Killing a child’s spirit or growing up Black in Maine

Living in Maine as a non-white person has at times meant swallowing bits and pieces of my own humanity in order to survive and keep the peace with the inhabitants of this place. In the real world, there is no transporter or magical pot of money to whisk me away from this place that often feels like a jail cell and a life sentence. Yet one day, I will leave this place and as hard as my experiences have been here, I moved here as a fully grown person whose existence was not shaped by growing up in a space where I was always “other.” Instead, I came here as a fully formed person and eventually I will leave here as a fully formed person who has learned a great deal and discovered a level of resilience I would have never imagined.

However, for children of color being raised in places like Maine, to find oneself in a place where you are labeled early on as “other” can make that journey to self and adulthood difficult. Especially  when you rarely see yourself mirrored in others, particularly the adults near you.

My adult son, who spent a large portion of his time in Maine as a child, is home visiting and resting with us. There is a 13-year age difference between my two kids but despite the age gap, my two kids love each other and my daughter looks up to her big brother. Which is why a few days ago, my son decided to go pick my daughter up from school. But an interaction that he witnessed is a reminder of how easy it is to destroy the self worth of a child with careless words. Even more so when a white adult decides to put a label on a child of color.

As my daughter was saying good-bye after school to some friends, my son observed a young boy of color who was somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade (the only grades at my daughter’s school) walking with two “friends” who happened to be white. The white boys were walking towards a man who was standing near to my son, when my son overheard the man say “What are you? A rapper or a gangbanger?” My son, whose back was to the kids, initially assumed the man was speaking to him; after all my son at 6’4 and brown-skinned might have fit whatever perceptions the man may have held about both rappers and gangbangers. As my son turned to respond to the man, he realized that the man was not speaking to him but to the Black child walking with the two white boys. My son looked on in horror as the child stumbled to find the words to reply but instead hung his head down. What can a child say in that moment? My son, aware of his own presence as a Black man, wanted to speak up on behalf of the child and ask the man what had possessed him to say such a thing to a child. Yet aware that as the lone Black adult on school property, his words of concern could be seen as threatening in a white space, he said nothing but stared the man directly in his eyes until the man became visibly uncomfortable and hurried away to his car.

However, the damage was done, as my son saw the young boy continue slumping where only minutes earlier he had simply been a child walking with friends getting ready to meet the father of his friends. In that moment, his two friends started to ask about his dreadlocked hair, specifically asking the young Black boy how he washed his hair with that stuff on? Sigh…

My son eventually walked away and gathered up his sister but not before noticing the young boy visibly fidgeting with his hair. As my son recounted the story to me, he said that he was reminded of his own childhood in Maine where careless comments on Blackness were a near-daily occurrence, often equating his Blackness with animals.  For many years he questioned his own self-worth and value, and it took leaving Maine halfway through high school and landing in place where he was no longer an “other” but simply a person before he could see the worth and value that I, along with my family, had worked so hard to instill in him.

I worry about my daughter and what scars this state will leave on her soul, but in truth I worry about all non-white youth being raised in this place, especially when they have no parents of color in a place where there are few (if any, depending on where you live) teachers of color, doctors of color or pretty much anyone of color some days. I am reminded of an old friend of mine who raised her two Black sons in Maine. Both left the state for college. While one son did eventually come back to the general area after college, he settled down in the slightly more diverse state of New Hampshire. The other son left and refuses to ever come back to the state. As he told his mother, he loves her, he doesn’t fault her or his father for choosing to raise them in Maine, but all the so-called “goodness” of Maine that people often tout when talking about why they choose to raise kids here meant giving up his very self worth as a human being. Much like my son, it was only when my friend’s son left the area did he find his own humanity as a person and not an “other.”

Maine is a beautiful place with a host of wonderful attributes but for children of color, the good is often an illusion masking a place that is only good for those who can blend in and not stand out.

