Credit: Courtesy of Peter K. Roberts

This story appeared in the 2019 College of the Atlantic Magazine.

The history of Blacks in Maine is very much a story about whiteness: its endurance, its entitlement, the ultimate disadvantage of its oneness. In 1790, Maine was 98 percent white. That statistic has barely budged. While the rest of the nation morphed and diversified into ever new incarnations of diversity, Maine has essentially stood still. The Black population has hovered at around one percent for two centuries. When my ex-husband and I moved to the state eight years ago, race was a barely-examined topic in our liberal new community in the Midcoast area. Issues like LGBTQ rights, sustainable housing and eating local loomed much larger. Even at home, discussion shifted away from our diversity to other topics. After years spent in a diverse, and often divisive, Chicago suburb, there wasn’t much to say. The Black population of our new town consisted of me, my children and a few others: adopted children, some biracial families like ours, a couple of longtime black families. We added up to less than half a percent of the town’s population. We existed in far-flung fashion, in separate bubbles that rarely collided. Maybe it was partially my perception. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t give much thought to unity or even the need for it. I was perhaps comforted by the mainstream status of my ex-husband and daughter. He is White and she looks completely Caucasian despite having a brown-skinned biracial mother. They exist outside the sphere of the “other.” I often forgot I did not. Nor did my son whose skin is darker than mine. There was one chink in the façade of progressive wholeness that would not secret itself: my relationship to my white-skinned daughter. On the sunniest day at the beach or the noisiest day at the park, a question would break free and broadside me. “Whose child is that?” a fellow mom asked as I chased my golden-haired kiddo around a park. “Wait,” a child yelled to me, “are you the mom or the nanny?”

“The history of race in Maine is the history of Whiteness. People think they can’t be racist because they’re not openly disparaging blacks. What they don’t see is that they are openly deploying discriminatory thought,” said Todd Little-Siebold, professor of history and Latin American studies at College of the Atlantic. During reconstruction, Siebold explains, Maine was simply not attractive to most freed slaves: “Black migration from the South didn’t happen here. People went where the best jobs were: in Chicago, and other large industrial areas like Boston. But they didn’t venture further. Maine had very little industry and not much else to offer besides rural farming.” And the blacks who have ventured to Maine in the post-Reconstruction and modern periods have been in for some exceedingly unpleasant surprises: eviction from long-inhabited land, the excavation of their graveyards, accusations of straining city resources, requests for a cessation of African migration, painful episodes at public schools, hurts dealt out to children and adults.

“Few Maine stories have been more deeply buried in shame than that of mixed-race Malaga Island. The small island off Phippsburg has no visible traces of the 40 human souls who called it home in 1912.”

Malaga Island still stands as Maine’s only truly mixed-race community. The majority of the islanders are thought to be descendants of Benjamin Darling, a free Black man believed to have been married to a white woman. There on the 40-acre Casco Bay Island, Blacks, Whites, and people of mixed race lived and worked together. Mainlanders in adjacent Phippsburg had never seen anything like it. For 50 years, Malaga residents eked out a living while rumors of their peculiarity saturated the region. There was talk of eugenics, a highly popular early 20th Century “science” which held that mixed race people were of low intelligence and low morals. There was talk of reclaiming the island for tourism, which was taking off in the early 1900s as wooden shipbuilding died. In 1912, the state bought the island for $400 and evicted the residents, but not before committing several mixed race men, women and children to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded. On July 1, the day of their eviction, the remainder of Malaga’s residents were already gone. They took their houses with them.

“White people were threatened. They felt if there were more people of mixed race, the gene pool would become diluted, creating people of inferior intelligence,” said COA alum Justin Feldman ’07, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at New York University. “They used it as a way to justify institutionalization and forced sterilization. It was also used as a way to outlaw and discourage mixed-race marriage and procreation.”

That was then. Maine, like the rest of America, has evolved by movements, law and choice. What remains true, however, is the discomfort with which Blacks often live their scattered existence along the craggy coast. Javone Love is a sophomore at COA focusing in marine science. She was attracted by the school’s renowned interdisciplinary approach and ample field study opportunities. She loves her studies, but life at COA has been accompanied by major culture shock. Love hails from Washington D.C., a city where Blacks outnumber Whites and municipal government is as diverse as the city.

