The Warmth of Our Former Sun

Isabel Wilkerson

“…They left.”

Within Isabel Wilkerson’s epic historical recount of the Black migration north “The Warmth of Other Suns”, a remarkable narrative is offered which profiles the successful accounts of Black efforts to leave the South.  Founded upon first person primary sources, Wilkerson presents three biographies as a method to explore the experiences of Black migration to northern states throughout the early half of the 20th century. Each experience highlights the various emotional tolls, social complications, mental and physical challenges, and cultural shock that blueprinted the 6 million Black migrants between 1915 and 1970.  More importantly, she narrates how local structures and the social climate led to the conviction, for southern Blacks, that seeking freedom beyond the American south was a necessity.  The primary reasons: economic exploitive entrapment from sharecropping, repression of social pride and political involvement from Jim Crow, the constant looming threat of death from white violence, and the resulting decay of justice. These conditions laid the foundation for the largest migration on American soil. To Wilkerson, “They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done…They left.”

Similar to the 1830’s – 60’s, the turn of the 20th century Black populous again re-evaluated their position in the great scheme of American triumph and survival.  Instituted white supremacy, social and political caste, and life threatening incidents revealed to southern Blacks that their existence was not of living but of slowly dying.  Their unfounded belief in freedom, liberation, and opportunity desperately forced an assessment of their current climate. Climate is everything. As it pertains to the Black experience, climate is multidimensional. It’s social and psychological. It’s personal and interpersonal. Its environmental and its spiritual. When one is out of balance, it disrupts the equilibrium of the whole well-being. As a result, a healthy mind (or the strive to regain) will begin to yearn for ‘the warmth of other suns.’ (Black Boy, Wright)

This framework is more than a philosophical or psychological theory that reflectively explains historical accounts. Carefully applied, understanding Black people’s perception and experience with climate, we can explain and predict the growing desire and execution for us to ‘re-migrate’ back to southern states. Today, Black Minnesotans have a unique account of adaptive and maladaptive pains and experiences.  It’s only when we listen to the echoes and cries, often behind close doors, of the living existence from this northern percentage that we start to hear similar songs and hymns of our ancestors of the 20th century. I often listen to Black people in my circle. I’m listening for the same pains and struggles that I experience and the sound that links us to a broader moan.

Let’s begin.

 If our old adage is true, “Black folks are tropical people,” then the very nature of Minnesota geographic climate works against our beliefs.

We struggle with the whiteness!  For seven months out of the year, the majority of Minnesota is buried beneath snow. Within the last two years, Minnesotans have experienced record-breaking freezing temperatures.  We have survived the coldest winter since 1978-79 and the ninth coldest on record dating back to the late 1800’s. Last year alone, Minnesota saw 54 inches of snow, 16 inches above average. Minnesota winters offer less sunlight and colder temperatures, a formula that equates to less outdoor time and less social gathering for Blacks.  If our old adage is true, “Black folks are tropical people,” then the very nature of Minnesota geographic climate works against our beliefs.  On another angle, because of the lack of sun, Black Minnesotans tend to be more prone to vitamin D deficiency than our southern kinfolk. According to a Northwestern University study, vitamin D levels revealed that dark-skinned Black men were 3.5 times higher to be deficient than white men.  This research was conducted in Chi-town, which tends to have a slightly milder winter than the Twin Cities. The lack of sun is linked to vitamin D deficiency, unidentified seasonal depression and anxiety, lower immune health, and possibly higher rates of cancer (prostate in particular).

To emphasize, Black folks’ mental health is suffering as a result of Minnesota’s geographic climate. Chris Lliades’s, a medical doctor in Massachusetts, argues that overall Minnesota depression rates are less than in southern states. However, the issue with Dr. Lliades’s findings is that it does not speak for a sample population of Black Minnesotans, nor considers our estranged relationship with the mental health community.  Black people are less likely to report or seek mental health services compared to their white counterparts.  Like hypertension, seasonal depression and anxiety are silent killers that alter the quality of our lives.

