Today, The Society Pages reposts this original essay, written last summer as part of the Wonderful/Wretched series. Wonderful/Wretched is a collection of twenty-one essays on the racial dynamics of the Twin Cities written by social scientists with ties to the metro area in response to the killing of George Floyd. Wonderful/Wretched has since been revised and expanded in a published volume, Sparked: George Floyd, Racism, and the Progressive Illusion available through the Minnesota Historical Society. For the remainder of the summer, in celebration of Sparked’s publication, and in reflection of the year that has passed since last summer’s historic uprising for racial justice, The Society Pages will repost essays from Wonderful/Wretched in their original form.
I actually lived in Minnesota twice. Once in the 2009-2010 academic year for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. And again from 2014 to 2018 as a tenure track assistant professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where I taught courses in Black Studies. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I returned home to a region championed for its diverse cities, but where Black life remains strained under massive tech wealth and ongoing Black displacement and deprivation as private investors and municipal agencies upend historically Black neighborhoods, often with the assistance of the police. Watching from California as Minneapolis has become the epicenter of Black uprising and protest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department as well as the outcomes of Black organizing, activism, and community collaboration in the Twin Cities has led me to reflect on my time in Minnesota, a place that was both transformative and stifling for me and my family. There were supportive people and the potential to thrive, but they were not enough to anchor and feed us in an environment and during a time that was largely destructive and lethal for Black people.During my time spent in Minnesota, the way I taught, moved, and parented were shaped by the compounding events, systems, and deaths related to Black suffering and grief in and around the Twin Cities: hearing the aggrieved testimonies of Black students who had grown up under the passive-aggressive racist shroud of “Minnesota nice” (the supposed courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered behavior of white Minnesotans), experiencing the death of a beloved student followed by the killing of Philando Castile, and living through the birth of my son at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. That the accumulation of anti-Black violence was committed by white people, many of whom would consider themselves good people and allies, would lead me to expand my own racial identity and consciousness as a Black woman, scholar, and mother. Why did good white people need a Black person to be killed before deciding to take action, and why did most of their actions revolve around low-stakes anti-racist reading groups and listening sessions?
Below I offer three vignettes that provide a chronological account of events that occurred over two years while living in Minnesota from the vantage point of a California transplant, academic, and mother in the Twin Cities.
Losing a student, April 2016
Prior to the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department, not many people outside of the Midwest knew about the condition of Black life in Minnesota. Perhaps it is because the state is so far north, blanketed half the year in snow, waiting to melt. Perhaps because for so long, the Black experience has been defined geographically and culturally by Black people from both coasts and the South. Or perhaps because they missed the footnote about Prince being from Minneapolis. Another footnote that is usually missed: Minnesota was home and hostage site for Dred Scott. Yes, the Dred Scott of the 1857 Supreme Court ruling in which Black people, free or enslaved, were found to not be eligible for US citizenship and thus unable to sue in federal court. But being about good white masters, long winters, and a desire for freedom that is continuously delayed, there is no way that the story of Dred Scott could be anything but a Black Minnesota story: past, present, and future.There are two ways of looking at the story of Dred Scott as a Minnesota story. First is by way of geography. Dred Scott was an enslaved Black man who was brought to Fort Snelling, a remote military outpost close to present-day St. Paul. Like Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, the other Black people at the Fort had been brought there as property. Long brutal winters filled with ice and blizzards made survival tough, and meant that escape was treacherous and nearly impossible. This was what slavery was like in North, at Fort Snelling, where Dred and Harriet Scott were both Black and unfree.
The other way of seeing Dred Scott’s story as a Minnesota story is in what it represents in our contemporary moment for Black people living in the Great white North: being one of the few Black people in a sea of whiteness in a northern territory where the protection of settler property rights is prioritized over Native sovereignty and Black life, and secured via militarized and community policing. To engage in mundane, ordinary things like courtship, getting married, having children, creating a home in the Great white North, but to always yearn for true freedom and autonomy, to be both unfree and given a little room to move, to be unchained but still constantly under white supervision. And to be kept waiting (or is it to keep oneself waiting) until, old, sick, and facing the threat of a final violence, one is forced to take action (or react).
For a long time, I was waiting for freedom. But during the spring 2016 semester at Metro State, I saw a glimpse of it when a student brought up Blackness, social death, and slavery in a way that I hadn’t thought of. In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman argues that slavery has an afterlife: Black people have “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” (page 6). Slavery is why Black people continue to be marked as property and why, as Black Americans, we are “the afterlife of slavery,” subjected to racialized violence from every institution and system that continues to exist and organize this nation. Because we are still seen as slaves, the student told the class, we are being treated as such. This he repeated until the white boys from places like Maplewood, Blaine, and Coon Rapids sat silent, raging, and shook, his words pointed and ready like a sharpened machete dancing around my blunt mentions of individual racism and white privilege. He handed us all the torch so that we could see that freedom required a bigger imagination, a wild hunger, but I was not ready and turned the class away, afraid of triggering our desire to destroy the slave patrols outside and the masters inside. It is time for mutiny, he continued. They are still killing us because they see us as slaves. Then, one late afternoon, someone, a woman, drove her car headfirst into the opposite lanes of traffic and killed him, taking his presence away and leaving behind an empty chair.
