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Go South, young (wo)man: A Black woman’s quest to manifest her own destiny

The author of ‘Black Girl in Maine’ blog reveals the struggles of being a Professional Black Person in New England

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When my then-husband and I moved to Maine in 2002, the plan was to only be here for eight years. As soon as my son turned 18, and I no longer needed to be in the same vicinity as his father, I would be free to leave Maine. I’d be gone. For sure. Definitely.

Oh, how naive I was!

It turns out that when you make plans, life happens — and let me tell you, life absolutely happened! In the summer of 2003, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and despite chemo, radiation, and surgery, she was gone by March of 2004 — just days after turning 50.

Her death turned my world upside down, and I disregarded all of the advice on loss and waiting a year to make big decisions after a huge transformative life event. That’s how, less than three months after her death, we bought a 118-year-old Victorian home. The kind of home that no sane person lacking in handy skills should be allowed to purchase. It was a grief purchase, the ultimate in retail therapy when your young and vibrant mother is suddenly dead and your father is rapidly spiraling out of control in the aftermath of losing his best friend and partner.

I desperately felt the need to create a home for myself, so — despite our plans to not stay put in Maine — we bought that home with the intention of building a life here, plans be damned.

Because I am an overachiever in all things grief-related, mere months after the purchase of the money pit, on our first try, we got pregnant with our daughter. By the end of 2004, we had a house that we never should have bought and a baby on the way.

Fast forward to July 2005: My daughter was born and six weeks after her birth, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) passed away unexpectedly.

Barely three years into living in Maine and my notion of home was ripped apart and, at the age of 31, I became the oldest living woman in my immediate family. So, I really launched into creating a home here in Maine for my family and myself.

Photo of Shay Stewart-Bouley from her recent 50th birthday.Shay Stewart-Bouley

Over the last 20 years, I have 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 did a brief stint in elected public service. For some in this state and beyond it, Black Girl in Maine is an institution. My early work laid the foundation for so much of the equity work that is currently happening in Maine, and while I am proud to have added to this state and I have gained much personally and have grown living here, I must confess that it doesn’t feel like my home. It never has felt like it.

When my marriage ended seven years ago, and I left our small city to move to the greater Portland area and the island I currently live on, I initially thought the feelings of never quite fitting in would pass. For a brief period of time, it did feel like they passed, except that in my attempts to fit in — and make friends as a divorced woman in my 40s — I started consuming more alcohol than I ever had in my life, other than the three to four years of my “wild youth.”

The last seven years until recently have been a wild ride, as my professional star rose even beyond Maine and suddenly I met all kinds of people who seemed great. That is, until I started to realize that our conversations never went beyond the banal and superficial. Either that or the constant banter around equity and diversity was enough that I started to think I was a professional Black friend to many. And there was so much alcohol involved in so many social interactions, enough that at one point I started 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 around equity and diversity was enough that I started to think I was a professional Black friend to many.

My life may have continued at this breakneck speed of working, parenting, partying, and thinking that I had a community, but then 2020 happened. In January 2020, my daughter spent almost two weeks hospitalized. In March 2020, COVID struck the world, and my aging father started having significant health issues. As I have shared before, Dad had a massive stroke in May 2020, and he was gone a month later. In that month before his passing, though, I spent almost every day at his bedside in hospice — a fair amount of that time spent recounting every argument that we’d had. It felt like incessant haranguing me to ‘grow the fuck up.’ I really didn’t understand it at the time, but in the years since his death, I understand now that Dad saw what I couldn’t see: The life I had created in Maine was only meant to be temporary.

Maine is just one chapter in the book of my life and, in recent months, it has become clear that there are more chapters to be written before I’m done. Despite very reluctantly moving here 20 years ago, this state has grown on me. And yet, for all the conversations on equity and inclusion, how does a middle-aged Black woman make a home and build 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, always fighting and talking about our quest for humanity?

Honestly, it is tiring. Overall, outside of the White nationalist colonies springing up in the region, racism in Maine and most of New England is a subtle affair. But the subtle racism is the shit that will send you to an early grave quicker than Confederate flags waving proudly in Stone Mountain, Georgia.

New England is deeply attached to the fictitious belief that the region was cleaner than the South on matters of slavery and racism, but a new generation of historians and researchers are clearly debunking that falsehood. Maine is proud of its maritime history, but few question the issue of what (or shall we say who) was the early cargo in those ships built in Maine. A great deal of old standing money in this state is tied to slave traders, many of whose names are celebrated in towns and hamlets across the state.

Lately, as a grandchild of the Great Migration, I feel the spirit of my ancestors suggesting a return to the only place that we as the descendants of enslaved Africans know is where we do come from: the American South. My son and grandchildren live in the South, and what family I have beyond my immediate family is primarily in the South.

A view from the highway outside Knoxville from Shay Stewart-Bouley’s trip to Tennessee.Shay Stewart-Bouley

I actually just returned from a brief trip to Tennessee and, like every other time I have been in the South in the last decade, it felt like home on an instinctual level. I know who the racists are before they open their mouths and we don’t have to play the fine game of pretend that is so popular in the North. There are also enough people who look like me — enough so that a few mornings ago, I was smitten watching a glamorous 70-year-old Black woman and wondering what it would be like to grow old in a place where a Black woman can be old, glamorous, and unbothered. I was positioned to overhear her conversation, and all I will say is it was refreshing to not hear the words diversity, equity, inclusion, antiracism, or racial justice be the center of things.

What strikes me in the South is unless it is specific to the conversation, there is no incessant need to prattle on about race. 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 living and our own humanity.

The longer I live in Maine and do antiracism work, the more it feels oddly dehumanizing. When I see younger Black people in this state and region working hard on racial justice, it saddens me to think of how much they are losing and how they are positioned to be nothing more than professional Black people. That’s so often what happens when your identity and existence is reduced to just being Black — and what some see as the inherent lacking within Blackness.

While White people in racial justice spaces often have the best of intentions, often those good intentions are misguided.

Or, for some Black people in predominantly White spaces, Blackness itself becomes performative. Often because Black people in predominantly White spaces don’t have access to the full range of Black experiences and people — and Blackness itself — in these situations they are at high risk for becoming caricatures.

What’s even worse, while White people in racial justice spaces often have the best of intentions, often those good intentions are misguided. Regardless of the words exchanged, Whiteness is positioned as superior and extending a helping hand to Black folks. Or it relies on Black people to lead and take charge, which is just more work for Black folks.

Admittedly, I started a blog almost 15 years ago, and as a joke named it Black Girl in Maine. In hindsight, it was a bad joke, as I inadvertently turned myself into a professional Black person. Especially when you add in my actual day job running an antiracism organization. While I have no immediate plans to leave Maine, I am starting the exploratory process of looking at possible places in the South to consider for the next chapter in my life. However, in the meantime, I have one last kid to launch into the world and a few more things to accomplish while I am still here. So don’t get too distressed, 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. Chicago-born and raised, Stewart-Bouley is a graduate of DePaul University and Antioch University New England.