Depressed Black personMy friend Darnel expressed his concern for his wife three weeks ago.  He confided his desperate actions to help support his wife’s “condition”. As the winter approaches, Darnel revealed that his wife becomes impossible to live with: she is more emotional; sleeps less; and overall not the wife that he is used to loving.  It alarms him.  Last February, they went to Orlando, Florida in hopes to break up the winter.  When he got back his words were, “I kid you not Mack, in a matter of three hours in that Orlando sun and heat, I saw this calmness sweep over my wife.  She smiled in away that I hadn’t seen in over a month.” Darnel knew that his wife struggled with the winter season. He continues to desperately evaluate how they could offset this seasonal affect. For his family, and many other Black Minnesotans, a yearly vacation to the south is not financially feasible. His wife’s experience is not uncommon of Black Minnesotans. I’m aware of another Black couple that leaves for weeks, sometimes a month or two, throughout the winter just to “cope” with this condition brought on by the climate.

We loose sleep, brood over it, and suppress our anger.

But again, we struggle with the whiteness! Far too often Black Minnesotans have to contend against the subversive and subtle ways that white-supremacy reveals itself in this region.  You ask any Black person about “Minnesota nice” and, more often than not, they will sarcastically laugh and offer you three or four reasons from their personal experience to contradict the notion.  It’s a general belief among Blacks, ‘racism “up here” looks different than other places.’ However, we can’t always describe it in detailed words. What’s common throughout Black Minnesotan’s experience is how we navigate what Dr. Chester Pierce calls** “subtle microaggressive racism/white-supremacy.”

Let’s canvas Black people in the professional (office) setting.  Think about that white co-worker that you meet within the first
couple of weeks of starting that new position. He/she talks and interacts with you as if you aren’t competent to perform what you were hired for. He/she just assumes that it is their God ordain right to help you conduct your job effectively. Or remember that white supervisor that managed and tracked everything “you” did and only handled conflict and directives via email? Yet, in every meeting he/she offers you that fake superficial smile? Remember how you became the go to person for “all things black” for them, and when they want to minimize their white social frame, they come to you with that leading question designed to assuage their racist beliefs? If they find that one Black person who agrees with them then it can’t be racist, right? God forbid you get hired within an organization where you, alone, make up the entire Black staff.  After your third paycheck and their assumed incompetence toward you, the notion that your position may have been a token placement, necessitated out of state or local funding, begins to set in. What about that co-worker or supervisor that uses that one Black employee to enforce “their” notion, regulations, or agenda?  Every time they want to reprimand you or change program operations, that Black person becomes the mouthpiece and validation to their tactics.  I remember a friend of mine unfolding how he got terminated from Minneapolis Park and Recreation because of his “mannerism” of questioning in a particular meeting.  Of course the Director, a white woman, called the order and used the ‘obedient‘ Black employee to do the work. (Sounds historical to me!)  How we, Black Minnesotans, adapt, assimilate, and adjust deserves an article entirely to itself.

To the pain of Black Minnesotans, we take this everyday stressor home.  We loose sleep, broad over it, and suppress our anger. We may yell at someone, often our loved ones, just to release the rage. We may isolate ourselves in loathing self-defeat. It may manifest in higher rates of blood pressure, head and backaches, fear or depression, or over indulgence in bad habits. Miserable striving to navigate micro-aggressive racism in the work place often lead Blacks to quit and/or look for other employment, if termination is not eminent.

24/7 Wall Street reported in December 2014 that Black Minnesotans are 6 times the poverty rate of white Minnesotans.