“I haven’t had anything major happen. Sometimes I can’t find the things I need,” Love said. She had never considered, for instance, that the basics of self-care would be a hassle. Black hair products are nowhere to be found on Mt. Desert Island. She has to keep a supply from home and if she runs out, she has to hit the internet. Love has also found herself in the uncomfortable position of token confessional. White students occasionally unburden themselves to her, conceding past racial wrongs: “I somehow become the center of the conversation,” Love said.

She and a few other black students enrolled at COA recently founded the college’s first Black Student Union or BSU. The unity has brought some fun and comfort, Javone Love '21Javone Love '21especially the stepping sets, a percussive, athletic dance tradition with precise moves that has roots in African cultures. At larger colleges and universities, stepping or “stomping the yard” is a mainstay of Black sororities and fraternities. Stepping teams have become popular in urban high schools as well, including Love’s. The BSU screens Black-themed movies on Fridays and opened up an African dance celebration to all students in late February. But Maine is just a stopover for Javone Love. COA is the first major step toward her dream to create a marine science nonprofit in her hometown: “I want to offer inner city kids something they normally would not be exposed to,” Love explained. “I just don’t think I can stay in Maine.”

I relate. Living here can be exhausting. When I talk race with Mainers old and new, urban and rural, they insist they are “not racist.” The statement is offered up almost universally. I don’t ask them if they are racist, nor do I accuse them. They’ll often add the tired adage about failing to notice if someone is “Black, White or purple.” Or: “I don’t see color.” I’m often too frustrated to launch into my diatribe about America’s racial reality, how our whole society is a matrix of racial separatism and conflict. Often I recommend they read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and go on my way. But that last part they say, the part about not seeing color, there’s a lot of truth there, though certainly not the statement of personal evolution it is meant to be. Mainers don’t see much color at all. And neither do I, especially when I lived in the Midcoast region before moving to Portland. As news whirled around me in our first seven years in Maine (another white cop shoots another unarmed Black man, another GOP attempt to keep blacks out of voting booths) everything felt very far away. I felt oddly safe, guiltily so. Then, in the spring of 2018, everything changed.

I taught my children the word nigger and explained its meaning when they were pretty young. I’m a realist. I figured at some point, my dark-skinned son would be at a rural Maine festival or a new public school with kids from Confederate flag-worshipping families and it would happen. Someone would hurl the word. But when nigger came for my son, it arrived from far more familiar environs. On a regular night like any other, my then-12 year old received a message on a social media site from a child. He wasn’t sure about the texter’s identity. After flattering my son in introductory comments, the kid of uncertain origins launched in. He called my son a nigger several times in several different configurations of hateful words. He told my son that “Black people are a disease.” Then he announced that he had to go. He had to eat dinner. I got a FaceTime call from my son at about 8:30 pm. I was in the middle of a meeting, but I answered for some reason. He told me what had happened. I almost dropped the phone. It was one of those moments, one of those lines of demarcation when life becomes something different than what it was just a few minutes before. I felt the power of it.

After much digging, we discovered the perp was the 11-year-old son of upper middle-class social liberals. He is a child who has played at my house, who attended our birthday parties. His family was, for lack or a better term, “our people.” It seems that on the day in question he hacked into another child’s social media account and let hell fly…for reasons as yet unknown. The perp and this other child attend the same public school and very quickly the administration became involved. The school in question was also one my son hoped to attend that fall through a magnet program. He had been invited to visit the school twice and we were told there was an open spot for him in seventh grade. When the whole hellish debacle came to a head in June, my son was rejected from the magnet program and our family was at loose ends. The 11-year-old who called my son a disease was allowed to remain in the program without any discernible consequences. In fact, the principal of the school, who departed for a new job, never even filed a report on the incident. We had a horrible summer. My son vacillated between wishing he had never mentioned the incident to rage about the injustice. We were into late summer when we found we had no choice but to send our son to his assigned local school, a rural behemoth where he knew no one. Within a week, he was being bullied. Within a month, he had been punched in the face on the bus. Were incidents racially motivated? Was it a “new kid” thing? I can’t prove anything. But I do know that my son is the only Black boy in seventh grade in a school of 350 children.

