Some of us, black, were captured/sold from a geography so vast, the details would daunt memory to produce a forgetting so deep, we had forgotten that we had forgotten. Missing memory. Who are my people? How will I come to know the stories and histories of my people?
- M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing
You live on North Lowry Avenue. Lowry Avenue which connects North and Northeast Minneapolis. North Minneapolis, a rather small geography both real and imagined. Imagined. Sometimes like the boogeyman. Haunted.
You live in black space, because the “black body often determines (and over determines) the ways in which the landscape around the black body is read.” See a 1935 map calling a section of North the Negro Slum even though Hennepin County’s black population was less than 1 percent at the time. See the local news. North is a place seemingly without coordinates and though ‘black space’ is mentioned here as dismembered from certain social, political and economic practices of the state, that is not to be mistaken for totally dispossessed or perpetually deficient. There is something both fugitive and impossible about it, ‘the queer thing is that we were born’ at all, and in that brush that black space is, there is another way of knowing, a re-membering practice.
So how might you read North, re-member it, re-Wright it? ‘Our imaginations can fill the empty space and recover the undocumented.’ The empty space. The undocumented. You wonder if by paying close attention to the details of a single location you can trace more expansive narrative maps of black social life. Here is your attempt to draw one.
"we even forget that we have forgotten"
You live in North Minneapolis. A small part of the small City of Minneapolis cut off from the Mississippi. May 22nd, 2011 a tornado would touch down in the Metro area having its longest path in this small part of this small city. A friend would tell you shortly thereafter of how they ran, barefoot, from the twister. What of that which could not outrun it? Wright Haircuts used to be on Penn and Golden Valley. Penn Avenue, another connective tissue in North. Wright Haircuts is no more, and mostly, this is not seen as significant. Why should it be?
Yet each time you drive or cautiously bike down Penn Avenue, air heavy with exhaust, reaching Penn and Golden Valley, you feel a sense of sadness, over something lost, something hard to name. An empty space. On the northeast corner of Penn and Golden Valley there is a vacant lot, an absence. On the southwewst corner there is a development project. Both the absence and architecture concealing another geography, another place. That northeast corner was an empty lot, Lot 14, that would become a commercial property and be torn down after a tornado had its longest path in the small geography of north, and return to a lot again. But it had a name.
An address can only tell you so much. Like the agreement made in 1890 between the City of Minneapolis, the inspector of buildings and J.M. Higby to erect 1900 Penn Avenue N, which at this time was in Ward 3. Building Permit No. B 24489. A note on the cost here, the day and month listed there. It is 2 stories and is built of wood but floor plans are disposed of after 2 years in Minneapolis unless the property is significant, and 1900 Penn Avenue N is not significant, you find no floor plans. It is an address, just another in a long series of addresses, a place unworthy of further archiving, and yet ‘a people’s sense of place and time is contained in places, in the places they inhabit and use’ and perhaps its use is another way of naming.
When you cautiously bike by Penn and Golden Valley you hear stereo, smell barbecue, when you bike there you think leaf green awning, you remember Sans Serif font lettering Wright Haircuts, one of the few barbershops in North Minneapolis at the time.
Barbering has been a long standing profession and site of cultural production in black communities, and no small amount has been written on this. Minnesota has been connected to that larger history ever since 300 black travelers migrated north up the Mississippi in 1867, stopping in Missouri on their way to Minnesota, being held on arrival and brought to the soldiers at Fort Snelling, and then to be ‘distributed’ to Blue Earth, Hennepin, and Ramsey counties. ‘Contrabands of war’, their official designation. More than a few of these “contrabands of war” would work as barbers. Your great grandfather, who also took that northern route up the Mississippi from Louisiana was a barber, turned to that profession after quitting his job as a porter with The Great Northern Railway. Too much pride. Cell traffic.
"here...in this here place, we flesh"
Crossing the fault lines between late 19th century migration, fraught with the contradictions of racial capital, toward the end of a 20th century fixed firmly in a faux war on drugs, sits a shop with that leaf green awning, Wright Haircuts. This was not 1900 Penn Avenues’ first use, but it is the one that means the most to you, even if there are no floor plans, even though the special collections' librarian is tiring of your inquiries. You remember walking into Wright Haircuts feeling like going into a time machine, its smell and pace and conversation like something elsewhere, a constellation of black rhetorical brilliance.
Corrine Wright was the master barber, one of the few women running a shop over North, and across the Twin Cities. You often think now about how out of place you felt in your body as a boy child, you often think now of patriarchal masculinity in space, how it is formed. The barbershop as site certainly participated in the formation and performance of this patriarchal masculinity, but you often think now of your body in that place, you think now of Corrine Wright and how she subverted these performances.
