Before the trip, these were my thoughts: What if I say something that is too black? What if I show any evidence of my inner city upbringing?
Living in a country that is dominated by white standards, we learn to suppress our natural tendencies. Assimilation is survival for black people. So going to South Berwick, Maine, where the population is 97 percent white had me wondering whether the racial difference equaled racial disparity. Once I got there, I exhaled a big sigh of relief. No judgments, just open arms and warm hearts.
We had volunteers providing transportation, a full schedule of activities and carefully selected host homes. My husband and I truly enjoyed the couple that accommodated us. Mike is my professional twin in terms of work ethics. His wife Rena and I connected over similarities in our life journey; both born with the chips stacked against us, we both overcame our hardships. We also quickly moved past our ethnic differences as we got to know each other through our common denominators—long-lasting marriages, love of family and commitment to our community.
Our delegation consisted of nine Tuskegee travelers including Mayor Tony Haygood. We all felt a strong welcoming spirit everywhere in South Berwick. We experienced it during the “Hike through History,” where we joined school children as they explored their community’s past with a walking tour and period enactments featuring students in historical costumes.
During a school assembly, Tuskegee historian Guy Trammell engaged the children as he told stories about Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, as well as Civil Rights struggles and advancements.
We toured the Counting House Museum, which preserves the history of 19th Century South Berwick, when textile manufacturing and maritime trade were the backbone of the economy.
We saw “Living History” demonstrations of early colonial trades, including rope making, basket weaving and barrel making.
There was a kayaking excursion followed by music, food and art at the Revel in the Meadow festival on a day that ended with a classic New England lobster bake.
On a personal note, I declare that Amy Miller is my new sister-friend. I asked her to two-strand twist my naturally coiled hair. She did, and that experience was a genuine cultural exchange. That hint of “Black Girl Magic” was one of many memorable moments as two towns on opposite ends of the racial spectrum nurtured their evolving Sister City relationship.
By Amy Miller
What is the big deal about nine people from Tuskegee visiting the small town of South Berwick? They were builders and writers, historians and event planners. OK, there was The Mayor. But they were mothers and fathers and professionals and tradesmen. Kind of like you and me. What made it a big deal is that they all were black.
If you look at the 2010 census, South Berwick had no black people living in town (the 2016 estimated census lists a few dozen). Let’s just say our visitors at least quadrupled the number of African American people you are likely to see in a weekend on the streets of South Berwick.
Our guests from Alabama didn’t just go to the beach with us, or eat lobster with us, or visit our history museum with us. They slept at our houses and ate breakfast at our tables. They came downstairs in their jammies, and drank night caps with us while discussing why race is so hard to discuss.
And the thing is, for three days in South Berwick, it wasn’t so hard to discuss, even with people of the “opposite” race. One Tuskegee visitor wondered why white people are so afraid of black people when we have the money, the power, the government and the media. One white person said it was hard to discuss race because she feels guilty for the inequities in our nation, a sentiment that did not go over well with our black visitors, who are interested in understanding and change, perhaps a bit of empathy from white people, but not self-flagellation.
For three days, Maine really looked like “the way life should be,” as our state motto suggests.. Yes, we talked about the tough issues. But we talked about them openly and with trust. And then we went kayaking on the Salmon Falls River together, we dabbled our toes in the frigid Atlantic, and we had one meal after another as our lively group was welcomed into Spring Hill, Bob’s Clam Hut, Fogarty’s and many private homes.
Now what? Now there are people talking across the divide, a divide that is both far bigger and far smaller than the seven states between us. Now we have photos all over our joint facebook page of black and white friends hugging, dancing and dining together. We also have ideas about meeting again in a few months, and then again and again to plan together a women’s moonlight run, a concert, twin gazebos, who knows what else?
A neighbor told me that something struck him the second evening of the visit over a glass of wine with his guests. He was describing to them how he feels sometimes when he is left out, treated unfairly or shunned.
“That’s how we feel every day,” said the woman who was sharing his home for three days. She said it directly and gently, simply an explanation.
“I suddenly teared up,” my neighbor said. “It suddenly hit me. I got a glimmer of the constant feeling she lives with.”