I remember pressing a gray button to get my voicemail messages and hearing the menacing voice. I was 20 years old, serving as the editor-in-chief for the MSU Reporter, the student newspaper at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
As the first African American editor in the history of the publication, I decided to write an occasional column about race, as I perceived its impact on my life at the time. The columns generated a palpable buzz on campus and also their share of hate.
One student told me he had signatures on a petition to "send you back to Africa." Others sent e-mails filled with racial slurs. But the person who'd left a series of threatening messages that day seemed angered to the point of action, so I alerted local police and also contacted some of the administrators at the school.
We all stood in my office listening to the messages, trying to determine the caller's identity and intentions. That's when one administrator offered a theory: perhaps my columns had warranted the racist messages.
"I mean, don't you think you brought this onto yourself?" she asked.
It was a moment I would experience in one form or another in Minnesota over the next 17 years.
For some Minnesotans, the only proof of racism, discrimination and the ills they breed in this state is a death certificate. Anything short of tragedy is sometimes met with apathy and disinterest. I hadn't been assaulted or killed or physically harmed, so maybe — in this administrator's mind — I should stop drawing attention to my experience and move on.
I'm convinced many folks in this state would have said the same thing about George Floyd if he'd survived. The number of people who've blamed him — and not Derek Chauvin — for the knee on his neck would have grown. Only in death — after the video of his final moments captivated the world — would he be heard.
That this defining moment and image of 2020 spurred action is not surprising. The pace of progress has been enhanced by images of undeniable brutality. In the 1800s, abolitionists circulated drawings and paintings showcasing the horrors of slavery to generate support for the movement. In 1955, a photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till — his mother demanded an open casket — at his funeral in Chicago after he was beaten and killed in Mississippi when a white woman falsely accused him of making sexual advances toward her anchored the front pages of newspapers across the country, demonstrating the true recklessness and viciousness of racism.
A photo of Martin Luther King Jr.'s peers pointing in the direction of the shots that killed him on a balcony in Memphis. The red stains in the Mississippi driveway of civil rights leader Medgar Evers after his assassination. Police dogs attacking Black men and women as they peacefully protested in the 1960s. Years later, police officers beating Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. Nearly 30 years after that? Floyd crying for help on Memorial Day.
The images of these incidents prompted people — especially white people — to do something. There were promises and donations. There were marches and book clubs. There were workplace meetings and after-church meetings. Laws were enacted. New organizations were created. Curricula birthed and implemented. Statements released by powerful people and companies. Change will happen now, the perpetual refrain has declared.
I know the Star Tribune offered me a column in response to Floyd's death as the newspaper, like so many organizations throughout the country, reviewed its role within this diverse community.
If sustained and continuously supported, these initiatives can generate a lasting impact. But I also can't ignore the irony of people holding hands and gathering around the graves of fallen Black men and women — George, Breonna, Trayvon, Ahmaud and others — while shouting in unison, "We're ready to hear you now!" Why do Black folks have to die before you'll consider their stories? Why are we so loud only when we can no longer speak?
In 2021, I hope individuals in a state that promotes its commitment to community will not wait for another Black man or woman to die before they decide to listen and value nonwhite experiences. In 2021, people must see the Two Minnesotas and understand that some who live here process the world around them through a different lens.
And they should not need to be bloodied, beaten or worse to be heard. You don't have to see another tragic video to care.
But if it happens again — and the blood of another Black man or woman is the transaction for change — I will not attend the Zoom meetings or hop onto the conference calls about diversity. I will not tell my white friends how it made me feel or advise them on ways they can change. I won't recite the most painful moments in Black history with my children again. I will not offer emotional posts on social media.
I will only seek a sufficient answer to one lingering question:
Minnesotans, don't you think you brought this onto yourselves?