NOC UnemploymentSubtle institutional racism in Minnesota paints a startling picture. According to the WalletHub economic research conducted a few months ago, Blacks in Minnesota were three times more likely as whites to be unemployed and three times less likely to own a home. While the report site the types of jobs pursued as a minor factor, the leading denominator was “wage disparities, caused by discriminatory policies and institutional racism…” 24/7 Wall Street reported in December 2014 that Black Minnesotans are 6 times the poverty rate of white Minnesotans. Yet, according to Forbes  “Minnesota’s economic climate [is] the seventh-best in America and ranked Minnesota second among all 50 states in terms of its “overall quality of life.” Overall quality of life for who? If Clarence Hightower research is half way accurate (and he tends to be statistically sound), Black Minnesotans are nearly five times less likely than their White counterparts to have health insurance, has less than half of the median household income than white Minnesotans, and have a higher unemployment and incarceration rate in the state.  The economic and financial distance between Black and White Minnesotans is not coincidental and can only be explained by a sharp analysis of subtle aggressive institutional racism that construct policy, legislation, and public access.

Outside of the comfort of our homes there is very little places we can coagulate amongst our ethnic likeliness.

Black Minnesotans feel smothered.  We champion and support the few spaces we do command. Throughout Minnesota, the operation and ownership of Black business is low. Black people make up 2.6% of business ownership in Minnesota compared to the national average of 7.1%* In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Black owned business capped at 9.7% and 9.5% in 2007 respectively. Amongst this small minority, very little space is neither committed nor accommodating to Black gathering, organizing, development, and tradition. While there is quite of few churches with Black leadership and clergy, the adaptive process to Minnesota has eliminated any desire and conviction to identify themselves as a “Black Church” nor are they willing to provide silo space for Black congregation. From North Minneapolis to the East side of St. Paul, one can count on one hand, maybe two, the venues that are willing to provide a space for the well-being of Black Minnesotans. The inability for Black people to carve out a multitude of environments that supports their myriad heritage, health, spirituality, education, and tradition can be suffocating.  Outside of the comfort of our own homes there is very little places we can coagulate amongst our ethnic likeliness. In contrast, white Minnesotans can barely drive two or three blocks from their home before they encounter space, business, institutions, or milieus that are dedicated to the preservation and congregation of their former ancestry lineage, let alone spaces that are generally perceived as “white”. (i.e. Irish, Norwegian, Scandinavian, German etc)

Whether true or not, certain cities in the south represent homage…

Don’t take this as a plea for all Black Minnesotans to leave the state.  The reality is that quite of few Black Minnesotans aren’t going anywhere. Elderly Black Minnesotans, the subject of Wilkerson’s study or their direct offspring, tend to have no interest of going back south. Economically established Blacks do not view the south or any other place beyond Minnesota as a viable living option, unless it’s a vacation or temporary “mental health” leave.  My purpose is simple.  I’m only providing analytics to a gradual movement that is happening within Minnesota’s Black community, a movement that I identify with.

Black Family Migration2In the late 90’s, Black Minnesotans were exploring resettlement in Atlanta primarily for economic opportunity and equally to fulfill the need to experience Black people in locally owned spaces. This is true even today with Black migration to Arizona and Colorado for more or less the same reasons.  Again, climate is everything. Whether true or not, certain cities in the south represent homage, a kindled blend of Black history, tradition, and authentic peoplehood.  Quite of few Black Minnesotans accept this in spite of Southern states’ history with overt racism/white supremacy.  We can navigate racism when it’s respectively laid on the ground with lines drawn.  We believe and know that warmer climates allow more connection with other people, provides more opportunity to experience life, heals our emotional reservoir, and ultimately penetrate our soul.  We want to find a community where the general hospitality is to speak or acknowledged other Blacks when passing on the street.  We leave believing that we can develop more concrete economic opportunities amongst our own versus the racist restrictive forces that aren’t always apparent in Minnesota. The multidimensional layers are interdependent with one another; personal and interpersonal; social and psychological; and it’s environmental and spiritual.

Most Black Minnesotans who are adopting to re-migrate to the south (and west) are rooted here in this state, which makes the transition that much more difficult.  However, the sacrifice is calculated and assessed. The relief from our painful song is the echo of our ancestors’ sigh when they reached the train and bus stations of Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and Gary.  We arrive in the south with a true hope to experience, once again, the warmth of our former sun.

* US Consensus

** “Handbook of African American Psychology” Editor: Neville, Tynes, and Utsey. Sage 2009.

–Names were changed to protect the identity of the individuals.