“There is no latitude or elevation at which the potentially deadly dangers of racism and white supremacy can be escaped, unless its propagators elevate their understanding of what constitutes true humanity.”
That passage appears about halfway through “Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest,” a new book edited by Terrion L. Williamson, who teaches at the University of Minnesota. The quote is from an essay by Deva Rashed-Boone, and I read it around the same time a white police officer in Kenosha, Wis., shot an African American man seven times in the back.
Art doesn’t just imitate life; sometimes art defines it.
Such is “Black in the Middle,” a collection of poetry, prose and photography that Williamson has curated and crafted into a manifesto of sorts, staking claim to America’s Heartland. The artists and authors define what it means to be among the 7 million Black people who call the region home; they declare the diaspora is thriving in a land where the value set — hard work, integrity, modesty and fair play — isn’t associated with people who look like them.
“Black in the Middle” upends the Midwest’s whites-only stereotype, reminding readers that the land of cornfields, steel mills, Garrison Keillor and State Fair dairy queens is the same place that Prince, LeBron James, Gwendolyn Brooks, Malcolm X and Toni Morrison came from.
Williamson’s affectionate tour of Flyover Country is ambitious and eclectic, with African American humanity on display. Stops include a lecherous underground ball in Chicago, a gentrifying ’hood in Ypsilanti, Mich., a spades game in Milwaukee’s North Side, and the University of Iowa, a vast 33,000-student school with fewer than 1,000 Black students. There is an homage to Peoria, Ill. (Richard Pryor’s hometown), a shout-out to St. Louis (Miles Davis and Maya Angelou) and a conflicted love letter to Detroit, a city one writer can’t seem to quit.
But because Middle America is still America, Jim Crow lurks like a shadow, menacing.
“Black in the Middle” reminds us that ol’ Jim maintained separate-but-equal schools in Ohio (Brown v. Board of Education originated in Topeka, Kan.). He abused Black diners in Cleveland who dared to eat at a de facto segregated lunch counter. He cheated African American home buyers in Chicago and killed Philando Castile in Minnesota, a place I once tried to embrace.
At just over 200 pages, Williamson’s book is slender but somehow feels bigger, sprawling and a little chaotic. Black history slam-dances with avant-garde poetry; fine-art photography marches beside prose, demanding racial justice. Inconsistency aside, I still inhaled the book in just a few sittings, comparing notes with my time in St. Paul.
Though esoteric, “Black in the Middle” has a consistent through-line: Where there are African Americans, there is creativity, joy, sorrow and a sense of place; nowhere becomes somewhere. There are Black roots in the Midwest, sometimes hard to see, watered with blood, sweat and bitter tears.
Still, Williamson’s book underscores the bittersweet truth about being Black in America, not just in the Midwest: Loving a place doesn’t mean it loves you back.
Joseph P. Williams, a former assistant managing editor for the Star Tribune, is an editor and writer for U.S. News & World Report.
Black in the Middle
Edited by: Terrion L. Williamson.
Publisher: Belt Publishing, 224 pages, $20.