Growing up Black in Maine…

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. Given that Samara is a lifelong Mainer and Black woman, I asked her to reflect on what it was like growing up Black in Maine. It is a very common question that we receive here at BGIM from people looking to move to Maine and raise kids. 

I’ve recently been asked about what it was like growing up black in Maine. One way to describe my formative and adolescent years is as an often dissociative experience. To understand what I mean, you first should know that my mother is white, along with every relative I knew before the age of 18. And I grew up mostly in northern Maine, Penobscot county to be exact. My grandparents lived on the Penobscot River in the remote, ultra-rural town of Medway (blink once and you’ll miss it), where I lived for a few years with my mother before moving to Bangor. So, I was extremely isolated in my blackness. I feel deeply loved by my family to this day, especially by my mother and grandparents, who provided for me and nurtured me in ways many families are sadly unable to do for their children. I was always well-fed. I had all the books I wanted and help with my homework. I heard the words “I love you” and felt them with all the kisses, hugs, praise, and boundaries my young soul could crave. But while I was, as a whole, loved and accepted, there was a part of me not always embraced by the larger community, or even at times by myself.

I remember playing with a friend once. I don’t remember her name, just that she lived in Bangor with her parents and siblings, and her family was watching me one day. We had decided that we would pretend to be sisters, and I was excited, having no siblings at home and always wanting them. And I remember the way the light suddenly dropped from her small, round face when she realized a problem with our plan that had never occurred to me. “But wait. I don’t want to be Black,” she said.

And there was the time when some friends and I were swimming at a lake, like we did all summer, every summer, and we were joined by some other children who wanted to splash and play with us, until in the process, one of them decided to tell me, “You know, some people think Black people are gross.” Then he proceeded to educate me on Black jokes. “What did God say when He made a Black person? Oops! I burned one!”

And I remember my first “boyfriend” (we hung out for literally one day) who asked me how I felt about kissing, but then refused to hold my hand when he saw the difference in pigmentation between my palms and the backs of my hands. Or maybe it was just because my hands were next-level ashy. To be honest, nobody showed me how to really take care of my skin and hair, because nobody had the first clue about it. I listened to fellow teenagers almost proudly declare they were scared of Black men and that they couldn’t help it. I heard guys say they would be OK with dating someone who wasn’t white, like it was a rare compliment I should be excited about.

And there were adults, too. Some would openly, loudly discuss with my relatives various white supremacist, xenophobic apocalypse scenarios of “immigrants”(code for black, brown, and deeply beige people) pushing whites out of employment and living spaces across the country, only to turn pale as death when I approached and was given a proud introduction as a family member.

I was part of my family, and my mother and grandparents kept telling me how beautiful, intelligent, and capable I was. And I believed them. But I couldn’t escape the reality that I was also part of a wider social structure that both recognized me as Black and constantly reflected the violent lie of white supremacy: “Blackness is a deficiency; blackness a pitiful lack of whiteness.”

To be clear, I’m not calling my family abusive. But with the worship of whiteness so deeply woven into the fabric of our environment, the message accidentally transmitted everywhere was that I was OK, but my blackness wasn’t. THAT atmosphere itself is a constant assault on the self-worth and humanity of People of Color in this state. And it is the main source of dissociation I mentioned earlier. It creates worldviews like, “I’m OK, but my blackness isn’t OK.” Or “I’m acceptable, lovable, capable in spite of who I am.” Or even, “I’m not really Black.” Pardon my language, but that last example of mindfuck byproduct might be the most pervasive and most violent of them all. If you’re having a hard time grasping what’s so wrong with that statement, consider a part of your heritage that you take pride in. Something that is at the root of who you are. Something you envision passing down to your children like a spiritual inheritance. Then imagine having to divorce and distance yourself from it in order to convince yourself that you are fully human. Replace the world “Black” with that part of your heritage. How does it make you feel to say, “I’m not really Italian/French/Irish/whatever, so I’m OK. People can still love me.” How messed up does it sound to you now?

