Panel discussion is part of One Read for Racial Justice series
Six local authors and poets, contributors to A Good Time for the Truth, were greeted by a standing-room only crowd in St. Kate’s recital hall — a group eager for dialogue around issues of race and racism, class, gender and intersectionality in Minnesota.
St. Catherine University Librarian Amy Mars, one of the event’s co-organizers, described the book as “brave, eye-opening, challenging, poetic, unflinching, beautiful, and a catalyst for action” in her introduction — which also aptly captured the spirit of that late February evening.
Each in turn, Andrea Jenkins, Heid Erdrich, Sherry Quan Lee, Kao Kalia Yang, Venessa Fuentes and Diane Wilson read excerpts from their contributions to the book, followed by a discussion moderated by Taiyon Coleman, assistant professor of English.
Andrea Jenkins started the readings with her powerful poem “18,” which tackles the convergence of race and gender in the trans community.
“Trans brothers and sisters are struggling out there, so / she tells their story / everywhere she’s invited …/ visibility is key to changing / the narrative of this poem,” she read.
Readings from both Heid Erdrich and Sherry Quan Lee revealed the emotional complexities one faces when “passing for white.”
“Whether I want it or not, I wear my whiteness like a key fob. Doors open for me. I’ve held doors open for relatives…This is reality, and it doesn’t matter that skin privilege is as unbidden as it is unearned,” shared Erdrich.
Growing up in predominantly white culture, one that is largely naïve of other cultural realities creates a “discomfort zone” for Quan Lee, who grapples with the color-blindness of well-intentioned friends who don’t seem to understand that “like Minnesota Nice, love that sees no color isn't love.”
Racism can confront you in the most startling places, like Kao Kalia Yang’s experience in the women’s restroom of a Minneapolis bowling alley — and her husband’s silence on the matter: “He had nothing to say about how I had been treated, how wrong it was, how much pain it had caused me, no words to salve the hurt inside of me…”
Venessa Fuentes read about coming of age in suburban Minneapolis as a brown girl, and her early awareness of difference: “Aren’t all of these girls different, depending on where they are, too? Aren’t all girls just girls?”
And that moment of innocence lost and pain realized: “Maybe [you’re] surrounded by sharp edges…you remember how sharp edges surprised you when your mother, who normally lets you swim all day long every summer, said ‘Stay out of the sun. I don’t want you getting too dark the week of your cousin’s wedding.’”
Diane Wilson painted a picture of the devastating generational racism born out of manifest destiny. The rich ecosystems of the Dakota people destroyed, paving the way for industrial agriculture and wide-spread disease.
“Our children will be the first generation to live shorter lives than we will. How our communities eat and how our food is grown is intimately connected to the environmental issues we face. The food choices we make create the world we live in.”
She chronicled the impact of the historical trauma, erasure and the Dakota removal, "When you cover up history and trauma, you don't build healthy institutions on top."
Of vulnerability and empowerment
Students Ashlee Herring ’19 and Crystal Wirtz ’19 kicked off a powerful audience discussion with the panelists by posing questions about having to educate classmates about being a person of color, and how to reconcile race and gender with social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and the Women's March.
"It was empowering to see this panel of authors. As women of color, it was important for us to witness their diverse and complex stories through the lenses that they experience life," says Herring, a double major in English and critical studies of race and ethnicity with a minor in women's studies.
For event co-organizer Anh-Hoa Nguyen, the students’ active involvement in the discussion was a highpoint of the evening.
"Seeing these young women in action — being brave and using their voices and critical thinking skills in analyzing their intersectionality — made me proud to be a TRW (The Reflective Woman) educator," said Nguyen, who serves as department coordinator for the humanities at St. Kate’s.
Attendees shared personal stories of experiencing racism and resistance. Of intersectionality: When are you a person of color first? A woman? A trans person? While tackling the definition of racism, Yang captured it most succinctly: “Racism occurs when prejudices take on power. Where's the power, and who has the power at another's expense?”
Coleman suggested Rereading America as a good resource for understanding racism in our country.
Panelists also discussed how storytelling — and the inherent vulnerability of putting yourself out there — provides a powerful means to connect with others, cultivate deeper understanding, and even help others overcome their prejudices.
“Racism isn’t a fatal condition. You can recover,” quipped Erdrich.
Writing and storytelling has its healing benefits as well. Yang shared memories from her family’s time in the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand, of sitting on her father’s shoulders as he told her, "One day you will walk in the horizons your father has never seen." She carries her families’ oral histories, stories of war and trauma, stories of hope and expectation.
“I grew tired of carrying these stories inside. Writing gave me the time and space to reckon,” she said.
About the event series
The event is part of the larger, year-long One Read for Racial Justice series organized by St. Kate’s Libraries, in collaboration with the English Department, Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women and the Mission Chairs.
“The idea was conceived last July after the killing of Philando Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez and what we saw as a need to respond to this tragedy and a community in mourning,” says Mars. “I asked colleagues ‘What can the library do in times like these to support our community, raise awareness, and foster dialogue?’ and the One Read for Racial Justice was born.”
St. Kate’s librarians have curated more than a dozen upcoming events to fill out the series, including the A Good Time for the Truth lunchtime discussions, SHE Pab Hmong Through My Lens Film Festival, and Social Science Teach-ins. Visit St. Kate’s Libraries for event details.
Photos and story by Sharon Rolenc