Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Excerpt from David Lawrence Grant’s essay, “People Like Us,”
in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in America, edited by Sun Yung Shin
Anyone who has ever been in a difficult, complicated relationship knows that the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. Neglect is indifference’s twin sister. And there is no such thing as benign neglect. Neglect is, in its truest meaning, a verb. And like twin horsemen of the apocalypse, Neglect and Indifference have teamed up to cause a lot of damage.
The evidence of the damage is everywhere to be seen: failing schools; high concentrations of persistent poverty in failing neighborhoods; the egregious over-incarceration of people of color; an alarming number of annual incidents in which people of color are shot by the police or end up dead in police custody. How did things get so bad, even here?
As always, it helps to know the history. Minnesota’s soldiers returned from the Civil War thinking, “Union restored; slavery finished; problem fixed.” The slaves had been freed. Why wasn’t their community exploding with vigor, enthusiasm, and industry, looking to make the most of their newfound liberty? Why were they still having problems? “Why, after all this time, aren’t they becoming more like us?”
Any reader of the fledgling black press during Reconstruction would be mightily impressed at the astonishing degree to which the recently freed slaves were, indeed, deeply grateful . . . were, indeed, working with great vigor, enthusiasm, and industry to build a better life for themselves and their community. But even though two hundred thousand black soldiers had just served bravely and nobly in the cause of Union, they found themselves still excluded from every new opportunity. The promised forty acres and a mule were never delivered. White veterans in the tens of thousands got an opportunity to help this nation-building effort in the underpopulated West—in places like Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma—along with an opportunity to build a personal legacy of prosperity that they could hand down to future generations. Black veterans got . . . lectures about “bootstraps” and hard work—something about which they already knew plenty.
There would be no help forthcoming, no assistance in lifting themselves out of abject poverty and the shadow-world of life on the extreme margins as second-class citizens. Instead, there were Black Codes (spelling out where black people could go and could not go; requiring annual and unbreakable labor contracts; demanding fees from any who worked in any occupation besides farmer and servant) and Jim Crow domestic terrorism. Now that slavery was gone, what black people encountered was the cold reality that the rest of America still seems so completely unready to admit: that America’s real original sin was not slavery, but white supremacy. The law may say Jim Crow is dead . . . but if it is, then it’s having a long and vigorous afterlife.
I was doing some neighborhood organizing work in Chicago during the summer of 1970. When I told a friend there that I was getting ready to come live in Minneapolis for awhile, he said, “Aw, brother, really? Why? Worst cops in the whole world up there, man!”
I used to volunteer at a residential substance abuse program in South Minneapolis. After finishing my last tutoring session one evening, I started walking home about 7:30 pm. Just as I crossed the street, a car came tearing up at high speed, and three plainclothes police officers leaped out with guns in hand. They identified themselves, and then one of them holstered his gun, threw me up against the trunk of the car, and cuffed me.
I asked why. One of the officers pulled a handgun from his boot—a personal, non-regulation weapon—held it against my head, removed the safety, and cocked it. That’s a helluva sound—a gun being cocked while jammed tightly against the dome of your skull. Intimidating. I was intimidated. But more than anything, I was angry. And it occurred to me, even in the heat of the moment, that this was exactly the reaction he wanted . . . like someone who lights a fire and thinks, Now, let me throw a little gasoline on there. Instead of answering my question, the cowboy with the gun to my head told me not to move, then shoved my head hard to one side with the barrel and said, “Wouldn’t even breathe real hard if I was you. This gun’s got a hair trigger.” There was another reason to be wary of that gun. I knew countless stories of weapons like that, produced from a boot or the small of an officer’s back, meant to be placed in a suspect’s hand or close to his body should he somehow end up dead by the time the encounter was over.
One of the other officers finally spoke up: “Liquor store was robbed a couple blocks away about twenty minutes ago by somebody who matches your description.” As they inspected my ID and the other contents of my wallet, I told him as calmly as I could that right across the street, there was a whole building full of people who could vouch for who I was and where I’d been all evening. All three cops heard this, but they ignored it. It was as if I hadn’t said anything at all.
They threw me into the back of their car and radioed that they’d arrested a suspect. As they began to pull away from the curb, a voice on their radio told them to stay put. A lieutenant pulled up in a plain car behind us and talked with the officers while I listened to the police chatter coming over the airwaves.
