Where Are You From Black & Midwestern: On the Mississippi and Sites of Memory
“The question of where you’re from is often met with eager anticipation to easily judge you.”
In the summer before sixth grade, I found myself in Cookeville, Tennessee with my cousins to visit their grandfather. He lived on a plot of land just outside town; we spent most of our time wading in the creek, smashing geodes, and learning to avoid snakes. The few times that we went into town, people asked, with the usual curiosity, where we were from. I remember in the heat of one summer day, my cousin’s grandpa pulled off into a little gas station on the way back to the house. Every night, my cousins and I built our own fire to roast hot dogs and marshmallows, so we elected the oldest of us to go get supplies.
He came back flushed and irritated. “I asked if they had marshmallows,” he told us, “and the dude looked at me and said, ‘Marsh-mellows? We have marshm a llows, not marshm e llows.” It was a weird display, my cousin mimicking the Southern accent of the cashier mimicking his Minnesotan one.
That wasn’t the first time the Minnesotan pronunciation and elongating of vowels would tip people off that we weren’t from there. And it wasn’t the first time that it would be met with some type of ridicule. I remember sitting in a friend’s living room in St. Louis, repeating the word “bag” over and over while people yelled, “That’s not right! Beg and bag don’t sound the same!”
Dialectical differences would piss people off as much as my accent. I’ve gone into corner stores to ask for a pop, only to have the cashier look at me blankly before scoffing. “You don’t get a pop,” a friend told me once. “You get soda. You can even get Coke. Grow up.” It was these differences in pronunciation and word choice that’d have people pausing on the street, in the shop, wherever, to look me up and down before asking, “So. Where you from?”
The question of where you’re from is often met with eager anticipation to easily judge you. Home cities mark your culture and clue people into what exact type of Black person you are. Do you eat melons with a spoon or by the slice? Do you know the meaning of the word “jawn” and it’s various utilizations? It’s the little things that matter. When my reply ends up being “Minnesota,” it’s followed by a blank stare and a quiet, “They got niggas up there?”
It’s said with an air of disbelief, as if anyone would choose to lie about being from Minnesota; as if I could fake this accent and the air of un-traceability dogging my steps. “Yeah, they got niggas up there,” is the only appropriate response, always said with a wry twist of the mouth, as if sharing in the same disbelief. A silent, I know man. It’s wild. Issa trip. A quiet exchange of condolences.
Sometimes, people can place your state and city with an almost chilling ease. If you’re perceptive enough, it’s easy to find the flags that mark a specific region. But with Minneapolis and Minnesota, people don’t know what to look for. There’s still an idea that we talk like they do in the movie Fargo, even though that accent hasn’t existed among Metro-area youth for ages now.
The Midwest has been represented in media as a flat mystery; where there’s Southern Gothic , there’s a sort Midwestern Gothic as well: tales of desolate cities that experienced economic decline when manufacturing was shipped elsewhere, and farming turned to mass production. In the Midwest, you took the shit cards that life dealt and you made do with it. There’s no lingering on what had once been, because what was doesn’t exist now. Sitcoms like Roseanne and The Middle showcase the common Midwestern narratives of white, blue-collar people whose stories are defined not by artistic innovation, but by good, hard work.
Within this imagined landscape of white blue-collar life, there’s the dismissal of Black people that shaped Midwestern cultures. Cities with rich Black culture and history, like Chicago and St. Louis, get pushed into their own class. But if there’s something unique and differentiating about white people from the Midwest versus white people from the Coasts, then why isn’t there recognition for the complexities of Blackness? When looking at Black American culture and identity, locality within the United States plays a defining role. Something as seemingly simple as BBQ changes, depending on where you find yourself in the country.
Yet, the work of Black Midwesterners is often attributed to other regions because, well, they’re Black. I even find myself replicating that narrative. I’ve read almost all of Toni Morrison’s novels, devouring them while I worked at a bookstore. I pictured every single novel set in the Deep South, reading into each character my grandfather’s thick Mississippi accent. But Morrison is from Lorain, Ohio. Many of her novels, such as Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Sula, are set in Ohio, drawing on the complexities of post-migration Black life and the struggles within new states to maintain old traditions while developing regional tangs of their own.
It’s no surprise that there’s a monolithic view of the Midwest, prioritizing white culture as its defining characteristic, nor is it a surprise that there is a monolithic view of Blackness which rejects the history of Black Midwesterners. Minnesota doesn’t get much love not only because it is in the Midwest, but in the upper Midwest, a landscape of arctic tundras, bastardized Canadian accents, and Lutherans. What’s most known about Minnesota is as follows: Fargo (which is actually in North Dakota, but okay), winter, the Mall of America, and Prince.