Besides being messed up, that lie is just plain ineffective at shielding a Black child in Maine from racism. When a peer shouts at you, in front of a family member, that you’re a “shit ass nigger!” it doesn’t matter to him or to you that your mom is white. In fact, there’s no such thing as being half white, because race does not exist in a genetic sense. The only thing that separates us from each other as human beings is the way we are perceived and the experiences created by the perception of those with social power.  Our likelihood to get a job, get a promotion, get a date, get arrested, get the death penalty, is infinitely more influenced by how we are perceived than by our genetics (which, again, do not differ consistently along the socially constructed lines of race).

So, since my whole person (not just half of me) was dehumanized and terrified by the boy shouting racial slurs at me, I went home and hid in my room. And this is where the whiteness of my family, or rather, my complete isolation from them in my blackness, was problematic. In my shaken and uncertain self, I didn’t have a harbor of blackness in which to be held and validated by a shared reality, an understanding that goes deeper than intellectual comprehension. Nobody could say to me from that place of knowing, “White supremacy is scary as fuck. It’s real, and it’s deep, and it is a force bent on destroying us, if not physically than from the center of our self-worth outward. Protect yourself, little sister.”

Instead, I was told by some that I was in the wrong, because I shouldn’t let bullying affect where I go and what I do. I was given examples of other people, other family members, who had been picked on for having big noses and whatnot. I was told that it was all the same, racism, bullying; told that there was no difference, and that my problem was that I expected everyone to like me. In other words, I was gaslit. Not by all. My mother is a ferocious mother bear. But others who wanted to encourage and support me effectively gave me the message that my pain, my struggle, my systematic dehumanization is insignificant and should not concern me. To this day, I encounter those who believe voicing my truth is an assault against them, and that I have no right to claim a struggle they themselves cannot understand. I still hear that racism is only one example of bullying. I said then, and I say now, “I don’t remember any news stories of a man being dragged to death from the back of a pickup truck because he had a big nose. I don’t remember anyone being lynched for wearing glasses.” Will braces or freckles get you shot at a traffic stop? Not likely.

Don’t get me wrong, bullying is a horrendous and important issue. It is real, it is deadly, and people carry lifelong trauma from those abusive experiences. But the abuse itself does not stretch back through the ancestors of victims for centuries. It is not guaranteed to continue to happen to victims and their children for the foreseeable future. Bullying in a general sense is not systematic nor systemic. It’s not a holdover of widely held beliefs and practices once invented to demoralize and dominate the people group they belong to so that others could stand on their necks. It’s not still quietly thriving because enormous masses of people are too threatened to acknowledge that the lives of bullying victims matter.

Part of the dehumanization we experience as People of Color in Maine (and elsewhere) is the dismissal and denial of the burdens we carry. As a Black child in Maine, I was partially floating in my own reality apart from those around me, and to be truly connected I had to divorce myself from very real experiences in order to remain relatable. It was a dissociation from a central part of me, from the very voice of my own truth, so painfully purchased, and it was a sort of hyper-association on the part of those around me, erasing my specific struggle by engulfing it in a general one in which they could share in the role of the oppressed, calling the oppression something familiar, something they did not receive privilege and protection in, something they had no power to change.

The exchange of self for acceptance is a survival strategy, but it is also a form of death, of course, and I have found myself, in recent years, crawling defiantly out of the grave.

The boy who verbally assaulted me also physically assaulted me at a children’s baseball game some time later. He slammed into my body, grabbing my breasts, almost knocking me to the ground, and ran away while a group of peers stood aghast and dumbfounded. I didn’t tell anybody else about it then. I never told anyone about it at all until a few weeks ago. Why bother? It was wrong of me to expect everyone to like me, right? And by like, of course, I mean see me as a human being.

*If the idea of race not being a genetic reality is foreign to you, check out this article:
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