A double-dose of empathy?

I used to get road rage. Like, real road rage. It was bad. I mean, I’ve never gotten into a physical altercation with another motorist, but I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t several occasions on which I’d gotten out of my car. Not my proudest moments, hypothetically. COVID means I haven’t been on tour and since I’m not in my car all the time, you’d think my road rage would calm down a bit. The opposite is true. It turns out, being on the road all the time actually gave me a callus for bad drivers. Not being on the road rid me of this callus and on the rare occasions I found myself driving, my road rage was worse than ever.

The cause of my road rage is always the recklessness of other drivers. Always. It angers me to no end how thoughtless, selfish and even malicious some can be when others’ lives are at stake. But, you know, a Black man getting out of his car yelling in traffic is tempting fate, so I needed to make a change.

So, I did.

I figured if my problem was others’ lack of empathy, then I’d just double up on my own. I decided to grant everyone an assumption of emergency. That guy who stepped out in front of me at a green light? Well, he probably just received the worst news of his life. That guy who cut me off? He’s probably rushing to give a family member a ride to the hospital because they can’t afford an ambulance. The guy riding my tail? Same guy, with the family member in tow.

You know what? It worked. I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t a struggle, and it definitely took a minute, but it absolutely worked. Last night a BMW flew up behind me on a windy country road. He was less than a foot away from me with LED headlights so bright I’m sure the driver could see my skeleton. I thought to myself, this guy’s probably got a cooler with a beating heart inside trying to get to the hospital! I just pulled over, the guy rocketed past me and my heart rate didn’t raise a single BPM.

This country often thinks of its own problems around race similarly—single, problematic individuals who we need to empathize with. They just don’t know any better, right? If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that’s wrong. Personally, as far as arguments with racist individuals go, I don’t have them. I don’t engage at all. If I’m going to argue with someone, they need to have a certain level of education on the subject. Education primarily comes from experience and/or study and anyone who’s ever tried to argue with me about race has never had either.

Also, when it comes to single individuals, the problems with race in America are perpetuated much more often by the less obviously racist.

The core problem, of course, is not the individual, but the systems that are designed to empower racists and their ideas throughout the country. For example, last week a Louisiana judge got caught on tape laughing and yelling the n-word. The systemic problems caused by a racist judge can be obvious, and so the solution can seem obvious: fire the judge. The deeper problem is that she comes from a community that allowed these ideas to flourish or flat out encouraged them. The same can be said of the educational institutions that accredited her and the legal institutions that enabled and rewarded her.

The problems with COVID-19 are frustratingly similar. Even though this is a systemic problem, we are led to blame the individual. The numbers go up and we’re told it is the fault of the unvaccinated. Well, we all started as unvaccinated and since then the majority of us have either been vaccinated or died. There are fewer and fewer unvaccinated people every day, as has been the pattern since the vaccines were made available. Clearly the recent enormous rise in COVID cases and deaths cannot be caused by the ever-shrinking number of the unvaccinated.

On November 26, 111 people went to a party in Oslo, Norway. Even though all were fully vaccinated and all tested negative before entering, the party ended with 80 of the attendees infected with COVID-19. Vaccines are not enough, tests are not enough, and blaming the unvaccinated is not enough.

Yes, assholes exist. As far as I can tell they always have and always will. We can bet our lives hoping that every single one of them will suddenly and permanently mend their ways—which absolutely will not happen—or we can find empathy within ourselves and demand systemic change. Despite test or vaccination status, you can still become infected and still put others at risk. Don’t do that. Don’t go to parties. Don’t go to restaurants. Don’t travel. Stay home. And while you’re at home push for mask mandates in your community. Contact your representatives and demand stimulus checks and shutdowns.

We know what to do. We’ve just got to do it.

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Truth-telling, healing from whiteness and bell hooks

I was born in the early 1970s, and despite having two loving parents—including a stay at home mother—I often felt a sense of discomfort in my body in my early years. My younger self didn’t understand that the unease I felt were the growing tentacles of white supremacy constricting around me. 

Growing up Black and female in the ‘70s and ‘80s was, at times, a solitary experience. 

It wasn’t always easy to see yourself in the larger world, and all the guiding principles were primarily the ones designed and upheld by white supremacy—though no one at that time named it as such. It has only been in recent years that we now can name the “respectability” politics that many of us were raised with as a byproduct of racism. The fervent desire for many of us to prove ourselves to be as good as white people or being directed to play to the white gaze, and the draconian rules we place on ourselves and fellow Black people to do that. The systematic denial of our inherent blackness to achieve. 

