Genius Black, Rose and the artist Mitchell talk about the realities of life for indigenous people in Maine, respectability politics, art, leadership and mental health.
“I rub [people] in just the right way and it hurts them.”
That’s how Mitchell, a Penobscot femme artist who lives in Portland, describes the role she plays as an activist and agitator against white supremacy. Sand paper, she says, shapes an object as much as it might feel uncomfortable along the way. “When you’re making something, you’re crafting something and you’re trying to make it better, getting rid of all those rough edges and stuff—it’s just the same way, but it hurts.”
Mitch was born in Portland, and spent her adolescence going back and forth between the city and the Penobscot reservation in Old Town, known as Indian Island. Part of her work focuses on raising awareness about where indigenous people live—not just on reservations—and on the concept of ancestral lands, which span well beyond the boundaries of political states and nations.
At the same time, Mitch pushes back against the respectability politics established by white supremacy and colonial thinking. “You’re supposed to respect your elders at everything, and some people hold fast to these kind of rigid [rules],” she says. “They call them traditional rules, but traditional from where? From post-residential school? The respectability politics that were put on us by nuns and priests? Or are we going back further to live the respectability politics set forth by our own culture, by our own elders and wisdom?”
Mitch’s art, and a lot of her motivation, comes from her rage—a boiling lava that she says is like fuel. But that realization hasn’t come easily. Mitch is marking a year of recovering from a suicide attempt. She is now embracing her anger, rather than trying to push it away. “What if my purpose isn’t to be this bright, shiny light? I’m actually dark and I’m intense, and I’m angry for a reason,” she says. “And what if that is who I am?”
That sentiment resonates with Genius Black and Rose, who says she sometimes gets criticized for being negative. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. “I’m just critical,” Rose says. “And you should appreciate it, because if I’m critical towards you it means that I’m thinking about you and I want you to do better.”
When it comes to what white people should do to dismantle white supremacy, Mitch says defining that role is something white people should do themselves—rather than dropping into her DMs and asking for her labor. “If you just keep asking the question… you’re just procrastinating having to do the labor—the work that BIPOC [people] have spent our entire lives doing.”
There is a time for silence, she and the BOM hosts agree. White people need to listen closely and absorb BIPOC voices—and then they need to act. “You have to look deep inside yourself to figure out where your role is, where’s your lane, and the only way you can figure that out is if you’re actually starting to ask the question,” Mitch says.
Along the way, Genius Black says, “white guilt is a basic emotion.” It feels uncomfortable, and it hurts. But people have to move past it and do the real work. “We’ve got to stop killing the conversation that the guilt points out,” he says.
As a mother-to-be, Mitch is wrestling with how to create a fulfilling, supportive childhood for her baby, after having a very traumatic childhood herself. “Each day I have to think about, ‘Okay, how so how do I make a thing out of nothing,’” she says. “That comes from going deep inside… pulling out the DNA knowledge that’s inside. So we’re talking about intergenerational trauma, [but] we’re also talking about DNA knowledge, intergenerational knowledge and survival.”
She notes that there have been entire periods of history that were devoted to the slaughter of indigenous people—which means “there’s a lot of information stored in our DNA knowledge [about how] to survive.”
The ultimate question, she says, is: “How do I raise my child to not only know how to survive, but also know how to thrive?”
Ali Ali came to the U.S. from Ethiopia as a child in 1999. As a teenager, Ali was incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, first briefly and then, after a parole violation, for 18 months. While at Long Creek, he quickly got his GED, then started taking college classes and joined a theater program that focuses on the stories of incarcerated youth. He became artistic director of Maine Inside Out, which runs those programs, after his release.
But reintegrating into society after getting out of Long Creek wasn’t easy. Ali says it took him about 18 months to recover from the 18 months he was incarcerated. “I couldn’t walk on the street for the first few days by myself,” he tells Genius Black in this episode of the Black Owned Maine podcast. “Like, WalMart—I would have anxiety attacks.”
And Ali wasn’t the only one. Friends he’d made at Long Creek were dying, from suicide, overdoses, and other conditions caused by the trauma of prison life. The overdose death of one of them, a 23-year-old father of two who’d been a key member of Maine Inside Out, hit Ali particularly hard. After helping with his friend’s burial—literally standing in the grave and holding his friend’s body—Ali had a new sense of purpose. “I can’t take this shit no more. The system is destroying us,” he says. “So I decided… to really stay focused and see where we can go with our community.”
The result: Maine Youth Justice, a campaign to close Long Creek and reinvest its annual $18.2 million budget. It costs $300,000-$500,000 per kid to lock someone up at Long Creek, according to Ali; reinvesting that money in the community, rather than taking kids out of the community, would resolve a lot of issues, he says.
Genius Black and Ali dive deep into the meaning of the word “systemic,” discussing how racism is a structure and a system that can’t be fixed by small, localized efforts. “Education [rates] are really low for Blacks, and then if you look at poverty levels, they’re really low and death rates are really high,” says Ali. “So all the negative things are affecting the people of color, and how did this happen, right? Because all this had started from a different system when Spain took enslaved Africans from Africa and brought them to this country.”
Ali and Genius Black talk through segregation, redlining, policing, and the war on drugs, all of which combined to foster inequality, and led to the dramatically higher rates of incarceration of Black men. “Systems are created to maintain certain things, to achieve certain things, and they also tend to have the fingerprints of their creators on that system,” says Genius Black.
Today, says Ali, there are 2.3 million people who are currently arrested; 5 million people on probation; and 70 million people with criminal records. “That’s about 25% of this country, right? 25% of this country has a criminal record,” he says. “And that means that you’re discriminated against [in] housing, [in] jobs [and in] funding for school. These are issues that [mean] you can’t prosper.”
“Guess what?” Ali adds. “Every single part of this country is racist. Our dollar bills have to have slave masters. Our 13th amendment says slavery is still [legal for incarcerated people]. I got to do this work as a Black person. And I’ve been doing this work. You’ve got to do this work. The white people also have to do this work.”
As Part B of this episode begins, Genius Black and Ali Ali bring their discussion of systems closer to home—right here to Maine. Ali points out that while Black Mainers represent just 1.6% of the state’s total population, 23% of the juveniles who are incarcerated in Maine are Black. They discuss similar cases where Black defendants receive substantially more prison time than white defendants. “Light white sentences [are] also a tool of white supremacy,” Ali says.
To get different results, Ali says, we have to change: to give back what was taken—land and money, specifically—and to defund the police and reallocate that money to schools and communities. “When we talk about taking money from the police forces, we’re not hating them or want them to not be able to take care of their families. That’s not the point,” says Genius Black. “We’re saying we need less police because we do. And what we’re saying is that some of that money that keeps society in a certain way and keeps people in a certain cage—if you can literally pull some of that money away from those systems that are so old and put the money somewhere else, your society will actually be different.”
To put these kinds of changes into action, Ali recommends some specific organizations:
He also recommends getting involved in local politics: talking to people who are in office and finding out what they’re doing about structural racism, learning who they’re relying on for the information they use to inform their work, and being sure that people of color are among their sources.
Ali has started a website, reversesrmaine.org, that highlights people who are doing the work. Donations to the site fund the work of youth activists, who can receive a $50 stipend.
The conversation ends with Ali performing a piece of his poetry called Philanthropy.
Genius Black and Mosart talking about the fight for racial justice, youth leadership, and creativity. In these critical times, we explore leadership in America, the reality of modern policing, and address a few societal/systemic developmental issues.