For years, it was a mystery to everyone why someone like Prince, Black and excellent, would choose to remain in Minnesota. I’ve wanted to get away from this state and its overall depressive nature since I was fifteen. I didn’t know that Prince actually still lived here until I was about nineteen and someone casually mentioned seeing him at a party in Chanhassen. Even while writing this reluctant love letter to Minnesota, I still struggle to understand why any Black person would choose to stay here.
But Prince, who had the means of leaving but chose to stay, was a mystery. Once, when Matt Damon asked, “So you live in Minnesota? I hear you live in Minnesota,” Prince famously responded, “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.”
While the Black Midwest is imagined as a new, fragile thing, it has its own cultures. In Minneapolis, there was a specific sound that Prince further developed and took to the top. While he lived inside his own heart, Prince’s heart led him to stay in Minnesota; he grew in Minneapolis and died in Chanhassen. But, perhaps, Prince’s heart was obeying something beyond him.
In Water And African American Memory, Anissa Janine Wardi explores water in relationship to Black American communities. For most, water is a positive representation of life and the human body, likened to blood flowing through our veins. However, for displaced populations of African people, water has a more complicated narrative. What was once imagined as life became graveyards along the Middle Passage; the Mississippi River could bring an enslaved person to their freedom, but it was also on the river that steamboats made their steady way downstream, separating families for life. Is it any surprise that a people, whose history with water is as complicated as rivers themselves, would find themselves settling within a state that proudly bolstered the nickname “Land of 10,000 Lakes”?
My home state takes its name from the Dakota language, as an homage to the tributary river running over three hundred miles. Mnisota Makoce, land where the sky reflects the water, was shortened down to Mnisota, clear blue water. Water is a clear etymological theme within Minnesota’s naming: from Minnehaha Falls (curling water) to Minnetonka (big water) to Minneapolis, a combination of mni and polis. To us, these names are common, but they’ve always been difficult for outsiders to nail down. I knew somebody on the bus was a recent transplant just because he said “Minnianapolis” on the phone.
Just south of the Twin Cities, the Minnesota River feeds into the Mississippi and meets Fort Snelling, a historic military fortification. Fort Snelling is where Dred Scott was brought by US Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson in 1836. During this time, Fort Snelling was a part of the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was illegal. While at Fort Snelling, Scott married Harriet Robinson. When Emerson was sent to Jefferson Barracks Military Post, south of St. Louis, in 1837, he originally left Scott and his wife at Fort Snelling, leasing their services out for profit. In this way, Emerson effectively brought the institution of slavery into a free state, violating the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Wisconsin Enabling Act. When he was later reassigned to Fort Jesup in Louisiana, Emerson brought Scott and Harriet to him. En route, Scott’s daughter, Eliza, was born on the Mississippi between Illinois and Iowa, in free territory.
After Emerson died in 1843, his wife, Irene, inherited his estate, including the Scotts. She continued leasing out the family as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his freedom, but when Irene refused, he took to the courts. Scott and abolitionists assisting him looked to precedents set by Sommerset v. Stewart and Rachel v. Walker. He argued that his residence in free territories required his emancipation and that his daughter, Eliza, had been free upon birth. The case was eventually taken to the United States Supreme Court as Dred Scott v.Sandford, his new “owner,” using Missouri law as the base. This gave birth to the ruling that “ a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the US], and sold as slaves, whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.”
Dred Scott’s story is important, not just because he was in Fort Snelling for a time, but because it was defined by the Mississippi. When I went to St. Louis during Ferguson October , we found ourselves downtown by the Old Courthouse. The irony in that moment was clear, as we had been brought there because of the injustices yet again wrought by the state, the execution of Michael Brown. But at that time, it escaped me that Dred Scott had spent time in Fort Snelling, and that it was the Mississippi which set the plot into action.
In “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison wrote, “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.”
This idea of remembrance, of water always recollecting where it was with an ambivalence that comes off as destructive, is recollective of Pierre Nora’s liex de memorie, or sight of memory. It is where memory and history come together, creating a moment that secretes throughout time. As shown by Dred Scott, the relationship of Black Americans with the Mississippi is complex. Carried in its waters are memories of children born drowning, who knew freedom in the theoretics of law but never in practice; it carries the memories of new gravesites with tombs marked by whirlpools; it carries the complexity of a people washed ashore in whispers when the river first starts to rise. Is it any coincidence, then, that the river which Dred Scott and his family traveled, which served as a reminder of our lack of personhood, drew us back to it?
