Black in White

Susan Smith-Grier

Mom used to say, “Chicago is a good place to be from.” Our family moved from Chicago to the small town of Emily in north central Minnesota in the early 70s. We were one of the very few black families in that area. We left the heat—emotional, psychological, and physical—of Chicago behind and settled on beautiful, serene Lake Roosevelt. We’d been through so much in those previous years—protest demonstrations, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., listening to Jesse Jackson, helping with the Rainbow Coalition, dodging bullets from gang rumbles, fighting the racist policies and ideologies of the government systems in Chicago. Mom and Dad were tired. Very Tired.

2020. Dad’s been gone now for nearly 20 years. Mom’s been gone for 4. One of my brothers still lives in Emily. The other in Minneapolis. I live in Brainerd. I was living in St. Paul but moved back north to help with Mom. She had dementia. After she died I struggled with the decision as to whether or not I wanted to move back to St. Paul or stay here. There were advantages and disadvantages both ways. I chose to stay north. I can’t say I regret it, but at the same time, I can’t say it was the better choice. Especially during these days.

If it were just one thing, perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard. But racism, four years of hate mongering from the highest office in the country, COVID-19, police brutality, police murder, it gets to be a bit much. 2020 was way over the top. White friends didn’t know what to say to me. Black friends would call to check to see if I was okay. I had to check to see if I was okay.

I’ve come to the conclusion that black folk are not just suffering from PTSD. We suffer from CPTSD—Current & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So much of the news of 2020 resembled the news I remember watching on our little black and white TV in Chicago, minus the dogs and water hoses, but the hate is still the same. So many people of all colors thought perhaps all that was somewhat behind us. The truth is it didn’t go anywhere. It just lay there sleeping. Dormant like the shingles virus. And when it woke up and shook off all the covers, it was, like the shingles virus, painful, ugly, uncomfortable and no doubt will leave lasting nerve damage for generations to come.

This child in me wonders why they hate us so. Without even knowing us they have labeled us, put is in the pigeonholes of society, or maybe the shitholes of society, and only let us out when it’s convenient or fashionable or profitable.

When they first stole us from the homeland, our ancestors couldn’t even keep their own names. Animals got better treatment. 2020, a whole new millennium and in so many situations animals still get better treatment. I wish someone could explain it to me so that it makes sense in my mind or at least my heart. I don’t believe that will ever happen, though.

If it were just one thing, perhaps it wouldn’t be so hard. How did it get to be that whether or not you wore a mask defined who had your vote? How did it get to be that by being black you automatically have a target on your back? How did it get to be that black people are more vulnerable to this deadly virus than other people? Well, the virus can’t be racist? Can it?

2020 raised so many questions for me and the people I love. There don’t seem to be any clear answers, only that the virus of oppression and racism never went away and at this point, I feel like it never will. Not in my lifetime. But then again, I’m old. And tired. Like my parents were when we moved up here. They moved here clinging to the hope of better things to come. And better things did come, bit by bit.

Even amidst all the chaos, uncertainty and depression, I see pockets of hope. Like burrs to a dog, I cling to those small bits of hope. I understand now how those old wizened sages in the south clung to their bits of hope for something better. Some lived to see it. Some did not.

One day after the George Floyd murder, a friend and I were driving down Washington Avenue in Brainerd. Across from the iconic water tower between the Saw Mill Inn and the other corner store a group of people held signs protesting. They were in solidarity with the people protesting in Minneapolis. All over the world, people were protesting, but here in Brainerd as we drove by and honked and waved at those souls on the corner, I felt something so strong within.

There was not one person of color that I could see within that small group of people, but these white people had come out in Brained to let folks know that what had happened to this man, this human being, was wrong. It didn’t matter what his past was, or what he had done. What mattered is that he had been willfully killed by a policeman, a paid civil servant whose job was supposed to be to protect and serve.

That small group of people brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat because it meant to me that they cared. And at that point with so many people polarized because of the political climate, life had gotten a bit scary for me being black and alone among so many white people. I needed to know that some of the people living here saw the wrong and they cared. I didn’t even know that I needed to know that until I saw that little group waving their signs and chanting.

It gave me hope, something that had been in short supply for me lately. It bolstered me. If white people in north central Minnesota could care about the death of an unknown black man in Minneapolis, maybe things can change at some point. Like I said, not in my lifetime. I’m old; but at least now I have hope again.

2020 was a year of deep reflection for me. A year of heartache to know that some things that I thought had gotten better from those days in the 60s hadn’t really changed all that much. Watching Walter Cronkite talk about the marches and sit-ins while we ate dinner at the kitchen table with Mom and Dad and my two brothers in Chicago. I remember watching the dogs attack and the water hoses lift people off their feet. It was different now, but yet the same. Tear gas and rubber pellets. Fires, looting, violence and unrest. Summertime in the city.

I’ll take that little piece of hope and maybe see if I can breathe some life into it. But I gotta tell you. I’m old and I’m tired. Very tired. It’s exhausting being black in white.


About Susan Smith-Grier
Susan Smith-Grier is a writer, copywriter, and award-winning poet who has contributed to several magazines and websites over the years. Her work appears in Blues Vision, an anthology of African American Minnesotan writers of note, and Photowrite 2018, a compilation of photographs, poetry, and prose by Brainerd Lakes Area photographers, poets, and writers. She is a contributor to the children’s story anthology, Story to Story, published by Strive Publishing. She is also a recipient of a Five Wings Arts Council grant, Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and Hinge Arts Residency.


Black in White Copyright © 2021 by Susan Smith-Grier. All Rights Reserved.

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