I was 9 or 10 years old when a group of white people walked into a ballroom where my family had gathered for a reunion in Hamilton, Ala.
I figured someone had double-booked the venue before I learned we had extended an invitation to them, the descendants of the man who had purchased the matriarch of my family, Mary Ann Key, in the 1850s.
We broke bread together.
In the years that followed, we learned more about our matriarch's life through stories she'd passed down to her children and grandchildren, written accounts from members of the Key family whom she'd helped raise, and local documents in Hamilton, where the Key family later settled — and Mary Ann Key died.
The Key family's accounts included tales about her loyalty and submissiveness. During the Civil War, family members wrote, Mary Ann Key sneaked food to the man who owned her as he hid in a cave to flee raiding parties. She stayed with that family after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves — not uncommon — and the Key family talked about her connection to them as if she were an aunt, without mentioning the truth of her subjugation.
The circumstances, however, had not arrested my great-great-great-grandmother's soul, her mind or her spirit. We know Mary Ann Key liked to sing and play games. She demanded excellence and accountability from those around her. She was muscular. She once carried large stones and helped build a courthouse. She cleared trees to make space for a local road. As she aged, she would think back to her life as a slave and sing songs about courageous runaways evading slave-catchers.
But there are many things we don't know about Mary Ann Key, who was a teenager when the Key family bought her. What was her original name? How did she feel when the Key family ripped her from wherever she was, from whomever she was with, to be their slave? What made her smile? What made her laugh? What made her cry?
I now understand the story the Key family had told about the matriarch of my family differed from the layered narrative we knew. Her presence in their family was a whitewashed footnote that ignored her reality.
But my beginning — our beginning — was bondage. Mary Ann Key wasn't free.
This is the frustration Black people here and elsewhere face in their pursuit of equality and the eradication of systemic racism. We know that even white Minnesotans with the best intentions would rather ignore the dichotomy of our origins.
But we cannot talk about racism and a better future unless we're willing to grasp the gravity of the past to make informed decisions and choices that will influence the lives of our children.
Today, I am announcing the launch of the Mary Ann Key Book Club, a collaboration with Hennepin County Library, the Friends of Hennepin County Library and the Star Tribune.
Our goal is to cultivate a community of people who want to read, learn, talk and respond in collective acts against racism, while centering the experiences of marginalized communities. We plan to create programming and local events built around that ambition in the months ahead, while ceding the power within these conversations to those directly affected by racism and discrimination.
We've selected "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" by Isabel Wilkerson as our first book. The bestselling book from the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" details the historical influence of hierarchy in our society.
Our request is simple. Register through the book club's link on the Hennepin County Library website at hclib.org/maryannkey. You can get the book on your own or through the Hennepin County Library, which will also have additional resources, such as discussion guides. Then, read. Do it by yourself or with your family and friends. Read with your neighbors, school, co-workers or the people at your place of worship. Create small discussion groups in your communities. Talk about it in your group chats. Tell us about your experience.
Then, ask yourself the most important question: What are you going to do? Because racism will never remove itself.
I understand the performative nature of book clubs and the potential to provide space for dialogue that does not lead to real change. But I also believe reading can set the stage for meaningful and productive conversations.
You should know this idea was largely shaped and supported by women and people of color. I'd like to thank Star Tribune editor Allie Shah. I'd also like to thank Hennepin County Library's Christy Mulligan, Brian Hissong, Juli Bratvold, Ayanna Muata and others.
"Books provide a powerful tool for learning," Hennepin County Library director Chad Helton said in a statement about the collaboration. "They spark community conversations that lead to lasting change. We're excited to collaborate with Mr. Medcalf on the Mary Ann Key Book Club and look forward to the chapters ahead."
After our meeting with the Key family's descendants at the reunion in Hamilton, we drove to Mary Ann Key's grave site. A white, decorative fence surrounded her plot. There were fresh flowers near her tombstone.
I remember kneeling in the scorched dirt. I don't know what I said or what I thought then or why I did it.
But I know I sat there in a gesture of acknowledgment and reverence.
I guess I wanted Mary Ann Key to know she mattered.