When COVID-19 spread around the world in late 2019 and early 2020, we hardly knew how changed our lives would become. In Minnesota, we entered a stay at home order as part of pandemic precautions in mid-March. Many businesses closed, and workers found themselves unemployed, working from home, or part of a category of “essential workers” in healthcare, grocery stores, and other services that could not stop for the virus. Our cover art by Carolyn Olson, from a powerful series of pastel drawings of essential worker portraits, depicts grocery store cashiers and baggers, masked as they carry on their duties in helping community members obtain necessary food items. This was a viral pandemic that radically challenged and transformed our social and public lives.
On Memorial Day a couple of months later, just as we were teetering on the edge of summer and realizing that the pandemic restructuring of our public worlds was not going away anytime soon, a Minneapolis police offer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds outside a convenience store, murdering him in front of a crowd of concerned citizens as three other officers stood by. A teen, Darnella Frazier, captured this horrific act on video, and that video spread widely online and on TV, leading to weeks of Black Lives Matter protests on Minneapolis streets and around the world for social justice. The city burned. The brazen disregard for a black man’s life sparked widespread attention to anti-racist work and increasing awareness of racism as a pandemic and a public health concern of its own.
As summer rolled into fall, especially with the presidential election, combative discussions heightened on the airwaves and in our communities about everything ranging from wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID and reopening businesses to immigration policies, gun control, voting rights, and more. Anti-Asian violence intensified as the president’s rhetoric fueled hatred. Throughout the year and into 2021, as we grappled with issues big and small, we also had to figure out different ways of connecting with each other, socially distanced and online.
In early 2021, Ramsey County Library partnered with The Loft Literary Center to host a series of writing workshops online focused on writing about 2020. Led by poet and essayist Michael Kleber-Diggs, these workshops engaged participants through the written word and gave us tools to think and feel through our experiences of the past year. These workshops helped lay the groundwork for This Was 2020 as a collection of writings by Minnesotans of pandemics and social justice.
In collecting these writings, we hope to open up conversations about our experiences as well as to document and archive the year for our communities. When we put out a call for submissions for the book, we received many powerful pieces. We saw whole families submit writings together, and we heard from people across the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the state. We were heartened to see how much care people showed for others, and we selected pieces that demonstrated this sensibility the strongest. Ultimately, we know that there is still a lot we must do to recover from 2020 and to continue anti-racist work, and we hope that these writings help us collectively heal, reflect, and build a better future.
Paul Lai, Librarian
Ramsey County Library
May 31, 2021