Unfertile Ground

2018-10-19T09:44:51+00:00 October 11th, 2018|

By Vanessa Taylor

Children born on water come to know the river’s march, where tributaries bleed into one another and borders are tender enough to flood. They know what feeds into the lakes and where, which portions of the bed consist of oozing, shoe-sucking muck or hidden, foot-slicing rocks. Born and raised in Minnesota, along the Mississipi’s edge, traversing parts of the Vermillion River in my free time, I came to know our waters well. In Hastings, I knew which parts of the Vermillion made for good swimming grounds, where the butt slides were; in Minneapolis, I spent summer nights learning how to creep behind the Minnehaha Falls.

Articulating to others what I love about Minnesota is difficult because I left. People don’t like to understand how you can leave what you love – or why it would even be necessary.  Escaping had been my dream since I was fifteen. I finally packed my bags when I was twenty-two, after I came to understand just how much Minnesota had shaped me. At some point, this desolate state, which remains desolate to untrained eyes, had solidified itself as my home. The frozen tundra of the Midwest makes something like a steady calm move through my veins, chilling my anxieties, but it is this same cold that has the capacity to hold you forever.

I’ve come to find that people are obsessed with the Midwest as fertile ground—old family farms, those dusty red barns leaning up against the horizon; crops arching up towards the sun, whose presence is fleeting. The lakes, they might reason. All that water makes for good growing. But I don’t know that fertile ground people imagine. I know the Minnesota of jagged rocks and outcrops, spaces of land where we were not meant to exist and found ourselves anyway. I know ugly flowers and the hands roughened enough to love them tenderly, the melancholy of bodies in transit. I know the secrets, the landscape that Toni Morrison articulates in novels like Beloved, Sula, and The Bluest Eye. I know the Black Midwest.

 

Moving water has a particular way of speaking—the hushed whispers of the lake coming in against the shore; the agitated cries of the falls. Listening to water has always calmed me. Growing up, my mom used to yell at me for using all the hot water on twenty-minute showers, during which I spent most of my time perched on a closed toilet seat. I run baths a lot, not to sit in them but to listen. If you know how to practice silence, you can be brought into all the miles the water has traveled without moving a single step yourself.

I tried to practice that silence on my family, sitting carefully on couches or in corners, running my eyes over picture after picture trying to implant faces in my brain. We are people of water, by default of being Black in this country, where the Mississippi herself marked freedom or death and warnings of survival were cloaked in hymns about wading in the water. Maybe if I borrowed what I learned from the lakes and rivers and even the hush of the snow, I would know how to read our language. Instead, I have come to find that no one holds onto secrets better than Black families—especially when it comes to children.

“We were very keenly involved in the culture of African America, so of course slavery was back there,” Morrison once said of being raised in the Midwest. “Yet the pressure was not to remember it, but to get over it. So when I was writing Beloved, part of the architecture was the act of forgetting.”

That novel begins with the image of spite, a baby’s venom, caught up inside a family’s house: tiny hand prints in cake, shattered mirrors, the reminders of a ghost that would not stay down. There are children who will not allow themselves to be gone, but there are still many children who disappear, laid down in that forgotten place, the isolated shadow that every Black child is born with one foot inside. This expanse threatens, offers, sometimes outright begs to take back the children. In Beloved, Sethe wanted to lay her children somewhere they would be safe; a spiteful baby is better than one who had to know the malice of the living earth.

It is not the baby’s venom that I am most familiar with, but the children who fade. Growing up, there are things you’re certain of even when you have no reason to be. I was certain of my address until we moved. I was certain of who my family was until I learned that some of them weren’t blood relatives for one reason or another. I was certain of how many aunties and uncles I had until my father casually mentioned his older sister, who had passed away as a child. It was then that I first saw the yawning expanse reveal itself, a Cheshire cat’s smirk emerging from the Nothing.

“I thought you knew about her,” was what my dad said when I asked who he was talking about. “I thought she was your dad’s twin,” was what my mom said when I asked, surprised I had been told about this auntie. The one who had died. I repeated it in my head, over and over. The one who had died.

I know that Black children die. Tamir Rice. Aiyana Jones. Those kids whose house went up in flames during Minnesota’s winter because their mother’s only option was to leave the stove on for warmth. The children who went away to foster homes and didn’t come back. The babies who died because no one cared to look after their mothers. But you can’t learn how to cope with the children you never knew about.

She was a little older than my dad. She had fluid in the brain, he said. I know her name, but I feel disrespectful typing it. This is a balance of secrets, untangling what is mine to share and what belongs to someone else. I can say that once, I found her picture while looking at family photos on my knees in my grandmother’s living room.

My grandmother’s living room is a dedicated memorial to her family. There’s a fireplace, which I don’t think even works, surrounded by bookshelves of almost nothing but framed pictures—family portraits, her grandchildren, and a painting of a Black, dreadlocked Jesus hung firmly in the center. I was bored during the middle of the night, searching by my phone’s flashlight, looking for pictures of myself as a baby. I had to move two other photos to find hers. I didn’t recognize the face; I only knew who it was because I knew that she had been in a wheelchair.

I felt like I had stumbled upon something I shouldn’t have. The frame tried to stick to my fingers, like no one had touched it in ages and it didn’t want to be let go again. Her picture’s frame left behind perfect markings in the shelf’s dust, like tiny handprints in a cake.

