism of then-governor Paul LePage, only raised the stakes and helped put a permanent target on my back. 

My early years in this state were painful and oftentimes, writing was my only solace. It also allowed me to connect with others. But as the years have passed, things have shifted, Maine is still overwhelmingly white but Black people and other POC have become more visible. By the 2010s, it was possible to get a haircut in this state and find lipstick, and there were more folks of color getting involved in local communities and gaining visibility. 

However, racism is not erased because we allow a few folks to become visible. Black visibility alone doesn’t start to dismantle white supremacy. Black folks and other POC accessing the levers of power does create change, though—however creepingly incremental—because ultimately racism is about power and privilege. 

Until recently, there was one known name in Maine as far as Black folks: Talbot. The Talbots go back at least eight generations in Maine. Gerald Talbot was the first Black legislator in the Maine legislature and he was also the founding president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP. Gerald’s daughters are all trailblazers, including his daughter Rachel. Rachel was the first Black woman elected to the Maine legislature and currently serves as assistant majority leader of the Maine House of Representatives. 

Thanks in large part to the path blazed by the Talbots, change was coming—and it continues at a more rapid pace today. In the past several years, we have seen an increase in Black and brown folks not only running for public office but getting elected in the whitest state in America. 

This week, South Portland, Maine’s fourth-largest city, with a demographic that is 90% white, just installed its first-ever for the United States: a Somali-American mayor. That would be Deqa Dhalac, who only entered the political arena a few years ago. 

Just over the bridge in Portland, our largest city, earlier this week, new city councilors were sworn in, including Roberto Rodriquez, who is Puerto Rican, and Victoria Pelletier, a young Black woman. In fact, our city council is now a minority majority. We have two Black women sitting on Portland’s school board, Mickey Bondo and Nyalat Biliew.

We also have the Portland Charter Commission where five of the twelve Commissioners are people of color, which includes yours truly. All over the state we are seeing Black folks and other POC moving into leadership positions, including Angela Okafor, who serves on the Bangor City Council, and Craig Hickman, who after serving several terms in the Maine House of Representatives now serves in the Maine Senate. In addition, we have Maulian Dana who serves as the Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador. No doubt my frazzled perimenopausal brain has forgotten someone, but it is not an intentional oversight. 

While it is easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia and feelings that as people of color we are erased in Maine, we are not. We are not only growing in numbers, we are growing in access to power and the ability to effect change, which recently has included the creation of The Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

It might be easy to say this change is nothing more than tokenism or limited to POC with class privilege, but most of us didn’t come from privilege. While many of us are newcomers to the state, we are united in our desire to make a difference in our state and to ensure that future generations of youth of color in Maine will see themselves represented in their communities. 

Often we expect immediate large-scale, visible change but rarely does change happen that way, especially without legislative action. It’s sort of how I started working out this year, but the number on the scale hasn’t gone down to my liking. But my pants are looser, I feel stronger, and working out no longer feels like a torture session. It has taken 12 months to notice the actual changes happening in my body. In the case of race in this state, it has taken almost 20 years for being Black in Maine to no longer feel like a lonely existential crisis. 

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Verdict is in, holidays are here: Live your values

As this country continues its racial awakening and reckoning, certain things have become almost predictable. It’s time to break that cycle of predictability, because that is part of what keeps us from mass movement and change. 

The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse may have been gut-wrenching and shocking to some, but for me—and many Black people and other people of color—it was expected. I fear that many white allies assumed that because Rittenhouse killed white people, the justice system might be a little less blatant in its findings. But the reality is that historically, white people who have dared to live the values of the idea that Black lives matter have always found themselves meeting a special fate. It’s a fate reserved for those white-bodied individuals who dare to turn their backs on whiteness and who threaten the order of white supremacy. 

All you have to do is look at the story of John Brown, a white abolitionist who was friends with Frederick Douglass. Yes, that Frederick Douglass. John Brown had the audacity to not only believe that slavery was wrong, but to see Black people as actual humans. Brown wasn’t a simple pacifist, as many white abolitionists of that time were—Nope! Brown believed in using violence as necessary against his fellow white men in pursuit of freedom for Black people. Brown led a raid on the federal arsenal of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Brown survived the raid, was captured, and subsequently convicted of treason. Before his sentencing he addressed the court:

“…I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — on behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!…”

Brown was hanged for his “crimes” on Dec. 2, 1859. Suffice to say, John Brown was a lot more than a white ally, and in today’s world, we need a few more John Browns and a few less passive allies who fear losing their social capital if they push too hard. 

