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After Being Accosted by Protesters at a Queer Poetry Reading, a Vermont Artist Fears for his Safety

Toussaint St. Negritude reads poetry. Courtesy photo
From VTDigger, by Auditi Guha

A Vermont poet and former Montpelier resident said he is distraught and concerned for his safety after being targeted by protesters at a queer poetry reading he hosted at Lyndonville’s public library.

“Unfortunately it seems that here in Vermont the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) and queer community are definitely under attack,” said Toussaint St. Negritude, who is gay and Black.

In celebration of Pride Month, the 63-year-old Newark resident was hosting a poetry reading at the Cobleigh Library in Lyndonville on Saturday morning. Titled “All our queer voices,” it had been advertised on social media and on fliers around town. 

An hour into the event, which St. Negritude described as “a very simple gathering … for anyone to bring a book and to read aloud your favorite queer poet,” library staff alerted him to a small group of protesters who were standing outside holding signs with religious slogans such as “Prepare to meet thy God.”

“They were chanting my name. I don’t know these people but they were literally publicly condemning me,” St. Negritude said in an interview Tuesday. “It was horrifying.”

He and the library staff decided to end the event. The attendees, most of whom were white, exited first through the back door. St. Negritude was escorted out the back door soon after, according to library staff.

As he exited, one of the protesters — an older woman — ran toward him chanting his name, he recounted. 

“She had a bag beside her and had her hand in this bag holding something, something that could happen to be a gun. And she’s saying, ‘Toussaint, Toussaint, can I give you something?’” he said, describing the interaction as “absolutely terrifying.”

St. Negritude retreated back into the library, waited until the coast seemed clear and then a library staff member drove him to his car, which was around the corner. 

Later that day, on his way to Jazz Fest in Burlington, St. Negritude decided to stop by a local thrift store. On his way out, the same woman accosted him on the stairs outside of the store, he said — she again had her hand in the bag and said she wanted to give him something.

“And that really freaked me out because you know this is not just in front of a library now. They’re literally following me around,” he said. “And I just screamed at her to get away from me. I screamed at her a couple of times. She eventually backed off. Then I left and drove straight to Burlington.”

An African American poet, composer, and jazz bass clarinetist, St. Negritude has been living in Vermont for 14 years. In February, he was asked to perform the daily devotional at the Statehouse before the Vermont House began its proceedings. He is, however, no stranger to racial hatred in the Green Mountain State. 

“I’ve had random cars drive by yell the ‘N’ word, tell me to go back to Africa,” he said. “It’s happened in front of the Flynn Theatre in Burlington. It’s happened in Montpelier. That’s the most consistent thing that seems to happen everywhere in Vermont.”

But he said he has never felt as targeted as he did on Saturday.

‘Nervous’ and ‘disheartened’

Cobleigh Library Director Bryn Hoffman said the institution had not previously encountered anything like what happened on Saturday. Though they weren’t present at the event, their staff gave them an overview that matches St. Negritude’s account of what happened.

From photos taken by staff, they estimated there were about five people outside. 

“Having folks show up in that manner won’t deter us. Those are not values that the library shares,” said Hoffman. “We will continue to hold programs here that celebrate and uplift queer voices and Black voices and other voices from within the community.”

Hoffman said they plan to meet with the library board of trustees next week to discuss further actions.

Lyndonville town and police officials said they did not know about the incident and that no complaints or hate reports have been filed there in the past three years.

“No calls were made to any law enforcement on Saturday for any issues at the library. No law enforcement responded, we are unaware of any incidents,” Municipal Administrator Justin Smith said in an email that copied Police Chief Jack Harris.

St. Negritude said he is considering filing a police report and requesting a restraining order against members of what he characterized as a local extremist religious family who he believes participated in the protest Saturday.

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council where St. Negritude works as a community programs officer, called the incident “horrifying” but also “not at all surprising” given the rise of hate groups and attacks across the nation.

“So it’s sad that it’s here now but it’s not something that I think we can avoid. And we need to publicly address it and call it out for what it is, which is hate speech. And quite frankly, menacing and terrorism,” he said.

It’s tragic that hate groups are particularly targeting libraries that are designed to be inclusive spaces for all, particularly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people, he added.

“We’re seeing calls being made to libraries all over the state and if you talk to libraries anywhere in Vermont you’ll hear from them that they’re quite nervous about the national situation coming to our local doors,” he said.

Hoffman also pointed to this trend in an email Tuesday. “At their best, libraries should be places of community building and liberation, where information is accessed freely and fear free,” they wrote. 

“We will continue to strive to create a space that allows for this, and reject whatever ethos would lead someone to try to intimidate and terrorize a proud Black queer poet on the street outside a public library following a community poetry reading where it was expressly stated that ‘Everyone is welcome,’” they continued.

Founded in 2022, organizers of the Northeast Kingdom Rainbow Coalition, which is preparing for its first-ever Pride event in Newport, said they are “extremely disheartened.” 

“We stand with Toussaint and hope that others will stand with us to show those who want to harm us that our pride is stronger than their hate,” co-organizer Alex Ladd said in a message. 

‘Hate is here in Vermont’

Three days after the incident, St. Negritude reflected on a growing wave of hate and intolerance nationwide, including in Vermont, and said he hopes that people can acknowledge it and address it.

In a Facebook post Tuesday shared by his friend, Theo Fetter, he described a litany of violent attacks and racist acts in Vermont “including being shot at, having the windshields of two cars bashed out, denied employment, denied housing, and regularly taunted by Vermonters yelling their favorite ‘n-word.’ My own mother has been threatened here, with neighbors yelling ‘white power!’”

Vermonters have often invalidated his experience and told him he must have been mistaken, he noted in the interview. “I would like people to understand that that denial is allowing this hatred to not only remain but to grow, to blossom,” St. Negritude said. 

“Hate is here in Vermont, as it is around the country, and hate is here as it has been since the founding of the state. But I would really like people to hopefully, once and for all, quit the denial from Vermont being so happy-go-lucky inclusive and face the reality that we have a very dark and threatening hatred here. Rather than waiting for funerals and waiting for marches after funerals, we need to seriously address it now, statewide,” he said. 

As he prepare(d) to participate in Juneteenth events [earlier this month], St. Negritude said he is notifying organizers that he is being targeted, in case they want to consider security.

“Vermont, where poets need security,” he wrote in his Facebook post. In an interview Tuesday, he was more blunt: “I really hope I don’t get shot.”

Editor’s note: The Bridge will occasionally be printing locally relevant stories from VT Digger as part of a story exchange between the two news organizations.