Down and Out in Minnesota

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), describes his seasons washing dishes as a plongeur in an immense Parisian hotel, where the kitchen and scullery are sunk into the depths like Satan’s den, and the floors above rise into beauty and grandeur like springtime and heaven’s glory. He was knowledgeable and well-read, but needed work. Living in a tiny attic room (reminiscent of Raskalnikov’s in Crime and Punishment) he brought the hotel’s squalor home with him and formed it into a vivid account. Yet, it has a different flavor from other documents of poverty and degradation because of his resources of talent and education, his commitment to literature and writing, and his transience–he eventually receives cash and a job that allow him to return England. These quickly alleviate the grimness of working seventeen hours a day and consorting with thieves, “trollops” and murderers.

Most Minnesotans growing up in the inner and outer-ring suburbs or rural areas are white, relatively affluent and, unless they live in Eden Prairie or Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, are totally ignorant of poverty, racism and major crime. Recently a young white woman confessed that her enormous suburban high school included only a few students of color, and that she herself did not encounter groups of African-Americans until as a teen, she went shopping in a Brooklyn Center mall. “Eveyone was black,” she said. And she was so startled and uncertain how to act that she left. It was as if she’d been transported to another country where she suddenly was the “other.”

I feel sorry for her as she struggles to rectify her “whiteness.” Her college experience at the University of Minnesota helped by adding some reading in African-American history and literature. But she still has a long way to go to appreciate the complexity of race relations in this country. This appreciation (earned through experience, effort and reflection) and complexity (always present) will be a lifelong effort, if she chooses to make it so. Since she’s my student, and I’m learning from her as she is from me, we are in this together.

Being black in Minnesota has changed, I’ll hazard, since the 1940s-60s. Oddly enough, when segregation was in force, two strong African-American communities developed in the Twin Cities: the near north side of Minneapolis, and the Rondo area of Saint Paul. Here African-Americans built their own institutions: stores, churches, barber shops, schools, entertainment. They’d come to the Twin Cities via Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis or other way stations on their move north during World War I or II. They still had strong ties to the south, to extended families of farming people, and they had jobs on the railroad or in industry ramped up by the wars. Many women worked in white homes. Unlike the huge African-American communities in Chicago and Cincinnati or Saint Louis and Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and New York, those in the Twin Cities were relatively small and hadn’t yet developed the range of wealth, education and status present in the older communities.

It’s no surprise that President and Mrs. Obama spent formative years in Chicago. Chicago has the community capital to “raise up” black lawyers, mayors, educators, legislators, business people. This has been true since the end of the 19th century. As Alan Spear’s Black Chicago describes, some of the great “race” leaders came from Chicago, as they did from New York. When we speak of New York’s Harlem Renaissance, we mean a density of population, talent, and financial support to grow writers and artists, musicians and performers. In the 1920s, it was popular among “with it” whites to attend the African-American Apollo theater in Harlem. Many talented African-American writers received support for education, travel, writing time, and publication from multi-race benefactors.

The Twin Cities certainly has now and in the past talented black artists and writers–the Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul is nationally recognized as one of the finest contributors of African-American theater, especially in its productions of August Wilson’s series of plays about African-American life in decade of the 20th century. Poets like Roy McBride and artists like Ta-Comba Aiken bring to life their vision. But, oddly enough, with the Civil Rights era and the end of segregation, the two Twin Cities neighborhoods, especially Rondo in Saint Paul, no longer represent as strong a congregation as they did, ready to raise each other up.

When Highway 94 sliced Rondo in two, the construction forced many residents to move. To appreciate Rondo before the highway, read Evelyn Fairbanks wonderful memoir Days of Rondo, published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1990.

Don’t get me wrong: the Civil Rights movement and legislation ending segregation and then supporting voting rights made illegal some of the worst forms of institutionalized racism that came into being after the Civil War. But community has always been one of a people’s greatest assets. When that frays, and it’s easy to see how it would among a small population–busing students away, families moving to suburbs–I wonder what effect that ultimately has on everything from raising children to raising capital.

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