On February 28, 2013, I had the chance to attend the 2nd Annual Black History Celebration at the Kings Crossing Apartments at Frogtown Square, located at the intersection of University and Dale. Lots of people were there, including St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman, but what stood out most to me was the sensibility about history in the room.
One of the first people I met, for example, was Vaughn Larry, crime prevention coordinator and community organizer on behalf of the Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation. He carried with him a folder, containing what he said was at least the partial inspiration for his work. He then handed it to me, and there were a handful of photocopies of grotesque photographs of black bodies–many of them hanging from trees, surrounded by jubilant-appearing whites. If I had to guess on the dates, I’d say many of these images were from the early twentieth century, but for Vaughn this was not the history of the distant past. The anger, the sense of injustice, was raw.
Part of the program included a “spoken word” from a young woman named Akeeyah Oaridge. The poem she had composed for the event was told from the perspective of a runaway slave, and what struck me most was Akeeyah’s uncanny sense of voice. The last lines of the poem spoke of the understanding and forgiveness the runaway was asking from the family she had abandoned in order to pursue freedom. Again, this woman spoke of a past that was still present.
The “official” speaker at the event was Marvin Anderson, Co-Founder of Rondo Days, a celebration of a predominantly African American neighborhood in Saint Paul, MN that was displaced in the 1960s by freeway construction of the I-94 Highway. Much of Marvin’s talk was a kind of catalog of various contributions by early African Americans to St. Paul’s history. As he talked, I could see several folks nodding their heads in collective remembrance of the black businesses, institutions, and individuals that had prospered in Rondo. Fresh, too, then for Marvin and many in his audience was anger over the destruction of that neighborhood and the frustration about what he labeled the “diaspora” of the African American community.
Driving home, I wondered about the future of reconciliation given how “present” the sins of the past are for folks like Vaugh, Akeelah, and Marvin. No wonder, I thought, that there is a consistent invocation for justice to roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream. And yet the fight against oppression and reconciliation does include stories of interracial cooperation such as those surrounding the founding of the NAACP, the work of Jessie Ames against lynching in the 1930s, and so many others. It seems to me that we can overcome, and empowerment means remembering moments of grace in our history just as much as the seemingly pervasive darkness.
– AnneMarie Kooistra