Maine artist reflects on “burden of being black in America”

Ryan Adams is an incredibly talented artist from Maine with a growing resume and reputation for his work. He’s a lifelong Portlander, a loyal friend, a loving husband and son, and an expectant father.

He’s also black.

Having known Adams since high school, I can recollect numerous times throughout the years when he’s put himself out there and stood up against racist attitudes and perceptions. He’s almost always wearing a genuine, infectious smile, but for as long as I’ve known him he’s also been brave enough to call people out for their ignorance when it comes to race and mature enough to do it in a calm and collected way that educates.

Ryan Adams working on a project in Portland. Photo- Brittany Quirk.

Ryan Adams working on a project in Portland. Photo- Brittany Quirk.

I can speak firsthand to this, because it was Adams who spoke up when he heard several of my white friends and I using the n-word back in high school around the turn of the century.

It was a conversation that I’ll never forget, and it was the point in my young life when I decided to erase that awful word from my vocabulary.

He wasn’t hostile towards us, he didn’t shout or threaten or anything like that. He simply clarified why that word- and the attitudes and ignorance surrounding it- is hurtful to him and detrimental to our own personal growth.

Wanting to post something about the violent and race driven events of the past week, I reached out to Adams yesterday and asked if he’d be willing to write a reflective guest post.

In our conversation I asked him if he remembered the time he spoke up when he heard my white friends and I using the n-word.

“I do vaguely remember that,” he responded. “You know it’s sad to say, but that was something that would happen pretty often back in the day. I lost ‘friends’ because of it, but I was raised to never allow that.

I’m glad that it had that effect on you and I’m glad to know that I maybe helped nix that from your vocabulary. Hopefully it even spared some of the people in that room from some future issues that might have been a bit more serious.”

Here’s what he had to say:

“When I tell people that I was born and raised in Maine, I still receive the incredulous look, the occasional snicker and always the question: “Black people live in Maine?”

Yes, we do, and done so for generations. And while our numbers are small – two percent when I was growing up — we still carry the burden of being black in America. In fact, I was called the n-word before I learned my ‘times tables’.

This week was one of the times where the nation received a harsh reminder of the role race plays in American society. When I heard about police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota killing more black men, it honestly didn’t shock me. It has always been that way.  My grandparents witnessed it in Mississippi, my parents witnessed it in New England. It is a fact of life in America, and the only thing that is different now is that it is all captured on cell phone cameras, posted on Facebook and replayed on the nightly network news.

What struck me this time is much more personal. My wife and I are expecting our first child and I will eventually have to explain this reality. It breaks my heart.

At some point I will have to look in my innocent child’s eyes and explain that because of our skin color, we are portrayed as violent, aggressive and a threat to mainstream society.  I will have to tell our child that no matter how kind they are, no matter how educated, empathetic or productive they are, they may be killed by police during a routine traffic stop.

My parents had to have that conversation with me, and I am so grateful for it, but why should I still have to have this conversation with my child? It makes me nervous, distraught, angry and uncomfortable.

I would like to think that we are moving forward – and in many ways we have; unfortunately it does not always feel that way. I am somehow still hopeful that we might be able to move past the divisive rhetoric and imagery and realize that we are all Americans.

The nation has come a long way. Even here in Portland, one can hear three or four different languages in a three-block area. But positive change doesn’t matter if we continue to not only deny the existence of racial fault lines but also insist on categorizing people based on skin color.

All lives do matter, and it’s about time we as a nation realize that.”

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.