John Brown understood what many of today’s white allies and accomplices fail to understand: You don’t need any Black person or other person of color to do that right thing when it comes to race. Sure, support us, lift up our voices, and make sure we are centered. But ultimately, your work as a white person will happen in white spaces and you need the strength of your convictions to be with you—no matter where you are. 

If you truly believe that white supremacy must be defeated and that Black lives matter, I leave you with the words I posted on Facebook—minutes after the Rittenhouse verdict was announced—and I ask you to sit with them and make a plan. Especially as we enter the holiday season and many of you will be gathering with friends and loved ones. Dare to rock the boat, disrupt the system, pass the turkey, and have hard conversations. 

As white folks, perhaps you should be reaching out to your fellow white folks to get your plans together to stem the tide of white nationalism growing in your communities. Are you sure your sons are not the next Kyle? What about the other young white boys, teens and men in your circles?

Will you discuss this verdict with loved ones over the holidays?

Please think critically about the work needed in your community to ensure we don’t have more Kyles rising up.

We are long past the point of awareness, we need action and we need it now. What’s your plan? 

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Betwixt and between: The delusion of normal

Here in the United States, the season of holiday madness is upon us as our leaders and corporate overlords steadily push us to resume “normal,” even as we globally enter our second year of the pandemic. 

At first glance, to casually walk down the street, it’s easy to momentarily forget that we are even living in the midst of a historic life- and world-changing event. As many of the earlier pandemic precautions have faded away, what I see is that in many locales—including my state—social distancing and mandatory masking are no longer a thing, though it is suggested that people do mask up. Even the ubiquitous hand sanitizers have started to disappear. Restaurants and bars are often at capacity, and the only issue they seem to be struggling with is finding enough employees willing to risk their lives to serve an increasingly unhinged and uncivilized populace. 

The kids are back in school, and engaged in extracurricular activities, though the lack of school bus drivers and other support staff continue to threaten the charade of normal—that, and the weekly cases of COVID that create the need to quarantine. 

Americans have resumed their national pastime of shopping, though the supply chain globally remains fragile. So much shopping is occurring that it almost makes you forget that inflation is happening or that many of our fellow citizens remain at risk for losing their housing as evictions have started to happen again. 

Despite the growing concerns of inflation, the wheels of capitalism continue to churn and our success at “beating” the pandemic is measured by output, productivity and growth rather than humanity. Or the wellness of humans, for that matter. 

Strange thing though: Over 750,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID and untold numbers have had their lives uprooted by the ravaging aftermath of surviving COVID. Even in states such as mine where we are experiencing a COVID explosion despite being one of the most highly vaccinated states in the country, life is going on. The veneer of “normal” looms large. 

Despite our collective trauma and the continuing trauma of a global pandemic, societal expectations are that we are to soldier through this as if nothing life-shattering has occurred. 

In a white supremacist culture driven by the dictates of whiteness and capitalism, we are expected to be fine. The problem is that when the world goes topsy-turvy, where the richest and most powerful country survived an attempted coup by the synophants of our previous leader and where death and misery are daily staples, space has never been made to grieve or deeply acknowledge what we have gone through. Nor space given to what we continue to go through. How exactly are we to be normal? 

How can we manufacture joy over the turkeys and hams without an acknowledgement of the pain and sorrow? Why are we even expected to do so? 

Sure, not every day in the past two years has been a shitshow, but we have gone through some heavy emotional and mental trauma. Stuffing it down isn’t healthy and, frankly, doing so cheapens life. 

Our culture is unhealthy and emotionally stunted as it doesn’t create the space to grieve or heal. As anyone who has suffered deep losses knows, unacknowledged grief and pain will eventually come out. And it often does so unexpectedly and possibly makes your life go sideways, harming you in so many ways if you don’t address it. 

Despite the messages that we are being fed, nothing is normal and daily living in the middle of the pandemic with the virulent Delta variant requires daily vigilance in most locales, despite the fact that we are being told that all we need is to be vaccinated. Vaccines are key, certainly, but staying safe and protecting ourselves requires a multi-pronged approach. That mean vaccines, boosters, mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing at times. But like everything in America, we distill things down to a level so basic that nuance and depth are lost in translation. 

The current state of America isn’t an aberration. It is a reflection of who we are, broken and unable to face reality. Just as we cannot ever fully face our racial history, we seem unable to face the need for a shared humanity where we care enough beyond our personal comfort that we create a healthier space for everyone. 

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Image by Simon Shim via Unsplash