The Legacy of Malaga Island and the Limits of Maine’s Progressivism
Once a mixed-race fishing community, the island is now empty, showing the gap between the state’s history and what it professes to be.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin Where are you from? And why are you here?
Bath EnterpriseCasco Bay Breeze
for its timeMalaga
Gloria, Harold Tripp’s daughter, grew up in Augusta, Maine, but didn’t know a thing about her connection to Malaga until a few years ago, when a reporter started piecing together their shared family tree. Gloria doesn’t remember much about her father except for his temperament. “My dad was a very angry man. [Angry] at white people. Because there was nothing [in Maine] but white people,” she tells me over the phone. “I don’t think Maine has a special love for Blacks, or anyone else who’s not of the white race. They never have and they probably never will.”
Maine is changing, some say. In the news, Gloria reads about refugees coming to Maine; a steady stream of African immigrants, many from Somalia. Between 2000 and 2010, the state’s nonwhite population increased, according to the Bangor Daily News, mostly in the south and near the coast. Still, the state can be a difficult place for outsiders, or those perceived to be outsiders. By the time Gloria learned of Malaga, Maine was only a memory. She had moved away, partly because she grew tired of the separateness and otherness she had long felt. The history of the island lives on in those who are still able to call Maine home, like Marnie—as well as those who, like Gloria, chose not to stay.
One afternoon in late April, I make the trip to Malaga. Marnie, busy caring for her grandchildren today, can’t come with me. Neither can Gloria, who now lives in Connecticut. So I go without them, on a little skiff, accompanied by a woman named Caitlin Gerber. Caitlin is thirty, pregnant with her second daughter, and a land steward at Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Malaga is one of hundreds of properties owned by the trust.
Caitlin calls the landscape of Malaga “magical,” and through the late April mist I can see what she means. The island is lush. Moss spreads over the forest floor and spruce trees shoot into the sky. And then there are the shells, crushed into smithereens, white and glinting, strewn along the shoreline: a reminder of the people who harvested clams here a century ago. After a long winter, everything is alive and covered in soft dew.
Malaga Island reminds me: Our bodies draw no borders, nor fences, nor fine lines.
I think back to Pineland, where Marnie asked me what I thought. Of all of this? I wondered. I told her that the story was too heavy, too grotesque to fathom. Standing on Malaga now, the picture is fuller, more clear. Drawn to Malaga by the history of its inhabitants, I realize I was seeking some sense of solidarity. But my projections—about these people whose pasts I had pored over, and the codes linking them to me—had begun to splinter. Those who called Malaga home cared less for rigid racial narratives, I’d imagine, than others of their time. Yet it was because their existence violated the racist “rules” of their time—rules that still have an impact on many of us, in many ways—that their island is now empty, save for some transient fowl.
Malaga reminds me: Our bodies draw no borders, nor fences, nor fine lines. Why had I sought to articulate my identity—trying to split myself up into little percentages of white and not white—by using a bigoted framework akin to the one that justified the removal of people from Malaga?I had conformed to the language of cold categorization, standardized test questions, to tell me who I was. The mere existence of this island, and the people who once lived here, shows the inadequacy and the harm in those narrow definitions.
And it is a violence that has been buried deep. Malaga didn’t open my eyes to the injustices committed against Black and brown people, but here, in Maine, such loathsome history is presumed by many to be imaginary, or at least hidden. So erased from Maine’s accounts of benevolence was Malaga that finding it, for me, feels like the bridge between what Maine professes to be and the hefty weight of its iniquitous history. Looking at Malaga, Maine’s whiteness and professed progressivism make sense. The state is able to maintain a veneer of progressivism in part because it has silenced, and then shamed, those with another story to tell.
The water is still as we sail back. For a moment, it appears that we are skimming the clouds above us, not ocean expanse. We race through the water and chat about the people Caitlin has encountered over the years—the local artist who envisions a community center on Malaga; those who want to see the island unchanged; the descendants who want to see the bodies of their ancestors returned. I feel the weight of a great silence, and the imperative to tell a story that is truthful; that accounts for the story of Malaga—and Maine—as it truly was and is.