“Police officers kill Black people at a disproportionately higher rates as compared to Whites.”

Our Maine friends were outraged by the unfolding incident and they care deeply about my son. Still, we, a biracial family in the second Whitest state in America, felt deeply isolated in our grief. He’s strong, people said of our son. He’s a resilient child, they said. Those things are true. But they don’t mitigate what “nigger” does to one’s body, the animal impact, the DNA of it. What it says, at its core is: “I own you. You are less than human.” We are not, of course, the first black or mixed-race family in Maine to walk this lonely path. In fact, the isolated path seems to be very much the norm for blacks here in these northern climes.

“People in Maine think they are welcoming and friendly. In many ways, they are guarded and distant. There is this reserve, that Yankee, hardened reserve, which is resistant to the assimilation of anyone who is not White and Protestant. And Maine’s government has done nothing to make this a welcoming state,” Little-Siebold said.

Little-Siebold and others note that many long-held beliefs about the history of Blacks in the state are the stuff of myth. Here are a couple stubborn ones: Maine was on the side of abolition in the Civil War. There is little to no racism here; how could there be? An enduring narrative holds that there were almost no Black slaves in Maine in the 18th and 19th centuries, that the scant records of Black inhabitants show that Black “residents” were servants for wealthy families. But in her meticulously researched book Lives of Consequence: Blacks in Early Kittery & Berwick, author Patricia Q. Wall was able to document that at least 500 Blacks lived in those two areas in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of them, she established, were slaves. She was able to identify 186 slave-owning families. The records that Wall and other researchers have tracked down are fragmented and incomplete. Little-Siebold believes the names and stories of most Blacks in Maine before the mid-1800s are lost to history.

But there’s more:

“There were slave traders in Maine,” Little-Siebold said. “You had cod fisherman. And guess what they were doing when they weren’t fishing for cod?” Apparently, transporting Black bodies across the Atlantic and selling them to Southern traders. “They built the boats to accommodate the human cargo. So, a lot of the wealth from that time Mainers have associated with the fishing industry was not fish wealth. It was wealth from human trade, from selling slaves to work in the fields.”

Another myth is that Maine joined Union forces during the Civil War with an altruistic goal of abolishing slavery. In truth, researchers say, Maine’s state government and military brigades supported the goal of destroying the Southern economy…and then shipping freed slaves back to Africa. Said Little-Siebold: “our history has been sanitized with these partial truths which are convenient and comfortable.”

Credit: Courtesy of Peter K. Roberts

Few Maine stories have been more deeply buried in shame than that of mixed-race Malaga Island. The small island off Phippsburg has no visible traces of the 40 human souls who called it home in 1912. Covered in spruce trees and a blanket of poison ivy, Malaga never became the vacation paradise envisioned by government officials and investors of the early 20th Century. In fact, it is a state nature preserve rarely visited by people other than researchers. In 2012, the Maine State Museum in Augusta opened a major exhibit on Malaga that contrasted the humanity of its inhabitants with the racism, politics and press reports that sought to obscure and distort it.

“The items displayed evoked the fragility and preciousness of human endeavor: a fishhook, button, broken doll, rusty lock and a piece of a dinner plate were selected to represent home life on Malaga. These pieces mingled with a diverse array of quotes and voices and hinted at the larger story of a community caught in a complex web of economic change, government actions and prejudice,” said Dru Colbert, art and design professor at COA, and a curator of the exhibit. “Near a well-worn woman’s ring with a bright blue gem appears a quote from the Lewiston Evening Journal in 1935 that reads: ‘Small wonder Maine wishes to forget Malaga. It is a bad nightmare in the minds of those who knew it well.’”

Often referred to in the press and public as “immoral and shiftless”, there were false reports of residents showing symptoms of syphilis and claims that mixed race residents suffered from “mental retardation.” In truth, though largely poor, residents of Malaga lived in a cooperative community that was largely self-sustaining. The town of Phippsburg did offer needed monetary aid and women from the town were known to attend to the island’s sick, but the people of Malaga mainly eked out a living on their own, fishing the rocky shores, hunting a bit and growing what food they could. A couple of islanders were skilled tradesman, including a mason. At least one woman ran a laundry service. They suffered through terrible winters in small, poorly insulated houses and dirt-floored huts. The poorest residents wrapped rags around their feet to keep the cold at bay.

