“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
― James Baldwin
When I moved to Burlington, Vermont in 2015, I thought I knew what I was signing up for: too much snow, not enough black people, and a just-right amount of maple syrup.
I decided I would try to live there for 1,000 days because it sounded like an adventure, but also because it would be longer than I had stayed anywhere in my adult life. I would buy a couch, make friends, and, well, settle. Maybe I would learn from staying still. One thousand days in Vermont would be a challenge, a countdown, a story.
By then, I had already lived in four other states and eight countries. As a queer black woman, I understood a thing or two about discomfort, about strolling outside the perimeters of homogeneity. I figured my time in crunchy Vermont wouldn’t be too different from living in small-town Japan or frosty Norway. In fact, living in Vermont would be easier, I thought, than any of the other places I’d ventured. Vermont was in America, after all.
My first week in Vermont, in July 2015, Sandra Bland died in police custody. Which is to say, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and many others had already been killed. Michael Brown had been shot nearly a year earlier; Ferguson had exploded. Vigils and protests were happening throughout the U.S. and overseas. In the midst of the turmoil plaguing black communities across my country, I actively opted to move to one of its whitest corners. In hindsight, this decision troubles me. Was I subconsciously hoping to hide from or ignore what was happening? Did I believe such an escape was possible?
My first winter, as flake after flake of snow fell, I glared out of the window, amazed, but mostly frustrated, that a place that was already so white in so many ways, could become even whiter. But, if I could survive the tundra, I thought, I could survive anything. Only when a vehicle hit me as I was crossing the street, during my second winter, did I start to question what it really means to survive. My third winter in Vermont would be my last.
Searching for home is in my blood. My paternal grandparents left West Virginia for Ohio, hoping it would be a better place to raise their black children. Though they still found discrimination in 1950s Columbus, where they were turned away from banks, on the account of their race—they were right: Ohio was better. Here they also found a generosity that would forever alter our family’s financial circumstances. Thanks to a personal loan from an Italian immigrant family my grandparents were able to buy their first home. As a result, my dad got to climb a ladder and I got to be raised under circumstances my West Virginian ancestors would never have imagined.
My inherited privilege set me up to take a lot for granted. I grew up unaware of the disparities that exist nationally, let alone globally, between black and white communities, because Berwick, the Columbus neighborhood of my childhood, was a relatively diverse and mainly middle class place where blacks were doing well.
By middle school, my understanding started expanding. My family was invited to join a relatively well-to-do group of black parents and children called Jack and Jill of America. Most of those kids went to predominantly white schools and lived in big, far-away houses. Jack and Jill had chapters across the country that aimed to make sure such kids had opportunities to associate with people who looked like them. I thought they were stuck up. I didn’t realize that in a few years I’d be just like them, when my dad got a fancy new job that moved us to a white suburb of Cincinnati called West Chester, a place I came to thoroughly dislike. Within a fifteen-minute drive of our new house, there were country clubs that still didn’t allow black or Jewish folks to join. My new school had kids who matter-of-factly told me they weren’t allowed to date black people. Not that there were many of us to date—out of 1,500 or so students, fewer than 125 of us were “minorities,” and maybe twenty of us were black.
Back in Berwick, whenever I forgot my keys, I’d knock on our neighbor’s door. She’d invite me in to eat Pop-Tarts and watch Oprah while we waited for one of my family members to come home. But in West Chester, getting locked out once was enough to make sure I never misplaced my keys again.
After I knocked three times, my new West Chester neighbor cracked her door, listened to my plea, and brought a cordless phone outside, so I could call my mom’s office. She then took back the phone and locked her door. I sat waiting in our driveway for hours. Was this a suburban thing? It was impossible for me to understand why an adult wouldn’t bring their neighbor’s locked-out kid inside. So much for neighbors helping each other. Maybe she couldn’t imagine inviting a fourteen-year-old black girl into her home. The hours idling for my parents to get home made it clear to me that my black family didn’t belong in places like West Chester. Any attempts we made at placemaking would be complicated by our skin.
West Chester sucked. Magazine subscriptions for YM, Sassy, and Teen Magazine offered some distraction. Years before, in middle school, I had read about a girl’s summer in Mexico City. The suburbs made me long to follow her lead—go far away, live with another family, learn something besides English.
When I had first read the girl’s story, I called the organization from the magazine, Youth for Understanding. The representative laughed when I said I was eleven—exchange students needed to be fifteen. He sent the catalogs anyway and encouraged me to think about where I’d want to go in the meantime.
