This week I am featuring a guest blog post by writer Claudette M. Webster to broaden conversations on Minnesota history and identity. A proud immigrant and longtime New Yorker, Claudette shares her story of community building in Minnesota.
I moved to the Twin Cities, flyover country, in March 2018. I came because I was at a crossroads in my life and needed a change. I was stuck in a rut. I began to consider the Midwest when I mentioned to a friend that I was looking for a new place to live: a place that wasn’t New York or Massachusetts. This friend, a native Minnesotan with origins in Africa, invited me to visit with her that January. This invitation ignited in me a desire to know more about Minnesota and its history and what was happening here. I learned that there were Native Americans in the Midwest, in Minnesota, and that they make up 2–4% of the society. I gleaned that Native Americans lived on and off reservations, inside and outside the Twin Cities. In the fall of 2017, when I initiated this inquiry, I was already doing research on Caribbean immigration and trying to discern patterns in my own history of migration on a larger scale. A source that I encountered discussed the similarities between the West Indian Parade in Brooklyn, which was started by people from Trinidad and Tobago, and the powwows that Native Americans created. In each, the evolution of the people shaped the ceremony, the culture, and the events that others witnessed.
In January 2018 I visited the Twin Cities, mainly Minneapolis, for a week and stayed with my friend in her apartment near Powderhorn Park. She introduced me to members of her community. We attended a Naked Stages Performance at the Pillsbury Theater, and everyone I met was friendly and welcoming. By the end of the week, the possibility of moving seemed less daunting. A few days before my flight was scheduled to leave it snowed heavily and I thought the weather would hinder my return to New York. I remember walking in the snow that evening, looking up at the sky and experiencing the quietness of the city. I relished the soft aura of the evening; it filled me with a sense of calm and excitement. I returned to New York as scheduled, and six weeks later I was back in the Twin Cities with a determination to build a life here.
Prior to coming to the Midwest, I spent fifteen months in New York. Although New York had been my home base from my youth until the year following my mother’s death in 2001, the New York I encountered was not the one I had grown up in. It was simultaneously new and old. I had spent fifteen years in upstate New York, western Massachusetts, and other rural East Coast areas. I felt out of place; New York City now felt too crowded, too noisy, too dirty. I had to learn to be in a city place again. It was a hard adjustment.
The move to the Twin Cities appealed to me because it was not a big city like New York nor was it like the small towns or hamlets I had experienced in recent years. I loved the green of the latter but not the lack of opportunities for meaningful work. The Twin Cities seemed a nice combination with its access to the arts and cultural scenes and its green spaces. The Twin Cities has a synergy of all the things I loved about city and country life; it is the best of both worlds.
One of my first instances of wonder was finding egrets, cormorants, red-tailed hawks, and bald eagles in Powderhorn Park. Life was teeming in the neighborhood and in the park. There were geese, waterfowl, and turtles in and around the pond. People fed bread to the wood ducks and their offspring despite warnings not to. Children and adults played soccer or baseball on the grass while runners, walkers, and people with strollers ambled along the concrete paths that surround the pond and grassy fields. Occasionally a young man or woman played a guitar or sang a song. Yoga on mats on the grass, a group of people playing drums (djembe, congas, etc.). African dance classes on the green, Zumba classes, and events celebrating the diverse community in the neighborhood occurred inside the recreational center. Children swung on bars and jungle gyms in the playground near the community center; on a patch of grass someone read a book or listened to music. The park was a place where people rested, played, and connected with each other. Often as I walked someone would say “Hi” or “Hello!” Sometimes we exchanged smiles or nods. These greetings were warming especially after a hard winter.
I appreciate being in a place where there is a vibrant BIPOC community. This is different from what I experienced in the Berkshires and upstate New York where there were few black and brown people. Coming here, I wanted to be with other BIPOC. I appreciate that there are spaces for BIPOC folx to gather here. I had heard about a BIPOC gathering at Clouds in Water Zen Center which took place in Fall 2018 with Rev. angel Kyodo williams; many people reported that the experience was very liberating. I became a member of that community because of the warm welcome I received, and the Buddhist teachings aligned with my spiritual journey.
