This two year old article, To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in New England, started making the rounds again on social media after the white terrorist attack in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. The article, written by a white woman, does not even come close to capturing the anger-fear-disgust cocktail I experience when I see a confederate flag flying in New England. I am a Black, visibly Muslim person who’s been living DEEP in white New England since 2010. When I say deep, I mean that I’m living in Maine. When I say DEEP, I mean that, every year, the state of Maine trades off with New Hampshire and Vermont as being the whitest state in the nation. It took me 3.5 years of living in New England to finally spend time in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. After spending time in all three states, I made myself a certificate for having experienced the Trifecta of Whiteness.
When I tell people who live among Black people about life in Maine, they always ask two things: 1) there are Black people there?!; and 2) what it’s like to live in Maine?! Maine, like much of New England, is a beautiful place. The landscape is a combination of ocean, rocky and beachy coastlines, mountains, and dense forests. The seafood will walk right up to you and tell you about yourself – that’s how fresh it is. I’ve made the conscious decision to stay in Maine (for the time being) because of this beauty.
If you are Black or brown and living in Maine, that beauty is undercut by how massively difficult it is to live here. If you live in one of the two largest cities in Maine, it’s not uncommon for you to be one of two Black people in a large room full of white people. That’s just most Black people’s Monday-Friday. If you happen to live or visit any town outside of those two largest cities, it’s likely that you will go DAYS without seeing another Black or brown body. I’ll let that sink in…
Black bodies living in white New England have to find ways to exist despite all of the signs telling us that we don’t belong here. Those signs can be overt – confederate flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks and a governor who openly blames Black men for the opiate crisis in the state. Those signs can also be covert – the scarcity of Black faces in positions of power and rampant and effortless appropriation of Black culture. I’ve been in Maine for seven years now, and I’ve slowly understood how it is that Black people combat isolation to exist, survive, and sometimes thrive here. The ways are numerous, but I’m just going to list a few things here that have helped sustain me and other Black folks like me.
We find each other.
Two and a half years ago, a local Black artist (Aquarius Funk) started a Facebook group called “Women of Color in Maine.” Like many Facebook groups, the goal of the group was to help us find each other and connect. Maine is a massive state with a relatively small population of bodies. Everybody in Maine – particularly within the small cities and towns – knows each other. The majority of the PoCs in Maine live in Portland and in Lewiston, but there are Black people, PoCs, and Indigenous people in the most far-flung places throughout the state.
I joined the group in early 2015, shortly after it started. When I first joined the group, I saw women – mostly Black women – using the group to post inspirational messages and to get advice or support around racist microaggressions they were regularly encountering. Later, when it felt like commonplace to hear of police murdering yet another Black person, we used the group to check in with each other, to make sure we were coping and making physical connections with each other, if possible. The activity on the page waxes and wanes, but I know that many women in that group, myself included, have made connections that are both life-giving and life-saving.
We struggle and resist together.
The history of Black resistance and struggle in Maine significantly pre-dates my arrival and life in Maine. When I arrived in 2010, I didn’t see Black bodies taking to the street in protest. Yes, there were vigils, like when Trayvon Martin was murdered, but I didn’t see Black bodies in the streets expressing the anger and the rage that we all felt from being told in so many ways that our lives didn’t matter.
But something changed after Trayvon’s murderer was acquitted. Young, Black women – mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants; mostly Muslim – came together and began to shift the shape of our protests.
One of the most memorable protest moments was the protest and mass arrest of the #BLMPORTLAND16 in July of 2016. A small group of young Black women organized an arrestable action to protest the murder of Philando Castille and the numerous other Black people murdered by police and vigilante violence. What followed was the largest mass arrest in Maine’s history, with Black women being targeted before white protestors. Here is their statement after the arrests. And here is their statement when the charges were finally dropped. Reactions to the highly visible protest, the arrests, and the ensuing court battle ranged, even among Black folks in Portland. But what also emerged was a core group of Black people – mostly women & femmes – struggling and supporting each other throughout the entire yearlong process.
We learn and create together.
Black ingenuity, intelligence, and creativity is a beautiful thing. In the past couple of years, collaborative creative endeavors initiated by Black artists in Maine have flourished, providing those of us Black folks who are not artistically inclined an opportunity to see ourselves and our bodies in spaces (galleries, on stage, etc) that haven’t been welcome to us.
Portland’s Black Artist Forum recently came together to create a month-long artistic event that was hosted in the Abyssinian House – one of the oldest Black church buildings in the country. Within the Black Artist Forum, there are poets who organize poetry nights for QPOCs (called BloodLetting); there are multi-faceted performance artists (like Hi Tiger and Kesho Wazo); there are performers who created their own theater ensembles (the Theater Ensemble of Color); and there are individual artists who work with a variety of mediums.
For those whose creativity is all about the written word, Shay Stewart-Bouley’s recently broadened her media platform Black Girl in Maine, to include work by other Black writers in Maine. Outside of the Black Artist Forum and Black Girl in Maine, there are Black musicians, visual artists, and writers who create and put their art into the world.
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We support each other. We take care of each other.
In finding each other, struggling together, and creating together, we’ve learned how to lift each other up and celebrate each other. This isn’t a perfected system yet.
White supremacy tends to single out and elevate particular Black people over others, using them as examples of how “respectable” Black people should be/act/feel. Living in a majority white state where this tactic is deployed over and over again damages Black people’s abilities to connect and relate to each other. Black people in Maine are striving to reverse this damage regularly.
Growing up as a Black person in majority white Maine may teach us that proximity to whiteness is preferable, admirable, and beneficial – even if it’s massively detrimental. Black people who grew up here isolated from other Black people have had to endure soul-crushing amounts of overt and covert racism, even from within their own families (if they were adopted). Being immersed in environments that teach you that Blackness is undesirable makes it difficult to relate and connect to other Black people.
Black bodies in a white state are subjected to uncomfortable gazes, and those gazes run the spectrum from being fetishizing, demoralizing, or erasing. When your body feels like it’s always on display for white audiences, you have to actively work to affirm and appreciate your beauty and your Blackness for yourself, not for the consumption of others.
This is how Black folks support and take care of each other in Maine. We try to acknowledge each other, celebrate each other’s beauty and gifts, and make space for all of our different expressions of Blackness. (Again, this isn’t perfect. We’re working on it).
As I said, Maine is really beautiful. For someone like me who loves the outdoors and natural beauty, Maine’s landscape is enough to convince you to lay down your burdens and stay for a while. But when the beauty of the land falls away a bit, and your Black body stands in stark contrast to the vast whiteness of the state, you’ll want to find connections with other Black people who recognize you and see you.
NOTE: Yes, this is an article about Black bodies in white spaces, but this is really a love letter to all of the beautiful, dope ass black women – femmes and non-femmes – speaking the truth and holding it down in one of the whitest states in the country. They’re my homegirls.
[Featured Image: A photo of a person standing outside. They have short dark hair, large, black and yellow earrings. They are wearing a green dress. They are smiling and standing under a wooden roof. Source: cheriejoyful]