The suspect was described as a light-skinned black male, about five foot seven, with extremely close-cropped hair and a slight mustache, wearing a knee-length, light tan leather coat. That was the only time I gave them attitude. I smirked a little and asked them, “That supposed to be me?” I stood about five foot ten in my boots, and I’m a medium brown . . . not someone that anybody has ever described as “light-skinned.” I wear glasses and was then sporting a scraggly goatee. And at that time, I had what might have been the biggest, baddest Afro in the entire state of Minnesota—a foot-tall brain-cloud kind of Afro, as far from “close-cropped” as it’s possible for hair to get. And I was wearing a waist-length, almost sepia leather coat, nothing remotely like the one in the description.
The lieutenant heard this, too. He flashed his badge at me and said to them, “Guys . . . really? Cut this guy loose.” Just like that. One of them spit, a couple of them grumbled, they uncuffed me and pulled me back out of their car, returned my wallet, and then tore off back down the street. No, “Oh, well, sorry, sir,” from them. Nothing.
I knew, as I tried to shake it off while walking home, that other scenes like this were playing out that evening in any number of other places in America. What if that non-regulation gun the cowboy cop had pressed against my head really did have a hair trigger? If I had reacted angrily and resisted, I might well have been killed, as have so many others before me and since, in just such an encounter.
There’s a history to encounters like these. And if you understand this history, even a little, you understand that all the hue and cry about “weeding a few bad apples” out of police departments and doing some retraining will not fix our problem. It is important to weed “bad apples” like that cowboy out of our police departments. But the core of the problem is that although undeniable racial progress has been made, the large numbers of African Americans left behind in intractable poverty are still stuck in the same cultural space as our ancestors were when just newly freed from slavery: stuck on the margins as perpetual outsiders in the land of their birth; feared; stigmatized as criminal by nature. This mostly subterranean attitude applies, in general, to other low-income communities of color as well.
So, the hard truth is that police departments deal with communities of color in exactly the way that American society, Minnesota society, has asked them to. There’s a readily observable pattern: people who find themselves routinely locked out of equal opportunity will generally find themselves locked up to roughly that same degree. Racially based restrictive housing covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948, but they have continued in practice. Until 1972, thousands of municipalities had vagrancy laws on the books that were about regulating black people’s lives. Even though those laws have long since been struck down, the racist beliefs that created and sustained them are still very much around—and as a consequence, too many police officers sometimes behave as though they’re still on the books. The result is that simply being young and black or brown is a de facto “status crime.” It’s not necessary to do anything wrong . . . just step outside on the street or get behind the wheel of your car, and you could already be in trouble.
As many black families pulled up stakes and left the communities where they’d been born and raised, searching for a better life, this part of the collective African American story never seemed to be grasped by the communities to which they moved, Minnesota included. Truly welcoming weary strangers into your company means, first, learning something about their story. How else can you possibly begin to divine what assistance or support they might need from you as they begin to build a new life? But Minnesotans, like other Americans, have seldom known or, seemingly, haven’t cared to know much about the stories of the non-European populations with whom they share this land.
Minnesotans evince little knowledge of the history of settler aggression or the widespread and egregious abrogation of treaty rights when it comes to the experiences of Indigenous peoples native to this soil. There is precious little understanding of the diverse histories of our Chicano/Latino populations, many of whom long ago became citizens, not because they crossed international borders to get here, but because the U.S. border crossed over them as a result of the massive amount of land seized from Mexico at the end of the Mexican War. A story that can be told in easily graspable, shorthand form (think Hmong refugees whose men had helped the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, forced to flee their old homeland to escape reprisals) stirs sympathy enough to mobilize an organized resettlement effort. But even that only goes so far. There is little patience here for immigrants from anywhere—Asian and Pacific Islander, African, Latino—or even Americans from much closer to home, like Chicago, who seem slow to assimilate. Ojibwe and Dakota people get the same treatment. And there’s a stark, simple equation at work here: if you fail to value a people’s stories, you fail to value them.
In sharp contrast to this, new immigrants are always listening for and trying to make sense of the stories of their adopted land. But here in the North Country, immigrants scramble to figure out for themselves the many unspoken rules about how to live in harmony with Minnesota Nice. And some of these rules are damned hard. They learn that no matter how angry and aggrieved you may feel, given the history of what’s happened to you and your people, you’re still expected to abide by the unspoken mandate to “kwitchurbeliakin.” That’s “Quit Your Belly Achin’,” for the uninitiated. Because life is just not fair. Period. So, whatever’s happened to you, suck it up and move on. It’s not okay to outwardly show anger or resentment in any way. This is evidence of weakness. And it’s not nice.