This river, which travels 2,320 miles south to the Mississippi Delta, actually begins in Minnesota. I’ve never been where the Mississippi begins. But I grew up in Minnesota, so I remember kids in my class talking about taking trips to see it. We watched a video once in elementary school about Lake Itasca and gaped in amazement at the small stream which was the site of the Mississippi. In Hastings, the river flooded often; dirty and dangerous, it wasn’t something you ever went in. There, the river was nothing but a stream that you could hop over. It bore no memories, no bodies; there, the river only carried itself.
We were called and maintained by water, to develop life where it had been explicitly denied to us. Black Minnesotans, who are thought of as transplants, have come together to cultivate their own existence, surrounded by ancestral aches trapped within the water. In January 2018, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation board renamed Lake Calhoun to its original Mde Maka Ska . Lake Calhoun, which sits at the edge of Uptown, a steadily gentrified part of the city, was named after John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery politician.
Minneapolis itself is a city defined by water, developed around St. Anthony Falls. The city was once the flour mill capital of the state, relying on the power the falls generated. Where there was opportunity for water to rectify its past harm, those in power never allowed it to happen. Instead, minorities within Minneapolis were denied access to important waterways. In a state where lakes and rivers defined early economic success, even while Minnesota moved away from its reliance on flour and timber, the sites of water were always important.
On July 19th, 1967, tensions built in the city’s Northside, due to scarcity of resources and unequal distribution of capital. There’d been brief unrest a year before due to jobs and businesses becoming more accessible to Jewish residents than Black ones. What sparked the events in 1967 vary; some say it was the mistreatment of a Black woman by police at the Aquatennial parade. Whatever the reason, shortly before 11:30 p.m., a group of Black protesters moved from the parade site to Plymouth Avenue. After the first night, a second round of protests was ignited by the arrests of thirteen Black people, including children. The protests lasted until July 21st; in total, there were “eighteen fires, thirty-six arrests, three shootings, twenty-four injuries, and damages totaling $4.2 million.”
In response to the original Plymouth Avenue protests in 1966, The Way opened as a community center on Plymouth Avenue. Founded by Mahmoud El-Kati, Verlena Matey-Keke, and Spike Moss, it became a generator of Black pride. The Way was visited by people like James Brown and Muhammad Ali; it provided members of the community with jobs and programming. However, after the uprising of 1967, the Way found it harder to get funding. Despite, or because of, their role providing real responses to the alienation and criminalization that subjugated Black people within the Northside, they were blamed for the “riot” on Plymouth Avenue. Now, the Minneapolis’ fourth police precinct occupies the building that used to be the Way. I walk by it sometimes on my way to work, when I take the 7 instead of the 19. It’s an ugly building, because of its architecture and because of the memories that come with it.
Like the Mississippi, Black people have ancestral remembrance and there’s a point where no preventative measures can be taken to subside a flood. On November 15th, 2015, I remember receiving a text from my friend saying that somebody had been shot in the head by the police on the Northside. I stood at the corner of James and Plymouth, watching as a man’s blood was power-washed off the pavement and people slowly made their way out of the apartment complexes around us. I remember that, for a brief moment, we were all stuck processing in the same half increments, everything moving by slower than it really was. “He was in handcuffs,” people kept repeating. Someone said their little boy had watched it all from his bedroom window.
Jamar Clark had been shot and killed after an encounter with two officers from Minneapolis’ 4th precinct, Mark Riggenberg and Dustin Schwarze. I didn’t know that the police precinct used to be the Way when I went to a rally the next day; I don’t think most of my friends who ended up staying throughout the subsequent eighteen-day occupation knew. We just knew someone had been shot and we kept track of the rest of us who got hurt throughout the following days. I remember having a “less-than-lethal” rifle held a foot from my face, watching my friends thrown around, concussed and bruised; I remember, and forget, the night five protesters were shot.
I didn’t fully understand the irony of that first night, walking into a vestibule to be met by locked doors and an officer telling me that this public building was closed to the community. Looking back at it now, the fence that surrounds the fourth precinct seems all the more cruel. But in true Midwestern fashion, there’s no use lingering.
We didn’t know, but did it matter?
No one tells the Mississippi where she’s supposed to run. The river doesn’t need a map to remember that you built houses where her ankles used to sit and made the arteries of her tributaries into highways—she just goes.