I did. During my sophomore year of high school, in 1999, I told my dad I needed a new gym uniform and then used the blank check to pay the $25 application fee. Fifteen thousand dollars was a lot to pay to study in another country, so I applied for every scholarship listed in the catalog. For weeks I’d rush home from school and head for the mail, only to receive rejection after rejection. One day, I found an envelope containing a T-shirt and a Congratulations! letter. I had earned a scholarship to spend a year in Germany. My escape ladder had arrived.
There’d be other times I’d hope for an escape. Like in December 2016, in snow packed Vermont, when a turning vehicle knocked me over. I was walking downhill and looked before crossing. I did not look behind me, though, before taking four or five steps into the crosswalk.
A truck was breezing down the same street, and the driver surely looked to the left before he turned to the right, noticing the big blob—that was me—only too late. As the metal sent me facedown into pavement, everything went silent. My first thought was that I was being run over. The second that I was going to die. The third that I was going to have such a stupid death in such a stupid place.
And then a fourth: I have long held a superstition that the universe will not let you die, so long as you are reading something—that the gods won’t let you leave this world wondering how a story ends. This is easily debunked, but my own experience supported—still supports—this belief: I have never died; I have always been reading something I was meant to finish. My final thought as I fell was: No, this isn’t right. I can’t die in the middle of Men Explain Things to Me.
After being on the ground, I got up and stumbled, feeling choppy. My stupid life was not over. It was, as they say, just beginning. It had been bad enough to be a black girl in Vermont who couldn’t ski, but now I was a black girl who couldn’t even cross the damn road.
A woman shouted You okay! as she sped by, more command than question. She didn’t stop. No passersby did. But it wasn’t a hit and run; the driver who struck me had pulled over and come my way. A white man. Tony. Brown hair—perhaps. I asked him if my head was bleeding. No, he said. Reassuring.
He put his business card and insurance information in my hand. My second attempt at crossing the road was successful. I arrived at Skinny Pancake about fifteen minutes late for a casual coffee with a colleague. I actually apologized for my tardiness. My bank statement says that I spent $8.77, but I only recall ordering coffee. I wonder what else I’ve forgotten. That I got up on my own and proceeded to have coffee suggests that this was not a near-death experience, but I did feel death near and on my body. I trembled with fear and unease.
Later, I finally told my colleague that the wildest thing had happened—I’d been hit. Are you okay? Yes. I rattled off my name, address, the president. My brain was fine. When I pulled the driver’s information out, it revealed that I’d been hit by a 1-800-GOT-JUNK? truck. I had to laugh and, eventually, my colleague did too. I imagined people stopping to help toss my dead black body in the back of a truck responsible for taking away undesirable items.
In the bathroom I saw purple expanding across my hip. Hovering over the toilet was excruciating. My colleague encouraged me to go to the hospital. That, the most obvious thing in the world, hadn’t occurred to me.
It cost $7.11 to get there. Much cheaper than an ambulance, at least.
My parents had not been enthusiastic to let me go to Germany. My mom thought the organization might be a sex-trafficking scheme. It didn’t help that their number was 1-800-TEENAGE.
Before my departure, in the summer of 2000, my cousin asked if I knew anything about Germany. My knowledge was limited to Bratwurst, the Marshall Plan, the Holocaust, and Hitler, but I knew not to admit it. Over the upcoming year, Germany would introduce me to multi-party political systems, composting, and the beauty of taking a day each year to go wandering in the forest. I would learn about street vending machines that sold cigarettes. About staying out until 7 a.m. dancing to techno. About how to convert Deutsche Marks to French Francs in my head.
Access to bikes and trains made my exchange year feel like a sneak preview of adulthood. My host parents got me a keyboard and talked slowly and simply so that I could follow. Their daughter was in Indiana while I was with them, and that they treated me with the care they wanted her to receive.
Once my German was solid enough to follow, my host mother told me that there was an original host family who hadn’t wanted me after seeing my photos. She couldn’t understand how someone could want to host a foreign student and be racist. She pushed me toward gratitude: Imagine if they hadn’t known you were black until they came to pick you up.
In the emergency room there were probably two receptionists but it felt like a chorus of them. They shoved a clipboard my way and pointed me to a bank of seats, where I sat and sat and imagined getting gobbled up by a truck with teeth.
I thought about all the people driving by who didn’t stop. Blondes. Bald folks. Every kind of white person. In Vermont, the people passing by had a 96% chance of being white.
If I had been white, they would have stopped. Right?