Being a true Minnesotan also means being self-sufficient. All cultures express this value in some way, but Minnesota’s is the most extreme iteration I’ve ever encountered. My introduction to at least one man’s version of this ideal came from a mechanic named Bud. He owned and ran a car-repair shop in a South Minneapolis neighborhood that, over decades, he’d seen transition from mostly white, mixed middle and working class, to largely working class and poor people of color.
In an area that had become about 60 percent black, and whose population had been steadily getting younger, the only customers ever seen coming or going were white men over forty. In inner-city neighborhoods of color, places like that become unofficially recognized as “no go zones.” Doesn’t look like your business is welcome there, so . . . you simply erase them from your mental map of the neighborhood, to the extent that when you pass by, you literally don’t even see them anymore. But on the day Bud and I met, the family car was giving me big trouble and I happened to be just a block or two from his place, so I figured it was a good day to stop in and take my chances.
Word was that the guy was racist, but after a little conversation, it didn’t feel that way to me. The more we talked, the more it occurred to me that, really, Bud was just generally a grumpy old bastard . . . and that he probably tended to instantly distrust and dismiss anybody who found it hard to deal with this fact. As I look back on our encounter from the perspective of someone who’s become a grumpy old bastard himself, I’m even more convinced of this. I told him what the car was doing, but he cut me off, grunting his diagnosis before I could even finish. “Alternator. Ain’t got time for that today . . . but I got one I could sell ya.” When I told him that I’d never replaced one and wouldn’t know where to begin—told him I’d just go on and walk home if he thought he’d have time to fix it for me the next day—he shot me a searing look of pity mixed with disgust and said, simply, A man ought never pay another man to do something he could do for himself.
This pronouncement felt stunningly sharp and severe, especially coming from the mouth of someone who did, after all, make his living from doing the repairs that his customers didn’t care to do. His words made me wonder what he must think of most of us men walking around his rapidly changing neighborhood, black and brown men, none of whom had come up, as he did, on a hardscrabble farm established by Norwegian immigrant grandparents who made the clothes they wore and who ate, almost entirely, only the food they grew themselves. People for whom life was hard . . . but who never complained. I thought about us black men from the neighborhood who walk around looking sullen and sad, and how men like Bud must look at us and wonder why. They don’t see much, if any, evidence of the discrimination that keeps us angry and on edge. They certainly don’t see how they’ve ever personally been guilty of committing an act of discrimination against us or anyone else. We don’t “get” each other. They don’t tend to understand much about how the world looks to us, and we don’t tend to understand much about how the world looks to them. So, even though some of the time we share the same space, we avoid talking . . . and when we must, we keep it superficial, allowing ourselves to come tantalizingly close for an instant, but then spiraling past each other like separate galaxies, each on its own axis, into the void.
As Bud’s words sank in, I turned to leave, but then suddenly, something in me wouldn’t let me leave on that note. I felt the need to challenge him, surprise him, through a small, spontaneous gesture, aimed at bridging that yawning, silent gulf between us, if only for a moment. “Okay, then,” I said. “Wanna take a minute or two and show me how to do it myself?” Without needing even a moment to think about it, he surprised me by pulling out the tools I’d need and agreeably talking me through the job while he sipped strong coffee and went back to working on the car he’d been fixing when I walked in.
As we worked side by side in his tiny shop, I eased into a story about my own people—how generations of my folk struggled, always managing to creatively “make a way from no way.” He didn’t say much. But he was listening. My attempt to paint as vivid a picture for him as I could of the people I come from—people who also took what life threw their way and didn’t complain—seemed to resonate with him. Mid-job, I noticed there was a sign on the wall stating that it was illegal for customers to be back there in the shop, an edict he’d apparently decided to ignore in my case. Even though he stepped in to help me replace and tighten the belts, he also decided to completely ignore the sign that said, “Shop Charge, $45 hr.,” because when I pulled out my checkbook to pay for the parts and asked why I shouldn’t pay him at least enough to split the difference on time with him, he said, “Well . . . why? Done it yourself, din’t ya?”
Minnesota Nice can be really nice. Interesting and complicated too.