Finally, the Perry family, which had owned the island since before the people settled there, sold it to the state of Maine. Despite promising to offer financial aid to islanders and maintain the community, Gov. Frederick Plaisted changed his mind after visiting the island in 1911 and ordered the eviction of the island by July 1, 1912.

Plaisted told the Brunswick Times Record in 1911: “the best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all their filth. Certainly the conditions are not creditable to our state, and we ought not to have such things near our front door, and I do not think that a like condition can be found in Maine, although there are some pretty bad localities elsewhere.”

In the months prior, eight mixed-race residents, including an entire family of seven, were committed to the Maine School of the Feeble Minded where six of them would die. They were all classified as “middle-grade imbeciles” or “low-grade morons.” There was never proof that the two women eventually released from the institution were sterilized, but there were suspicions. Both were of child bearing age and eventually married. Neither ever had a child: “forced sterilizations were common at these kinds of institutions all over the country,” Justin Feldman said.

By July 1, government agents found Malaga abandoned. The only things left behind were the schoolhouse and the graveyard. The school was moved to another island, the 17 graves dug up and the bones thrown into five coffins. They were buried at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded, possibly having been combined into even fewer coffins. In the years following the destruction of the settlement, islanders and their descendants rarely spoke of Malaga or their connection to it; but the echoes of the event resulted in racial slurs and other forms of debasement from groups of residents in Phippsburg and surrounding communities.

Modern times brought different kinds of racial clashes to Maine. After an extended period of completely predictable population breakdowns, Africans began arriving.

In 2002, Lewiston Mayor Larry Raymond published an open letter to Somali immigrants who had been arriving in increasingly large numbers over two decades. That being true, the number of Somalis living in Lewiston at that time was still relatively small in a population of more than 35,000. Raymond appealed to Somali residents to discourage their family and friends in Africa from coming to Maine. “This large number of new arrivals cannot continue without negative results for all. The Somali community must exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity,” Raymond wrote. “I am well aware of the legal right of a U.S. resident to move anywhere he/she pleases, but it is time for the Somali community to exercise this discipline in view of the effort that has been made on its behalf.”

Then-Governor Angus King attempted to diffuse the controversy that followed the letter’s publication. Despite the unusual and inflammatory message in the letter, King soft peddled Raymond’s actions: “I know Larry Raymond and he is not a racist,’’ King told the New York Times. “I wouldn’t have written that letter he wrote. I was in Lewiston last month meeting with Somalis and my message was, ‘You’re welcome here.’ But I think he felt that what he wrote was more innocent than was interpreted. The recent blowup has really obscured the fact that Lewiston has really dealt with a situation that would be difficult for any community.’’

  Credit: Courtesy of Peter K. Roberts

As it turns out, Somali residents have been a boon to Lewiston and surrounding areas. In 2006, the same year someone threw a severed pig’s head into a Lewiston mosque where Somali men were praying, KPMG International named Lewiston as the “best place to do business” in New England. The uptick in business development has been credited in large part to Somali immigrants who have opened business in the downtown area. Local and national press articles have credited lowered crime, improved high school graduation rates and increased enrollment in community colleges to the growing number of Somali immigrants. Perhaps most poignantly, Somali immigrants have led the Lewiston High School soccer team to three state championships, including 2018.

It would be great to end this story right here, but race in the whitest state in the nation is never anything short of dramatic. I ran into a Facebook post recently. It was on the page of a friend of a friend. Someone suggested to a group of tagged people: “Let’s go knock nigger heads in Lewiston tonite.” The post got some likes. Not many. But there were likes. My biggest surprise was that I wasn’t surprised.

