Bandanas and Blackness at the Gym….A Very Bad Mix

When you write a blog called Black Girl in Maine, I guess it’s no surprise that at a certain point, people remember you when shady racial incidents go down in the state of Maine.  A local reader of both my columns and this space contacted me today to ask if I had heard about what had happened to a local Black woman. I had not but curiosity got the best of me and I did some sleuthing (shout out to the Man Unit aka the real J-school grad and journalist who has taught me a few tricks of his trade).

What I found left me speechless and pissed off and with a story that needs to be shared. This local woman lives in Maine’s largest city, Portland and she is a member of certain nationwide chain of gyms who claims as one of their many selling points to be a “Judgment Free Zone where members can relax, get in shape, and have fun without being subjected to the hard-core, look-at-me attitude that exists in too many gyms.”

One would imagine that with a philosophy like that one could go to the gym and get their sweat on in peace but apparently when you are a Black woman at the gym wearing a bandana on your head, you are suspect. See, this local woman was approached by the gym staff and told that her choice of headgear violated the club’s policy on headgear specifically “no headgear other than ball caps”  this gal was wearing a bandana to keep the sweat out of her eyes. Now while I don’t belong to any gym, once upon a time in my former life, I did and I specifically remembering using a scarf on my head. I don’t do baseball caps…ever.  But I digress, the story gets better, this woman (who has asked that at the moment I not share her name publicly though if you are in Maine, chances are you already know who this is)  the staff informed her when she questioned that policy that in some areas bandanas insight gang affiliations.

Yep, this black woman who at the time was the only fly in the buttermilk at the gym was told that she could not wear a bandana (which was white) to keep sweat off of her face because she might be trying to throw up gang signs on the treadmill. First off, this is Maine, like the whitest damn state in America or is it the second whitest this year? We tussle every year with Vermont for the top spot. Getting back to the point though, this woman visually surveyed the space and saw others wearing headgear other than hats but no one was telling them, that they might be inciting the next war between the “lobsters” and the “shrimps”.

To approach a Black woman and tell her that her choice of headgear might incite gang activity is to play into some of the basest stereotypes that exist about Black people in general. I am pretty certain I have never heard of a gang war breaking out at any gym. Furthermore, without even seeing this woman in her gym attire, I am pretty certain that she didn’t look like a gang member but when we only see the color of one’s skin and not the character of one’s content, it is easy to give in to stereotypes.

In the end this woman will be leaving this judgment free zone gym but clearly the staff of the Portland, Maine location might want to consider some sensitivity and diversity training since apparently the manager wouldn’t even make eye contact with this woman when she complained.

Just another day in America of living while Black…but hey, Happy Black History Month.

Black History Month and the Lies We Tell

It’s Black History Month here in the US, that time of year where we supposedly honor the contributions of Black Americans to this great nation of ours by giving Black folks their very own special month… all 28 days. Oh, Black History Month is a glorious time, where we lift up the acceptable and safe Black folks such as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and where we get to feel good and pat ourselves on the back because Black folks can now sit in the front of the bus, drink from any water fountain and now they can even become president. It’s a glorious time I tell you…not.

I know that this post is going to piss a few people off and that is okay, I will probably lose a few readers and that is okay too. Life is too short for me to be anything but honest and intentional in all that I do.

The sad sack reality is that most Americans are no more vested or interested in Black Americans than they were fifty or sixty years ago, it’s just that it is no longer socially acceptable to say that. Instead we pretend to care and value everyone but our actions speak louder than our words, sure we might have a Black friend or two. Hell, if we live in a large, diverse, urban area we might even have more than two Black friends, shit we might even date or marry Black people. Imagine that! However for the vast majority of White Americans at the end of the day they live and love in communities of people that look just like them. I say that with no judgment because frankly it cuts both ways, my hometown despite being the 3rd largest city in the United States and the 88th largest city in the world is an extremely segregated place. Sure, in the downtown and near north side lakefront communities you will see a diverse array of people but overall blacks live with blacks, whites’ lives with whites, etc.

Which brings me to my point, in my hometown last year, 440+ school aged children were shot, 60+ were killed. A few names like that of Heaven Sutton, a seven year old girl who was shot and killed outside of her house while standing with her mother where they were  selling snacks; made the national news, most dead brown kids are simply a footnote.  Think about that for a moment, a little kid outside her house selling snacks with her mother is shot and killed. Heaven’s story made the national spotlight but most of the 60+ kids killed in 2012 in Chicago weren’t deemed important enough for their stories to be shared far and wide. Just another day in Black America, where violence has reached epic proportions and kids no longer dream of growing up to become a teacher or an astronaut, they dream that they simply live long enough to grow up.