Bridging the gulf between us is hard. It takes courage and effort. And the effort often results in an encounter that can be both unrewarding and unpleasant. But what alternative do we have? The demographic makeup of Minnesota, like the rest of the country is changing rapidly and radically. By 2050, the majority of America’s citizens will be comprised of groups who used to be called “minorities.” The majority here in Minnesota is likely to remain white for some time, but populations of color, especially the Latino population, will see a dramatic increase. The Somali population of the state was already so large by the year 2000 that Islam quietly supplanted Judaism as the state’s second most prominent religious faith.
As we move forward, we can lean on this: that although it tends to happen slowly and only with great, conscious effort, people and cultures do change in response to the changing realities and needs of their times. If we are to sort ourselves out and make good lives for ourselves in this ever-more-multicultural landscape, we’ve got to start by talking less and listening more.
We can listen—really listen—to one another’s stories and learn from them. Collectively, we can learn to tell a story that includes all our stories . . . fashion a mosaic-like group portrait from those stories that we all can agree truly does resemble people like us.
David Lawrence Grant has written drama for the stage, film, and television, as well as fiction and memoir. He has written major reports on racial bias in the justice system for the Minnesota Supreme Court and on racial disparities in the health care system for the Minnesota legislature. He teaches screenwriting at Independent Filmmaker Project/Minnesota.
Minnesota Historical Society Press announces the appointment of Laura Weber as editor of Minnesota History magazine. Weber succeeds Anne R. Kaplan, who retired in January 2016 after 37 years at MNHS Press. “Minnesota History is a premiere publication of MNHS, loved and valued by our members, teachers and scholars, and history lovers throughout the state and beyond. Laura’s deep experience as editor, writer and public historian make her an outstanding choice to helm the magazine and guide its future,” said Pamela J. McClanahan, publisher, MNHS Press.
After earning a BA in journalism and an MA in U.S. history at the University of Minnesota (where she studied under the late Professor Hy Berman), Weber worked in nonprofit communications before returning to the “U” as an editor in 1991. During her 20 years as a university editor and communications director, she also pursued an independent public history practice that included writing, editing, public presentations and walking tours. A recent highlight was being engaged by the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest from 2012 to 2015 to create a Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage (Legacy) Grant-funded series of 32 articles on Minnesota Jewish history for MNopedia, MNHS Press’ free, authoritative online encyclopedia about Minnesota.
Weber joined MNHS in April 2014 as communications manager in the Marketing & Communications department. Her association with Minnesota History, however, began in 1991 with the publication of “’Gentiles Preferred’: Minneapolis Jews and Employment: 1920-1950,” which won the Solon J. Buck Award, awarded annually to the best article published in Minnesota History. Her second Minnesota History article, on the National Register of Historic Places, received the David Stanley Gebhard Award from the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (MNSAH). Weber went on to serve MNSAH for 10 years as a member of its board of directors.
“Minnesotans of all ages and origins have demonstrated in many ways their abiding interest in the shared stories of our past and how these stories contribute to our understanding of our present and future,” Weber said. “As it has been for over a century, Minnesota History will be at the center of that ever-evolving conversation. I am thrilled to be part of it.”
Enter to win a SIGNED ADVANCE COPY of Michelle Leon’s forthcoming book, I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland, available March 15. Michelle played bass for the influential punk band Babes in Toyland from 1987 to 1992 and again in 1997.
We are giving away 25 signed ADVANCE READER COPIES of I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland by Michelle Leon. Contest ends Thursday, January 28, and winners will be announced that afternoon.
The hardcover edition will be available March 15. Follow Michelle on Facebook.
Stay tuned for more information about upcoming events with Michelle!
In the meantime, check out what people are saying about I Live Inside:
“A crucial and compelling account of what it was to be a woman making music in the nineties. . . . Fantastic and ferocious.”
—Jessica Hopper, music and culture critic and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
“Profound, poetic, badass, tender, and inspiring.”
—Will Hermes, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
“I Live Inside feels as real and personal as reading your own memories. . . . Parts read like a fairy tale while others are so haunting they will never leave you.”
—Kelli Mayo, musician (Skating Polly)
“Leon draws you right into the Babes in Toyland van, shows you the after-party tensions and what is in the mind of this particular girl in a band.”
—Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair: A Novel and others
“[Leon’s] prose is stunning, her eye is wry, and her heart enormous; the result is a compelling memoir filled with pop culture, travel, intrigue, and a young artist’s quest to find her voice.”
