Every quagmire is a potential opportunity if viewed sideways, so the saying goes. Sitting in the circle of a community gathering of mostly Black folks and a few Native folks a few months back, I began to wonder how the quagmire that our two communities find ourselves here in The Great White North (as we like to call it), might be moved into opportunity through real, honest, and therefore, painful dialog that I feel at least we in the Twin Cities Black community have not so much avoided as not heard.
There were maybe 20 or so of us gathered at Pillsbury House that night, discussing Marcus Gardley’s provocative new play The Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry, which is the second in his trilogy about Black Seminole communities – this one set in the 19th century. It is a difficult history, and a difficult story, about genocide and dissolution, and the willful ramming apart of things, like so many of our truly American stories are. It is also, I would argue, a story about two communities that have been systematically and deliberately ravaged by the rapacious appetites of conquest and domination, but which have not, up until now, really had that opportunity to face one another, blinders off, to look each other in the eye, and take in what has happened to us, and what we have become.
In Minneapolis, the city with the most Native professionals of anywhere in the country, is also home to the most Black Ph.D’s in the country. At the same time, the majority of Blacks and Natives aren’t doing too well, and we mostly don’t see each other at all. We certainly don’t learn about each other’s histories and cultures in our white-dominated schools. Nor do we engage each other in our workplaces, or in our aesthetic and cultural spaces. Perhaps this is because, in the end, we really do believe the image that mainstream white-identified culture has painted of the other. Or perhaps, it is because so many of us are too busy just trying to make it day-to-day in a harsh and unforgiving culture to even begin to think about connecting with someone outside our immediate circles, much less build cross-cultural coalitions. Maybe the reason we don’t know each other isn’t really important. All I know is that I felt undone and out of sorts sitting in that circle that night, that I felt, that I could sense some kind of essential connection had been severed between us, Black and Native in Minneapolis. Or…Was it ever there? I can’t answer that. All I know is that it feels like a loss, like some piece is out of alignment. And the loss will only increase if we put on a Multi-Culti Happy Face, and pretend that we are not where we are now, and that we don’t know how to contend with each other’s histories, and present-day realities. And if it is heresy, dare I say that it is heresy worth repeating, that the onus may very well be on the community that has more political, economic, and social power at the moment, and that is ours, the Black one?
I take comfort in the knowledge that there are some roadmaps, some compasses we can use to get our bearings in this work. Native activist and scholar Andrea Smith writes of what keeps women of color organizing divided and therefore, ineffectual, in her landmark essay, “Heteropatriarchy, and The Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” in which she suggests that we must look at the various ways racism and white supremacy have historically affected our various communities. She writes, “Envision three pillars, one labeled Slavery/Capitalism, another labeled Genocide/Capitalism, and the last one labeled Orientalism/War, as well as arrows connecting each of the pillars together.” What if Blacks and Natives could adopt this framework for engaging each other, instead of continuing to engage the fallacy that we are/were cut from the same historical cloth?
For me at least, the most radical act I may engage in may be the simplest one: to listen to our Native peers. We Black folks are so used to being whited out at work and community meetings, in our white-identified institutions and social spaces, that we are often more prepared to speak some overlooked, essential truth about our community than we are to listen to another perhaps more foreign truth , whose cultural practices and histories may be a good bit quieter than ours, but equally if not more disparaged in the mainstream. I am the first one to admit that my knowledge of Native history and culture in Minnesota is fragmented at best, piecemeal at worst, but I was deeply dismayed when a Black woman in the circle asked a Native woman, “You don’t consider yourself an American?” “No, I don’t,” the Native woman answered simply, and the Black woman looked completely flummoxed. That, in a nutshell, explains where we are at, I thought. You don’t know about our history, because if you did, the pain and horror of it would crush you, a Native friend told me later, and I knew she was right. Although we may know the official story of the founding of Minnesota, we most certainly do not know the whole story of land theft and extermination. For so many of us, a basic understanding of the make up of tribes, nations, and Native peoples is even elusive. Given this fact, we really have no way to even begin to process the continuing struggles of our Dakota peers, nor can we weigh in on what should be done about and on the upcoming 150th anniversary of the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, which occurred in our very own Mankato.
Let me clear here: This is not about Who has it worse. This is simply about who has the most aesthetic, cultural, and institutional capital at this particular moment in time, in which we have the opportunity – and the quagmire – of beginning a difficult conversation. As Pillsbury House continues its ongoing journey into the heart of the Native-Black encounter, I am asking you, my Black people: Who is ready to listen?