NOTE: 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.
After the 2017 white terrorist attack in Charlottesville, VA, an article about a man flying a Confederate flag in New England began making the rounds again on social media. The article, written by a white person, 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 three and a half 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: “There are Black people there?!” and “What’s it 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 through Friday. If you happen to live in 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 the signs telling us we don’t belong here. Those signs can be overt: Confederate flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks and a former governor who openly blamed Black men for the opiate crisis in the state in 2017. 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 going to list just a few of them here that have helped sustain me and other Black folks like me.
1. We find each other.
Two and a half years ago, local Black artist Aquarius Funkk 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 people of color in Maine live in Portland and Lewiston, but there are Black people, Indigenous people, and other communities of color 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 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.
2. We struggle and resist together.
The history of Black resistance and struggle in Maine significantly predates 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 vigilantes.
What followed was the largest mass arrest in Maine’s history, with Black women being targeted before white protesters. (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 varied, 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 year-long process.
More Radical Reads: Misogynoir: Black Women and Femmes Surviving in the Face of State-Sanctioned Violence
3. 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, and so on — that haven’t been welcoming to us.
Portland’s Black Artists 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 Artists Forum, there are poets who organize poetry nights for queer people of color called BloodLetting; there are multi-faceted performance artists like Hi Tiger and Kesho Wazo; there are performers who created their own theater ensembles such as 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 Artists Forum and Black Girl in Maine, there are Black musicians, visual artists, and writers who create and put their art into the world.
More Radical Reads: 14 Black Disabled Women Who Made A Powerful Impact In Life and Self Love
4. We support and 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, and 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 and demoralizing to 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 still 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 awhile. 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.
[Featured Image: A photo of a Black couple dancing outside on a path under trees in the late afternoon light. The person on the left has long dark hair and is wearing a red and black plaid camp shirt, midi-length brownish tulle skirt, and black heels. The person on the right has facial hair and their hair up in a braided bun. They are also wearing a red and black plaid camp shirt as well as dark jeans and tan work boots. Both people are looking at each other and smiling as the person on the right gently dips their partner. Source: Pixabay]