Before my arrival, I was told that I needed to have a community here. Community is the key to surviving and thriving in the Midwest. Also, I heard that it is difficult for newcomers to find community in the Midwest. I was cautioned by a white friend who has lived here for twenty-plus years that the Midwesterners are often closed to foreigners, to transplants, to immigrants and refugees. I got the impression that if you are born here, that in itself gives you clout; you have people. People you went to school with, people you have known since the day you were born, people your family has known for several decades. Perhaps you have people in your lineage who can trace an ancestor to the Midwest of centuries ago. This applies to white Midwesterners more so than to other cultural groups, but to a degree it happens across racial lines. It is not equal, per se, but it is there like an unseen contract.
Initially, I had no community here beyond the friend who had invited me and the people to whom she introduced me. I had friends in New York, Vermont, Santa Fe, and California with whom I maintained contact. Two of my New York friends connected me with friends and/or acquaintances here. I met with each of these individuals shortly after my arrival and shared meals with them to explore how they might assist me in finding work. We ended with promises to connect soon but those connections fell away. I made inquiries of the people that my friend introduced me to and that eventually led to consulting gigs for several months. I recognized that as a new person in a new place, it was my responsibility to go to places of interest and meet with people there; this was a way for me to begin building.
Another thing that drew me the Twin Cities was the strong literary and artistic scene here. I love to write and although I have an MFA in Creative Writing, I wanted to learn to be a better writer. Within a month after my arrival, I registered for a course in poetry with Khary Jackson at the Loft Literary Center. Shortly thereafter, I learned about the BIPOC writing workshops there and began attending them regularly. Here, I was presented with an array of stellar teachers from the community to learn from and uplift my writing as never before. Being with other BIPOC writers in the Twin Cities felt a little like being at a Cave Canem retreat. The sense of recognition and connection and care was nurturing; I felt like I had arrived at the right place at the right time. I followed my curiosity, passion and joy to the Twin Cities and as a result I have become immersed in the literary scene by forming alliances, attending workshops, volunteering, and becoming a member of two literary arts organizations.
I have made great strides since my arrival in the Twin Cities five years ago. I am doing work that matches me and that is meaningful and worthwhile. I have a family of people whom I am proud to call my friends. I have had several opportunities to nurture my writing, including a Loft Mentor Series Fellowship. I appreciate being in BIPOC spaces and learning from fellow writers and teachers. My leap of faith to the Midwest has yielded opportunities I could not have foreseen. I am immensely thankful for the personal and professional connections that have occurred. I am immensely thankful to be here.
Native American culture is present throughout the landscape of the Twin Cities in the names of streets, lakes and parks. Its presence is like a shadow, unacknowledged, and almost erased despite how much this history has made life here possible. The experiences of Native Americans are emerging to authentically tell the stories of their heritage, past and present. I am thankful to be learning about the lived experiences of Native American today and how that history is being revived to save the earth here and elsewhere.
Claudette M. Webster is on the faculty of Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas, where she teaches English. Ms. Webster has lived in the Twin Cities for the past four and a half years. She is originally from Jamaica, West Indies and has spent much of her life in the Northeast: New York and Massachusetts. Ms. Webster is a board member of the Saint Paul Almanac, where she is Director of Education and Programming. Also, she is a board member of Redbird Chapbook Press, where she engages in community outreach. Ms. Webster is a writer of poetry and prose. She was recently published in Let the Black Women Say Asé edited by Ebony Adedayo. Past publications include Essence magazine, Cane Canem Anthology, The Pitkin Review, and Black Renaissance Noire. Ms. Webster is an avid walker; she loves being outdoor in nature, especially near water. She aspires to visit each of the 10,000 lakes in Minnesota.
Patti Kameya is a fiscal year 2022 recipient of a Creative Support for Individuals grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.