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At a recent panel, a call to rethink a common refrain: 'We have to stop saying there are no Black people in N.H.'

Deo Mwano speaks at a Black Heritage Trail Panel
Casey McDermott
/
NHPR
Deo Mwano, right, was one of several panelists who participated in a recent forum hosted by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, focused on the experience of being Black in largely white spaces.

When Selina Choate thinks about what it means to be Black in New Hampshire, she thinks about the isolation she’s felt in a largely white state, the exhaustion of having to convince people that racism is a reality here and the trauma of not feeling like she had a voice — even at the most crucial moments.

A new mother of two, Choate developed preeclampsia, one of the leading causes of maternal mortality for Black women, during both of her pregnancies. But when she went to her local hospital for help, she struggled to get them to take her experience seriously.

“My experiences working and communicating with the hospital staff has been really traumatic for me,” she recalled during a recent forum hosted by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, exploring what it means to be Black in predominantly white spaces. It left her “not feeling validated, not feeling like I had a voice, not feeling like my decisions, what I want done with my body, was respected.”

Watch the full panel, part of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire's 2022 Elinor Williams Hooker Tea Talks Series.

Choate, who helps to lead the McNair Scholars Program at the University of New Hampshire and sits on the board of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, said she doesn’t often open up about her experiences in this way. But she felt it was important to speak up at this event, in hopes that it might help people think about what they can do — and what policies, nonprofits or other causes they can support — to make New Hampshire a more welcoming place.

“There are a lot of things that are lacking in the community to support Black people,” Choate said after the panel, “which encourages me, empowers me to want to build the community that we need to support one another.”

Deo Mwano, who came to New Hampshire as a child after his family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, said he’s also had plenty of moments that make him question whether people can truly see and appreciate his full humanity — like when he got his start as a landlord, and was met with surprise by prospective tenants who came to view his property.

“People would show up at the house to look at the property [and would ask], ‘You’re the landowner? You’re the landlord?’” Mwano said.

It happened so frequently that he eventually made an explicit note in his rental listings — “property owned by an African American person” — just to preempt any awkward conversations.

“Sometimes I'm constantly reminded that, regardless of how well my doing is, at the end of the day, for some people, that skin color is always going to be a point of measurement,” Mwano said.

The connection between the state’s political environment and the lived experiences of Black people and other people of color was top of mind as the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire planned this forum, the culmination in a series of discussions focused on race in the Granite State.

JerriAnne Boggis, the Black Heritage Trail’s executive director, said she wanted to use this platform to elevate the experiences of people of color in New Hampshire at a time when politicians are passing laws that make it harder to speak candidly about their history and lived experiences.

“The group that’s most affected by this, not being able to talk about our own history, having our history constantly erased, was the BIPOC community: Black, Indigenous, people of color,” she said.

Connecting with history was a big part of what helped Boggis find a sense of community in New Hampshire. Speaking with NHPR after the recent forum, she said she felt like an outsider in her town, Milford, until she started learning about the story of Harriet Wilson, who is believed to be the first Black woman in the United States to publish a novel, who also happened to live there in the 1800s.

As she worked to bring Wilson’s story to life, and to tie her story to the present day, Boggis started making more connections: at town hall, the local library and more.

“It was then that I really started looking at my town differently,” she said, “not as an outsider, but an insider.”

While Boggis and others involved in the Black Heritage Trail’s panel said it’s important to acknowledge the racism that makes it hard for Black people to feel valued, understood and safe in New Hampshire, they were also clear: Their experiences are not monolithic, and are not defined only by the challenges they’ve faced.

Choate, for her part, said the community she’s tried to build with other Black people in New Hampshire — specifically among other Black women who’ve mentored and supported her, in ways both big and small — has been an essential source of joy and strength throughout nearly two decades in the state.

“I owe a lot to the Black women who have kept me grounded,” she said, “whether it's through prayer, cooking me a meal, styling my hair, [or] helping me hunt down hair products and skin products.”

And with that in mind, Choate has been reflecting lately on the tendency to emphasize the state's lack of diversity.

"We have to stop saying there are no Black people in New Hampshire, and even in jest," she said.

The way she sees it, to repeat that refrain is to "bury the history and success stories of Black people right in this state."

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