Minneapolis—city of my birth, launchpad toward my independence—you’re breaking my heart.
On a Friday morning in May 1944, my dad pulled up to Swedish Hospital just in time for my mother to deliver me, their third child. Only ten days earlier my family had moved to a small, lakeside town, twenty-five miles from Minneapolis.
By the time I was eleven, I was making that twenty-five-mile journey every Saturday morning, boarding the Greyhound bus—alone, getting off downtown for my piano lesson at the Minneapolis College of Music. In the back of my assignment notebook, Mother had drawn a map, detailing where to get off the bus, what direction to walk to the college, and from there what direction to walk to the bus depot, where I would catch the bus back home.
The piano lessons were of secondary importance to that walk back to the bus depot. My route took me through Dayton’s Department Store, where I was dazzled by elegant goods. I’d drop into Woolworth’s to munch on a slice of pizza while watching demonstrations of the latest gadgetry. Various little shops along the way specialized in trinkets or roasted nuts. Nobody at home worried whether I caught the 2:40 bus or the 3:30—just so I made it home for dinner by six.
Can you imagine in this day and age letting a pre-teen child travel solo to any metropolitan downtown, allowing her the freedom to explore on her own? It’s not that my parents were careless. They’d coached me on all the rules about not talking with strangers, etc. They also fostered independence.
Thus it was in downtown Minneapolis that I first became aware of black people—in those days, “colored.” The town where my family lived was all white. I would eventually realize as an adult having lived in both Minnesota and Washington state, that the North was as segregated as the South, just more subtly so.
The ten-year-old me was mystified by black people. I remember wondering about a trim, attractive woman, a clerk at Dayton’s. What was it like to be different? Over the years, as I read black writers (Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and others), I came to understand that it’s not about being different, it’s about being hated because your skin color is different.
Just a few years after my idyllic Saturdays in downtown Minneapolis, James Baldwin wrote that blacks don’t particularly care about being “accepted” by whites. “White people in this country,” he wrote in 1962, “will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
Covid-19 has laid bare long-standing inequities that result from our failure to love. It has forced us to see that if you are black, brown, or Native American, you are more vulnerable, more likely to get sick, more likely to die. Videos on social media have forced us to see that if you are a black American, you are twice as likely to be killed by police as white Americans.
We are “infected by a pandemic of hatred,” said Yale law professor and black writer Stephen Carter. This pandemic is more frightening than Covid-19, which we expect will be resolved eventually with a vaccine. The pandemic of hatred has been with us for decades, for generations.
The push is on to “re-open.” We’ve gotta do better than that. We have to just plain open––open our health care system to all, open our economic system to all, open our justice system to all. We are seeing truth laid bare; we need to open the eyes of our hearts to all.