When I moved back to Maine in 2014, I was pleasantly surprised to see how diverse a place Portland had become. When my brother visited from Tunisia, he was shocked to see that our grocery stores carried staples like Harissa and Ras El Hanout. Today, when I run around the Back Cove trail, I regularly cross paths with people speaking Somali, Arabic, and Vietnamese. This is the Maine we live in today, and these were some of the experiences that inspired me to design an Honors course that dispels the misperception that Maine is a “white” state.
For this reason, it seemed fitting that our first outing as a class was to a local (and very much beloved) Eritrean restaurant, Asmara. My co-instructor, Samantha Frisk, arranged for all 25 students, 2 faculty, and 2 community partners from Portland Housing Authority, to share an authentic Eritrean meal. Breaking injera bread together while learning about the history of Eritrea and its particular delicacies was a real treat!! We are very much looking forward to building a relationship with with Portland Housing Authority and supporting their community projects.
So, how does this connect to what we’re doing in class? I think it’s a first step towards coming to a broader understanding of what it means to be a “Mainer.” In class, we are working to interrogate visual representations of “race” and identity, and I hope that students also begin to incorporate this kind of assumption questioning practices into their daily lives. I think it’s important for students to learn how to question the representations that are presented to us as “reality.” I can’t help but connect this to the most recent controversy surrounding Governor LePage’s statements vilifying people of color as “drug dealers,” killers, and rapists. It is also significant that LePage portrays these people as non-Mainers. Repeatedly, he paints non-white people as “from away,” who enter our state and threaten our way of life. What is heartening in all this mess is the resounding pushback we’re seeing in the press, the public, and the legislature.