Two nurses saw me. Tossed my arms around. Checked my reflexes. Talked at me in long sentences that could be summed up as: You’ll be fine. You’ll call your doctor if not.
There were no X-Rays or other tests. Apparently there was no need to check if anything inside of me had been knocked out of place.
A nurse inquired: On a scale of one to ten, how much pain do you feel? As if the pain of being hit by a junk truck and disregarded as human could be summed up into a digit. I don’t know, I said. My pain deserved a four-digit number. You need to tell us something, she nudged. Eight, I muttered. This sufficed.
The nurse and her eyebrows asked a lot of other questions, including: Do you feel safe at home? Is there anyone you are hiding this visit from? I have to ask these questions, she reassured me. I don’t care about your answers, I heard. Did you notify the police? You’ll need to. What happened? Then you went to have coffee? She looked so doubtful that even I had to wonder what my ulterior motive was.
Tomorrow you’ll feel like you were hit by a truck, she said. Exclamation mark. Her words, in a bold font, swirled in the air, a double underline under the word truck.
I was hit by a truck, I reminded her—though I would have much preferred to slap her.
Oh yes. Her mouth was the shape of a capital D rotated 90°. I should have used another expression.
Will I get a prescription for pain medication? I inquired. No. What if I had given my pain a ten? Twenty? Five hundred and thirty one—for the number of days I had so far lived in this place?
They would offer a white woman pain medication. Right?
I said that coworkers would pick me up and drive me home, but the truth was that I’d take over an hour hobbling along what was usually only a ten-minute walk. I didn’t want anyone to see me struggle getting in and out of their car. I didn’t want to need help. I didn’t need help; I needed to scream. To leave the hospital. On the discharge instructions they scribbled 400mg of Advil every four hours or 600mg every six. I wished I hadn’t come at all.
A bit into my year in Germany, my host father took me to the train station. He was in a hurry and knew a shortcut, driving his white Mercedes along a pedestrian path no wider than a meter. I asked if this was legal. In this village, police don’t work weekends, he grinned. Back home, I thought, police worked weekends. On weekends they worked extra.
Soon after this, back in the USA, in April 2001, Stephen Roach, a Cincinnati police officer, worked away the life of a young man named Timothy Thomas.
Timothy had a son at home—a baby. He had no weapon. No hostility. Just traffic tickets that outnumbered his finger
s. Most were for driving with no seatbelt, and no license, over and over, the former being something an officer would have to squint to notice. Timothy Thomas was black. If this surprises you, you are lazy.
As the scrawny man, with his violent history of not wearing seatbelts and avoiding police, disappeared from view, the officer felt threatened. Shaken. Disturbed. Timothy Thomas ran. He pulled up his sagging pants and was shot. A solitary bullet landed in his heart. Nineteen year-old Timothy fell to the concrete and left a crack that split the city. In the following days, Black Cincinnati rose to set the city aflame.
Officer Roach thought Timothy Thomas was reaching for a gun. For this he was charged with “negligent homicide.” Judge Ralph Winkler deemed the officer’s actions “reasonable.” In running away from the officer and not raising his hands, Timothy Thomas, had created “a very dangerous situation.” Yes, Roach was acquitted.
My German classmates asked, Don’t you feel safer here? Humiliated by my country and surprised they even knew what was happening there, I answered, Yes. Even though it was fresh on my mind that Neo-Nazis in Dessau had killed Alberto Adriano, a black man, only weeks before I landed in Germany.
After I discussed the Timothy Thomas shooting with my host family, they complemented me for getting the grammar right. That night I penned an apology to Timothy Thomas. I was sorry for finding the right words to describe a wrong reality. In the following months, I pretended that Cincinnati was a place I had never been. I rode the train, stared out of the window, and imagined a world where the combination of traffic fines and black skin was not fatal.
One day, I was interrupted, by a child of age ten or eleven. Fährst du schwarz, weil du schwarz bist? Are you riding black—a colloquial expression for not paying fare—because you are black? Then he spat on me. And then again, over and over and over, singing this question. I was scared to move, even though he was much smaller than me. I tried to ignore the wet blobs forming on my jacket. Of all of the terrible things I had learned to say in German, I didn’t have a reply that would mask my accent enough to convince him I belonged. Another passenger intervened, scolding him in universal grandma fashion. I felt relieved, until she asked him what his father would think. My father would do the same thing, the child said with a shrug, and spat on me again.
His father would also have shot Timothy Thomas.