There is a terrible grief one feels when a student is lost. There is the initial outrage at still being expected to teach despite being wrecked and dead inside. But walking to class, it becomes all the more apparent. No longer is there snow, but winter clings heavily to the sky and you sweat under too many layers of clothing you have to wear while waiting for a bus later that evening that always runs late from the East Side. There is mourning all around you even though there is no public ceremony or eulogy delivered on campus. No homegoing among students on the slice of lawn between the library and the building you teach in with big picture windows overlooking downtown St. Paul. In the days that follow the accident, you will struggle to prepare your notes. The heartache will fill all of the space between your remarks on redlining and your slides on suburbanization and the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that led to the razing of communities and building of highways over houses and people. It will become a scar but not before the wound is reopened. Freedom while presented again and again, will always be just out of reach.
(Kirk Washington, Jr., May 9, 1974-April 4, 2016)
Redlined to death, July 2016
At the time of the murder of Philando Castile, I had watched numerous videos of Black men and boys being shot dead by the police. So when the video of his killing circulated, I chose not to watch it. But even without the footage, I felt like I had seen it before with the news coverage describing the event scene by scene: the officer asking for license and registration becomes agitated after Castile tells him he has a gun; the officer panics and draws his gun and points it at the car before shooting Castile seven times at close range; Castile’s girlfriend recording his murder, and her daughter comforting her in the presence of so much terror and death. This was supposed to have been a routine traffic stop like one of the many others that Castile had been subjected to in the past. But for Black motorists in the Twin Cities and elsewhere, a routine traffic stop can escalate at any time and turn fatal. Given the frequency at which police officers stop Black drivers, every time we enter our cars, we are confronted with the possibility that we might be next. In St. Paul, police officers were found to have pulled over and ticketed Black drivers at a disproportionate rate compared to white drivers. Statistics were even higher in cities where there were few Black residents. This is what it means to be Black and seen as suspicious and responded to as a threat.The addition of Philando Castile’s name to the growing list of Black casualties of state-sanctioned violence and disposal is the reason why Black parents for generations have had to have “the talk” with their sons and brothers and nephews, a conversation that usually begins with the first driving lesson and progresses in urgency after a teenager has received their first driver’s license, about driving (or simply existing) while Black and what to do when they encounter the police. Put your hands where the officer can see them. Announce any contraband well before they pull your body out of your car. Lay prone on your face. Don’t move. Don’t run. Don’t tell them anything. Remain calm and courteous in the face of an officer whose wild imagination keeps him perpetually triggered. Record the evidence of your detention, your beating, your tazing, your murder because body cam footage and the police chief’s justification for the use of deadly force are indisputable defenses of every single officer’s actions. Make sure there are Black witnesses watching because they will be the only ones to intervene in the performance of chase, capture, and punishment that we have all seen before.
But as much as Castile’s murder was about restricting Black mobility on the open road, it was also rooted in the legacy of redlining and the dedication of law enforcement agents to continue to defend and protect the borders of Minnesota’s wealthy white suburbs, such as the one in which Castile was killed. Many Black people in Minnesota are familiar with the roads through these suburbs, having driven on them to commute to work, get to shopping outlets, or take road trips to summer destinations. And while these trips are much less daunting than they were during the Green Book era, we are still sometimes routed through neighborhoods that are very purposefully racially exclusive, and where we are visibly not welcome.
To be Black in America is to be considered a trespasser, a person who only conditionally belongs, and even then that belonging is dictated by white feelings and fears, and tolerated with white approval and permission. And for me living in the Twin Cities where all the surrounding suburbs were white and therefore dangerous, I felt very much like a captive: unfree but given a little room to move.
Black Birthing in Minnesota, March 2017
There are certain things that you will definitely not remember while giving birth. The color of paint used on the walls in the room where you push for hours, trying to dislodge your second child from your womb, the boy you carried for nine months and agonized over because now you would be one of them: a mother of a Black son in America. You will not recall the way the sky looked outside at the exact moment that your baby is pulled from between your legs and carried to your chest where it clings, still covered in filmy amniotic fluid, like a giant pale amphibian. And in a state of exhaustion and delirium, you will not remember the first thing you uttered after your baby was laid on your chest: Was it a word? A moan? His name? A cry?What you will remember, though, is arriving six months pregnant for the tour of the birth center at the state-of-the-art children’s hospital, a towering building looming over the Mississippi River, its face lined with iridescent paneling that radiates rainbow metallic colors like a soap bubble. You will remember walking through the pristine wards with the other expectant parents, none of them Black, and imagine delivering your baby there in comfortable reclining beds covered in crisp white sheets surrounded by warm nursery wall art. You will also remember the moment when you paused and looked at the photographs of the nurses lining the wall leading to the labor and delivery floor. They were all white women, and this became the first sign that things might not be okay. It was like a warning in a horror film, a foreshadowing of the violence you would later experience in your hospital gown and socks, on a cold night in March, as you prepared to deliver your son.
