In February 2016 I posted a note about a forthcoming website called “Blackasotan,” which highlights stories about the intersection of race and place. Blackasotan was launched today (June 15, 2016)! The inaugural edition includes my submission, 30 Years a Minnesotan. As with many publications, some edits were made for the piece to conform to their standards. Below is my original submission, in case anyone wants to compare the two versions.
30 Years a Minnesotan
“There are White kids working at McDonalds!” That was my initial race-tinged observation during my first trip to Minnesota, in the summer of 1986 between graduation from high school in Atlanta, GA, and the start of college, also in Atlanta. I lived in St. Paul that summer while working as an engineering intern at 3M in Maplewood. Well, I didn’t really do much “engineering” work since I had not yet taken any engineering classes, but that’s a story for another day…
After growing up in all-Black neighborhoods in the South, spending three months in mostly White surroundings for the first time as an 18-year old was quite the adjustment. In addition to marveling at White workers serving me at fast food restaurants, I was shocked to see White and Asian American folks in public housing complexes, and was stunned when my count of Cadillacs seen around the Twin Cities did not reach double digits. Of course, this was probably due more to rear-wheel drive Cadillacs of the 1980s not being practical choices for Minnesota winters, but they were everywhere back home on the Black side of town.
The first summer in Minnesota also featured the third time I was called nigger to my face. The first two times were at Boy Scout camps (!); the third time was while sitting in a car at a stoplight on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. I was the passenger with the window down, and an elderly woman started screaming it at me. She also gave me the finger…and might have mooned me too. I’m fuzzy on whether or not the mooning happened as an exclamation to her tantrum, but the verbal taunting and finger pointing were traumatizing enough. The White driver (an intern from California) might have been even more shocked, though, as he went out of his way to do nice things for me over the next few weeks.
Aside from that Snelling Avenue encounter my racialized experiences in Minnesota have been mostly positive. For instance, I had my first significant discussions about race with White folks that summer. In high school there were 1600 students, and all but four were Black. Of the four, three were White boys, and the fourth was a recent Vietnamese immigrant, Tuan Le [I wonder what ever happened to him?]. One of the White guys was in my clique of five, but we never overtly discussed race. While working at 3M and living in a residence hall in Hamline University I made friends with more than one White person for the first time, and began to explore questions that eventually led me to abandon engineering for a career as a sociology professor. One person from that initial summer has been a friend ever since, and several folks from my second year as an intern at 3M during the summer of 1987 are life-long comrades to this day.
I saw my Minnesota friends at least once a year between 1986 and 1998. In 1999 I moved to Minneapolis when I became a professor at the University of Minnesota. One of the difficulties many transplants report is adjusting to “Minnesota Nice,” how everyone is very polite on the surface, but it’s hard to break into friendship circles, and get folks to open up about deep topics. I loved Minnesota from the start since my experience was the opposite: I made lasting friendships seemingly immediately, and was able to quickly establish enough trust to talk about difficult topics, such as race. My new friends also helped me overcome my homophobia.
One would think that moving from an all-Black environment to a mostly-White one would be the opposite of my experience, in that conversations in the former would be much easier than those of the latter. That is indeed the case for many, but I have found that in Minnesota I was able to inhabit a more expansive place regarding racial identity. “Say what, professor?” Let me give you an example.
One summer in my second or third year at The U I was walking behind Appleby Hall on the East Bank when a car pulled over and the driver (a Black man) asked me for directions to Chicago Avenue. The passenger (a Black woman) started laughing when I prefaced my answer with “Let’s see.” “Did he just say ‘let’s see’?!” she chuckled as she winked at the driver. He nodded; he knew, and she knew, and I knew that her implication was “does this guy really know how to get to the section of Chicago Ave. where Black people live? He sounds like a White guy.” In the South my Blackness was questioned more times than I count, whereas this encounter is the only memory of overt identity boundary work in Minnesota I can recall.
Now I’m not saying that Minnesota exists in some sort of post-racial utopia where everyone gets along. On the contrary, there is way too much work ahead of us, as evidenced by recent reports about Black-White achievement gaps, and attacks on Black Lives Matter activists in North Minneapolis, for example. I am suggesting that there is a willingness by progressive Minnesotans to think about race in new ways, so the path forward is not as steep as in other places.
The author Touré begins the book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to be Black Now with an anecdote about an encounter with Black men in a diner. After learning that he was in town to do a story about skydiving, they tell him, “Brother, Black people don’t do that.” Touré notes that if he had listened to such internal community admonishment in the past he would have missed out on what he describes as a spiritual and life-changing experience. I very much appreciate Minnesota because in my experience there involved less policing of boundaries about what it means to be Black, from both Black and non-Black friends.
Later in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Touré discusses how there are countless ways to be Black, and argues that we should celebrate them all. I think that I unofficially began to think of myself as a Minnesotan in the summer of 1986 after learning that the land of 10,000 lakes also helped me see that there were 10,000 ways to be Black there. I was officially a Minnesotan while I lived there from 1999 through 2013. It was then very easy to maintain an identity as a Minnesotan while living in Wisconsin for two years from 2013 to 2015. [Oh, there are so many ways!] In 2015 I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, but now in 2016 I have changed my Facebook hometown status form Atlanta to Minneapolis. In a way, then, June will mark the end of my 30th year as a Minnesotan. I might not ever reside in the state again, but I hope to call myself a Minnesotan for at least 30 more years…
Walt Jacobs is the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at San José State University. He physically resided in Minnesota for 14 years as a professor at the University of Minnesota from 1999-2013, but has loved it for 30 years, starting as a college student intern in the summer of 1986.