The paperwork from the University of Vermont hospital read, “You were seen by a doctor after a motor vehicle accident. Because of the accident, you may be sore for several days…” The care instructions advised me to use ice packs and “be safe with medicines.” What medicines? I was also advised against drinking alcohol and doing “anything that makes the pain worse.” But it was not drinking alcohol that made the pain worse. It was the staying in Vermont that made the pain worse.
After walking home, desperate to be comforted, I called the employee assistance program. They said what you should say to someone who has been hit: Sorry that happened to you. They encouraged me to contact the police and an attorney. My stomach turned at the thought. To put it mildly, I doubted that interacting with police would better my circumstances.
I wasn’t afraid of UVM police, so I started there. But they said that since my accident occurred off-campus, I needed to call the Burlington police. It took a couple of hours to ready myself, but I rang, knowing my insurance company would expect it.
I thought about the driver. Would he lose his job? Should he? Or is everyone bound to hit someone eventually? As a non-driver, I have no idea what it takes to maneuver something so massive through space. I felt like a victim in all of my soreness, but was it possible this was my fault? I was, after all, in the crosswalk. I was, after all, the one who decided to thrust my life into Vermont, uninvited.
The police officer who showed up was ten feet tall. His face was tiny and most of his body was a uniform, except the part that was a gun. The gun was also ten feet tall—once I noticed it I couldn’t maintain eye contact. He tossed questions at me. Were you texting while you were crossing the street? Did you cross when the stoplight said STOP? Why didn’t you immediately report that you were struck? When his phone rang he stepped into the kitchen. It was mumbled, but I gathered that Tony had called earlier to report the incident, and was following up on something. I heard a loud chortle.
He returned. What took you so long to get to the hospital? Then he tried what may have been a joke: Well, consider yourself lucky. I’m not going to give you a ticket this time. You’ll be more careful in the future. A wink.
After he left, I fantasized about finally overcoming my fear of driving. What kind of car would I use to run over that nurse? What sort of vehicle would have seat warmers and be ready to topple this giant, insensitive officer? Would people stop to help them?
Though this particular officer did not threaten my life, he disregarded it. Nothing suggested he was interested in it. Nothing suggested it mattered to him. I had called him because I had to. He came because it was his job. When I imagined him talking to a white woman, though, I heard his tone shift, and saw a sudden willingness to ask, How are you doing? The sort of thing you say to someone you think deserves to hear it.
Later that day, I rang to tell the driver I was okay and had spoken to the police. I didn’t feel too upset with him; in my mind, anyone could have been driving that truck. The problem wasn’t that he had a blind spot, it was that everyone driving by seemed to have one too. Why hadn’t anyone pulled over?
It wasn’t all bad. There were other people in Vermont who cared and extended warmth. That evening, one of my friends, an immigrant woman of color living in Burlington, familiar with this particular strain of Vermont isolation, took me to the store. Get more potato chips, more cheese, more treats; you need to comfort yourself, she advised. My then supervisor brought over a beautiful plate from her family’s Christmas feast. If you decide you want company, just say so, and we’ll come pick you up, she said. I didn’t call but I slept better knowing that I could.
Walking was rigid but I could move. I could pick things up. I reimagined the entire accident, perhaps as a coping mechanism. The truck would strike me and bounce backwards because I was that strong. That the truck hadn’t taken me out meant I was worthy of being here, in this world, in this stupid town, finishing books that were too smart for me. Though I’d have to spend months in physical therapy, learning new ways to be in a stubborn body that could no longer pivot or rush, I wasn’t broken. My body had survived.
One day there was an envelope from the police department on my office floor. The accident report inside had a diagram indicating damage to the vehicle. The vehicle was divided up, so that it would be easy to note whether a door, bumper, or another part of it was damaged. My name appears nowhere on the form. There is no diagram of a human body.
That exchange year in Germany had been about trying to look away from the U.S., but I learned that my gaze and heart would always revert home. Some part of me was always going to be bound to America, tied up in her headlines, histories, and hatreds.
When I got back home everything and everyone in Ohio felt trivial. Prom. GPA. College presented a second escape ladder out of Ohio. Embracing my inner Goldilocks, I started at Sarah Lawrence and transferred to two other schools before I finally wound up at New York University, the place that felt just right. I studied abroad in Switzerland only to learn that the German they speak should not be called German at all. After graduation, I worked in NYC and didn’t spend too much time thinking about whether I fit in. You don’t have to think about fitting in when you feel like you belong.