—Laurie Lindeen, musician (Zuzu’s Petals) and author of Petal Pusher: A Rock and Roll Cinderella Story
“By the end of this lyrical, tough, and moving memoir, you’ll not only feel like you know Michelle Leon, you’ll also want to talk and dance and listen to music with her.”
—Scott Heim, author of Mysterious Skin and We Disappear
“A vivid, poetic memoir.”
—Mark Yarm, author of Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
“This is Planet Leon.”
—David Markey, filmmaker, author, and musician
Please join us Thursday February 5, 2015 from 6-9 pm at the Minnesota History Center to celebrate the publication of Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota edited by Alexs Pate with co-editors Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell‽.
Blues Vision is a surprising and compelling anthology that reveals complex realities—beautiful, infuriating, painful, and uplifting—as described by African American writers in Minnesota over the past century.
The book is co-published with the Minnesota Humanities Center, sponsor of this anthology, which was made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2004.
Book Launch Celebration
Thursday February 5, 2015 from 6-9 pm
Minnesota History Center
345 Kellogg Ave. W. St. Paul, MN
6-7 pm Refreshments & cash bar
7-8 pm Book Talk and Readings by Contributors
8-9 Book Signing
Share the Facebook invitation
C-SPAN’s Cities Tour recently visited St. Paul, profiling various literary and historic sites and interviewing local historians and authors. Featured segments were broadcast on BOOK-TV and American History TV and can be viewed via the hyperlink above.
Minnesota Historical Society staff as well as MNHS Press authors Paul Maccabee, Dave Page, and Adam Scher helped C-SPAN share the stories of the Capital City’s rich historical and literary past.
BOOK-TV features include:
F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul with Dave Page, co-editor of The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cultural History of St. Paul via the Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Family Library with Patrick Coleman, acquisitions librarian
The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Story by Kao Kalia Yang
A profile of indie bookstore Common Good Books
Poet Laureate Carol Connolly
American History TV stories include:
The Minnesota State Capitol with historic site manager Brian Pease
Gangster History in St. Paul with Paul Maccabee, author of John Dillinger Slept Here
Early Life and Career of F. Scott Fitzgerald with Dave Page
Toys of the ’50s, ’60s, & ’70s with author and curator Adam Scher
Minnesota Historical Society Press Spring 2014 Titles
Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip (Paperback, February 2014)
The Brides of Midsummer (First English Translation, February 2014)
When I Was a Child: An Autobiographical Novel (February 2014)
Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women’s Movement (March 2014)
Keystones of the Stone Arch Bridge (April 2014)
Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research (April 2014)
Edited by Bruce Joshua Miller
Conflicted Mission: Faith, Disputes, and Deception on the Dakota Frontier (April 2014)
Linda M. Clemmons
Hungry Johnny (May 2014)
Cheryl Minnema, Illustrations by Wesley Ballinger
Toys of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s (May 2014)
Kate Roberts and Adam Scher
Scoop: Notes from a Small Ice Cream Shop (May 2014)
Smitten with Squash (July 2014)
Patricia Hampl calls Leaving Rollingstone “the most important memoir to come out of the Midwest (or anywhere) in years, an indispensable work of American autobiography.”
When people learned that I was publishing a memoir, some of them asked me: Are you old enough to write a memoir? My first impulse was to tell them that a) I am fifty-four and that b) when cardiologists see me, they often weep with despair. So, yes, I’m old enough. Then I realized that “Are you old enough to write a memoir?” is a polite way of asking their real question, “Are you famous enough to write a memoir?” To them, the word “memoir” triggers a very particular set of associations. Memoirs are written by those of us who’ve waged wars, negotiated peace, cured diseases, transformed societies, or, at the very least, married a Kardashian. Regular people do not write memoirs. I might as well have told them, “I’m thinking of having a statue made of myself. Know any good parks where I can put it?”
But I’d argue that what’s been called the literary memoir — in other words, a memoir by someone who is unexceptional except for their ability to write about their experience — is essential and valuable. The advent of the literary memoir is an extension of some big trends in literature and the humanities. We have moved from writing about God in the bible to writing about kings in Shakespeare to writing about regular people in the novels of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. In fact, we read novels precisely because we believe that a human life which might otherwise be unnoticed by history is worthy of attention. It’s not that big of a jump to care about real people.
