One enduring national (and local) stereotype about North Dakota is that unlike the rest of the country, our state is racially homogeneous: “lily white.”
This would of course come as odd news to thousands of regional tribal members whose communities go back centuries, not to mention several thousand state residents counted in the 2010 Census as “Black,” “Asian,” “Hispanic/ Latino” and “Two or More Races.” Add to this number many immigrants and political refugees arriving each year from countries all over the world. This means there are over 76.000 people in North Dakota who should put the stereotype to rest.
But the stereotype persists, partly through the self-perpetuating power of repetition, but also because it’s grounded in flawed numbers logic: North Dakota’s statistical white majority means there is “no diversity.” The stereotype confuses relative numbers with relative importance – a lopsided equation for sure, and one heavy with costs, especially given the racial history of our region.
But February is Black History Month in North Dakota, a fine time (like every month) to confront the damage done by stereotypes about race. It’s also campaign season all over the country, a particularly good time to beware the distracting tactics of race-baiting and the politically dangerous notion that in a democracy –especially in issues of social justice – only majorities count.
The small stuff matters. There is a one-sentence mention of North Dakota in John D’Emilio’s biography of African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. In a passage from Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, we learn that Rustin passed through Bismarck during an anti-war speaking tour in the 1940s and was warmly received by his North Dakota hosts.
This tiny detail of “African American history” sparks intriguing questions: Who invited Bayard Rustin to Bismarck in the 1940s, and why? What were the North Dakota contexts for the fuller story? By the 40s, Rustin had long experience as a pacifist; he had embraced Gandhi’s political philosophy for advancing black civil rights, and would later work in the gay rights movement. None of these stances are currently associated in popular imagination (or media images) with North Dakota, yet of course all three have their history here, and equally important, all three are embraced by current citizens of the state.
Sometimes, the stereotype can threaten to derail new knowledge about the region’s actual past. Back in 1993, a history graduate student at UND named Stephanie Roper proposed to write a Masters Thesis titled “African Americans in North Dakota: 1800-1940.” At the time, some regional historians expressed skepticism that such a project would turn up enough material for a scholarly study. Black History? In North Dakota? Fortunately, Roper persisted. Flash ahead a few months later to 141 well-researched pages, available in print and microfiche at UND’s Chester Fritz Library.
In an effort to document more recent black history in the state, Randall Kenan, an African American writer famous for works of fiction like Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and A Visitation of Spirits, cast aside his own stereotypes about our region as he traveled through North Dakota in the 1990s on a nationwide project to gather oral histories. His extensively researched non-fiction book, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the turn of the Twenty-First Century, includes a full chapter highlighting the varied experiences among African Americans living in Grand Forks.
And 2009 brought news that surprised even some veteran civil rights activists in other parts of the country. North Dakota became the 49th state to establish a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) when the Northern Lights Chapter was launched by longtime African American residents in North Dakota and northern Minnesota. Chapter organizers reached across lines of race, party and state to link our region with a 100-plus year old civil rights organization originally founded by progressive social activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
The numbers of people and pages in the “history notes” above may be relatively small, but they matter. And they point to many possible futures for the state.
W.E.B. Du Bois: “There can be no perfect democracy curtailed by color, race or poverty. But with all, we accomplish all, even peace.”
Du Bois? In North Dakota? You betcha.
(Sharon Carson teaches literature, comparative religion, and philosophy at the University of North Dakota, and works in public humanities and progressive media.)