by Samuel James

Tale of the tint

In last month’s column I briefly mentioned Malaga Island. Judging from some of the responses I got, I think that mention may have been too brief.

So, real quick…

Near the mouth of the New Meadows River in Phippsburg, Maine lies the 40-acre stretch of Malaga Island. No one lives there now, but during the late 1800s and early 1900s — believe it or not — black people lived there.

One day in 1912, then-governor Frederick William Plaisted had the people who lived there abducted: men, women and children. Whole families just taken right out of their homes. How did the governor get away with that? An article in the Portland Press Herald last month addressed this question. Referring to the Marks family, it reads: “A doctor, a sheriff and a judge held court in their modest home, and wielding the power of government mandate, declared the entire family unfit for society because of their race, dooming them to live out most of their lives at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded,” a mental institution located at what is now Pineland Farms, in New Gloucester.

I know that sounds bad, but don’t worry. It gets much worse. Plaisted also had the graves on the island dug up. Yup. Seventeen bodies were stacked into five coffins and buried at the School for the Feeble Minded. Then Plaisted sold the island to his friend.

On July 14, a new monument at Pineland Farms was dedicated to the families of Malaga Island. It’s nice to see some recognition, but I’ll tell you what. Just like every story involving racial issues, it won’t take long for you to find someone saying, “It’s not about race.”

Now, that’s a super-crazy thing to say in this case, in which the racial motivation was documented by those involved, but there are still people saying it. And now comes the part where I say something you may not like: White people saying that something isn’t about race is always a super-crazy thing to say, because it’s the systems designed by white people for white people that continue to make everything about race. Everything. Every single thing.

Here’s an example:

I recently bought a new vehicle. Nothing fancy, but new. Since I’m a touring musician, I often have to leave instruments in my vehicle. For the sake of their safety, I considered whether to get my windows tinted. Now, a police officer once told me that tinted windows draw his attention. So I have to decide if getting unwanted police attention is worth the safety of my instruments. But that’s not the only thing I have to think about. I also have to wonder if tinted windows on a new car will draw more attention from police than a black man driving a new car. It gets even more complicated when I ponder the prospect of getting pulled over by a racist cop because of tinted windows, and what happens when I roll the window down and he suddenly discovers what I look like.

Look at all the things that have to do with race just in that one little predicament: tinting my windows, owning a car and protecting my property. I mean, it’s not about race to me. I’m just a dude trying to get to work, but there are rules I have to follow that white people do not.

I get why it’s difficult for white people to see that. I see the information we all take in — the movies and TV we watch, the books we read, etc. Most of that media has always been created by white people. And because black people in this country have always been segregated, most of this information is created by white people who don’t know any black people. This means that whites’ depictions of black people are usually works of complete fantasy. How could you possibly know what black lives are like, or how black people see themselves, if your reference points are plainly simple fiction? You can’t. And that’s not the only problem here.

The other problem is that not only are the movies, TV shows, books and so on made by white people, they’re also made for white people. In effect, this means that while white people get all the information about themselves and nothing about anyone else, everyone else gets no information about themselves and all the information about white people, which includes what white people imagine the lives of others are like.

Thankfully, things are changing. Black peoples’ voices are growing in prominence. We are telling our own stories more and more often, for everyone’s benefit. So please, pick up a book by Walter Mosely. Watch a Shonda Rhimes show. See an Ava DuVernay movie. Like my friend Junious says, we’ll just keep telling the same story until it’s not true anymore.


Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.

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