During this time, I started thinking about how I wanted everyone who was interested, and especially black kids, to have a chance to spend time somewhere far away. To see societies where there were safety nets, limits to social inequalities, and broader access to education and vocational training. To experience being black in another context.
I convinced myself that I would start a non-profit that placed inner-city and of-color youth in college-prep or vocational programs overseas, where they’d learn a language plus earn college credit or gain skills in a trade. To prepare I would go live in different places and note if they were places I’d want to send youth.
In 2008, I went to teach English in Japan, somewhere I’d long wanted to go, since my parents and brother spent a significant chunk of time there while my dad was in the Air Force. I stayed for two years in a town of 20,000 and enjoyed how my young students squealed when I visited their classes. Verdict: it’d mostly be a fine place for black kids, though it would take a lot of work to not feel like a perpetual outsider.
Since I’m a black woman, there has to be a hair story. Several, actually. Often at the end of my English lessons I’d invite students to ask anything. First the questions were cute. Have you ever had surgery? Then they got repetitive. How many years have you been growing your hair? I stopped when I realized they just wanted to know how often I washed my dreadlocks. At a grocery store a woman grabbed my hair, saying it was her dream to touch such locks. Another time a teacher had students line up, single-file, to touch my hair. I tried to remember that this was from curiosity—they wouldn’t do this if they had any inkling how invasive it felt to me. You are different. Of course they notice. You live in their country, I reminded myself. Being on display was exhausting, but wasn’t that a small part of trying to get Japanese youth excited about intercultural exchange and understanding?
Yet after six months in Japan, I went to visit my best friend in India and shaved my head. I couldn’t keep up with my locks and they drew too much attention in Japan, so I was glad to return without them. My friend’s dad convinced a barber who generally refused to cut women’s hair that I was Barack Obama’s cousin. My students were disappointed and asked if I had a spiritual awakening. I said yes.
Though I credit the loan my grandfather got to buy a house as the event that brought us social mobility, when it comes to geographic mobility, I can’t overlook the fact that the Air Force runs on both sides of my family, and with it, lots of moving around.
Back in the early seventies, my dad was taking a break from college. Word came that everyone who was old enough and not enrolled in a degree-granting program would be put in the lottery for the Army. He didn’t want to go and the Air Force proved to be a viable alternative. Before he knew it, he was on a plane to Mississippi, unaware of how many years and places would come between him and Ohio. He later met my mom on a base—she was there because her father was also in the Air Force.
Everyone in my family was used to moving. I think my father and grandfather both found that there’s privilege in opting in to an unrooted life. But I also recognize that a more rooted life might have been preferable to being swung around at the whim of a massive bureaucracy. Either way, I inherited their willingness and eagerness to leave. The family stories I heard about the rest of the world surely played a major part in propelling me to hop onto planes—whether they were about hot, fresh, thinly sliced potatoes, sold on the streets of Madrid, or the relief that accompanied sabbaticals from U.S. racism.
If you were black and in Spain, you had it made, my maternal grandfather, James, told me. Talking about his winding life, he shared that he had graduated from a high school for coloreds. It was not funny but the reminder of segregation made me feel funny. There was a slickness to the way he moved through this world; he could turn almost any obstacle into an opportunity. He couldn’t take the girl he adored to his prom because her parents didn’t want her tangled up with some dark boy who had no plans to go to college. Instead he took his sister, freeing him up to dance with whomever he wanted. His memories were lessons.
I remember the first time he let me try his homemade moonshine out of a plastic two liter 7-UP bottle. The taste was indistinguishable from poison. But that moonshine doubled as local tender—used to purchase car repairs, haircuts, and other services from neighbors. That moonshine was a part of a community agreement, a means of survival.
My grandmother Ella’s sentiments about Spain echoed my grandfather’s. We had it going on, she’d say. She raved about a life of maids, cooks, and seamstresses. Outside of the U.S., their lives felt large and important. Their U.S. citizenship granted them access to respect and resources.
Before I was born, my parents and brother lived on the Yokota Air Force base, near Tokyo. To this day, I love flipping through family albums and seeing newspaper clips of my mother in fashion shows. Besides working as a bank teller on base, she was an extra in a handful of low-budget Japanese films. I feel pride knowing that her glamour was appreciated so many time zones away. Like my grandparents romanticized Spain, my mother idealized Japan. She’d share tales about the mountains, train, and politeness. Many of her stories revolved around how she was treated.
