Face-to-Face With the Divide

Jen Johnson (l) and Amoke Kubat perform in “Angry Black Woman and Well Intentioned White Girl.” Photo by Keegan Xavi

Two women sit side-by-side as lights dim in Cloquet’s County Seat Performing Arts Center. We’ve come to experience, and comment on, a play reading. A couple dozen women and a scattering of men sit close to the front. The play is called “Angry Black Woman and Well Intentioned White Girl,” a local adventure in hosting visiting performances — a cross-fertilization with the rest of Minnesota.

The two actors, friends, engage in an intense dialogue, reading from their scripts. For the first ten minutes, Amoke Kubat, the play’s author, recounts vivid dreams in which her ancestors interrogate her. It’s a kind of torture for her, trying to explain why, so many decades after the end of slavery, Black and white Americans still live so separately — so unequal in their assets and opportunities.

To her much younger white friend, Kubat states her frustration.

“What Black woman ain’t angry? We live in America — nicest racist place on the planet. We are overworked, underpaid, under-resourced. We take care of everything and everybody; the living, the dying, the crazies, the hopeless … at home, at work, in relationships. All around the world, some Black woman is bending and stretching to make it work for everybody else.”

Eventually the “white girl’s” voice, read by Jen Johnson, enters the dialogue. She shares her nostalgia for the Wonder Bread of her childhood. “Sometimes I feel this deep sadness. I don’t know why. I feel naïve and stupid and not wanting to be white because, I mean me, gets lost in all this whiteness. I hear White Supremacy. White Christian Superiority. White Patriarchy. I wonder how I fit into all of this. What part do I play to keep the status quo? How does what I don’t say or do matter?”

The two enter more deeply, sharing their disparate history/experiences in America. In the playbook that Kubat created as a handout, she probes these stereotypes.

“Angry Black Woman is a stereotype. Well Intentioned White Girl is a stereotype. There are stereotypes for everybody: every gender, every race or ethnicity. Stereotypes are dehumanizing because they limit accurate information and full spectrum humanity. White Girl, in the play, stereotypes white females; not only for their skin color, but for class and privilege. Sometimes they are perceived as childish, immature, or air-headed.”

Two friends from the Duluth/ Superior area, Kym Young and Missy Polster, flank the two readers after the show and lead women audience members in a conversation. (Men were invited into a separate conversation among themselves in another space.) Two Native women spoke to the intersection they feel with their own issues of living, working, and going to school in an interracial community.

The reading made me reflect on my own relative isolation, as a Minnesota-born woman, from people of other races and ethnicities. I wondered how those of us living in smaller communities in Northern Minnesota might bridge racist distances between us and our Native neighbors?

Then, I recalled my own experience in 2005. I had interviewed Marcie Rendon, a Minneapolis-based Ojibwe writer [and contributor to Women’s Press], about her career for my study on Minnesota spaces that nurture artists.

A year later, I asked Rendon to research and co-write with me a study of Minnesota Native artists. With a grant from the McKnight Foundation, we traveled around the state, interviewing every Ojibwe visual artist, musician, performer, and writer we could find. We published “Native Artists: Livelihoods, Resources, Space, Gifts” in 2009 (downloadable on annmarkusen.com).

We talked for hours about the differences in our families and in our communities. We continue to be friends.

Reflecting on this friendship, I recommend getting into a car with someone of another race/class and traveling many miles on a common project — enough to share stories and get beyond the spatial and class boundaries that divide us.

Ann Markusen is Professor Emerita of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and lives in Wright, Minnesota.