27 thoughts on “Killing a child’s spirit or growing up Black in Maine”

  1. I’m so sorry that this still goes on in “Vacationland”, but unfortunately not surprised at all. I grew up in a small town in Southern Maine. In my early 20’s I moved to Portland, hoping to find a better and more inclusive place to live. I’m white, but also gay. People hold up Portland like it’s some bastion of acceptance in Maine. However I experienced and witnessed so much ignorance in that small city. Unless you fit into the mold – e.g. white, cis, straight – you are likely to deal with ignorance on a daily basis. Too many people refuse to speak up when they witness it too – I think some people would label that as the ‘mind your own business’ mentality of most Mainers, but to me it is pure cowardice. I now live in Oakland, California one of the most diverse cities in the country and love it here. I turns my stomach to think of ever moving back to Maine.

  2. I am so disappointed to hear this. I have lived in so. maine since ’98 having been raised in Mass. We have a diverse and loving family all over New England. The thought of anyone, let alone a loved one, being subjected to this ignorant behavior is nauseating. I don’t blame this family for wanting to leave and never look back. I would hope that someone somewhere in this state can help make amends to right this wrong with simple kindness and good neighborly generosity. You belong here my friends. That poor excuse for a human being should be exciled to Syberia. I am sorry that you’ve endured this.

  3. Wow, thanks for that. I could see the whole thing – could see him ready to respond in a usual way to a grown man, then reworking the whole thing in a split second in his mind when he saw it was a totally different story playing out. I hate those moments when you know there is more to do in the moment, but can’t quite figure it out or push through the awkward. P.S> I’ve been listening to his music lately. It’s very awesome.

  4. This story stings on so many levels. I was that young boy slumped over and I also empathize with your son and the moment of helplessness that he felt as he watched that boys bubble get popped. The sad truth is that there will be moments like that again and again as he grows up. My husband is white and as we search for a place to live stories like this only highlight why I am so adament about finding a community that has SOME Black people there. I grew up as an other in a different way as my parents were foreigners, it truly is TOUGH. *Sigh
    Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you !

  5. That man is a real piece of garbage for talking to a child like that. Just disgusting. The worst thing, as you say, is the effect this has on children, it’s not fair to them, and they don’t have the capacity to just dismiss it the way most adults can.

    • Not only did he denigrate the little boy of color, but he modeled despicable behavior for that child’s friends, behavior that I’m sure they’ve seen plenty of, or soon will. As is so often pointed out, this shit is not innate, has to be taught. The damage to the children wasn’t equal, that’s for sure, but all were damaged, nonetheless, as are we all, every time someone says something that perpetuates hateful behavior. Words/actions have consequences far beyond ourselves. The ripples go out forever.

  6. I am sorry for your and your family’s experiences, most particularly the children. Maine is where I was born and the place I chose to come back to; I am both angered and ashamed by the thoughtless and mean spirited things said and done by my fellow Mainers.

    • There is an underlying mean spirit among many Mainers. The origin ? Basically projecting their own self hatred upon others. They never made it and hate others that did so. The poems of Leo Connellan, the Rockport , Maine native who as a renown literary artist learns that he is not welcomed back home, describes this. The outcome, a state stuck in its past and unwilling to change as it falls further and further into economic bankruptcy !

      • I am sorry that this is your experience. I believe there are kind, loving, compassionate, and caring people in Maine, I believe there are also self involved, unkind, mean spirited people in Maine. I believe this is true everywhere on the planet. I know that if I remember only frightened people behave so badly, and I give them back kindness, I feel better. I believe that kind, loving, compassionate people are sometimes self involved, unkind, and mean spirited. I know sometimes that self involved,unkind, mean spirited person is me.

  7. Unfortunately in the State of Maine…. the “other” is as well those of whatever hue who dares criticize the lack of change here, who are unwilling to go along with the “status quo” and verbalize such ! A lot of spirits both adult and child are destroyed in this state, but while the young child has no choice in the matter the adult with enough inner strength can and should fight back. Will not win popularity contests but you may save Maine from herself. Unfortunately Maine is still the “no nothing state” and that immature adult that verbally attacked that young child affirms this !

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