Maya James crouches in front of one of her favorite hangout spots, the cistern at the Grand Traverse Commons, in her hometown of Traverse City, Michigan.
If living in your hometown meant dealing with racism on the daily, would you stay?
For me the answer is clear. Hard pass. But Maya James disagrees. In her personal essay, “A Great Place For Hate,” she describes her experience growing up as one of the few people of color in Traverse City, Michigan. More than 90 percent of the population of this town is white. Maya is biracial — half black and half white. She writes she is tempted to appease the white people around her — usually by avoiding the topic of race altogether — so she can live peacefully in the town she grew up in.
After reading Maya’s piece, I had two very strong reactions. First, I wanted to hug this girl and tell her, “Same!” I’m also a black woman who spends a lot of time in white spaces by choice. The pressure to adapt is real. I get that.
But I also wanted to give her a strong side-eye. Like, what are you doing?? Get out of there! To say the least, I had questions. And given the strong reader reactions we’ve received from her essay (you should read it!), you may have questions too.
So I called Maya up and asked her to tell me more. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
LaToya Tooles: So why did you choose to write this essay? What motivated you, in a town that has taught you not to speak up, to do the opposite of that?
Maya James: I basically just wanted to do this because it’s my strategic way of letting people know what’s happening. And it’s also kind of a call to action. I don’t think that brown people should be fleeing from areas like Traverse City. I think they should be migrating in numbers. And I don’t necessarily know how that’s going to happen but I think it should because getting the rural areas to support equal rights is the only way that we’re going to get everybody on board.
LT: I read your advertisement and it leaves something to be desired. I don’t know if it’ll convince a black person to move to Traverse City or a place like it.
How did your family react or your essay?
MJ: My family was really happy that I wrote the article because it was a pain that we had all dealt with growing up. One time this kid was throwing rocks at me, saying, “You’re a n*****. I’m gonna kill you.”
My brother felt obligated to go over to this kid’s house and ask his parents to apologize. And they’re like “You’re just some effin’ n***** lover and you have to get off my property or I’m going to shoot you.” He came back and lied and said to me that the kid apologized because he didn’t want me to be hurt.
LT: That’s hard. Because you look around and there’s no one else there that looks like a friendly or safe face.
MJ: And even the brown people that you talk to about it, they’re like “Oh well, you just can’t let stuff like that bother you. That’s just how it is, you know?” It’s because they’re less emboldened to believe that racism is racism.
LT: Have you read the comments on your essay?
MJ: I had one girl send me a message that’s said, “You’re crazy. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never had this experience here.” In many ways, there are people who have internalized the racism here so much that they don’t think it’s a real problem. Even if there are brown people, a lot of them have white parents and that changes the ways that they’re allowed to reach into their culture whether it’s consciously or subconsciously. And so I’ve got a lot of that.There were a lot of people who reached out to me from other places that said, “I left Traverse City and this is why.”
LT: So tell me why you haven’t left. All these other brown people have left. Why are you still there?
MJ: I haven’t left because I’m 13 credits away from getting my degree. I also haven’t left because my dad lives here and he’s getting pretty old. He’s going to be turning 70 soon and I appreciate being around him. He pretty much raised me. I’ve been living in the same place since I was 13. I have been trying to get a plan together to leave but I also don’t want to lose my ties here. I’ve been doing anti-racism work here. I have a lot of work to do before I leave.
LT: I’m sensing that’s a real tension in you. Having to appease the white people around you, but also feeling this deep desire for the justice, equity and diversity that you clearly articulate all of the time. It’s hard to have sanity and have balance at the same time. So what do you do to be sane?
MJ: Honestly sometimes I just break down and cry. It’s something that’s unavoidable. I am as strong as I can be. Most of the time. But you know just sometimes it gets to be too much and I’m allowed to be human. But then also I don’t let it dwell and I always stay busy. I’m just always working because if I’m not working then I’m focusing or dwelling on little things that I shouldn’t be. You know I’ve got to move myself up and be bigger than all of it. Going running in the woods and just being able to be alone and safe without a cell phone helps.
LT: You’ve talked many times about how beautiful Traverse City is.
MJ: It’s a great place but that’s the scary part. Just yesterday there were these white supremacist fliers all over town. And ever since the election I’ve seen large groups of men at night and I get really freaked out. The less I feel safe here the more that I am thinking about leaving. Seeing this place change really hurts.
LT: I imagine that you are one of the few that feel it’s gotten less safe.
MJ: Yeah. And everyone was sharing [pictures of the fliers] and all the white people were like, “oh that’s a shame. Somebody should tell that person that they’re unlawfully putting fliers up,” when the conversation should be, “Oh my God, is someone going to get lynched?” It’s more severe than I think people take it.
LT: As a person who elects to be in very white spaces as a historical and swing dancer, there’s this tension of: am I creating my own pain?
MJ: Am I oppressing myself?
LT: It is such a good question. And I have come to the conclusion that I am a little bit.
MJ: I wonder that all that time. But I’m doing it for the next people who won’t have to.
LT: That’s an exhausting mentality and very self-sacrificing. Can you sustain that?
MJ: I wonder that all the time. But being a good person and making sure someone else’s safety is together and their rights are being served to them should just be a human trait you know.
LT: I think that’s commendable and I hope that you continue to see that there are people who are for you, who are caring about your safety and that you see the fruits of your labor in Traverse City. It’s palpable the love that you have for this place and for your family and the community that you’ve built for yourself.
MJ: Thanks. Even if I do leave I’m still going to keep ties with my town because it’s a pretty wonderful place.