As an African-American man and former Twin Cities resident — someone who's experienced the legendary passive-aggressive Minnesota Nice social construct firsthand — I cracked open the new anthology "A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota" not expecting many surprises.
I closed the book with one huge, unexpected lesson, among other smaller revelations: When considering race in a state that's 85 percent white (but rapidly changing), things aren't just black and white. And there's usually a lot more than meets the eye.
"People of color are the fastest growing segment of Minnesota's population," Sun Yung Shin, the anthology's curator and a Twin Cities writer and poet, points out in her introduction. "But is Minnesota a state that understands 'race'? What does it mean to be 'raced'?"
The answer, to borrow the Facebook status update, is that it's complicated.
Despite the everyday hassles of living in a place that produced the "Little House on the Prairie" book series and "A Prairie Home Companion" — arguably two icons of white American culture — nearly all of the writers have embraced the scenic, accessible Land of 10,000 Lakes as their home, even if it hasn't embraced them back.
Far from the black-white paradigm, the 16 authors represent a broad spectrum of people of color. The book sweeps in a Latino man, son of immigrants, who could pass for white; an African-American/Chinese woman, and the wife of an African immigrant who realizes that her husband and their son see the world much differently from how she does.
The authors' experiences in "A Good Time for the Truth" are varied, too: a Korean-American woman who came to the Twin Cities suburbs when a white family with deep Scandinavian roots adopted her from an orphanage in Seoul; a Vietnamese-American man who joins other Asian-Americans in protesting a St. Paul performances of a popular but racist Broadway hit; an American Indian helping to cultivate her tribe's identity through a vegetable garden planted with seeds collected by her ancestors.
The authors all walk, sometimes barefoot, through a reserved white culture, toeing the razor's edge between assimilation and identity. And in Minnesota, they find, the former is expected — and quickly, if you're a newcomer — even though the latter can be impossible to conceal.
While some of the authors tell personal stories of familiar, outright bigotry — David Lawrence Grant writes of police harassment at gunpoint; aspiring novelist Taiyon J. Coleman describes a white writing instructor's degrading comments about her straight-outta-the-'hood subjects — "A Good Time for the Truth" hits hardest when writers describe the kind of intimate, everyday, invisible prejudice that people of color living in Minnesota are more likely to encounter.
Cruel schoolyard taunts about hair or skin color. Unsubtle "what are you doing here?" glares in bars or nightclubs. Whites' failure to grasp why the "model minority" stereotype can be just as hurtful to Asians as the n-word is to black people, and their inability to see poverty in communities of color as a race issue, not an economic or moral one.
Some ugly Minnesota history is unveiled, too, including 19th-century "orphan trains" that brought child labor to childless Midwestern farmers, the Klan's presence in egalitarian communities, the Northern Plains boarding schools that erased Indian culture out of children.
Slam-style poetry, stream-of-consciousness memoirs and straightforward prose all rub shoulders in the anthology, adding to the premise of diversity in plain sight. Some essays work better than others, but the book moves quickly, and even the weaker ones offer brain food on race in the land of Minnesota Nice.
"Before America, I was not black," writes IBé, who grew up in Sierra Leone, in the essay "Trouble in Mind."
"I was not adrift in a sea of white that I constantly had to come to terms with," he says, "against which my very humanity is measured — by Whites, Blacks, the world and even myself."
Joseph P. Williams, a former assistant managing editor for the Star Tribune, is a senior news editor for U.S. News & World Report.
A Good Time For the Truth
Edited by: Sun Yung Shin.
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 224 pages, $18.95.
Event: Book launch, 6 p.m. April 5, Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Free, but reservations requested at www.mnhs.org/event/1107.