As a bookish child, few of the books that I adored had characters that looked like me. Judy Blume was an extraordinary writer who shaped my tween years and younger me fervently wanted to be Harriet the Spy, but what would it have been like to see characters that resembled me? 

Film and television wasn’t much better. It wasn’t until my high school years, when series like The Cosby Show appeared on the air, that I saw much positive. Until then, most of the media representations of Black girls and women were greatly limited, and even with The Cosby Show, I didn’t necessarily see myself. After all, my parents were Black hippies. I would be well into my late 20s, when I would finally realize that families like my own had always existed. 

Toggling between racially integrated schools that leaned more white and our tight Black private spaces caused me a lot of emotional whiplash. At school, it was the white girls with the long, silky, preferably blonde hair that could be feathered who were noticed. In our home life, it was the Black girls who could double-dutch and speak with a confident cadence (that I lacked) who held court.

I was neither of those things; in fact, family gatherings at times were painful, I was the white-sounding cousin and no one let me live it down. I didn’t fully understand the nuance of being able to code switch. It was a different time. Whereas my 16-year-old daughter toggles effortlessly between her Black friends on Facetime and the larger white world, back in 1980 or whatever, I had none of those skills. 

It was my teen years that brought the greatest sense of not belonging, I literally didn’t fit in anywhere, but my theater classes allowed me to create a disaffected persona where I could hide my truths. I danced on the line of wanna-be punk, wanna-be trendy, and wanna-be stoner. I wasn’t very good at any of them but the inability to fully fit in anywhere specifically no doubt allowed me to learn to decently fit in everywhere. The only constant at that time in my life was feeling the weight of white supremacy heavy on my shoulders and not knowing what it was. 

Not only was the weight of white supremacy heavy on my shoulders but figuring out my role in this larger world as a darker-skinned Black woman born at the crossroads of poor and working class. 

For a long time, I couldn’t make sense of any of it, and my mother for all her many strengths and gifts wasn’t one to engage in conversations that would create the space for me to ponder these questions. The women in my family didn’t discuss such things. Instead, I received the indirect nod of approval to seek whiteness; to seek closeness to whiteness. No doubt that nod to seeking whiteness was at play in my decisions to partner with white men. For some Black women of my mother and grandmother’s generations, no doubt they believed that a white man would be a savior. I would like to believe that if my mother and grandmother were still here, they would have learned that their thinking had been shaped by white supremacist culture which seeks to strip of us of our sense of self and instead seeks to have us serve at the twin altars of whiteness and white supremacy culture.

It was over 25 years ago that I started my own process of deprogramming whiteness out of myself and accepting and leaning into the full richness of my blackness—realizing that there is no one way to be Black. The blood of enslaved Africans runs through my veins. I spent half of my childhood on the South Side of Chicago, and just as I can shake my hips to Depeche Mode and The Cure, I get in my feelings and jam even harder when listening to Frankie Beverly and Maze or Minnie Ripperton. I am a granddaughter of the South and those who were part of the first wave of the Great Migration. I eat my catfish fried with hot sauce, along with sides of spaghetti and white bread. No matter how I wear my hair or who I share my personal life with, I am fully Black and no longer need proximity to whiteness to feel secure in my being. 

This reflection on my life was spurred by the passing of bell hooks. Having lost so many of my own family members early in my life, I am rarely moved by the passing of public figures or celebrities. But upon learning of bell hooks’ death, I found myself crying almost as hard as I did when my own Mama died. 

I stumbled into a Black bookstore many years ago, when my eldest was a toddler, and came upon bell hooks’ work. It was her work that lit the match in me that led me on my own journey of finding myself as a Black woman—to give words to my feelings; to learn to create communities of care and love in my innermost spaces. To make the commitment to using my own writing as truth-telling for my own healing and perhaps yours.

There are few writers whose work have left the mark on me in the way that bell hooks did—as she did for so many of us. And in this moment, the best way to move through the collective grief is to bring my truth to this space.

Thank you bell hooks for mentoring so many, including those of us who never crossed physical or professional paths with you. 

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Image by Alex Lozupone (Tduk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45637047

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. 

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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