As this summer waned, the national hot topic once again concerned racism. In Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer shot and killed a black teenager named Michael Brown, whose hands were raised in surrender.
We had the same conversation a summer ago after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Martin was gunned down as he was walking to his home. Zimmerman, acting as a “neighborhood watchman,” thought the teenager’s black skin and hoodie made him look suspicious.
This summer, like last summer, we saw protests flare up across the country. Some people said Trayvon and Michael would be breathing today had they been white teenagers. Others said there is no racism. Yet, in Maine, there was mostly silence as we continued on with “the way life should be.” The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown happened in far-away places and had nothing to do with us.
Around the same time as the Zimmerman trial, I joined a social-media group that celebrated growing up in a small Maine town. It was a pleasant trip down memory lane, until I saw the photographs of men dressed in minstrel clothes and blackface. In another posting, a handbill announced the annual minstrel show to be held at the high school. It was dated 1963.
I didn’t know my hometown had this history. I thought minstrel shows were staged in far-away places.
Since before the Civil War, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment all across America. White actors would darken their faces and create cruel caricatures of black people. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that minstrel shows and blackface became taboo.
The photograph and handbill elicited some strong reactions. The comments got heated. Someone accused the town of being racist for a long time. Somebody said it was true not only of our town, but the entire nation.
“We’re not political,” it was explained, “we just want to stroll down memory lane.”
Further discussion of the matter was shut down when some people were disinvited. The comments were removed, but the minstrel show memorabilia remained.
A few years after the minstrel show of 1963, I watched, along with my classmates, as a time capsule was buried at the foot of the Soldiers and Sailors of the Civil War Memorial. I don’t remember what the time capsule contained, and have often wondered, over the years, about its retrieval. I finally learned its fate through another posting on the website. The time capsule had been dug up by vandals, its history lost forever.
I grew up in a coastal Maine town. Before the Civil War, it was famous around the world for the ships that were built there. Tourists can still witness the prosperity of those times as they walk along Main Street, past the Greek Revival mansions that once belonged to sea captains. It’s a proud history, but, truth be told, some of those ships supported the slave trade. My hometown’s economy, then and now, was built on the back of slave labor.
I am proud of my hometown. I am proud of its history. I’m just saying we need to talk about racism, not just in far-away places, but in small towns across Maine. Maybe we could do it before next summer.
K. Francis Sullivan is a Portland resident.