Editor's note: Influential Black members of the Minnesota arts community have joined together to “illuminate an unabashed and missing narrative” for “a historical moment of transformation” following the death of George Floyd.
A collection of essays titled “A Moment of Silence,” the compositions come from a wide cross-section of the area’s theatrical, musical, artistic and literary circles. The 55-plus contributors include author Marlon James, rapper Toki Wright, writer/director Carlyle Brown and Star Tribune theater critic Rohan Preston.
The project is edited by performer/playwright Shá Cage and is produced under the auspices of the Playwrights’ Center and the arts organization Tru Ruts. It can be accessed at blackmnvoices.com. The featured artists will rotate each month, with a spotlight post made every week. Here is Preston's essay:
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
– Frederick Douglass, American abolitionist, writer and philosopher
In the end, the image that would spark a global uprising against systemic injustice and oppression would not be of a stereotypical Bubba in a pickup truck. That was so last week, when three men hunted and savagely killed 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery as he was out for a jog not far from his home in Georgia.
Nor would the spark come from the no-knock drug raid that resulted in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old medical technician who was asleep in her Louisville, Ky., home. That death was one of the many nauseating tragedies that African Americans face across the country.
The searing, catalytic image would come via video from Minnesota, my home and a state that sent activists to the South in the 1960s. That progressive reputation was brought into sharp relief by a picture that shatters myths about good guys and bad guys.
Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who snuffed out the life of George Floyd by pressing his knee on his victim’s neck for nearly eight long, excruciating minutes, is a regular-looking guy. We all know him. He’s somebody’s neighbor and uncle and fishing buddy. He’s the middle manager who knows the system well, and that it’s designed to protect him; management has got his back.
And in the picture, he’s putting on a demonstration of his power, not just for the junior officers around him, but for all to see. Cocky, self-assured and relaxed, he has sunglasses on his forehead and a hand in his pocket. That casual demeanor is not one we associate with a killer, much less a villain. No, Chauvin’s mien is that of someone out golfing or boating or, even, trophy hunting. And if he’s the person he seems to be, he’ll swear on a stack of black bibles that he doesn’t harbor any bigotry. He may even claim to have a Black friend. And, the kicker: His wife is Asian American, just like one of the junior officers charged with abetting him.
I cannot bear to watch the entire snuff video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck. It’s too traumatizing. Nor is the often-viewed video, shot by now-scarred 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, the problem. Cellphones have become tools of evidence to present to a society skeptical of the routine degradations that Black people endure in America.
The disturbing stills of the scene that fateful day in Minneapolis challenge the traditional narratives that dominate the nation’s stages and screens.
As viewers, we are trained to look at the officer, who is in the command position, as the good guy. White and in uniform, he is representative of the law. We make presumptions about him based on his office, even if those presumptions diverge along racial lines. Floyd, the dark victim, is faceless and in a subservient position, literally under a knee.
Shorn of context on any screen or stage, the story playing along with the picture suggests white virtue and Black guilt. That’s a narrative we know well.
Twin Cities casting director Kelli Foster Warder has likened Chauvin to Willie Conklin, the white fire chief in the musical “Ragtime” who takes umbrage at the sight of a Black man driving his own car and eventually destroys the vehicle.
“Everybody recognizes Willie Conklin as the bad guy because he shouts the N-word,” Foster Warder said. “Otherwise, no one who sees him walking down the street would think he’s the poster child for racism and white supremacy.”
The fact that Chauvin is such a regular guy means that it will be difficult for the mainstream to separate from him. I mean, some talk about the banality of evil. Chauvin embodies white supremacy as ordinary.
We associate heroes with those who’re winning and living. But the picture of Floyd forces a reordering. We don’t know nearly enough about this father and uncle who became an unwilling martyr in a centuries-long struggle for justice in America. And we cannot let the image of how he died represent his life.
We know that he had survived the COVID-19 pandemic and was making do. He is accused of passing off a fake $20 bill. That’s about how much his life was valued in a caste system where the virus of bigotry that was present at the beginning still courses through the nation’s DNA.
Those ills have created qualifying asterisks on America’s lofty promises. We are a land of liberty (except for Black people, enslaved and brutalized for centuries as they forged a nation). We have equal protection under the law (hmm, cue the nauseating sequence of cellphone videos showing otherwise). Anyone can be anything (lie to kids and they stop respecting adults).
It’s apropos that this upwelling, led by young people, should start in Minnesota, and not just because Prince founded the Revolution here, as a popular meme notes. Minnesota has some of the nation’s largest racial gaps in housing, education, jobs and incarceration rates. Those statistics belie the “Minnesota miracle” of lore.
Minnesota has been at the forefront of cultural trends and events that have helped humanity advance. Starting more than a century ago during a time of food scarcity, the state began to feed the world through innovations in milling and agriculture, helping the global population grow to what it is today.
Minnesota-led advances in health care, embodied by the Mayo Clinic and many medical device companies, have contributed greatly to the health of the globe. Culturally, the 1963 founding of the Guthrie Theater sparked the regional theater movement across America.
African Americans have been integral members of an area where, in the 19th century, Dred Scott sought freedom and where today the University of Minnesota houses the Givens Collection of African-American Literature, one of the largest resources in the nation.
Renaissance artist Gordon Parks found his voice as a writer and filmmaker in St. Paul, as did dramatist August Wilson, who honed his craft at Penumbra Theatre.
The killing of Floyd comes 99 years after three Black circus workers were lynched in Duluth — an atrocity memorialized by Bob Dylan in “Desolation Row.” Citizens and leaders of Minnesota now have an opportunity to show a nation how to turn tragedy into medicine.
The state cannot just go back to business as usual with shallow window dressing and paeans to racial equity and justice. We must address our worst-in-the-nation disparities, heal the divides and build a more just, equitable and freer society, one where the unrealized promises of American democracy flower in the glimmering light bouncing up from the state’s 10,000-plus lakes.
Such an outcome would be a fitting tribute not just to George Floyd, but would help to reframe images that bind us to a past that often imprisons us all.