In the spring of 1994, I was a writer in residence for Consortium of Associated Colleges in the Twin Cities. This meant that participating campuses would house me for seven days, and during this time I would do individual and group writing critiques, a workshop, and a formal reading for the entire campuses at St. Thomas University, Macalester College, Augsburg College, Hamline University, and College of St. Catherine.
I’d been to the Twin Cities before, mostly in the summer to visit my godson and his mother, but I had not been during the winter. The cold of Minnesota is infamous, and I am extremely sensitive to cold weather. My friend Charlie Sugnet assured me that the worst of winter would be over in March and April, and that it would be not much colder than New York.
I arrived fully prepared for the onslaught of biting winds and head-high snow mounds. The campus at St. Thomas University was set on the banks of the Mississippi, but when I arrived, I did not know this nor had I fully grasped the geography. The next morning on my way to meet the English faculty, covered from head to toe in a new long coat and knee-high boots, I encountered a young man in shorts, a hooded sweat jacket, and Birkenstock sandals hurrying across campus to class. I asked if his mother knew he was courting pneumonia. He smiled and said it was balmy today compared to the previous week when the temperature had been below 30 degrees. I asked him about the lake, and he told me with a big smile that it was the Mississippi River. I had no idea of the vastness of the river, because what I’d seen in New Orleans was muddy and resembled a lake. After a few days, the weather changed and became Minnesota winter.
Next, I went to Augsburg, where I stayed in a big apartment that normally housed at least three students. While at Macalester, I was able to walk across the street to a bus stop and travel around Saint Paul. There were lots of Vietnamese restaurants. I was taken to dinner by various faculty members and later to the lovely home of Cass Daglish. In fact, we continued to stay in touch for many years afterward.
It was also at Macalester College that I encountered some multicultural exchanges. The first came from a few students who were Asian adoptees. In private sessions, they talked about their growing interests in their Asian heritage and, in a few cases, the resistance to this by their parents. They were all from South Korea. Only one had actually been back because he’d been able to trace the adoption agency that handled him. Two of the others were taking language classes at a nearby cultural center. I stayed in touch for a while with one of the young men because he later came to Columbia University. All were having problems with their adopted parents understanding their cultural needs. All of the students said they sometimes felt guilty when their parents said they felt rejection.
In another class, I made an observation that in their stories all the characters seemed identical: blonde with varying lengths of hair, blue eyes, and very slender figures. This was true whether the characters were male or female. This did not seem to be an issue for the class. In fact, one of the students said it would probably be the same if I described my tribe: everyone would be black, wooly hair and, you know, full lips. I said not everyone looks alike no matter where they come from.
One young woman spoke up saying she’d never been in close contact with someone who was—there was a significant pause as she searched for the word; I supplied African. In her town, all the families knew each other. Most were from Scandinavian immigrants. She was the first person in her hamlet to attend college in Saint Paul, and felt it important to return home and share her experiences. Some did have racial reservations about—again a pause—African people, but, she defended they were all good people, not racists. I am not sure of her age but I would venture to guess less than twenty-one. My observation about the characters had by now been lost.
I met lots of Somalis and they seemed to have adjusted, coming from an extremely hot and dry country to a state with severe cold weather. Some said they had experienced racism. Others said that Minnesota residents lived in isolation and didn’t interact with people who looked different, other than on TV. There were also some intra-racial problems with Blacks. They evidenced disdain for African Americans while many of the youth, especially the boys, imitated postures and dress codes associated with young African Americans. They all said they were proud to be Somali and loved America.
I continued to wrap myself in my layers of long coats and shawls. Sometimes I went for rides with Charlie and my new friend, Don Belton. Don and I became very close, and it was a great tragedy when he was brutally murdered four years ago in Indiana. When we spoke, two days before Christmas, he wished me a pleasant Kwanzaa. Before going out to Indiana, he used to come up to New York and spend time with me.
I have since gone back many times to Saint Paul and Minneapolis. I attended a few of the Juneteenth events put on by my late friend, DeJunius Hughes, and his wife, Karen Starr. Charlie and I have a very close friendship and he has been here many times. I have really fond memories of the shops, especially a yarn shop, because I am a knitter. That writing residency gave me a geographic and cultural education, and lasting friends.
Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr is now retired but teaches in a low-residence creative writing MA and MFA program at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. She is now writing full time in all genres. Her apartment is home to Salon d’Afrique, where she holds soirees with visiting artists and Harlemites.
(Photo: Macalester College)