ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
I mention this because it matters, because I teach at a community college that functions as a bridge between the north side of Minneapolis and the suburban sprawl just beyond, and almost literally so, as highways zip across highways, linking community to community and culture to culture, the Mississippi River cutting across the land just a few miles from campus. From one window, we can easily imagine spying the Minneapolis skyline; from another, the sprawling tight-knit housing; from another, the manufactured shopping centers; and, from another, if we peer a little farther, the green-laced farmlands just beyond the ‘burbs. This school, North Hennepin Community College, is one at which nearly 50% of the students are students of color, representing a vast swathe of cultures both local and global. But I’m white, and I was raised in a white household in a number of majority white communities. This, and please excuse the pun, colors my experiences, particularly my educational and social ones. My experience as a white man in a white environment often keeps me distanced from the experiences of so many of my students. As a writing teacher—both creative writing and composition—digging into social experiences and complex/complicated viewpoints is, at least following my own pedagogy and desires for higher education, absolutely necessary, especially in the culturally diverse and ethnically rich communities of North Minneapolis and the suburbs just beyond the city limits.
The Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area has been in the national news quite a bit lately, and, unfortunately, not for our explosive hotbed of a literary arts scene; instead, we’ve been seen on the screens across the nation—and beyond—for police shootings, particularly because of the killing of Jamar Clark in 2015, the live-streamed death of Philando Castile less than a year later, the subsequent trial of Officer Jeronimo Yanez, and the conversations on race and racism that have followed after the death of Justine Damond by a Somali-American police officer.
But none of this is new. Minneapolis has been here before.
For my Fall 2016 composition class, I chose to use a new anthology of essays, A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016, edited by Sun Yung Shin), which is one of the most spectacular anthologies on the subject of race and racism. While each essay is worthy of extensive discussion, I’d like to spend time here with David Lawrence Grant’s “People Like Us.” Grant begins his essay with a brief, yet quite recent history, a background on Minneapolis itself:
During the long hot summers of ’93-94, that [crack cocaine] epidemic created a staggering body count—enough to spark the moniker, 'Murderapolis.' This was just when the line between journalism and bread-and-circuses entertainment had rapidly begun to blur, but, still, the label was more than mere hype… Minneapolis, renowned for its clean streets, its clean, progressive politics, and its creative philanthropy, was suddenly famous for something else entirely, and it made both everyday citizens and civic boosters extremely uneasy. (195)
The essay chronicles how the uneasiness was more remote, though, “as though all of this was actually happening someplace else,” until the 1995 death of Anne Dunlap, a white woman, and then the fear—particularly the tone of the media coverage—shifts, and Grant allows us in to a particular news report, in which the anchor asks a reporter why this case, in particular, garnered so much public attention; the reporter responds, “[because] this time, it’s someone like us” (196).
When I teach this essay, I don’t lead my students. I don’t tell them what to expect or give them guidelines that shape their initial reactions—I want them to have a raw response, to get both what the newscasters are saying and how Grant, himself, responds to the clarity thrust upon him in that moment—which, ultimately, is how he, as a black man, is seen by the larger, whiter community.
And I’m white. I mention this again because it’s what I tell my students; I tell them that I have societally developed biases, that my whiteness has afforded me benefits, that so often I have to shut up and listen—on the page, in conversation, via video or radio—to people who have different experiences than I do, people whose perspectives have often been silenced or ignored (often, during this time, we discuss gender and gender identity, as well—and then the students point out the irony and laugh at me because I just said I need to “shut up and listen” and, there I am, talking away).
Grant’s “People Like Us” continues with a discussion on “Minnesota Nice,” as well as a more extended history of race/racism in Minnesota, from the 1862 public hanging of the Dakota 38 to the arrival of the KKK in the 1920s to neighbors driving a black family out of their home in 1931 to Grant’s own experience being harassed by police in the 1970s. In class discussion, this is inevitably when someone will say they didn’t know about this horrible past and that they’re so glad it’s all behind us. Likely, this student will be white, but not always. I might have been this student when I was eighteen years old. Likely, I would have gotten away with it, and my classmates would have either stayed quiet or nodded their heads in likeminded ignorance. But this is one of the wonderful aspects of teaching at a college with a diverse student body, in a class where we’ve done our damnedest to open up the conversations to everyone who wants to join, so, in one instance, another student, a Latina woman with a keen interest in becoming a police officer, responds that 1994 isn’t all that long ago (our students are not just racially diverse, but diverse in age, as well), even though quite a few of the students were born years afterward, and then another student, a studious young Hmong man, adds, “And racism is alive and well right now.” Most of the rest of the class nods along, in likeminded understanding.
