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What We’re Reading: A Good Time for the Truth

2016 May 26
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A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota edited by Sun Yung Shin (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016)

I don’t have a smooth introductory paragraph for this one, so I’ll just jump right in: this book is so very important, and I hope you read it.

Editor Sun Yung Shin has curated a powerful collection of essays from writers of color living in Minnesota. While experiences within the state of Minnesota is the core of this book, these stories should resonate across the country, where racism is on the minds and tongues of our nation. However, these essays aren’t told by mainstream media outlets or political candidates. These essays are personal stories. This is the crux of why this book left such an impact on me. It’s not a media outlet that I have to consider what their source is, or what their unintentional biases are…this is straight from writers who have experienced racism first-hand, have had to grapple with the complexities that is race and identity and culture. Each writer is telling their own individual story, and as a composite, this collection provides a larger, more honest and complex picture of race in Minnesota, which we as the reader, start to see with more clarity through each essay.

In the introduction from Sun Yung Shin, she writes:

It is hard to talk about race across racial lines. Race is ingrained in societal systems and institutions, conferring a system of advantages upon members of the dominant group. This means that people’s realities, their lived experiences, differ. Race is often invisible to those who benefit, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly. It is entirely visible to those who do not benefit.

This gets right to the heart of it. I am in a class right now for my graduate program on diversity in the workplace, and this Tedx Talk from Dr. Helen Turnbull on blind spots was brought up in our last class session. As a white, straight, middle-class woman, the more I grow as a person the more I see blind spots that I didn’t even know I had. It’s horrifying and disheartening to discover the blind spots that mainstream white culture, and our own complacency, has sneakily bred into so many U.S. citizens, myself included. And it can be even scarier to talk about them openly when conversations about race can be so charged. This collection of essays opened my eyes to many subtle but deeply embedded blind spots, for which I am grateful. I am a firm believer that while admitting mistakes or blind spots can be incredibly scary and vulnerable, that recognizing, apologizing, and correcting for those mistakes is what triggers growth. Growth is what makes us more human, and allows us to connect to our fellow humans on a deeper level. This collection opened up countless opportunities for me to learn, listen, and grow.

Shannon Gibney‘s essay “Fear of a Black Mother” is the first one in the book after the introduction, and immediately opened my eyes to blind spots. I am not a mother, but it’s something I can see in my future and have had frequent conversations about with my partner. Realizing what Gibney has to think about with her son as a black mother is something I didn’t even consider having to discuss with my future child.

[…] My child is six and a half now, thoroughly engrossed in Rescue Bots and Ninjago and bugs, but I am already getting twitchy about the upcoming talks that loom large, talks about holding himself in the classroom, engaging with his teachers and peers, and, most of all, making sure he is giving no one, especially white people, any extra reason to view him as a Problem or Threat. As a mother, I know it is my duty to protect him. As a Black citizen in a country that has never viewed Black bodies as worthy of protection, I know I cannot.

I fell in love with Kao Kalia Yang‘s storytelling previously with her first book, The Latehomecomer, and recently again after hearing her read from her brand new second book, The Song Poet. Her essay about the complexities of identity and racism while being in an interracial relationship points out yet another facet that isn’t easily seen at first glance. Venessa Fuentes‘ essay starts from the perspective of her childhood self, and the moment when she started to see her identity through the eyes of the white surburban culture she grew up in, and even in the eyes of those closest to her. Bao Phi‘s essay grapples with the perception of some that Asian Americans are less discriminated against than other people of color when his own experiences contradict that. All of these individual experiences grouped together show just how complex race and racism are.

But I don’t want to keep talking. These aren’t my stories, and you’d do better to listen to these writers’ stories yourself. They are all very talented writers, and in their deft writerly hands, listening isn’t very hard. Please read this book, reflect on it, and really, truly listen. It’s a conversation that has to happen, and one that mainstream white culture needs to listen to more than speak, if we are going to find any equity in this world. As Sun Yung Shin writes in her introduction,

A society that systematically suppresses the stories and wisdom of certain groups cannot make the best decisions for a shared future. We need a future in this state that leaves no one out. We are interconnected, we are interdependent. In the long run, on our earth, we will thrive or fail together. Those of us who have not always had places at the table, so to speak, want to be heard and understood.

This book is one very important step in that direction.

What other writers are opening up space to tackle complex, emotionally charged, and/or difficult subjects?


