'Blues Vision' celebrates the work of Minnesota's black writers

'Blues Vision'
'Blues Vision' cover art by Ta-coumba Aiken.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press

When acclaimed author Alexs Pate hears discussions of Minnesota's literary scene, he can't help but notice that African-American writers often are left out.

But Pate, who became a writer in Minnesota, has watched the state's black literary scene burgeon over the past 10 or 15 years.

To share its diverse array of voices, he and two other celebrated writers, Pamela R. Fletcher and J. Otis Powell‽, have edited "Blues Vision," the first anthology of black Minnesota writers.

"Because of the rich literary tradition in this community I've always felt the recognition of writers of color and particularly African-American writers was underserviced," Pate said.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"Blues Vision," which the editors and the writers they guided will celebrate at a book launch tonight, goes a long way toward honoring those contributions.

Spanning nearly a century, the anthology places luminaries like Gordon Parks alongside contemporary spoken word artists. It explores what it means to black in Minnesota.

Pate calls the new anthology "a usable book."

"Anthologies are these books that sit on shelves and people flip through then and don't really read them," Pate said. "I don't think this is going to be that kind of book."

He's looking forward to seeing the collection used in high school and college classrooms.

Nellie Stone Johnson
Nellie Stone Johnson
Public domain image

The collection of 67 essays and poems includes Nellie Stone Johnson's reflections on moving to rural Minnesota in the 1940s, Evelyn Fairbanks retelling of the upheaval in the St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood when Interstate 94 was built, and an essay by Frank B. Wilderson III, who grew up in an upper middle class family in affluent Minneapolis neighborhood.

"There are stories and poems about the disconnection that people feel from where they came from because some people weren't born here and the surprise Minnesota offered them," Pate said. "And there are people who grew up here as young black people and who have a different kind of voice and a different way of seeing where they are and how they live."

Pate said the book also reveals a complex relationship between race and geography.

"The fact that there are black writers thinking about Miles Davis in rural Southern Minnesota and how that bounces off the landscape is pretty amazing," he said.

The Minnesota landscape has a powerful presence throughout the book. A poem by Roy McBride revels in that time of year when all the lilacs come into bloom.

Bao Phi, program director at the Loft Literary Center, said "Blues Vision" contains a number of artists who are essential to Minnesota's literary community.

"I think anthologies like this are tremendously important for any marginalized community, especially communities of color because even though I feel like the Twin Cities has a phenomenal arts scene, I still feel there are times when artists of color can get overlooked, especially in terms of literary history," he said.

Phi said the anthology will ensure that the literary history of black writers in Minnesota is remembered.

"Blues Vision" is the result of a joint project by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and the Minnesota Humanities Center. It was financed in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which also provides MPR News with support.

Too often, the white literary establishment has not made enough room for multicultural voices, said Powell‽, who edited the poetry in the book.

"In order for projects like 'Blues Vision' to actually come into the world there has to be a concerted effort to make space for those kinds of voices," he said. "And that's really kind of a tragedy."

Powell‽ adds that the anthology has the power to help break down stereotypes about black culture, and Minnesota culture as well. He said people outside of the state often don't realize its wealth of cultural diversity.

"Blues Vision," he said, will help change that.

If You Go

What: Book launch celebration for 'Blues Vision'
When: 6 to 9 p.m., tonight
Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Ave. W., St. Paul
Featuring: Alexs Pate, Tish Jones, Philip Bryant, E.G. Bailey, Taiyon Coleman, Sha Cage, and J. Otis Powell‽
A book signing will be held from 8 to 9 p.m.