Is it just me, or does anyone else ever just stop and think about the fact that signs like this were the norm until 1964? Really, that wasn’t too terribly long ago. Think of how many people that are alive today lived during a time when segregation was the way of this country. Sure, the 1964 Civil Rights changed the law but, you can’t legislate a heart change. All we need to do is look at our current political landscape to realize this truth.
Fastforward with me now from the 1960’s to the 1990’s. Setting: St. Cloud area. This area was rightfully known as #whitecloud (minus that hashtag – back then we were all obsessed with Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?). This is the Central Minnesota that I grew up in. This is also the Central Minnesota that comedian Adrian Washington moved to in the mid ’90’s. He was one of the only people of color that attended Apollo high school at that time (he graduated in 1995).
Adrian spent the first decade of his life in Mississippi before moving to North Minneapolis in the 1980’s. He explained that, at that time, North Minneapolis was “pretty gang infested” and that he wasn’t used to that because he in the south they had lived in a small town. One day, their duplex in Minneapolis was shot at and that was when Adrian’s mom decided that enough was enough. Adrian was 14 when he came home from school on a Thursday and his mom told him to say good-bye to his friends the next day because that very weekend, they were moving to St. Cloud. “It sucked, but I knew why she was doing it” said Washington.
Adrian remembers being shown around Apollo for the first time: “I saw so many white students – and I saw how they looked at me. I remember saying to myself: ‘If I don’t see another black kid at this school, I don’t know if I can do this.’ And, lo and behold, the last class they showed me had one black student in it. Altogether, there were 5 of us black kids in 7th-12th grade at the time.” Upon learning that he was from the south, many people assumed that he had encountered major racism. Nope. “St. Cloud was the first place I encountered racism”, Washington said. Why? Because everywhere else he had lived, he was surrounded by other black people. Many parts of the south are still like this today. Black people stay in their corner of the town, white folks stay in theirs, and ne’er the two shall meet.
Adrian and I reminisced about St. Cloud in the 90’s and he brought up the dollar movie theater in downtown St. Cloud (can we bring that back please?). At age 15, he was walking there with his girlfriend, who was white. “We were walking down the street and a grown man pulled over by us and asked her ‘Are you ok?'” Adrian wondered why this was a question. “It wasn’t like I was dragging her down the street – she was walking with me and we were laughing.”
When Adrian started driving he experienced what most teenagers do: running out of gas. His friends were helping him push the car to Little Dukes when they saw a cop do a U-turn. Assuming he was going to help them, Adrian was surprised when, instead, the cop rolled down his window and said “Is this car stolen?” That just blew Adrian’s mind. “Man, why wouldn’t I steal a car WITH GAS IN IT?”
“The racism is different now”, Washington says. “It used to be a black and white issue but now, with so many Somalis moving into this area, people have turned against (immigrants). People fear what they don’t understand. I remember, when I used to hear about someone committing a crime, I would to pray it wasn’t a black person. Now, I hope it’s not a Somali person because it just adds more fuel to the fire.” Adrian hopes that people in St. Cloud start to “get with the times. You can’t say things like: ‘Well, this one black guy did this, so watch out, ’cause all of them are bad’. If I would have based my experience on how white people treated me when I moved here, I wouldn’t have any white friends.”
Not only does Adrian have many white friends, he is also married to a beautiful white woman! #unitecloud has heard disheartening stories from other bi-racial couples in this area such as the couple who was told to “marry their own kind” one time when they were on a date in downtown St. Cloud. Another couple tells of their bi-racial child being called a “niglet” by people on social media. This has not been Adrian’s experience. At his comedy shows, most black men are there with white women. Many of him and his wife’s friends are bi-racial couples – and they’ve been married for years and have kids growing up in this area. I asked him what his advice would be for bi-racial couples in this area that have experienced prejudice about their relationship and he said: “Simple. Make out in front of them. Slap each other on the butt as you walk out of the restaurant. If they wanna look, give them something to look at.” 🙂
That being said, Adrian still feels the difference in how a person of color gets treated in St. Cloud. He sees it the most when he goes with his mom to the doctor. While her doctor cares for her and respects her, many receptionists are cold to her and talk differently to her than they do to a white patient. “It’s almost like the receptionist is saying: ‘Oh no, not one of YOU again’, Washington says. “My mom just has to bite her tongue because she knows she needs the help. That’s not right.”
Stories like this is why the #blacklivesmatter movement is necessary. Us white folks must realize that we don’t (and never will) understand how life is different as a person of color. “Saying #blacklivesmatter is not saying that other lives don’t matter,” Washington explained. “Think of it like the ‘Save the Rainforest’ movement. It’s not like anyone is saying ‘Screw the Redwood Forest’. It’s just that the rainforest is endangered right now.” Still, Adrian sees that the movement is not perfect. “It can be a mixture of youth and anger which turns into a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ mentality.” But the conversation has to continue because, as Adrian explains: “I have to talk to my children about how they will be treated differently by the police. I tell my son, when you reach for your license, tell the cop what you are doing. No, you shouldn’t have to, but that is reality. I tell them that their job is to be safe, whether they end up in jail or not. I can not help them if they are no longer here.”
Trayvon Martin was close in age to one of Adrian’s sons when he died so, when that story broke, it hit him hard. Washington did a show at the Red Carpet as a fundraiser for the Martin Foundation because he could empathize with what they were experiencing. “When I saw (Trayvon), I saw my son. Someone just followed him around, picked at him, and then killed him. And that didn’t have to happen. If that happened to my family, I’m not sure I could get through that.”
Adrian has taken his comedy show to many small towns in this area such as Zimmerman and Annandale. 97% of his audience is white when he goes out of St. Cloud to do shows and, he says, they have a blast! He’s never once encountered a problem at any of his shows. This is how he knows the issue in Central MN is no longer black vs. white. “It’s almost like people are willing to deal with black people now because ‘at least they are American’. People used to tell me to go back to my own country, even though this IS my country. Imagine, now, people ‘know’ folks are not from this country (because of their accent) and so they are really going to make it hard for them.”
To end our conversation, Adrian and I compared notes about being on Rockin’ 101’s Steel Toe Morning Show with host, Aaron Imholte. It was interesting to find out that we have had this same experience: while we get some messages of support on the show’s Facebook feed, most people personal message their supportive comments to us through our own Facebook pages. Haters, however, are quite the opposite. They take to the live feed in front of everybody, spewing their hateful, racist, and/or xenophobic comments.
Goal: Whether it’s comedy or cultural tension, Adrian and I want people to have a conversation, even about the hard subjects.
Adrian has a show coming up THIS WEEKEND at the River’s Edge Convention Center! Gary Owen, from movies like “Daddy Day Care”, will be the headliner. Gary is considered a “crossover” comedian because he is married to a black woman and much of his material reflects that relationship. Adrian expects there to be around 800 people in attendance and said it will be a diverse group! Doors open at 6:30 p.m. – show starts at 8 p.m. This show is for ages 21 and up.
Tickets: General admission is $45 – order those ticket here. There are some VIP tickets available for $100; for details on them, call 313-699-6649. The VIP ticket includes reserved seating, a meet-and-greet and after-party at Beaver Island Brewing Co.