Outer Experiences

JoJo Bell. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Black history is American history, but this truth was not apparent when I was growing up in a majority white school in the 1990s. With frequent mentions of white pioneers and voyageurs, and no mention of figures like George Bonga, Black Minnesotans were erased from my middle and high school history classes. This erasure helped to perpetuate the myth that Minnesota was 100 percent white before the 1980s. When I receive questions like “Where are you from?” I know that it must be inconceivable to the inquirer that Black people have contributed to Minnesota for centuries.

Black history was not something I encountered until I learned about Dorothy Dandridge, on my own, as a fifth grader. The glamorous movie star — who became the first Black woman nominated for an Oscar in a lead role — grabbed my attention. As a young Black girl growing up in Hopkins, I was inspired to learn more Black stories. Eventually I became more interested in Black stories closer to home.

I founded the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota (AAICM) in 2016 to help address the dearth of exhibitions and historical programming about Black Minnesota history. The mission is simple: share Black Minnesota history though exhibitions and events. There is, however, another layer to the mission: explore what it means to be a Black Minnesotan.

As a Black history organization, we attempt to present more than the upward mobility narratives that tend to be offered. Stories of “making it,” despite living in an oppressive society, tend to leave out histories of those who live outside of cities and those who are not well connected. This deeper layer is tricky to share in exhibitions and programs. There are varied Black experiences throughout the state.

With that in mind, Black Minnesotan identity is a theme in everything we produce. Our newest exhibition, “Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and Suburban Minnesota,” is another attempt to weave this thread.

“Outer Experiences” is a documentation of the lives of Black Minnesotans who grew up outside the Twin Cities, based on AAICM’s eponymous oral history project. The exhibition features photographs of and excerpts from 21 small-town and suburban Black narrators.

Cheniqua, 2020,” pigment print. “My godfather was my father’s best friend, and he was the president of the UFCW, which is the local union here. The two of them, as well as several other Black workers at the plant, did a lot of advocacy for all the workers’ wages, equal pay, workers’ rights,” says Cheniqua Johnson of Worthington. Photo by Chris McDuffie

Those interviewed speak of their struggle with fitting in to majority-white spaces. Some talk about their profound connection to nature — something they feel would not have been as influential if they lived in the city. Others recall Black enclaves in Maplewood where neighbors got together for Fourth of July cookouts. Some recount how their natural hair was a point of contention as they grew up among white Minnesotans.

Chris McDuffie’s photography is central to the exhibition as it ties each Black narrator to the prairie, the plains, and the cul-de-sac.

Double Consciousness

Those who have not studied the history of Minnesota — beyond narratives that include Father Hennepin, Cass Gilbert, and folkloric characters like Paul Bunyan — may not be familiar with the names of other noteworthy Minnesotans.

Ethel Ray Nance, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and George Bonga are Minnesotans who grew up Black and multiracial in rural areas. It was not until I was earning my master’s degree that I stumbled across the story of Bonga, which made me curious about other uniquely Black histories in the state I grew up in.

Bonga was a voyageur, fur trader, and translator for the U.S. government who spoke fluent English, French, and Ojibwe. He called Leech Lake home until his death in 1874.

Anna Hedgeman was the first Black student to graduate from Hamline University in 1922. By 1963, she was the only woman on the planning committee for the March on Washington. Ethel Ray Nance was an accomplished Black woman from Duluth who worked as a stenographer for the Minnesota Forest Fires Relief Commission, which helped families who were devastated by a 1918 fire. Her stenography work at the Relief Commission led to her becoming the first Black stenographer for the Minnesota Legislature in 1923.

Nance was also the first Black policewoman in Minneapolis, and worked as a secretary to W.E.B. Du Bois in San Francisco. One of her first encounters with the famous historian and sociologist occurred in Duluth when her father, William H. Ray, asked Du Bois to speak to the Duluth branch of the NAACP — an organization he helped found.

In fact, many of the themes that run throughout Outer Experiences are directly tied to a quote by Du Bois: “One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

“Don, 2020,” pigment print. “I think all the homes were owned by Blacks in the cul-de-sac. Give you an idea, we used to go to the Parks and Recreation every Fourth of July … and we’d all bring our good food and have a smorgasbord, what we used to call it in those days. A big old picnic, a Fourth of July picnic,” says Don Colbert of Maplewood. Photo by Chris McDuffie

Often, Black Minnesotans are looking at themselves through two lenses: one lens is how they see themselves, and the other is how white Minnesotans view them. Some even have to look at themselves through the filter of how Black people in the city view them — not quite Black enough. Although Du Bois’s quote is a commentary on how Black Americans had to navigate their freed status after the American Civil War in post-reconstruction America, his observation applies in the present and in our state.

Tiffany, from Hopkins, summed up the feeling of double consciousness in the exhibition: “Came back to Hopkins [from Minneapolis] and things were oddly different … for me. I think that I had just hardened over the years a little bit. But I no longer really had energy for caring anymore about whether or not I was accepted and who I was accepted by and whether or not I could identify with my peers.”

With an open mind and a desire to engage with underexplored history, Minnesotans develop a richer and more accurate background of the state. Without it, we are simply not learning the story of us.

“Outer Experiences” runs through June 20 at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Find audio and transcripts.

Jokeda “JoJo” Bell (she/her) is the executive director and the director of exhibitions and programming for the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota. Bell is writing a book scheduled to be published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2022.