In 2010, I left Japan and found a job in Australia, where they have a working holiday visa open to folks with U.S. citizenship. After that, I enrolled in a program for a funded master’s in higher education governance. It allowed me to study in Oslo, Helsinki, Oxford, and Aveiro, Portugal over the course of two years. On my very first day in Oslo, I left my backpack on a train, with my diary and passport in it. Sure enough, someone turned it in to the station, with all of its contents. I assumed this meant things would go well.
One thing I appreciated in Oslo was that people didn’t stare. No one tried to guess where I was from or tell me about that other time they’d talked to a black person. But the only time Norwegian strangers talked to me was on Friday and Saturday nights when they were drunk and also talking to the air.
The city that surprised me most was Helsinki, Finland. It is probably the place outside of America where I’ve felt the most at ease. I went to MeetUps, found queer friends, had long talks with my professors, and felt like I could make a new home. When I got lost trying to find my dorm, I showed the printed map and directions to a Finnish grandmother wearing a hat that looked like a squirrel. She snatched my hand and walked me there.
Some of my Finnish friends told me they thought I was preoccupied with race, after spending too many hours listening to me overanalyze how blackness fit into this or that interaction. But they listened. They cared. When George Zimmermann killed Trayvon Martin they acknowledged, without hesitation, how fucked up my country was.
At the end of the program, with my thirties approaching, I thought I needed to return to the U.S. and grow up. I landed in Chicago and got a job. Quickly I realized I didn’t like Chicago. Within a year and a half, I left town on a train bound for Albuquerque.
Over the following months of travel, my checking account balance suggested I find work. So I started a job search with New York City in mind. In New York you don’t have to drive or follow any particular fashion rules. There are major airports and anonymity. Things I adore.
Interviews came; offers, however, did not. I kept applying. I took a side trip to travel around Central Asia with a friend but my money was going quickly. I felt relief when, at a sweaty internet cafe in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, alongside high schoolers playing video games, I saw an email invitation for a phone call with the University of Vermont.
Weeks later, I paced around a friend’s NYC apartment during the interview with the university. When I was invited to the second round I was elated. I’d heard stereotypes about queer folks in Vermont and tried to imagine myself settling down with someone who made their own jam.
The second round involved an in-person interview. Afterwards, I walked around Burlington. I could live here, I thought. Be a quiet person in a quiet place. I’d visit Canada, become emotionally stable, and learn to make kombucha. If they offered me the job, I’d accept it.
To my surprise, they did.
If I told you there’s a Malcolm X. Boulevard in Burlington, you’d think I was lying. You’d be right. If there’s a hood in Burlington, I failed to find it. As is the case for this entire country, however, people of color have been in Vermont for a long time. Starting with the indigenous Abenaki people. The 1790 Census shows that of the non-white Vermont population, .02% (or sixteen whole people total) consisted of slaves, while .3% (or 255 people total) were “other free persons.” In those years the percentage of black people in Vermont hovered between .1% and .5% but the trajectory since hasn’t been a straight upward slope. According to the historian Elise Guyette, even though the numbers have never been big, there were proportionately more black people in the state early in the 1800s than there are now. Guyette says that many of the black people who came to Vermont arrived free, from other New England states. They worked in service roles, and on farms, and weren’t always welcome. About being black in 1790s Vermont, the historian and professor Harvey Amani Whitfield says,“…you could own property, you could take a white person to court, but at the very same time, you could be kidnapped or re-enslaved.”
The history of black folks in Vermont is as quiet as the dominance of white people is loud. The geographer Robert Vanderbeck makes the case that its presentation of itself as a liberal haven of sorts is neither accidental nor coincidental. “Vermont is often seen as (and, crucially, made to be seen as) a state where white snow, white church steeples at the center of the New England ‘white village,’ and white faces fit together naturally in the same scenic tableau.” Reading this was validating: the aggressive whiteness I encountered in the state wasn’t all in my head. Vermont was a plan. A brand.
At one of the earliest university staff meetings I attended, we devoted time to discuss “students of concern.” I looked forward to brainstorming how we might better support the most vulnerable and isolated students on campus, which is what I thought student of concern meant. But I quickly caught on that here of concern meant rich, misbehaving, mostly male out-of-state students who would break and steal signs. Pee in the elevators. Our staff needed to develop programming to engage and entertain them, it seemed, so that they would not burn the dorm down for kicks.
Bucolic Burlington, with its outdoor sports enthusiasts and chatty town hall meetings, often felt unconnected to anywhere else I’d lived in the U.S., yet it was not untouched by the national and global responses to police brutality and anti-black racism. In 2015, a white student came to my office hours and asked if I supported Black Lives Matter. Like a coward, I said I thought the issue was complicated. Was this a test? Would I lose my job if I tried to make the case that my own life mattered?