Corrine Wright. Arkansas born woman and the youngest of 14. Not unlike many other southern black folk Corrine would migrate to Chicago first before coming to Minneapolis, having a family of her own, learning a trade and building a shop. Wrights.
Opening in 1991 until its eventual close in 2011 there was a constant revolving of that door, as though a part of the rhythm of that corner. You would get cleaned up every Saturday you had the money and every Saturday you did, there would be black folks who you would see gather at the corner crossways from Wrights selling other black folks passing by fresh fruits and vegetables. You don’t know why it seemed, seems, so magical to you.
Perhaps it was the make-shift-ness of it. It did not appear to be legitimate in the way of someone having purchased a permit from the county or city to be an official farmers market. They just brought they little folding table along with they folding chairs and vegetables and got to work. Getting to work, perhaps before a plan, or a meeting, or the formation of a committee. Getting to work. Maybe it was seeing all those organic social formations, their ginger root extensions, a woman stopping her car at the corner to quickly pay for some tomatoes before the light changed. An elder grabbing a bag of cucumbers or beans, conversations fomenting as all this happened, you watching as you got your bald fade, not realizing the impact it had on you. Work.
Or maybe it was just how many fried food shops, fast food joints, grease heavy holes in the wall are often the unchanging variable of geographies deemed the black part of town. The ‘black part of town’. Not to say black social life, but social and economic deficiency. In that place black folks, that far too many news channels and non profits say can’t get they shit together or make healthy choices; in that place we made illegible and subversive exchanges which at times queered market imperatives. Like how we know and pass on knowledge, like how we heal ourselves. We sold ourselves medicine in garlic and zucchini, in onions and squash and cucumbers. We did other things on that corner too. You don’t wanna deal in fairy tales or reduce what is complicated. But it felt like ours, a place didn’t nobody give a shit about but us, where we might carve from an empty lot an incomprehensible social grammar, and remember. Where we might dig up what at times has seemed like a corpse of some agricultural past that ain’t even the past, and make that corpse speak, and remember. Where we might, in the impossibility that is us, recover those undocumented things from tombs on land and submerged in water, that we were never meant to find and re - member.
Flash forward now to that corner where you got your haircut as a child and see the empty lot, look across the street and see former NBA player Devean George’s development project which will have 47 units of affordable housing and at its base Wirth Cooperative Grocery Store. You got no beef with Devean George or affordable housing, or Cooperatives. But why does the narrativizing of that project always have to be in the language of “giving back”? What was escaped? Who was left behind to “give back” to? Why does blackness always sound like some kind of debt to be paid off, which can never be paid, which some magically manage to clear while the rest refinance and roll dice against? Why are you getting all these emails asking you to join the board of Wirth Co-op, or how to get more black folks involved as member-owners? And you wonder if it is the way that architecture conceals as much as it makes visible, or some stinging absence in the archive or all of that and more that renders a few black folks at the corner of Penn and Golden Valley, cutting hair and selling vegetables, invisible. But some of us know history isn’t a straight line, it is not a coherent narrative of ‘progress’, some of us know the weight of centuries of memories and names and structures built on top of memories and names attempting to bury us underneath. Some of us are still interested in making corpses speak, re-Wrighting from that common tongue, haunting the text. Some of us re-member.
- “Some of us, black, were captured/sold from a geography so vast, the details would daunt memory to produce a forgetting so deep, we had forgotten that we had forgotten. Missing memory. Who are my people? How will I come to know the stories and histories of my people?” M. Jaqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations On Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, And The Sacred (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) 263.
- “the black body determines the ways in which the landscape…” Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2006) 4.
- “the queer thing is that we were born” Alexis Pauline Gumbs “m/other ourselves: a Black queer feminist genealogy of radical mothering” Revolutionary Mothering: Love On The Front Lines edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams (Toronto: Between The Lines, 2016) 19.
- See Ngugi wa Thiong’o on ‘dismembering practices’, ‘re-membering practices’, and the decolonization of African memory. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Something Torn And New: An African Renaissance (New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2009)
- “our imaginations can fill the empty space and recover the undocumented. We give this site its peopled history and stories.” Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2006) 68.
- "We even forgot that we have forgotten." M. Jaqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations On Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, And The Sacred (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) 276.
- “a people’s sense of place and time is contained in places, in the places they inhabit and use.” Edward S. Casey, “How to Get from Space to Place” 44.
- Photo Credit: D.A. Bullock.
- "Here...in this here place, we flesh." Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Plume, 1988) 88.
- Abram L. Harris, The Negro Population In Minneapolis: A Study Of Race Relations (Minneapolis: Urban League & Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House, 1926) 5.