A few days ago, a young lady with a promising future, Hadiya Pendleton’s life was cut short by a bullet. However Hadiya’s story is making the news because you see, just a week before her life was cut short, she had performed at President’s Obama inauguration. Hadiya’s life ended just a mile away from Obama’s home in Chicago. Hadiya got caught in the rain and took cover under a canopy and a gunman started shooting. Truly a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but for hundreds of black and brown kids in Chicago, they are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time all the time; as public streets and parks, places which should be safe, are no longer safe spaces. Yet while some grumble and complain, it’s business as usual where if you have the means you move your family to a safer place and if you don’t have the means, you live on your knees praying and hoping that your kids come home every day and that you don’t receive a call or knock at the door. This violence has been going on for years, it didn’t used to be like that but I am convinced as the divide widens between the have and the have-nots life is not valued.

On the flip side, late last year when 26 precious souls lost their lives to gun violence in Newtown, CT it captured the nation’s attention. Discussions started, a task force was formed and for once a real dialogue about gun violence in this country was launched. It’s too early to see where these actions will go but the point is people want change. The mass shootings have reached a point of no return and even some people who are very comfortable with the second Amendment are willing to admit, maybe, just maybe we need to see what we can do so that little kids aren’t being slaughtered in the one place they should be safe…school.

From my perch, I hate to state the obvious, but I will. See, the souls lost in the Sandy Hook tragedy were primarily white and of comfortable means. In America, schools and streets must be safe for white middle class kids, sadly though that same concern often is not extended to black and brown kids (or financially vulnerable whites either). Maybe it’s because no matter what we tell ourselves at the end of the day, we just aren’t as vested in people who are not like us and therefore we can’t feel for them on the same level. It might be the same reason that it took weeks for news of the death of Trayvon Martin to capture the nation’s attention and that is only because black and brown activists refused to let Trayvon’s story go untold because as mother’s and father’s we all knew our boys could be the next Trayvon.

As we enter Black History Month I find myself wondering what point is there in glorifying dead great Black Americans when at the end of the day, Black life is simply not valued or equal to white life. No matter how many times we tell ourselves that things are equal, our words are cheap because our actions as a collective whole tell a different story.

Black Folks and Black History

It’s Black History Month as we all know, generally I take a pass on talking much about it in this space since in my daily life it comes up quite a bit especially living in Maine. A few years ago I was involved with planning activities for Black History Month with a friend who put together events for her local town. It was then that it started to dawn on me that there was an issue that very few Black folks ever discuss that I feel needs to be discussed because if we did it would make a huge difference in how we approach the issue of Black History.

In my last post, I talked about NBC’s approach to Black History which took the form of serving a meal that for some bordered on offensive and for others inspired a lot of what’s the big deal. Well after further research it seems the woman behind this is one chef by the name of Leslie Calhoun who happens to be Black. It seems that Ms. Calhoun had asked to do this for some time and had gotten approval and thought it was a nice way to celebrate the month. For Ms Calhoun she had no idea that her “Black” meal would create such a stir and the interview I saw with her she appeared down right bothered that her seemingly nice act was received in such a negative light.

In my last post, several folks brought up the fact and I agree that why is the approach to celebrating diversity always done in such a surface manner- generally rolling out foods and costumes to celebrate a culture. Of course within the context of Black History in America it gets even more complicated since not everyone who is considered a Black American shares a similar background. After all one can be Black and American yet not have any direct ancestry based in the South thus foods like greens and chicken would not be historically a part of that person’s culture. After all fried chicken, greens, etc are not a Black meal, they are a regional meal…plenty of white folks in the South eat this food. It’s just that some how it got a reputation for being Black/soul food.

However there is another issue that rarely gets addressed and that is the issue of class and race. Part of it is that Americans like to see themselves as classless with the idea that anyone can move up the ladder, after all America offers great opportunity to all. That may be true but there is still a class system in place and it’s in place for Black Americans as well. It’s something very few Black folks ever like to discuss but just like any other group we are very much shaped by our class of origin as well as the class that we may move into. I suspect class played a large part in the reactions to the fried chicken incident. I don’t know Chef Calhoun but having seen the video of her interview, I am going to make an assumption (yeah, I know what they say about assumptions) but Calhoun appears to be a member of the working class and this is not meant to disrespect her in any way since as a child of the working class I still strongly identify with the working class. For Calhoun she was not looking at the larger issues, she simply wanted to do something nice, in her mind the meal she chose to serve represents the scope of her experiences and they are valid. The larger issue became that the chicken meal cannot and does not represent the whole of Black America. After all there are many Black Americans with a wide array of experiences and we don’t all eat the same foods no more than any other group.

Yet because class issues are rarely discussed as it relates to Black folks it seems we are constantly setting ourselves us for these types of misunderstandings. I know because once upon a time I used to think that all Black folks shared a similar background, one generally rooted in ties to the south. It was not until I moved to the east coast and became acquainted with Black folks who had no ties to the south either personally or secondhand that I had to stop making assumptions and I have been a lot happier since then. Since I no longer walk around assuming we have a shared background.

So if anything, for Black History Month I think we should all take a step back to see the wide range of diversity that exists within the Black experience and be respectful of them all. There is no one way to be Black, in fact we do ourselves a disservice when we look for us all to be the same especially within the Black community. Some of us our guilty of the same myopia that affects other races when they look at Blacks and it must stop. Anyway that’s my thoughts on Black History this month.