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.

Moving to Maine…the Black Edition Updated for 2016

I originally wrote this post in 2011 back when I had all of 17 readers and most of the them family members. However this post remains one of my most read with requests asking for updated information and in light of a recent comment that was left, I decided to revisit this post. 

Lately I have gotten a few inquiries about life in Maine as a Black person, specifically Black folks looking to relocate who want to get the scoop before they decide to actually move here. One of the many reasons that I started this blog was because back in the dark ages of 1999 or so when I realized I might have to move to Maine, there was very little online that gave me a clear picture of what I was getting myself into. I decided to move to Maine in 2001, I had been here a few times but nothing and I mean nothing could prepare me to what I was in for when I landed in Portland in 2002. So I consider it a service, hell almost my duty to keep it real so if you are Black and looking to move to Maine you won’t end up like me, where my first two years here felt like I had landed on Planet What the Fuck.

Many but most certainly not all Black folks in the US live in one of two places, down south where many of us have deep roots, or major urban areas like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Philly, etc. But don’t get it twisted, we are everywhere, there is no state where you can’t find us!  By and large Black folks in the US are found in urban areas or the south and as such there are certain expectations of what we expect. I mean if you live down south or in a big city, you know you can find yourself a church where you won’t feel like a learning moment for all the other congregants, you can get your hair done or go to the beauty supply shop (now we all know Sally’s don’t count) where you can pick you up some discount Yaki or whatever ever you need to stay gorgeous and magical.  We are generally used to being able to go to a specific geographic location in these areas and we know we will see people who look like us. We will even be able to get some food that we might like…me, I love my soul food and being from Chicago I was used to being able to go to the Southside or Westside and get myself a plate of greens, Mac and cheese, and rib tips.

The first thing you need to know about Maine, it’s really, really white. So white you will be like oh my! Oh, this past decade we have had a huge increase in the Black population but that is primarily African immigrants. Yep, they are our peeps and while we are connected in many ways, in some ways we aren’t. After all we do have separate cultures and all people with Black skin aren’t a monolith.  However as far as actual Black Americans, African-Americans, Afro Americans, you get what I am saying…sorry but we are far and few. So what that means practically speaking is there is no Black hood, you will not find King Drive Blvd and know that you have found your peeps. Black folks in Maine are geographically spread out though the vast majority of us are found in the Greater Portland area. Portland is the largest city in Maine with a population of sixty something thousand folks.

So now that you know not to go driving around to find the neighborhood where we live, I have some more bad news. If you need your hair done, we have two salons in Southern Maine and one Black barber and white folks like to go to the brothas and sistas too, so whereas back home you were used to calling your hair person up and her fitting you in tomorrow or the next day. That does not happen in Maine, book 2-3 weeks ahead, so no sweaty sex for you if you are a relaxing wearing sista. Brothas, start practicing home haircuts now. Back when I originally wrote this piece there was one lone Black barber in Portland and that cat was unreliable, he might be open, he might not and unlike back home wherever that maybe for you, this brotha can do that….why? Do you really want to drive 2 hours to get lined up every few weeks? Yeah, I thought so. So keeping the coif done here is hard. However Trish at Blended Beauty is a braiding goddess and I recommend her though I often get my hair done in Boston these days.

On the faith front, we do have a Black church in Portland, the historic Green Memorial AME Zion but the last I heard it is a mixed race congregation. It is a Black church in that historically it was always considered a Black church, the pastor is Black but it does have white congregants. Unlike most of the United States where the church hour remains the most segregated hour in America, that isn’t the case in Maine. Granted you can also find yourself in some pretty uncomfortable spaces depending on where you go for spiritual edification.

