As Panelist at Black in The Middle: The Inaugural Black Midwest Symposium

On October 19th I sat on a panel formed by Chaun Webster featuring radio host Lissa Jones, history professor Keith Mayes, writer and City Councilwoman Andrea Jenkins, organizer and foster care advocate Lucina Kayee and City Councilman Jeremiah Ellison. The conference was organized by Terrion Williamson, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and Director of Black Midwest Initiative. It turns out that I prepared far more than my time and computer battery would allow. What follows is the presentation in its entirety, including slides that no one ever got to see.

I am going to speak in fragments. I hope that you don’t mind.

I thought this talk would be about any number of stereotypes that function like archetypes here in Minnesota: about passive aggressiveness, Minnesota nice, the local accent or white girlfriends and wives. Perhaps it is. Perhaps all stories are true because truths are often arrived at through stories…which is, in part, my challenge here…

I’ve essentially composed forms to improvise in. Put them together to see what kind of reading we can generate. Call it playful, self-conscious divining after the linguistic turn. Black praxis… 

I’ve played the drums for nearly 35 years and lead bands playing composed and improvised music under the filing category “jazz.” I lead but am also led by a panoply of cultural heroes and a collective fantasy that, by the sounds of its first recording, was up for grabs. This is to say that I understand that the “jazz” that I play is a modernist invention drawn off of something that came with black people from Native lands out of the south. The remnant southern folk spirit alive at the interzones of northern cities and towns (even Minneapolis-St. Paul) has helped decide the fate of the modern into the present. Even if the producers and consumers are now predominantly white. Even if the owners remain white. 

In the broadest sense, though, my work is concerned with the interactions between literature, myth, history and memory. Also the reciprocity and co-dependence of local and world, particular and universal. That part of my identity that is black identity is “invested” in literature, myth, history and memory all at once like sound is invested in silence. 

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Name your three favorite black people.

I was not able to answer ‘Mama, daddy and me…’  Instead I chose three male heroes. First W.E.B. DuBois, second someone whom I’ve since forgotten and, third Richard Wright. It occurred to me then that–as sometimes happens–I hadn’t heard or understood the question until after I’d answered it. 

My Ancestry.com “DNA Story”

As a professor I’ve taught Homer’s Odyssey, the Sundiata epic of the Mali Empire and the Hebrew Bible. Recently, I was reading a very old story from the Douala of Cameroon and thought of the theme of home/place and the role of the known world in establishing group consciousness.

This past Thursday, along with vocalist Sara Greer and percussionist Babatunde Lea, I performed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in conversation with the exhibition “In Dialogue with the Forest: Barkcloth Paintings from Congo” which Mbuti artists produce as part of ritual conversations with local surroundings.

I’m thinking: How do you build the familiar (consciousness wed to a world of forms) with often rapid displacement? You get changed. Much of human history and storytelling seems to be concerned with that problem. And so here we are.

A mapping of the movements of my maternal and paternal lines from the former slave states into the Midwest.

One strand of my family line made it to rural Iowa before the 20th century. Before that there was Virginia and stops between. Another line claims land just south of Memphis, TN…as they have since just after the Civil War. After having left Mississippi.

Quoting Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher writing from Turkey, and with Mississippi-derived Richard Wright in mind, the Oklahoman Ralph Ellison writes: “Geography is fate.” South and Southwest: “Wright and I were united by our connection with a past condition of servitude, and divided by geography and a difference of experiences based thereupon,” Ellison adds. 

Thereupon. 

These are, of course, the words of Adolph Hitler as quoted by Kenneth Burke in his “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle’.” Burke’s careful analysis of the religious pattern that Hitler’s “Nazi magic” relied upon. I’ve selected the quote as a caution against my desire to claim nativity as absolute authority. I repeat it here in order to say something about intention, but also of its limits. 

This is the Minnesota state seal which might be interpreted as a kind of transaction: a white man expresses and protects his privilege to settle stolen land while a Native leaves.

To be sent away. Taken away. To leave. 

For instance, we have a club here called Dakota Jazz. Its at the ground-level at the 33-story Target Plaza South in downtown Minneapolis. Dakota Jazz. The twice-stolen, Hard Rock Cafe of our local “jazz” world.

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I first read Richard Wright’s Native Son over 20 years ago after moving with my drums to Hyde Park on Chicago’s south side, where the author’s familiar fear-plagued protagonist Bigger Thomas rambles from south side haunt to south side haunt. Where I went searching for the Black Arts Movement as represented by Association Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the Great Black Music for which they are famous. I was 21 and it was the first I’d ever read about someone so similar to the people I knew.

In an essay titled “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Ellison notes the following about Wright’s point-of-view: “Wright saw his destiny–the combination of that combination of forces before which man feels powerless–in terms of a quick and casual violence inflicted upon him by both his family and community. His response was likewise violent, and it has been his need to give that violence significance which has shaped his writing.”