The word “memoir” itself doesn’t do me any favors. It does, after all, start off with me, which tends to reinforce the perception of narcissism that surrounds the genre. But good literary memoirs aren’t just about their author. They are about that portion of history which the author has witnessed. They are about the estuary where larger historical trends mingle with the individual human life. No other genre can give us the particular insights that come from that intersection.
If Leaving Rollingstone were just about me, it would be a very different book. In the book, there are four lines about the most traumatic romantic relationship of my life — a relationship which left debris strewn over an entire decade — and there are about twenty lines about Spirographs. There’s a single brief flashback acknowledging four happy years at Beloit College — and an essay-length meditation on a book I read in 1995 and didn’t much care for. (It illuminated the book’s themes.) Leaving Rollingstone is about me but it’s also about family farms, small towns, and Catholic schools and their surprising legacies.
It’s useful to replace “literary memoir” with “personal history.” “Literary memoir” has always bothered me because it over-emphasizes the aesthetic. In its sometimes impressionistic way, my memoir was history. It spoke to the closing of schools, the loss of farms, the distinctiveness of a culture, and the influence of a zeitgeist. It spoke for a particular place and time and, most importantly, for particular people. If a president talks smack in his memoir about his secretary of state, the secretary probably has some recourse. But my record of my parents and friends and neighbors in Rollingstone is probably the only extensive record that will be left of their lives.
So while I wrote with the fallibility of personal witness, and the urge to create a shapely story, I evolved some rules for myself. First, you don’t have to be a neurologist to know that memory is tricky. I tried to write in a way that reflected that understanding without belaboring it. With the exceptions of some particularly vivid memories, I tried to report routines rather than events and ongoing impressions rather than momentary experiences; I tried to make it clear when I was passing on anecdotes which might have been rubbed smooth by retelling. I included very little dialogue and flagged the dialogue I did include as conjecture. When I presumed to record what my mom and dad might have been thinking on a particular morning, I used language that made it clear I was making an educated guess.
And you don’t have to be a French theorist to know that, even if memory is a perfect record of the past, human speech is twisted by our relentless agendas and alibis and limited by what Frank Bidart called our “proximate and partial” relation to truth. Given this, I tried to understand the perspective of others and to perforate my own self-justification. I tried to get the main historical facts right. Another way of saying all this is that I tried to act like a grown-up. And that brings me back to the question I started with. Am I old enough to write a memoir? The answer is yes, but just barely.
Ka Vang is a poet, spoken word artist, playwright, and community activist. We are pleased to release her provocative essay The Good Hmong Girl Eats Raw Laab, available as an e-book short for just 99 cents. The e-short is one of our new MHS Express titles.
The piece examines the social and cultural implications of “a good Hmong girl” by addressing these issues: “What does it mean to be a good Hmong girl? Who defines the good Hmong girl? Who practices it and enforces the rules? What are the rewards and consequences for the Hmong girl and her family if she is not a good Hmong girl? Would Hmong culture be diminished if there were no more good Hmong girls left?”
Ka has been busy! She was recently featured on MNOriginal, Twin Cities Public Television’s award-winning weekly arts series celebrating Minnesota’s creative community, and her new book, Shoua and the Northern Lights Dragon, produced with the Minnesota Humanities Council and the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, is now available.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He is the former editor of The Circle newspaper and Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for Indian Country Today. We asked him about how he came to write his new book, My Mother Is Now Earth.
How did you decide to write about your mother?
Actually, I never wanted to write about my mother’s life for a few reasons. The first is that I was just a boy when she passed on. There are only so many memories an eight- or ten-year-old boy can gather. And of course, the boy of me had a very limited understanding of the harsh realities of poverty, growing up in a home with a mother who struggled with depression and a father who was lost to drinking.
My mother was extremely private. She shared very little things of her heart. Much of that was because many American Indian women of her generation were the same. The work of survival is always cloaked in social and personal invisibility. So I had little to reveal about a mother who hid her heart. How could I know it? Even my father and older brothers were often puzzled in trying to understand her.
But the other reason is that given we came from such a tough, dysfunctional reality, and that all of us, the sons and daughter, have tried to move on, to remove the pain, to keep the good memories alive, I always felt it invasive to write about those last three years of our mother’s life because I never wanted to “exploit” the shared story I have with my siblings.