This summer, I had another auntie pass away. I flew to my apartment in Philadelphia after a program in Spain, so I could immediately re-pack my bags to go back home to Minnesota three days later. Sometimes, I wonder when her pictures will become buried behind two layers of living relatives. At what point does someone fade into memory and then beyond? She has children, so maybe that will prevent it. Still, when reading her obituary, I came to the names of family that had passed before. Two sisters. I don’t know who one of them is. I haven’t bothered to ask.

 

Minnesota was meant to be fertile ground. Economically, politically. People followed promises like they were the lights at the end of a tunnel, only to discover they were tricks. But can you blame them for wanting something to run toward? And can you blame them for staying? There is a way to farm every plot of land if you learn to work at it. You lose some, you bury them, you write their names and ages in Bibles, tuck photos behind living faces. In desolation, you learn to re-define growth for yourself. Squinting against the sun’s light reflecting off the snow, you bury seeds beneath frozen ground and ignore everyone who calls you crazy. Somehow, Black Minnesota is like the Bottom.

“A joke. A nigger joke,” is how Morrison describes the origins of the central community in Sula. “That was the way it got started. Not the town, of course, but that part of town where the Negroes lived, the part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in the hills. Just a nigger joke, the kind white folks tell when the mill closes down and they’re looking for a little comfort somewhere. The kind colored folks tell on themselves when the rain doesn’t come, or comes for weeks, and they’re looking for a little comfort somehow.”

Perhaps that is how Black people came to migrate in groups to Minnesota—how they continue to come, although the state has done nothing for us. The same type of joke that people tell when the mill closes down and they want to take some type of comfort in their own economic spiral. The mean-spirited joke. Remember how we got all those people up here? Uprooted them? Lied to them? I am not curious about the lies, but about how a nigger joke becomes comfort when the rain refuses to come, or when the frost refuses to let up, or when you are standing outside yet another child’s grave. When the expanse winks back.

 

“I am Black; I am in total fusion with the world, in sympathetic affinity with the earth, losing my id in the heart of the cosmos—and the white man, however intelligent he may be, is incapable of understanding Louis Armstrong or songs from the Congo. I am black, not because of a curse, but because my skin has been able to capture all the cosmic effluvia. I am truly a drop of sun under the earth,” Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon is known for his examinations of the ontological death of Black people, the ways racism and colonialism reverberate out, but he leaves much to be desired in addressing Black womanhood. Where Fanon writes of the failures of the white man to understand, there lingers an unaddressed irony in the Black man’s inability to understand Black women.

Re-examinations of death, what defined it and at what point it started, occurred long before Fanon. The cosmos was unwrapped and picked about, braided back into children’s scalps, and continue to be unraveled today. Fanon writes of the colonized person, who perceives life “not as a flowering or a development of an essential productiveness, but as a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death.”

The inspiration for Beloved, Margaret Garner, confronted this idea of a death that existed as a permanent shroud. In 1856, determined not to return to slavery or have her children subjected to it, Margaret Garner attempted to kill them. She succeeded with her two-year-old daughter, slitting the child’s throat. It is an act that is only hard to understand if you have never looked around and noticed how failed crops mysteriously resemble your children. Before articulations of Black life and experience became lost, sucked up by academia, Black women and mothers learned how to identify something in desolation, in rock-hard ground, in gray swaths of silence.

 

“Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed,” Morrison writes near the beginning of Beloved. It is a setting that anyone from Minnesota is familiar with. A winter that lasts most of the year swallows up everything, hungry and unapologetic.

You will lose yourself in a Minnesotan winter if you’re not careful. In high school, I would contemplate committing suicide by walking out into a blizzard and never stopping. I have spent enough time outside in winter, exposed flesh freezing, to know that it would not be a painless death. But it seemed better than anything else. In some ways, even when the spring thaw came, and when summer rolled in with its brutality, Black womanhood in the Midwest threatened to constitute a near permanent winter. Even the sky in Minnesota lacks drama. It remains as unforgiving as the laws that threaten us, the men who harass us. So we learned to look beyond the sky.

People say that it’s impossible to invent colors, that what we have is what we have and what we know is what we know. That is not true. We learned. We invented. We pulled color from places it shouldn’t have existed, shades of Black that did more than span a spectrum, that became unique within themselves. And in the spots where growth failed to bloom, we found new ways to articulate what had occurred. In part, Morrison’s work is an exploration of how Black women learned to navigate the irony of finding ourselves in fertile ground that refused to grow us or our kin.

Minnesota is my home. I love Minnesota because it’s where I’m from, and even when home is cruel, you know all the bits of you that it’s responsible for. Still, I am afraid of it; I know it well enough to be afraid. That is part of why I left, and maybe it’s also part of what makes my love so difficult to articulate to strangers.

The community inside of those borders, entangled and endlessly drowning within lakes and rivers: at least we know the joke. When we’re standing outside yet another occupation, watching someone else’s blood get hosed off the sidewalk outside of what was once a community center and now stands as a police precinct, we know. When another Eid is disrupted by someone else’s death, and we forget how to process holidays that are not spent in mourning, we know. We can point to the nigger jokes when they arise. They may be terrible, but I’d rather be in on the joke than standing outside of it. At least then, we can throw our heads back and laugh.

 

 

Cover image by William DeHoogh.

Vanessa Taylor is a writer currently based in Philadelphia, although the Midwest will always be home. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult. Her work focuses on exploring Black Muslim womanhood and the taboo. You can follow her across social media at @bacontribe.

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