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When a Downeasta Crosses the Mason-Dixon

A Mainer observes prejudice and discrimination in the deep south.

by David S. Smith
October 16, 2004

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When you grow up in a predominately white homogenous society such as Maine, prejudice and discrimination are not things you experience or encounter very often. Although there is a vast variety of races and nationalities peppered throughout Maine, most assimilate themselves to their surroundings. Except for annual community celebrations or private observances of their heritage, most do not dominate the cultural landscape. Thus prejudice and discrimination are dissolved in the melting pot of homogenization.

This isn’t to imply that Downeastas are immune to the primeval emotions of self preservation. Maine history is pockmarked with local incidences of racial and ethnic tensions into the first half of the 20th Century. As an example, the eviction of 45 Blacks from the island of Malaga near the mouth of the New Meadows River in Sagadahoc County by the Democratic Governor, Fredrick Plaisted, and his Executive Council in 1911, . The settlement had been described in local newspapers as a “degenerate colony”, and the inhabitants accused of such immoralities as “drinking tea, using tobacco, and being superstitious”. And, in 1925, at the height of it’s national influence and power, the KKK was estimated to be over 150,000 strong in Maine, the largest membership of any New England state.

For the most part, however, any semblance of racial or ethnic prejudice or discrimination is manifested in expressions of annoyance toward tourists and the utterance of ethnic jokes.

Consequently, when racial violence erupted in the South and major cities across the United States during the 50’s and 60’s, native-born Mainers were flabbergasted by the images of destruction and hatred broadcast into their homes by the national media. Isolated within the safety of their small-town communities, such things were as alien to their sense of justice and morality as the Koran and Islam

So, what happens to a Mainer who crosses the Mason-Dixon and ventures into the heart of Dixie?

If he’s just a tourist or a winter residence, probably nothing more than a little discomfort from the heat and a fascination with the local color (no pun intended).

On the other hand, if he strives to become a permanent nuisance and participate in the daily intercourse of local commerce and community, subtle changes occur; evolution and adaptation in an attempt to curb the frustrations and indignations. Out of step and out of place, the damnyankee is a stranger in a strange land.

Now, in spite of what some may think, Mainers are not the most industrious Yankees of the Union. They enjoy their leisure as much as any Southerner, even if it’s just sitting on the porch and watching the grass grow. It’s their approach that is different. To a Mainer, if a job needs to be done, then why not get it over with as quickly and easily as possible rather than stretching it out The time used for a little forethought and ingenuity may be well worth the time saved for more pleasant repose. Thus, the first leg in one’s assimilation into Southern society starts with learning to accept what is, while going at one‘s own pace, for the South is truly the land of Parkinson‘s law; "Work expands to fill the time allowed..."

Prejudice, on the other hand, is not so easy to deal with. Not just racial but sexist as well.

At first the offhand remarks and inferences, the glib observations that tense the solar plexus are viewed as archeological curiosities. But as time passes, one realizes they’re not the same as the ethnic jokes he used to hear about Canucks (French Canadians). The prejudices are sincere and disturbingly perceived as true.

Unfortunately, the Mainer expects the same from a Black person as he does from anyone else. And there the rift begins, for not only is he White, he’s a Yankee, and that’s just "not the way it’s done down here." Over time he learns there is little trust between the races and prejudice is a two way street, a self-fulfilling prophesy that perpetuates itself. If he tries to ignore the status quo, it will not gain him any ground in either camp, for generations of habit and attitude re-enforce the wall. And perseverance will not win out against presumption.

Unlike his Southern cousin, the Mainer hasn’t learned to tolerate the intolerable. What Southerners have grown up with he has only witnessed in the mutterings of old men, and, although attitudes are slowly changing, to see them reflected in the younger generation only makes him wonder how long it will take. So the Maine Yankee becomes a saboteur, disrupting the social order with clandestine acts of sarcasm and cynical logic.

They say prejudice is learned. Although this is probably true, that doesn’t diminish it’s impact. Whether you call it stereotyping or racial profiling, it’s all the same, a part of our emotional make up for self-preservation and self esteem. Until we learn to trust each other, it won’t go away.

I‘m not sure whether social status or location determine the degree and frequency of prejudice one encounters. In the rural communities of the Deep South, it’s woven into the landscape in a subtle tapestry of church steeples and philistines, and a Babylonian Tower called Alabama.

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Michael H. Thomson from transitioning to Virginia writes:
October 19, 2004
Alabama is the only state I ever lived in (over 12 years) where the term nigger is used regularly by both races. David Smith portrays the racial divisions and tensions in the state accurately!

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