What We’re Reading: Augie’s Secrets

2013 August 22
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Augie's SecretsAugie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip, by Neal Karlen (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013)

St. Paul’s Police Chief John O’Connor protected gangsters during Prohibition. For a small fee, O’Connor looked the other way as long as they left the city before abducting political candidates and burying the evidence. I know this because Neal Karlen knows this. Karlen knows this because his father knows, and his father knows because his uncle, Augie Ratner, was the unofficial mayor of downtown Minneapolis. Through the 1950s, the Jewish mafia ran rackets across the Twin Cities, and Augie was their best friend and confidant. In the loving biography of his faith and family, Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip, Karlen upholds his great uncle’s crown as the King of Hennepin Avenue.

As an adjunct professor with the University of Minnesota, Karlen has written for The New Yorker, GQ and Rolling Stone. Along with writing eight books, Karlen’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times. In 2008, William Morrow published Karlen’s study of the Yiddish language, and this passion for his heritage rings through Augie’s Secrets. Using slang like he’s back at the club, Karlen sometimes can’t slow down to explain what farbisseneh means because he’s telling you about the time boss Davie Berman broke up a pro-Nazi rally at the Minneapolis Elks Lodge.

Augie wasn’t a gangster, but they all came to his club. In the ’30s he opened Augie’s Theatre Lounge on Hennepin, featuring live music and burlesque entertainment. He checked guns at the door, and kept a space in the back lot with a bright light for fighting. Augie knew John Dillinger; they even liked each other. He knew Jimmy Hoffa, Bugsy Segal, and the local boys Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld, and Davie Berman, who eventually helped Las Vegas become Sin City. Augie gave people a place to hide away from cops, lovers, and debt collectors. Today we know Augie’s as that strip club over on Hennepin, but during the years around Prohibition, with corruption on the streets and in the capital, Augie’s was a haven for people to shed their lies.

As Karlen tells it, Augie knew where the bodies were buried. He knew whose blood stained the money, he knew what the Mayors couldn’t tell the press, and he knew all his neighbors. Every day Augie rode his bicycle around Lake of the Isles while smoking a cigar and waving to families on his way to hear another confession.

Augie played no other angle except that of friendship. He asked only that he be allowed to play the good, always friendly, sometimes buffoonish character he was —but he was aware of everything.

And now we are aware of everything. But when our friend Augie welcomed strangers with a drink and a smile, no one could see his mask. As loyal friend and studious businessman, Augie lived along the line between outlaw and lawman. Hardened by the popular bigotry of Minneapolitans, some of the most powerful Jewish gangsters fought to kill. When the publisher and anti-semite Walter Ligger tried to extort Kid Cann, the Kid gunned him down while unloading the groceries with his family. Karlen found the Kid’s alibi.

Kid Cann said he was “getting a shave and a manicure, just like he did every day, from Dave Garfinkle at Garfinkel’s Artistic Barber Shop, just a few feet away from Augie’s joint. Garfinkle swore it was true. But it wasn’t. At the time of the murder, Dave Garfinkle was cutting Augie’s hair.”

Augie’s Secrets reads like a transcribed monologue, with Karlen acting out all the parts. You open the book and he’s invited you over for drinks to tell you the secrets of his family. In 1943, Augie sat in his club with John Roberts, an FBI special agent, and Bill Stern, the owner of the Dakota National Bank in Fargo and a leader of the Republican National Committee. Also seated was James Francis Keating, one of the most notorious bank robbers of the 1920s. Only Augie knew Keating as Jimmy, the reformed Minnesota man just released from Alcatraz. Karlen recalls his family history with impressive detail:

Augie: Bill, I don’t think you’ve met our friend Jimmy Keating. Jimmy, Billy is a banker in Fargo.

Jimmy: What bank, Bill?

Bill: I’ve owned the Dakota National Bank for many years.

Augie: Jimmy, have you ever done business up there?

Jimmy (pausing): The Dakota National? Oh yes, I know it well.

Jimmy had, in fact, knocked off Bill’s bank a generation before —and gotten away with it. Augie grinned and relit his cigar.

Though his writing captures the danger and excitement of a lawless America, Karlen disturbs the pacified notion of Minnesota’s Nice Culture. Our Twin Cities developed through the post-war boom with pervasive corruption and anti-semitic rage. To read this book is to bear the weight of our shared history. With the rigor of a scholar and the honesty of your closest friend, Karlen challenges us to consider the lives we all carry quietly behind our eyes.

Sometimes you find words that hit you in the gut and fit you like a new pair of glasses. What the last book you read that changed the way you see your city?