Collaborative effort underway to tell Black Minnesotans’ stories

Could ‘In Black Ink’ spur a Minnesota Harlem Renaissance?

There are stories of and by Minnesotans of African heritage (Black, African American, African immigrant) that need to be published and distributed. This is the mission of the Minnesota Regenerative Publishing Project.

Locally based Papyrus Publishing, Arcata Press/Saint Paul Almanac, a literary-centered arts organization and the Minnesota Humanities Center together received a state Heritage Partnership grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to collaborate as a “cultural consultant” in developing the project and “planning how to consistently publish and distribute the stories of Minnesota African American leaders, writers and community knowledge.”

This, according to the project’s information sheet passed out during the May 3 information meeting at the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) in North Minneapolis, was one of four such sessions to gather community input. Others were held in Brooklyn Center, St. Paul and Rochester, Minnesota.

“One of the goals of the project is to get an assessment of what’s out there” among Blacks as writers, editors, graphic designers, and others with skills in any part of the publishing process, explained Papyrus Publishing Publisher Anura Si-Asar of the project’s “Goal A.”

Anura Si-Asar
Anura Si-Asar

“We still don’t have a good database of [Black] writers and others of African descent,” explained Si-Asar. “We want to know who has written something. I’m sure there have been [Black] writers for a long time — even in Minnesota — but who are those people? We want to know who these people are.

“We are trying to get money from the state legislature to fund this project,” he continued. “But we know we can’t rely totally on the State. We need money to keep this thing and build capacity. It’s tough to get funding.”

Saint Paul Almanac Executive Director Kimberly Nightingale noted, however, that the project is “a very low priority” at the legislature. She emphasized that her organization’s goal “is to make [the project] successful on its own. This is not our project,” stressed Nightingale.

“Our voice is missing,” said Si-Asar. “This project comes out of a need. The reason why we need these stories is to fill that void” often found in local schools about Black Minnesotans. “The stories [aren’t] there.”

Goal B “is to create an institution that could implement the work” to sustain the project beyond the pilot stage: “We need money to keep this thing and build capacity,” Si-Asar points out. “That’s why we call it ‘regenerative.’”

“In Black Ink,” the working title of the proposed publishing network, could also be a starting point for creating an “Elders Project” to get elders’ stories out while they are still alive, Si-Asar said. “It is quite a challenge because they are getting older and your health isn’t always guaranteed when you get older.

“We are not just talking about books,” added Si-Asar. “We can enhance these stories video-wise and print-wise.” He added that In Black Ink also can be a “grow your own” model for developing and mentoring young Blacks for present and future publishing roles.

“It’s not old fashioned to write things down,” noted Mary Moore Easter of St. Paul, who attended the UROC session on spoken word by youth and others. “I don’t know how much they value the written word when sound is so important. We have to latch onto that energy as part of this.”

Marlene Frye of Plymouth, who grew up in North Minneapolis after she and her family relocated from Boston, said the project potentially could be Minnesota’s Harlem Renaissance. “We are not creating something new, but renewing,” said Frye. “I love your vision, and I want to be a part of that. I have a lot of gifts I’d like to share. I’m not the richest person, but I have a good heart.”

“New media and technology is important, but there’s something about the written word that’s still so central,” added Daniel Bergin of Minneapolis, who supports the project. “Our history is so powerful. That’s why this is so important.”

“I think this idea of promoting and encouraging literacy, publishing and the sharing of our stories is the thing that can make a difference of a people who know who they are. That’s important for me,” said Hanona Sullivan Janzen of St. Paul.

Keno Evol
Keno Evol

Keno Evol of Minneapolis said discussing the plan with elders and others in attendance was important for him. “How do we set up a sustainable model?” he asked.

“It was so amazing that people had the depth of understanding of the project,” remarked Nightingale to the MSR afterwards. “Having these stories told and published can deeply change how all of Minnesota see Blacks as Minnesotans.

“We really need a commitment from the funding community in Minnesota — from the State and from foundations. If they really want to support equity, let’s start with having the resources for the African American community to tell their own story.”

“I felt some synergy here,” reported Si-Asar to the MSR. He said that a one-year report is expected to be completed and presented to the Historical Society in June. “Our next step is to get these community meetings out of the way, write this plan, and find out who is committed to this plan. I thought this session was specific in terms of insights on how we can go to the next hurdle. I liked the diversity of the group.

“The question is how we can get this to our community,” said Si-Asar. “The broader community needs this, too.”


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