Then it happens and amid the blur of labor, you remember your husband dropping you off in the front of the hospital. “I’ll park the car. I’m coming,” are the last words he says before speeding off, leaving you standing there holding your daughter’s hand. [There was no babysitter and both your families live many states and continents away.] You show your ID to the Black female security guard at the front desk who tells you the floor number you will be headed to and points you in the direction of the elevators. And after forever in that metal lift, you emerge, take three steps, and collapse on the maternity ward’s admissions desk while two white women watch you lose control of your legs, your young daughter, bewildered and powerless, unable to comfort you. You remember their blank facial expressions and their robotic tone as they tell you to fill out the forms, and you write as fast as you can between contractions because it is clear that they will not call for help if you pass out on the floor.
You will not remember how you got into the delivery room but you will remember the aggressive tone of the two white nurses who were assigned to your room, how they commanded you to sit up on the bed and sighed in frustration while they pulled the equipment toward your contorted body. You remember one of the nurses fumbling with the IV needle and snapping at you to sit up straight—You need to sit up straight!—and when you didn’t because it was physically impossible to flatten your spine, she threatened you: “Until you sit up straight, I’m not going to call the anesthesiologist!” Only then, at the declaration that she controlled your pain, did you try to stretch out your arm so that she could jam the device into the back of your hand. By letting her do this, you believed, your pain would be lessened. But when the anesthesiologist arrived, a middle-aged white man with brown hair and a moustache followed by a younger male assistant, and you were unable to flatten your body into a shape that pleased him, he shouted at you to sit still—You need to sit still!—otherwise you would not get the epidural, all while your baby twisted and writhed like a trapped fish in your birth canal.It is no secret that the medical system in this country is inherently racist, especially having been built on exploitative research and predatory experimentation, and remains dangerous for Black people who are admitted into facilities where white doctors and nurses still deny the depths of our pain. But for a long time, I believed that having an advanced degree and an employer that provided good health insurance would protect me from poor care. However, numerous studies show that titles, insurance, and income can’t protect us from the physiological manifestations of adverse childhood experiences or the stress born from racism that wears on our organs over our lifespans. They are, in fact, ineffective talismans when it comes to vetting and warding off racist medical providers. In the journal article “Confronting Institutional Racism,” Camara Phyllis Jones states that racial health disparities “are produced on at least three levels: Differential care within the health care system, differential access to health care, and difference in exposures and life opportunities that create different levels of health and disease” (page 8). But for Black people who tend to be the first and hardest hit by social disparities, there is usually a confluence of two or all three levels—insufficient care, limited access, and negative exposures and life opportunities—which leads to illness, suffering, humiliation, and sudden or premature death.
Looking back on the memory of my son’s birth in which I was trapped in a delivery room with white strangers responsible for caring for me while I was at my most vulnerable and in tremendous pain, it becomes apparent how a Black woman could end up dying during childbirth in a state-of-the-art facility, fully insured, gainfully employed, and middle-class. And while it still fills me with anger to think about the violent way my son and I were forced to begin life as mother and child, it has led me to love both of my children even more fiercely.
In writing these vignettes, it is hard not to think about Black folks still living and trying to make it in Minnesota. They are the reason for economic and cultural vitality in numerous otherwise ordinary, forgettable cities. Black Minnesotans have made homes (and friends and magic and joy) in an often difficult and inhospitable landscape. They have lived through multiple high-profile police killings in recent years and continue to organize and thrive despite efforts to bury Black memory, gentrify Black communities, and displace Black people. They are the parts of Minnesota that will stay with me. Then there are the other parts of Minnesota, both wonderful and wretched, that I will also remember: how the best midcentury-modern finds can be picked up at weekend estate sales for a bargain; how complete strangers will come together to dig a Metro Transit bus or your 2015 Toyota Camry out of a snowbank without you asking and without you owing anything; how there is nothing like the sonic experience of snow as it falls and mutes the sounds of the city, crunching deliciously beneath your feet; and how some of the nicest white people you will meet and work with – some of them participants in antiracist book clubs with Black Lives Matters signs in their front yards – will still do their part in (re)producing and supporting anti-Black policies and practices that will directly harm Black folks in their cities and state. This is to say that while Black people can lead expansive lives in Minnesota, too often these lives are stifled and exhausted in a country that refuses to let us breathe.
June 24, 2020