I’d prepared for these discussions; I’ve taught at this college for eight years, and at a similar one on the St. Paul side for a few years before that. I’m generally pretty intuitive, and I know these students. So when I’d prepped for teaching this book and essay in the late spring of 2016, I wrote down a number of expected responses. But then, on July 6, 2016, two months before the class started, Philando Castile was pulled over by police because he allegedly resembled a robbery suspect (an occurrence mirroring Grant’s own experience in 1970); he complied with the police officer’s instructions, and was shot and killed with his fiancée and her daughter were in the car.
While I have my own responses to Castile’s death and the racism that lead to the shooting (to say nothing of Jeronimo Yanez’s not-guilty verdict), that’s neither what I plan to discuss here or in my classes (unless the students desire to do so—which they usually do), but instead the collective media’s response. Composition is not just about essay structure, but about critical thinking, about media awareness, about communication—including rhetoric, so we often delve into how communication is happening and what is being said “under the surface.” Yet I hadn’t expected my students to grasp so well the public rhetoric regarding the shooting of Philando Castile, the words and phrases used, the photographs shown, the selection of details sliced from a complex life. The police killing of Castile was obviously not the only case of a black man being killed at the hands of police over the past few years, but it was here, in our own backyards, on a street many of the students drive on.
Last year, on July 6, 2016, Philando Castile, an innocent black man, was shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota. This was the news that opened the school year.
This changed the expectations of the course and discussions; it changed the conversation. We weren’t just talking about the rhetoric of racism in Minnesota as a theoretical concept (which, of course, to many, it has never been), but as a dead young man in our home.
This year, this is the news that greets the school year: On July 15, 2017, Justine Damond, an innocent white woman, was shot and killed by a police officer in Minnesota. The public and media uproar has been deafening; the rhetoric and tone of the coverage nearly opposite of Castile’s death. The police chief lost her job. As we move forward, I can imagine how this will shape the discussions, how it will change the conversation regarding rhetoric and how intimately this ties to the response to the death of Anne Dunlap 22 years earlier. I don’t know how the conversations will change, but I imagine they will.
Conversations always change.
Which leads to why, so they’ve told me, so many of my students—no matter race, ethnicity, age, major, economics, faith, community—gravitate toward Grant’s essay as one of their favorites of the semester, because, while he is straightforward about the problems of racism in our community, he also acknowledges that sometimes what we see might not be racism but straight-up assholishness, that “Bridging the gulf between us is hard,” but that there is some hope, an opportunity for progress (212).
Toward the end of his essay, Grant offers his advice, “If we are to sort ourselves out and make good lives for ourselves in this ever-more-multicultural landscape, we’ve got to start talking less and listening more” (212). I’ll read this sentence aloud to the students, reminding them what I’d told them earlier, that I’m white and sometimes I just need to shut up and listen, so they shake their heads and laugh at me, tell me I’m still just talking away. And they’re right, because I’m still learning.
Brian Baumgart’s chapbook of poetry, Rules for Loving Right, was released from Sweet Publications in 2017, and his prose and poetry have appeared in a number of print and online journals, including Tipton Poetry Journal, Blue Earth Review, Good Men Project, SLAB, and Ruminate. He directs the AFA in Creative Writing Program at North Hennepin Community College, just outside Minneapolis, and he has an MFA from Minnesota State University-Mankato. He recently taught his children how to use a power sander and a hatchet; he's amazed he still has all of his fingers. His son adores mythological monsters and cryptids, and his daughter long ago learned to croak “Redrum” while angling her finger at strangers. He will gladly accept responsibility for these children
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