I find myself today struck by the last part of this observation, namely: “it has been his need to give that violence significance which has shaped…”. In a chronicle of gang-related killing in North Minneapolis, the August 4th, 1992 edition of Minneapolis Star Tribune provides the following:

ROBERT UDELL BRIGHT. died April 13, 1990

Bright, 32, was fighting with a group of people near the intersection of Humboldt and Plymouth Avs. N. late at night when Alonzo Nash Bell showed up and ended the dispute with three shots to Bright’s body, police said. Bright died the next day in the hospital. Police characterized the confrontation as a dispute about drug money, possibly involving the same Vice Lord group that hung around Redding, who had died at the same corner six weeks before. Bell, 22, had a record of drug convictions and had previously been identified as a member of the Unknown Vice Lords.

We called Robert “Peaumont” and “Poopy,” and my earliest memory (of him or anyone) is of trying to nap while my mother talked him back into the house; otherwise he was on his way out to kill somebody. Along with Scooter, Poopy would be among the first that my family lost to Minneapolis’s “War on Drugs.”

But then Ellison asks: “What were the ways by which other Negroes confronted their destiny?”

For my sixth great-grandfather, Elijah Young/John Green, it was slavery in Virginia, then Kentucky, then freedom in Ontario, Canada; then Ohio without his first wife and children. He would die in Ohio in the care of his grandson, Elijah.

To be sent away. Taken away. To leave. 

Originally, I was named for my father, David. His mother (to spite his father) named him for her other boyfriend, trumpeter-arranger David “Duffy” Goodlow. David “Duffy” Goodlow was well-known among Midwest territory bands of the Depression era. My grandfather, Jewel, moved to Chicago with a white woman that he met in Minnesota after the war, but he would leave her in Chicago to a world that was not yet ready for the two of them together. He would head back south, near Memphis, in the 1980s. 

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Hip Hop’s coast wars (a marketing spectacle with fatal consequences) made it to North Minneapolis, too. As did the largest murder rate per capita. Coast Wars and Murderapolis. I was around Bigger Thomas’s age.

It’s them niggas from Chicago, we’d say. 

In 1985, after a profitable run as a small-time, nonviolent dope peddler, my stepfather bought a drum set. He’d left Chicago and the Black Stones in 1975. He was following his then girlfriend and her new children. She was leaving the Disciples in Cabrini Green. My mother would await them both. 

Barber Francis Henry cutting Virgie Robinson’s hair at a shop located at Plymouth and Queen 
Ave. N. Virgie is the mother of my step-siblings Dee Dee and Maurice Robinson. The image appears in the book Sights Sounds Soul: The Twin Cities Through The Lens of Charles Chamblis (MHS Press, 2017).

My step siblings who lived with us on and off over the years (and who were proud of their birthplace) taught me about roguishness, Cooley High, Troop sneakers, Boosters, Jew Town, Folks, Lords…about signifying on corporate brands, how to starch a janitor uniforms, about cornrows, colors, ritual libations and other sacred symbols. Mine were jungle camouflage, Krylon, fat cigars from Philadelphia. Basquiat, Keith Haring. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Rakim in Nas. The blues in all of it. (Life’s a bitch, and then you die, went the tune.)

Another early memory: at Oak Park and Oliver, across from Pastor Paul’s Disciples Ministry, an elder black man shoots a black boy who rides his bike across the man’s lawn. Neighbors want revenge; the press shows up and provides them with the opportunity.

This over-saturated image is a still taken from a Youtube video that, before it was taken down, erroneously located the incident to a suburb of Minneapolis. The video once lived here.

It’s them niggas from Chicago, we’d say. 

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My great grandmother, who we called “Turtle,”  was born in a farming community in Chariton, IA, in 1910. I remember she had pigs feet and Karo corn syrup in the fridge. And chewed Day’s Work plug tobacco. She moved to Minneapolis during the second World War where she would meet the returning soldiers as a sex worker. 

When Interstate 94 came and the clubs that used to line the old Negro Vice District, Sixth Avenue, closed, the family would move over to the Plymouth Ave Elks Lodge to drink. Many of the so-called jazz clubs would move to the western suburbs with much of the Jewish population. (Fans of the Coen’s brothers film A Serious Man have already seen one version this community.)

Left: Corine Lillian Spears (aka Grandma Turtle) c. 1920 with her classmates. Right: Colleen Bright (center) surrounded by family and friends of the Elks Drum and Bugle Corp. 1976. It appears in the book Sights Sounds Soul: The Twin Cities Through The Lens of Charles Chamblis (MHS Press, 2017).

Here, in the picture on the right, is Turtle’s sister, Colleen, flanked by family (including my mother and father) and friends as the Elks Drum & Bugle Corp. during the first month-long celebration of Black history in Minneapolis. I discovered the black and white version of the photograph while doing research for a book on the man who took it, the photographer Charles Chamblis. A color version of it hung in the houses of the women that raised me up and out into the world. The women whose names alluded me when I was asked to name my three favorite black people. People too close to be fully legible. Instead I struck out for the idols who, like “ships at a distance” (to quote the opening words of Huston’s There Eyes Were Watching God–a book that would suffer under the male gaze of my two favorite black people, WEB Du Bois and Richard Wright, upon its publication), represent a target for an identification always on the move…

And, I’m to understand, its is hard to hit a moving target, especially if it’s you.

Thank you.

 

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