Now you want to cook yourself a home cooked meal, some comfort food? Get ready to make a real expensive pot of greens. Seriously when you do find collards (mustard and turnip are very hard to find) you can expect to pay a good $2.50-3.00 a bunch and you know how many bunches it takes to make a pot like ya Granny used to make cooked in fatback or salt pork. So rather than try to recreate what you used to eat, do what I have done and just start sautéing your greens with mushrooms and onions, besides its healthier! I won’t even talk about what it’s like for a sista with Mexican roots, the lack of spice turns me into a real sad panda bear. Good thing I like to cook but even cooking myself there are limitations. While we lack soul food joints, taquerias, much less Cuban eateries we do have a fabulous Salvadorian hole in the wall and the Salvadorian sista who runs the place is good people. I go there and feel like family, last time I was in, hell I thought she was gonna ask us to wash the dishes.

By the way if you plan on moving here and you do not have a life partner, unless you have no desire for companionship, you must be open to interracial dating. Let me repeat that again, you must be open to dating white or else your chances for dating are about as good as winning the Powerball. A sista friend of mine spent 10 years here before she found a man to date and that was only when she decided she better go white, otherwise what few brothas of sound body and mind are like joints at a party. They have been passed around, believe me while the Black community in Maine is not geographic, we know each other and people talk. Now you can go to Boston, but do you really want to get a boo two states over? But I know very attractive white women who say dating here sucks, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. Though one sista I know lucked out and found a Puerto Rican brotha who she promptly took to another state once they settled down.

When it comes to working in Maine, it can have its moments. Up until 2014, I was worked in the state of Maine but  working and living here took a toll on me. For far too many of us, the workplace politics and microaggressions are very real and it’s something you need to be aware of. Within weeks of moving to Maine back in 2002, I landed a decent gig but I also had people referring to me as the colored girl. During my time in Maine, I have worked as a non-profit consultant, executive director and teacher and the snipes and disrespect at times nearly overwhelmed me. I hear from others that they too have faced similar challenges. It can be hard to be the only non white person in a work space up here because unlike in other places, the odds are that even in other parts of your life here, you will be one of few if not the only one. To never see yourself reflected in the world around you can be a challenge and it’s something one needs to consider before calling the moving company.

People often ask if I can recommend areas to move to, I spent over ten years living in Saco, a town just twenty minutes south of Portland that honestly might as well been the moon when compared to Portland. Outside of Portland, it can be far easier to decent sized home for far less than what you would pay in Portland but you do have to think about your quality of life. What will it feel like when you show up for PTO meetings, the grocery store, etc. Will you be greeted and treated with respect or will you always be an outsider? I spent years trying to be active in my community, for five years, I headed up a community program for local youth and at the end of my tenure, it was clear that I was never going to be accepted. Similarly a sista friend who once lived in Kennebunk who also went the same immersion route eventually left Maine when her then eldest son started to reach the middle school years and suddenly was seen as suspect. My friend having been an active abd involved parent at her local PTO eventually concluded that she was fighting a system that was simply too much for one woman to handle. They are now living well down in Southern New England and her son’s are thriving.

As for me, after the breakdown of my marriage, I moved to one of the barrier islands that is technically part of Portland and its been like night and day. I sometimes wonder if my marriage could have been saved if we had left small town Maine sooner. It’s hard to thrive in a place where just a family walk feels like you are being put under a microscope waiting for the other shoe to drop.

So why move to Maine? It’s a gorgeous four season place, where nature is accessible and compared to many other places such as Boston and New York, the cost of living is far lower. The pace of life is humane and it’s a place where you can feel your own humanity. Growing up in Chicago, Lake Michigan used to be the balm for my soul but now that space has been filled by the ocean. I walk to the end of my block and there sits the ocean and I can afford to still eat. Maine in many ways is a magical state and despite being known as a shit starter around racial issues, I ultimately live here because what Maine gives me is far more than what it takes from me but it is an imperfect space. Then again, I am an imperfect being.  There are some good people here who are white and I can say that despite having a clown of a governor who keeps Maine in the spotlight with his bigotry, the needle is moving on race in this state.

So with that welcome to Maine!