Go South, young (wo)man: A Black woman’s quest to manifest her own destiny
Her passing turned my world upside down and I ignored all loss advice and waited a year to make big decisions after a major, transformative life event. So, less than three months after her death, we bought a 118-year-old Victorian home. The kind of house that no sane person without manual skills should be allowed to buy. It was grief buying, the ultimate shopping therapy when your young and feisty mother suddenly dies and your father quickly spirals out of control after losing his best friend and partner.
I was in dire need of a home, so despite our plans not to stay in Maine, we bought this house with the intention of fucking making a life here.
Being a high achiever when it comes to grief, we ended up pregnant with our daughter on our first try just a few months after buying the money pit. At the end of 2004 we had a house we should never have bought and a baby was on the way.
Fast forward to July 2005: My daughter was born and six weeks after her birth my grandmother (my mother’s mother) died unexpectedly.
Barely three years after living in Maine, my idea of home was shattered and at the age of 31 I became the oldest living woman in my immediate family. So I really started creating a home for my family and I here in Maine.
For the last 20 years I’ve tried my best to make Maine my home. I became “locally famous” for my work. I have worked in community organizations. I have served on boards and even served a brief stint in elected civil service. For some in this state and beyond, Black Girl in Maine is an institution. My early work laid the groundwork for so much justice work now taking place in Maine, and while I am proud to have contributed to this state and have personally gained much and grown here, I must confess that this is not the case is. I don’t feel at home. It’s never felt like this before.
When my marriage ended seven years ago and I left our small town to move to the greater Portland area and island where I currently live, I thought at first that the feeling of never quite belonging was going to go away. For a brief time it felt like they were gone, except that in my attempts to fit in — and make friends as a divorced woman in my 40s — I started drinking more alcohol than I had ever in my life except for that three to four years of my “wild youth”.
The past seven years up until recently have been a wild ride as my professional star rose even beyond Maine and I suddenly met all sorts of people who seemed awesome. That is, until I realized our conversations never got beyond the mundane and superficial. It was either that or the constant banter about equity and diversity was enough that I started to think I was a professional black friend to many. And with so much social interaction, there was so much alcohol involved that at one point I began to wonder if I actually had a problem with alcohol. Turns out I don’t, but that’s another post for another time.
The constant banter about equity and diversity was enough that I began to think I was a professional black friend to many.
My life may have gone on at this breakneck pace of working, parenting, partying and thinking I have a community, but then 2020 happened. In January 2020 my daughter spent almost two weeks in the hospital. In March 2020, COVID hit the world and my aging father developed significant health problems. As I mentioned earlier, in May 2020, Dad had a massive stroke and was gone a month later. However, for the month leading up to his death, I spent almost every day at his bedside in the hospice—a significant portion of that time I spent recounting every argument we had. It felt like I was constantly telling myself to “fuck growing up”. I really didn’t understand it then, but in the years since his death, I now understand that Dad saw what I couldn’t see: the life I created in Maine was meant to be temporary.
Maine is just one chapter in the book of my life, and over the last few months it has become clear that there are more chapters to be written before I’m done. Although I reluctantly moved here 20 years ago, this condition has grown on me. And yet, with all the talk of justice and inclusion, how does a middle-aged black woman manage to make a home and build a community in a place where her existence is still an oddity? How does one grow old in a place that constantly demands that all Black and Brown residents be professional race people, constantly fighting and talking about our pursuit of humanity?
To be honest, it’s exhausting. Aside from the white nationalist colonies that are springing up in the region, racism is a subtle thing in Maine and most of New England. But subtle racism is the shit that’ll send you to an early grave quicker than the Confederate flags proudly waving in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
New England clings deeply to the fictitious belief that the region is cleaner than the South when it comes to slavery and racism, but a new generation of historians and researchers are firmly debunking that lie. Maine prides itself on its maritime history, but few question what (or shall we say who) was the early cargo on these Maine-built ships. Much of the ancient money in this state is tied to slave traders, many of whom are celebrated in towns and hamlets across the state.
Lately, as a grandchild of the Great Migration, I feel the spirit of my ancestors proposing a return to the only place we, as descendants of enslaved Africans, know where we come from: the American South. My son and grandchildren live in the south and the family that I have aside from my immediate family lives mainly in the south.
I’ve just returned from a short trip to Tennessee, and like every time I’ve been down south for the past decade, it instinctively felt like home. I know who the racists are before they speak up, and we don’t have to play the fine game of pretense that’s so popular in the North. There are enough people who look like me too – enough that a few mornings ago I was entranced as I watched a glamorous 70-year-old black woman and wondered what it would be like to grow old in a place where a black woman can be old, glamorous and undisturbed. I was able to overhear their conversation and all I can say is that it was refreshing not to hear the words diversity, equity, inclusion, anti-racism or racial justice being the focus.
What strikes me about the South is that there’s no need to incessantly babble about race unless it’s specific to the conversation. It reminds me of my early years in Chicago. We were black and we knew racism was real, but we also leaned into the fullness of life and our own humanity.
The longer I’ve lived in Maine and done anti-racism work, the weirder, more dehumanizing it feels. As I see younger Black people working hard for racial justice in this state and region, it saddens me to think of how much they are losing and how they are positioned to be nothing more than professional Black people. This happens so often when your identity and existence is reduced to just being Black – and what some see as the inherent lack of Blackness.
While white people often have the best of intentions in spaces of racial justice, those good intentions are often misguided.
Or for some black people in mostly white spaces, blackness itself becomes performative. Because black people in predominantly white spaces do not have access to the full range of black experiences and people—and blackness itself—these situations are often at high risk of becoming caricatured.
Worse still, while white people often have the best of intentions in spaces of racial justice, those good intentions are often misguided. Regardless of the words exchanged, Whiteness is positioned as superior and extends a helping hand to Blacks. Or it relies on blacks to lead and take responsibility, which only means more work for blacks.
Admittedly, I started a blog almost 15 years ago and jokingly called it Black Girl in Maine. In hindsight it was a bad joke as I accidentally turned myself into a professional black guy. Especially when you add my actual job running an anti-racism organization. While I have no immediate plans to leave Maine, I am beginning the exploratory process of looking for possible locations down south to consider for the next chapter in my life. In the meantime, however, I have one last child to give birth to and a few things to do while I’m still here. So don’t get too desperate just yet – or too happy and eager some of you out there.
Shay Stewart-Bouley is the founding disruptor of Black Girl in Maine and the executive director of Community Change Inc., a 49-year-old civil rights organization in Boston. Born and raised in Chicago, Stewart-Bouley is a graduate of DePaul University and Antioch University New England.