Of course, I never gave much of this any thought in depth until I met Ann Regan, my editor at Borealis Books. When I was editor of The Circle in Minneapolis, Ann and I used to have rich fellowship when we met for lunch–talking about potential Native American stories that might be appropriate to for the press. Naturally, she was very interested in Native American memoir. And she often wondered if I would ever be interested in writing one. I began to consider her interest, but after given it much thought I decided I just could not tell even my own story because it was so woven into the tapestry of my collective history with my family.
So why did you decide to embark on this journey of telling your mother’s story?
In the winter of 2008, I was living in Madison, teaching at the University of Wisconsin and taking care of my high school nephew, Nicholas, I used to walk through this community garden across the street from our apartment. I was just moved by the slumber of winter. And I kept visiting that garden until the spring was in full bloom. One day I honestly felt my mother’s spirit in the warm wind, felt her presence within the very living, coming alive, Earth. It was through embracing this wild, wonderful sensation that she was, in fact, one with the Earth, as many–if not all–American Indians believe, she was there and so was her story. I stayed in that “Earth spirit,” if I may, and began the book from that dreamy, lyrical reality. It gave me an opening into the story. It brought my personal memories of my mother and those final three years in northern Minnesota to life.
Often, writing the memoir is cathartic for many writers – a process of sifting through unresolved emotions, experiences that lead to making sense of one’s history. Was this true for you?
Indeed, there was a great deal of coming to terms with the unresolved. I lost my mother quite suddenly. I was a boy. I never knew her beyond the year of her death, 1973. The grief and the painful, painful work it does in us when we lose a loved one was forced upon me. I have never been one to bury pain by hiding in my work or in play. And I’m forever grateful that I can’t avoid pain. I must feel it, embrace it. And in the many years since my mother’s young passing on I have worked very hard at understanding me, understanding how my childhood has affected my adult self.
There is great freedom and healing when an adult finds the courage to undo the past in order find change. Therefore, in approaching my mother’s story there was no grief to return to. The loss of her and its impact on me was complete–had been for many years. Sure, there was sorrow and much pain in reliving those final three years, but at the same time, the sorrow was surpassed by this uncanny realization that as I pressed on in the writing I felt like I was getting to know a woman who was taken from me at such an early age. I honestly believe that I have gotten to know my mother and her hidden heart. Amazing. To think one could get to know a parent beyond the grave is more than healing. It is, as we Indians say, full circle.
Given the trepidation and quite frankly, very real fear of “exposing” your family’s’ story how did you resolve the dilemma of writing this memoir?
First of all, my father passed on in 1989. I would not have attempted to write this story if he were still alive today. Like everyone, of all classes and races, Donald Rolo was quite complex. He could be loving and vicious, defender and attacker. I know he loved my mother deeply and thus, the tragedy of their relationship. But as much as I could attempt to convince him that this story was my own story, about my own memory of my relationship with my mother, his wife, I do not believe he would have received that– and mostly because of his own guilt and shame at how he treated her and their children.
My father being removed from this life allowed me to truly embrace the truth that I “owned,” my personal story of my mother and me. I had a right to tell my story, regardless of concern for siblings. So I went through great lengths to truly “personalize” this story, leaving room for family members to say, “Well, that’s how Mark Anthony remembered it. I have a different recollection.” And that was okay with me. At the very least, my siblings agree that the attempt here was to honor our mother–give her the due of more dignity than despair.
If the memoir, for you, is not about closure or resolve in understanding your upbringing, then what does this story mean for you?
I believe each and every one of us has a story to tell. We share an equal worth in the family we call the universe. That one might want to tell their story for posterity, greater clarity and understanding, or simply to reminisce, it is all entirely valid. But I believe the impulse to tell our own story is as ancient as with all storytelling throughout the centuries. From cave paintings to the printed word, we tell our story to find meaning, purpose, in order to better connect to our rightful place in the universe. Our lives, our histories are much more than a series of random anecdotes, recurring scenes that haunt or give us joy. Our lives, our experiences add up to a larger, personal narrative–what has been our journey in this life and what will it be beyond this world?
MinnPost, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota Press present the Third Annual MinnPost Book Club Blast with keynote author Kate DiCamillo on Sunday, February 12, at Open Book in Minneapolis.
The day’s festivities include the keynote with Kate, fantastic door prizes, and breakout sessions on topics such as running a successful book club, sharing your favorite book club reads, whether writers need a publisher, how writers should promote themselves online, and a memoir author panel with three prominent local writers, including Sarah Stonich, author of Shelter, published by our very own Borealis Books.
The event concludes with a wine and dessert reception and book signings with participating authors.