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'Freedom To Really Fulfill My Life': A First-Time Homeowner Reflects On Art, Race & The Stars In The NEK

A man in Carhartt overalls and a hat stands on a stump. Green mountains and blue sky behind him.
Anna Van Dine
/
VPR
Toussaint St. Negritude stands on a stump on the six acres of land he will now be stewarding.

Fewer than 2% of Vermont residents are Black or African American. Of that fraction, less than a quarter of households own homes.

Poet and musician Toussaint St. Negritude recently became a landowner in Caledonia County, thanks to a handful of volunteer carpenters and over $60,000 donated to him as reparations.

Toussaint St. Negritude sits down at his desk. He is tall, with a white beard, a gentle smile, and a hat perched on his head. Lumps of turquoise dangle from his ears. He rummages in a drawer for a blank piece of paper, which he inserts into the typewriter. He types out a sentence.

It reads: ‘So here I am, in the Star House, typing for the first time.’

The Star House is an 8½-by-30-foot tiny house on six acres of land in the Northeast Kingdom, in the elevated hills just east of Lake Willoughby, where the snow will fall early and thick.

“The stars have been a big part of this process, my creative process, my whole life.”
Touissant St. Negritude

Toussaint grew up in the Bay Area of Northern California, with Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On spinning on the record player.

He is a poet, musician, and hat-maker; who navigates by the north star and sees the mountains as spiritual beings.

When he moved into this house a few weeks ago, he came home to his own home for the first time in his life.

“As I was approaching my 60s,” the 61-year-old said, “I was also becoming very aware that if I didn't create some sort of housing for myself of my own, if I continued renting, I wouldn't be able to survive. And so I kind of saw this daunting future lying ahead, of basically becoming homeless.”

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So, a year-and-a-half ago, Toussaint decided to build a tiny house. With the help of volunteer carpenters, he finished it this spring. It’s built of sturdy white pine, with a gambrel roof; the sloping kind that old barns have.

He named it the Star House.

“The stars have been a big part of this process, my creative process, my whole life,” he explained. “I feel a real connection with the stars, and I really felt like ... I was building a house in the stars.”

Hear Toussaint St. Negritude read his poem Ascending The Dawnland, performed on his land.

He also started an online fundraiser, which received just over $60,000 in donations. Many of the donors said they were giving him money as reparations, which is payment in acknowledgment of the suffering and damage perpetuated by slavery and racism. With this money, he bought six acres of land in Caledonia County.

Out of the 1.4% of Vermont’s population that is Black or African American, less than a quarter are homeowners.

“I have no idea if I am the only Black [land]owner in my town — my new town — if I'm the first. I have no idea. It doesn't sit lightly with me. I mean, it feels good. But the significance of it is huge,” he says. “Because I know, as an African American, that it's typically extremely difficult for Black people to get a loan to buy a house. It's difficult for Black people to rent homes. I know the difficulties I've gone through.”

Toussaint settles in his chair, by windows that let in the morning sun. He sits here when he listens to the radio — the news, mostly.

On the wall behind him, there’s a portrait of Malcolm X that he got at a Goodwill when he moved to Vermont seven years ago, when he fell in love with something about the Kingdom — the deep forests, the slumbering mountains, the clear lakes that carry sound like liquid phone lines.

“I know the Northeast Kingdom has a particular reputation of being conservative and,” he pauses, “racist. My experience of the Kingdom — as far as my whole experience of the Kingdom — it really wasn't as racist.”

He says he's been harassed all over the state, and that one thing Vermont has taught him is that wherever there are people, there’s hate.

“And so I’ve found the Northeast Kingdom to be the safest place for me. I feel a lot safer sitting in the woods of the Northeast Kingdom than I do sitting on a bench on State Street in Montpelier or Church Street in Burlington.”

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Seated in his chair, by the windows of his home in the woods of the Northeast Kingdom, Toussaint bends down to open his clarinet case. He assembles the instrument piece by piece, and plays a few improvised notes of jazz.

“I play music because it liberates me,” he says. “And it liberates listeners.”

He frequently uses that word, liberation, when he talks about his new home.

“Because now, I have the liberation to like, do the bigger things in my life,” he says. “Now I can do so much more writing, I can be a better poet now, I can be a better musician and have much more freedom to really fulfill my life.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine @annasvandine.

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