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,

Finding courage

Last week, I saw a thread on twitter that got me thinking about Black people, white people (especially women), and the concept of courage. In the stream of tweets, Dr. Jenn M. Jackson wrote, “Courage and vulnerability require so much of us. And, I keep thinking about my Black foremothers and ancestors whose courage was about evading the noose or marooning from slave plantations.” She continued, “I’m not sure courage and vulnerability are big enough containers for Black willpower in the face of white violence.”

Reading those words again, I have to pause and sit with them. [I stopped typing and breathed with my physiological response for several minutes.] I have to pause because whiteness wants me to stay in my head, stay intellectualizing, stay thinking—all to avoid the depth of the feelings that come into my body when I consider the truth in those statements.

Yet another example of how essential “both/and” ways of being are required.

Breaking free from whiteness for me requires a significant level of courage. It requires courage because I have so very, very little experience living in a world that isn’t designed to protect me.

AND the courage required for me to be on a path of liberation is a whisper. It’s a microscopic droplet when compared with the kind of courage—and I want to repeat Dr. Jackson’s noting that “courage” as a word doesn’t feel big enough—that Black people must have to live in this world. As she writes, “For many Black folx, courage is the very thing the State uses to incarcerate them or put them in an early grave.”

[Again. Pausing. Breathing with and in this truth.]

One of the reasons I keep needing to pause and breathe as I write about Dr. Jackson’s message is because I have an emerging awareness of how much I don’t know and of how little courage I have had. That is to say: As a white woman, our dominant culture is built to protect me (the threat of sexual assault and other violence is a real too, though, another example of “both/and”). As readers of this blog surely already know, protecting white women like me has been used as an excuse and as a weapon to abuse, oppress, and murder Black people. Black people being some kinds of courageous can get them killed for doing nothing wrong.

Writing about the emotional courage that is required of me on this path toward collective liberation and dismantling white supremacy can land—can have the impact regardless of my intention—as a minimization of the courage required of Black people in their everyday lives. I want to be very clear here that the small story I am about to share reveals how far away from courage I am when it comes to breaking free from white supremacy.

Last spring, I participated in an “Embodied Social Justice” program. In most of the sessions we were led in various somatic embodiment practices to “arrive” in the class, frequently leading to what I would describe as a meditative state. In one session, after we had all reached a very centered space, the guide/teacher/instructor asked the Black and brown-bodied people one set of questions and then asked those of us who are white bodied a different set of questions. One of the questions touched a place of such deep terror that I was not able to stay with even the imagined experience of the answer for more than a few seconds. The instructor asked us to imagine: What it would be like to do something that would put us at risk of State violence?

[Pausing. Breathing. Not typing.]

Since that time, I have been taking steps to build resiliency and develop emotional skills that will allow me to reach and process that fear. It is this fear, along with others just as deep, that prevent me from being fully human and trustworthy as a potential “ally” or “conspirator” or whatever other word you want to use in transformational change work.

The fear that white supremacy has installed inside of me will insist that the racial justice work I do must be “safe” and, therefore, ensure that it will have limited impact. I believe it’s because we white people haven’t excavated our fears and because we don’t have a lot of skill when it comes to facing and holding horrific truths while also (both/and) continuing to live our lives that we historically have these cycles of awareness and action among well-meaning white people that always fizzles back down into apathy.

We must face what courage has been required of Black people (see Dr. Jackson’s tweets). We must face what our ancestors and now our peers and we ourselves continue doing to uphold the systems of oppression. We must have the courage to see that we have been willfully ignorant. We must work with each other to develop the capacity to stay in the truth. When George Floyd and Brianna Taylor were killed, so many white people were “activated.” For our own sake, so we can be fully human, and for the future of all the Earth, we must not let each other slide back into lies and avoidance.

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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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