“We don’t always see the face of God in everybody’s face,” Rev. Pamela Ngunjiri tells her congregation. “And that’s the problem with racism. Somewhere along the line the humanity of that particular group has been taken away and that has to be restored.”
Ngunjiri (pronounced Go-jiri) was recently hired as the Co-Director for Racial Justice for the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC). She joins the other Co-Director and Healing Minnesota Stories’ founder Jim Bear Jacobs. Together they are leading the Council’s multi-year effort at truth telling, education and reparations with both the African American and Native American communities.
Ngunjiri and Jacobs say the Council’s first truth-telling event will be held in September, details coming soon. Until them, please meet Rev. Ngunjiri.
Part of a series highlighting examples of truth telling and repair
In the fear and panic following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, allowing military commanders to designate “exclusion zones” to protect the country. It allowed military commanders to designate areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded.”
The order didn’t specifically name or target Japanese immigrants or Japanese Americans, but that’s how it was implemented. The racism becomes apparent when you learn that 112,000 people of Japanese heritage were interned compared to some 10,000-plus people of German or Italian ancestry. Japan, Germany and Italy all were aligned in the Axis Powers and hostile to the United States.
It took decades, but the United States ultimately created opportunities for former internees to tell their stories. The government issued an apology and made meager financial repairs.
This past September, the Minnesota Council of Churches launched a multi-year effort at truth telling, education, and reparations with Indigenous and African American communities. This blog is part of a series to support that work by looking at past reparations efforts.
The U.S. response to the Japanese internment camps is one example — an imperfect one — of how this country has grappled with reparations for our past injustices. It shows we have the capacity to name and acknowledge racism, listen to stories of those who have been harmed, and make financial repairs. It also clearly shows that reparations such as these can never come close to undoing the damage done.
Star Tribune columnist D.J. Tice offered predictable and flawed push back against needed truth telling at Fort Snelling.
Tice’s opinion piece — Fort Snelling: New Vision, Old Wounds — focuses on plans to renovate and reinterpret the Fort, plans which would give a prominent place to acts of injustice and cruelty that were part of Minnesota’s founding and whose legacy continues today. Plans would bring forward stories about the brutal concentration camp below the Fort that held Dakota women and children following the Dakota War of 1862, a camp where hundreds died. It would talk about the Dred Scott case and the fact that Scott was held at Fort Snelling.
This new narrative would challenge the political correctness of a prior age.
Tice uses several common arguments to push back against such truth telling.
The Plan is Too Critical of the Past: Tice mixes the Fort Snelling debate in with recent efforts to remove Confederate statues in the south and to restore the name Bde Maka Ska to Lake Calhoun. He wraps them under the broad heading of the “new censorious spirit” of our age. (Censorious, according to Merriam Webster, mean hypercritical, fault finding, or carping. It’s basically a put down for those seeking change.)
The Plan Needs More Historical “Balance”: Tice seems to argue that it’s okay to add some stories of past injustices, but apparently we shouldn’t overdo it. History needs to be balanced.
The Plan Victimizes Veterans: Tice cites retired National Guard Gen. Richard C. Nash, raising concerns that the fort’s military history will be pushed aside and replaced with more painful stories. This “zero-sum” thinking raises the fear that adding to the historical narrative unfairly diminishes the Fort and veterans’ stories.
Tice’s closing paragraphs argues for a blame-free and “balanced” historical narrative:
One might wish for an approach to history in which the very purpose is to try — not so much to condemn or to justify — but to understand the passions and motives of all peoples of the past. Yet maybe a truly balanced view of history has always been too much to expect.
It is, though, what Minnesota should strive for.
Tice’s narrative doesn’t go for balance. He prefers emotionally charged words, such as “censorious,” “score-settling,” “reproachful,” and “villainous whites and victimized minorities.” Continue reading →
An old African proverb says: “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
And so it is in the Minnesota State Capitol building and the stories it tells about the early settlers and the Dakota, the original people of this place. A historic plaque hangs in the hallway near the Governor’s office extolling Alexander Ramsey, the state’s first Territorial Governor and its second Governor after statehood.
It was placed there in 1929 by a group called “The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.” The plaque tells the colonial story, saying Ramsey was:
RESOLUTE AND VIGOROUS IN ACTION
FAR-VISIONED AND SAGACIOUS IN COUNSEL
HE GAVE THE STRENGTH AND
ENTHUSIASM OF HIS LIFE
THAT THE FOUNDATIONS OF THIS
COMMONWEALTH MIGHT BE
Not surprising for the time, the plaque failed to acknowledge Ramsey’s mercenary side, such his role in forcing through unfair treaties, or his decision to put bounties on Dakota scalps after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.
The Minnesota State Capitol just underwent a major $300-million-plus renovation. It included a vigorous debate over how to tell Minnesota history through art and interpretation. Historically, gubernatorial portraits have lined the Capitol corridors with only the governor’s names and dates of office. The renovation added short biographical narratives for each governor.
The narrative accompanying Ramsey’s portrait is an improvement over the plaque, but still falls well short of freeing itself of the colonial narrative. Instead of telling multiple sides of the story, the narrative is a sad amalgam of dry and irrelevant facts and narrative that lacks context. Its silence on Ramsey’s major flaws speaks volumes about the Historical Society’s inability to tell difficult truths about the state. Continue reading →