Early in 2016, my second academic year at UVM, a Black Lives Matter flag went up outside of the student center. The student government decided to continue flying the flag despite the flak they received on social media. In the wake of a string of racist incidents at college campuses across the country, the UVM president at the time, Tom Sullivan, said that the university decided to fly the flag not to support BLM, but because students wanted to show support for the black community in the wake of ongoing police shootings. (Yes, Tom’s a lawyer.)
The flag was stolen in the night, the same weekend as Soul Food Social, one of the biggest annual events coordinated by the Black Student Union. It might have felt like a prank if all three flags had been taken down, but the American and Vermont flags remained intact, waving in a crisp, unpolluted New England breeze, next to a naked pole. Across campus, students of color expressed that they felt unsafe.
At the time I was advisor of the Black Student Union and felt I had no words to console my students, who thought of the incident not as a theft but as a hate crime. I thought I would grow a Pinocchio nose if I told them it was no big deal. It was a big deal.
In almost no time, a beloved staff member and his wife created a homemade BLM flag to take its place. Students started #BlackOutUVM and encouraged their peers to wear all black and gather near the new flag for a group photo. They emphasized that this was not a protest; rather it was a “peaceful action of solidarity.” In the following days, student solidarity increased as Donald Trump was elected president and a Trump-Pence sign covered in a swastika was found near UVM’s Hillel, the center for Jewish campus life and learning.
When the student newspaper published a front-page photograph of the new flag I framed and displayed it in my office. If another student asked me if I supported Black Lives Matter, I would not again disgrace myself and my family. I would say Yes, I matter, no matter how outnumbered I am. I was ashamed that my ability to step away from being a complete chicken was only possible because of a national shift.
I was almost halfway to my 1,000 days.
Then, in the fall of 2017, word spread that someone was overheard, on a telephone call, in the UVM library promising to shoot every nigger he saw. Empty threat or loaded gun? Unable to answer that question, many students of color stayed home from class the following day. Days later administration sent an email assuring that the overheard student had been identified. Then came the update that an investigation had revealed no “imminent threat to public safety.” There was no loaded gun and once Vermont Superior Court Judge David Fenster ruled that there was no probable cause, the case was tossed aside.
But it wasn’t so easy for impacted students to toss aside their fear and outrage. Activists that they are, students developed a list of demands, including a commitment to hiring and retaining faculty of color, the renaming of a building that was at the time named after a eugenicist, and diversity training for fraternities and sororities. These demands evolved over upcoming months as a multiracial coalition of students organized and took over Waterman, the central administrative building. This marked the third such takeover since 1988, when students occupied the space for five days, demanding very similar things.
In the following year, racist flyers popped up across campus, bearing comments like “Innocent lives matter, not guilty ones.” After its display case was vandalized, the Mosaic Center started receiving cards from allies across campus. Some made sweet, childish remarks like “U make UVM what it is!” Many white students and staff stopped by, cried, and talked about how they couldn’t believe all of this was still happening. I kept thinking about one of the first times I’d spoken to an incoming group of students of color about scholarships for studying abroad. A student from the Bronx had replied, I’m already studying abroad. She had a point: even if we were within the borders of the U.S., we were indeed in another land. And it was exhausting.
In May 2018, shortly after reaching my 1,000 days in Vermont goal, I left the state.
It never takes more than twenty or so seconds to go through security at Burlington airport. I’m always surprised that there aren’t more people trying to leave. I stopped at the Skinny Pancake in my terminal. The cashier, because Burlington is so small, too small, was someone I had messaged on OkCupid my first summer in town. Someone who had not responded to my message. I spent $17.50 at Skinny Pancake and fifteen minutes wondering how to make this person regret the grand mistake of not responding to my message. (It was not enough time.)
I moved to Vermont not because I had some great desire to be there, but because it had worked out. There was a job. There was a newness. There was, I hoped, something I would learn, become, prove.
Stubbornness, community, and opportunity were the main reasons I lasted as long as I did. Up there I could disappear into the radio booth for “Suspended in Air,” my weekly show featuring mellow tunes on the campus radio station—and even DJ some on- and off-campus events. No one anywhere else in the world would ever trust my musical preferences, or inability to work turntables, but Vermont didn’t seem to have such barriers. I’d meet small business owners of color and feel a certain solidarity supporting them. Vermont had its perks.