So, I selfishly ask, where does this leave my son? Where will he be safe in Maine? At school? A Black teacher at Kennebunk High School just filed a complaint against the school with the Maine Human Rights Commission, a full two years after a student walked into her classroom with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulders. Another student took a video of the teacher’s horrified reaction and posted it on social media. Rosa Slack felt school administrators retaliated against her in a performance review after she accused them of not adequately addressing the incident. There have been other racially-charged episodes in Kennebunk schools. A year before the flag incident, a middle schooler said he wanted to “kill all the Black people.” A biracial family has moved out of Kennebunk and a black teacher left the high school, both direct results of the racial incidents, according to the Portland Press-Herald.

As to the Confederate flag, turns out the old Stars and Bars is popular with residents hovering at the 45th parallel. The flag has been popping up all over the state. In 2017, Then-Governor Paul LePage claimed that 7,600 Mainers fought for the Confederacy. The Bangor Daily News fact-checked the claim and came up with a number closer to thirty. But the idea that my child is being exposed to the Confederate flag in a Union state takes me directly to my nightmare, the deep, often unspoken fear of every parent with a black son. Police. What about the police?

In his recently-published paper in the Harvard Public Health Review, Justin Feldman laid out his research in spare prose: “police officers kill Black people at a disproportionately higher rates as compared to Whites.”

There it is.

Justin Feldman '07Justin Feldman '07What Feldman was able to prove with actual research (contrary to the protestations of many in government and law enforcement) is that our Black boys are at greater risk of being killed by police every time they get behind the wheel of a car, every time they walk around with a toy gun, every time they instinctually reach for their pockets or the glove box when police request personal information. “Here, mom, take this,” my son said in the summer of 2016 as we walked around Portland. He was trying to hand me a water gun we had just purchased. He was 10. “You should put it in your bag. Police shoot people for walking around with these.”

Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. My son is connected. I almost didn’t write this paragraph, but I can at least be a ten-thousandth as brave as the mothers of the dead. Tamir Rice feels personal. The 12-year-old was shot in a park in 2014 after allegedly reaching for a gun that turned out to be a toy. I’ve had to sit and listen to White men declare the murder of 12-year-old Rice a “justifiable shooting.” Hell, it all feels personal. I was discussing the Brown case with a White woman in 2015. In the middle of our conversation, another White woman leaned in and said: “He had it coming.”

Justin Feldman’s article, “Public Health and the Policing of Black Lives,” ties together policing’s disproportionate threat to black lives with the health of Black Americans. Feldman found, for example, that Blacks were less likely to seek aid at an emergency room if police were present, which they almost always are. I will let Feldman’s work tell its own story:

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, and Walter Scott reflect a pattern of routinized state violence against Black people in the United States. While police violence is not new, it has become newly visible over the past year as protesters in Ferguson, Baltimore, and hundreds of other cities have made the issue difficult for the public to ignore. As citizens of this society, each of us has a responsibility to work toward the structural changes necessary to end racially discriminatory policing practices that affect our communities. However, as public health professionals, our role in this movement is unique. Simply put, policing practices harm the public’s health and deepen racial health inequities.

My ex-husband and I worked overtime to get our son transferred out of the rural middle school he attends. All attempts failed. We’ve made some academic adjustments and he seems to be making friends. He’s still angry as hell: “I want to be with people who actually look like me,” is a common refrain. “I HATE living here” is another. We’re thinking about high schools in Portland. There is a bright spot, a somewhat unlikely one. His name is Tavis. He is my son’s first Black friend. They met in Hawaii over spring break last year. It was kismet. The two spent their remaining vacation time together. I didn’t see my son for three days. Later, he told me about their best joint idea: send all White people to the moon. It’s white, he said, they’ll be comfortable there. We can have earth, he said. Tavis lives in Seattle, but the two talk several times a week by FaceTime and play PS4 on the weekend. When my son told Tavis about the racist incident and subsequent rejection from the magnet program late last spring, Tavis took some action. He got a few of his Black friends together on Instagram and created a group chat for my son. It was called “Black People.” It is a moment he clings to. And I am reminded that once, not so long ago in Maine, such mercy did not exist.

Tamara Kerrill Field is a Chicago-born writer. Her work focuses on the intersection of race, sexuality, culture and politics. She has written for The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, and other major newspapers. She resides in Portland.