Vermont taught me things. I learned about people who grew up in a world that felt only distantly related to my own. I took a class on community mapping, and in interactions with residents of a town of 4,000 people I learned how the opioid crisis impacted daily commutes—that people would take indirect routes to avoid passing through certain parts of town. Another lesson for me was that smaller populations don’t equate to weaker communities. Maybe the reverse is true. Because the number of people of color around was so small, our connections were deeper. We needed each other in ways we wouldn’t have if we were anywhere where we weren’t novelties.
Vermont’s appeal was not that I thought it’d be my equivalent of Goldilocks’s “just right,” but that it’d be a fresh start, a place different enough from Ohio to teach me something, yet similar enough for me to be able to understand whatever lessons followed.
Making it to 1,031 days felt good, but not that good. I vowed not to ever again make myself stay in a place I didn’t want to be, especially if it was a place that didn’t seem to want me. I wouldn’t stay in a place filled with the New England indifference that allowed numerous drivers to pass me without acknowledgement after I’d been hit. Where nurses and cops dismissed me. Where invitations to spend weekends freezing in the mountains threatened to never end. No, the next time a place told me to leave, I’d obey.
Heading to Brooklyn, I worried about readjusting to New York City after an entire decade away. How long would it take to relearn where exactly on the platform to stand to catch the car with the closest access to the exit I’d need at my stop? To stop raising my brows at the reality that in that Bedford-Stuyvesant, my new neighborhood and the blackest part of the country, some bars were even whiter than their Burlington peers? Brooklyn 2018 was not Brooklyn 2008—but, hey, I’d take what I could get.
After my second year back, I stepped into a role at Brooklyn Public Library, overseeing a black heritage center. At least 85% of the team at the branch was black.
At my first staff meeting I asked if anyone had thoughts on upcoming black history month programming. How about something besides slavery and civil rights? Every February, that’s all we talk about. Tragedy. Struggle, a colleague said, part joke, part plea.
We certainly had the resources to broaden the agenda. After the meeting, I was alone in the large room that is the heritage center, familiarizing myself with the special collections. There were reference books devoted to black women in literature, coffee table style books highlighting black art, and hundreds and hundreds of texts about black U.S. history and culture and the broader African diaspora. I flipped and flipped through outdated almanacs and other worn-out books that I don’t speak enough librarianese to describe. Most of what I’d formally learned in my life about the Atlantic slave trade, and black history more broadly, could have been summarized in a handful of tweets, yet there were tens of thousands of relevant pages surrounding me. So much I didn’t (…still don’t) know. And though scholars of many persuasions study all of this with care, this content it is not taught in our schools with consistency. That anyone could come to this space and read transcribed slave narratives, or learn about the community support systems created in Bedford-Stuyvesant as an alternative to policing, or read Richard Wright’s haikus, was not anything I’d take for granted. And had I not spent that time in Vermont I might not have fully appreciated this opportunity.
Vermont set me up to appreciate other things, too. My attention to traffic certainly is better focused. On top of that, I met a gentle someone I care for, trust, and rely on tremendously, someone who has also survived being other in Vermont. We got married later in the year. We are our souvenirs, our proofs of purchase.
Sometimes I walk home from the library in Bedford Stuyvesant slowly, just to eavesdrop. One afternoon I hear an older man launch into a monologue, compelled to disperse his wisdom.
We got to know each other. Look after each other, he tells his reluctant-looking audience. We are all we got. We all we got. He can’t mean everyone on the block, but I hope he means me. I pass a permanently closed barber shop and notice more and more “For Sale” signs sprinkled across lawns and storefronts. These are reminders that the population of people who look like me is steadily declining, no doubt in part to my own role in gentrifying this community. In twenty years, will I still feel like I belong in Bed-Stuy? In ten? Who knows. Instead I’m focusing on the only thing I have: this current moment. And, right now, there’s no place I’d rather be.
People here greet each other. They hold eye contact. There are tree trunks wrapped in ribbons the colors of the Pan-African flag. And places like Ma-n-Pop Soul Food, where you can get a piece of catfish that tastes like it was prepared by someone who woke up with you on their mind. There are Black Lives Matters flags that no one steals. Neighbors sitting on stoops watching the world change. Beaming kids on scooters and bicycles zooming around. Itty bitty black girls playing hand games I can’t keep up with. And, when they get locked out, I imagine, someone will let them in.
Check out Sheena reading excerpts from the story as part of The Delacorte Review Presents Long Stories Short: