Monthly Archives: January 2012

Northeast News

• Local Officials Host Area Town Hall Meeting

Representative Diane Loeffler and newly-elected Senator Kari Dziedzic are planning a series of joint town meetings to hear constituents’ views and ideas.  The first sessions will be Saturday, February and Saturday, February at a variety of Northeast location yet to be determined.    Watch the Windom Park beat in the TC Daily Planet or neighborhood email networks for the details.

Or you may contact Representative Loeffler’s office.  Her legislatiave assistant, Charlotte Antin, can be contact by email ( or phone 651 296 5360.

And start keeping track of your complaints, questions and ideas – not necessariiy in that order!

• MAGIC at the State Capitol

During the interim Representative Diane Loeffler co-chaired the Bipartisan Redesign Caucus.  The Caucus just released a report on findings gleaned from meetings held throughout the state to engage school, city and county officials to identify ways in which the state could foster innovation at the local level.  The report has the support of the Minnesota School Boards Association, the League of Minnesota Cities and the Association of County Commissioners, an unlikely harmonic convergence of advocacy groups that are not always inclined to collaborate.

In her recent report to constituents Loeffler points to a Star Tribune article describing the work of the Bipartisan Redesign Caucus.   Referring to the Bipartisan Redesign Caucus the Strib reporter notes that “the group is pushing a piece of legislation with the catchiest acronym of 2012 — the MAGIC act – short for the Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration Act. Approved by the Senate last year, the bill would allow counties to sidestep regulations and legislative restrictions and come up with their own solutions to problems in a limited number of test cases.”

Watch the MAGIC happen when and if a divided Legislature takes time to listen to the bipartisan ideas for concrete steps that just might create a system that spurs collaboration and promotes inter-agency collaboration.


• Ashmores Tell Tales of Northeast History February 11

Kerry and Margo Ashmore, publishers of the Northeaster and North News, will team up to share the stories and history of Northeast with friends and neighbors, old-timers and recent arrivals to this promised land.  They’ll be walking through the history of the legendary Northeast community on Saturday, February 11, 1-2 p.m. at the Northeast Library, 2200 Central Avenue Northeast.

The talk is free and open to the public.  If you haven’t visited the library recently take time to explore what’s new – consider a good read about the city, the immigrants to Northeast or something appropriate to African American History Month to be celebrated all during the unusually long month of February.  You’ve got an extra day, use those 24 hours to spend time with a good book.

• Elementary Students to be Feted at Edison

Another fun evening at the Edison Community Gym, 700 22nd Avenue Northeast.  It’s the 4th Annual Elementary School Night, Thursday, February 9. Elementary schoolers (maybe especially Tommies) are welcome to a great basketball game matching the Edison girls against the team from St. Paul Academy and Summit.

Half time treats include the STEP team, dance team and cheerleaders along with the 2011 robot, musical performances and more.

There will be pre-game musical performances beginning at 6:30 with the game starting at 7:00 p.m.  Elementary school students in free – regular admission $6 for adults, $4 for students and free for kids under 7.  Raffle prizes throughout the evening.


Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis Documentary Showing

The day is coming when my neighbors and I will be able to cross the Lowry Bridge to explore friends and family in  North Minneapolis – a good time to refresh memories and learn more about  the legendary history of the Northside community.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Daniel Pierce Bergin worked with the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC) and Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), to produce an hour-long documentary on just that topic.   The documentary Cornerstones: A History of North Minneapolis” offers the viewer powerful stories of Northside life blended with themes of race relations, immigration and cultural changes through “place-based memories.”

Bergin will offer a public viewing and discussion of his documentary on Saturday, February 4, 2-3:30 p.m. at Sumner Library, 611 Van White Boulevard, at the intersection of Van White Boulevard and Olson Highway.  Bergin is a senior producer with a varied background including the documentary North Star: Minnesota’s Black Pioneers.  Other Bergin productions include Standing the Test of Time, the biography of architect Cass Gilbert, and a literary history documentary entitled Literature & Life: The Givens Collection.

Sumner Library opened its doors in 1915 is a vital player in the history of the Northside.   for nearly a century library has served the public through decades of change   Funded through the largesse of Andrew Carnegie, the Tudor Revival style building designed by architect Cecil Bayless Chapman was a showpiece as well as a citadel of learning in the working class neighborhood.

In the early days, the library served as unique place where the Jewish Community of the Northside congregated and came together to learn. The Sumner Library ensured the preservation of the Yiddish and Hebrew languages through their collection of books written in these dialects. This further enhanced the sense of community and oneness felt in the North Side neighborhood.  In time, the collection and the programs of Sumner have evolved with the changing demographics of the Northside.  The same spirit of service to newcomers is the distinguishing feature of Sumner today.Because Bergin will be on hand February 4th to discuss and respond to viewers’ questions, prospective attendees may wish to preview the documentary in advance.  It’s been telecast and will be shown again on Sunday, February 26, 1:00 PM, and Wednesday, February 29, at 5:00 AM and 11:00 PM.  The documentary is also streamed on the web on several sites, including the TPT Cornerstones site.

For Dickens Fans It is the Best of Times

For devotees of Charles Dickens whose idea of winter is curling up with a good book this is the best of times!    Celebrations of the Bicentennial of Dickens birth, February 7, 1812, are in full swing round the globe.  Not to be outdone by our cousins across The Pond, Americans are putting aside the unpleasantness of the War of 1812 to rejoice at the delight – and the social awareness – he has generated over the many years that readers have endured, then embraced, his works.

Needless to say, the Brits are euphoric.  The story is that Dickens would have planned it that way.  According to Radhika Jones writing in Time Entertainment, Dickens had a hand in assuring that his works would endure.  Jones, managing editor of Time magazine and Dickens authority, writes that “I’m not just talking about writing great books, lots of people have done that.  It’s that he took a vested interest in his legacy and in the legacy of the publishing industry overall. “  Jones observes that Dickens anticipated “boom times” for fiction:

That was apparent just by virtue of the imitators, acolytes and outright plagiarists his writing inspired.  So it made sense that Dickens would do certain things to help keep himself at the forefront of the movement.  He cultivated an exceedingly local audience, across class lines; he fought for copyright and collective bargaining powers for authors; he managed his posthumous reputation to the extent that he could control it, by burning all his letters and by appointing a very close friend as his first biographer; he edited two consecutive weekly magazines and fostered rising talent, thus creating a circle of admirers and protégés (while effectively, self-publishing his own work, in the serial format that his success with Pickwick had made the standard for the era).

In an age of letter press Dickens addressed head-on a host of issues that plague the digital world today – his blog would have gone viral overnight.

Still, it’s just as well Dickens didn’t spend his time online.  He would not have had time or the mental focus to write fifteen major novels and countless short stories – or to reflect on the social conditions of the day, the experience of poverty, child labor, misers and murders and abandonment that shaped his youth and led him to create his own world through fiction which, in the end, became his chosen tool for expressing his passion for social reform.

If, perchance, you’re too busy managing your own blog to re-read the complete Dickens you might want to follow the aforementioned Radhika Jones’ blog to be announced in the January 26 issue of Time.   Jones, who has published a bookshelf of commentaries on Dickens, will be post her thoughts on Dickens’ “ten best books.”

One of the several ways to keep up with all things Dickens during the bicentenary and beyond is to check David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page. Quick to point out that he is not a scholar, Perdue is a Dickens enthusiast who shares everything you don’t even know you don’t know about the bicentennial celebrations, Dickens’ life, Dickens’ places (museums, gravesite and more), a Dickens photo gallery and links to information and blogs about Dickens.

The pedagogues at Britain’s National Schools Partnership have created a delightful learning tool, a curriculum based on Dickens’ works entitled What the Dickens,  geared to middle school teachers inculcating the skills of English and creative writing in the middle grades.

Even the Wall Street Journal is caught up in the Dickens tide.  The WSJ editors offer a thoughtful observation that may give pause to some of their readers:

Dickens is not safe, he is not ‘heritage.’  He is fierce, ferocious and formidable. No one has depicted the homeless with more sorrow and pity and terror than Dickens.  He depicted them from both sides: from middle-class safety, looking outward, and from their own point of view, looking at a world that seems to offer such richness and happiness to everyone else.  And then, as an act of mediation, he moves us between the two worlds so that we understand both. (quoted in blog)

If you are willing to “see ourselves as others see us” you must read “Dickens in America.”   Dickens was at the peak of popularity when we ventured on a sort of exploratory mission in 1842.  He returned on a Reading Tour in 1868.  Though he was welcomed at the White House he moved on to explore the cities and the peoplefrom Boston to St. Louis, Baltimore to Cincinnati, and beyond.  He shared his views on international copyright, visited prisons, traveled to the South to learn more about slavery, and criticized the American press for the dearth of coverage of local news.  His experiences and impressions of his 1842 tour are recorded in American Notes, now readable online.

This great essay describes his travels, his off-the-highway stops, and his observations, visiting and writing about the renowned and the ordinary people he met en route.  There will no doubt be those Americans who jet off to London or Portsmouth or Bath to drink deep of the Dickensian stream.   For the rest of us, there are countless  options closer to home.  Libraries in particular are sponsoring exhibits, readings, film fests and other Bicentennial events that explore all things Dickensian.

If you would like to share your take on Dickens with British bibliophiles, you should know about the Dickens Book Club at Foyles Bookshop, 113 Charing Cross Road where  each month Londoners will be able to plumb the depths of a Dickens classic with Alex Werner, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum.  Yanks are welcome to join in the discussion on Twitter or Facebook.  Check the Museum of London for details and links – and start reading Bleak House to be up to speed for the first discussion on February 6.

Closer to home, the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries is sponsoring a Dickens’ Pageant.  Anatoly Liberman, U of M professor, linguist and literary scholar, will discuss Dickens’ most memorable characters, the features that make Dickens unique, and the reason he remains a universal favorite.  The event is February 23, 4:00-6:00 p.m. in the Upson Room, Walter Library.  The event is free and open.

Contact Lanaya Stangret,  or RSVP online or at 612-624 9339, by February 16.

Time spent re-reading the classics or discovering Dickens’ lesser known works remains the ideal way to share Dickens’  thoughts and his bicentenary – for independent readers, and book clubbers who grapple with his issues or who just enjoy a good read.  A good place to start is the following list of Dickens’ books accessible on the shelves of libraries or available through inter-library loan.

Librarian and volunteer Ruthann Ovenshire who is preparing an exhibit of Dickens’ fiction at the Minneapolis Central Library has kindly provided this list of titles familiar and often new to readers who want to celebrate the Dickens Bicentennial in a proper way that would greatly please the author who cared a good deal about his legacy.

Fiction by Charles Dickens

Barnaby Rudge : a tale of the riots of ‘eighty

Bleak house.

A Christmas carol and other stories

David Copperfield

Doctor Marigold’s prescriptions

Dombey and Son

Great expectations

Hard times

The haunted house

Hunted down

Little Dorrit

Martin Chuzzlewit

Mrs Lirriper

The mystery of Edwin Drood

Nicholas Nickleby.

The old curiosity shop.

Oliver Twist

Our mutual friend.

The Pickwick papers

The poems and verses of Charles Dickens;

The poor traveller

The posthumous papers of the Pickwick Club

Short plays from Dickens for the use of amateur and school dramatic societies;

The signalman & other ghost stories

Sketches by Boz. Illustrative of every-day life and every-day people.

Somebody’s luggage

A tale of two cities.

The uncommercial traveler

Nonfiction by Charles Dickens

A child’s history of England.

Household words; a weekly journal 1850-1859

The life of Our Lord

Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi

Pictures from Italy with American notes (one volume)


Northeasters Walk Their Neighborhood to Honor the Presidents

Question:  Why will families and neighbors  from Northeast Minneapolis spend a Saturday in February  walking or riding the bus from Edison High School to Northeast Middle School?

Answer:  Because Saturday, February 18, 2012, is the 4th Annual “We Love Our Presidents” Walk and Celebration!

It’s a time-honored tradition.

In Northeast Minneapolis most of the North-South running streets bear the names of presidents.  Starting with Washington Street on the West and continuing through Harding Street to the East it’s easy for folks in Northeast who know their nation’s history to check their internal GIS location.

The President’s Day Walk and Celebration is a tradition, a great way for neighbors young and old learn together, to enjoy their community,  and to honor the nation’s leaders.

Here’s the 2012 agenda:

10:00 a.m. Walkers gather at Edison High School, 700 22nd Avenue, between Madison and Monroe (if you don’t count Howard….)

Walkers proceed along a route walking East on 22nd Avenue to Central Avenue (don’t ask – there was no President Central) then North on Central for a Cocoa Break at the freshly-painted Eastside Food Coop on 25th and Central.   Along the way walkers will stop at each corner where members of the Northeast Urban 4-H Club will relate a few interesting facts about that President.  Neighbors will be encouraged to share their memories of the neighborhood.

Next the intrepid walkers, warm and refreshed, will head East to Northeast Middle School, 2955 Hayes Street NE, just in time for lunch

Noon – Walkers and visitors will meet at Northeast Middle School for lunch and program.  Keynote speaker during lunch is Ginny Zak Kieley who writes and publishes stories about the neighborhood.  Ginny’s books, including three about Northeast, will be on sale.

The President’s Day Walk will wrap up at Northeast Middle School with a steaming hot chili lunch (donation requested), a trivia contest, awards for winners of the coloring contest, and the presentation of the distinguished Northeast Presidential Seal for the group that has gathered the most participants for the Walk.

For those who want to be mentally as well as physically prepared for the Walk, here’s a refresher President-named streets that walkers will travel on February 18.

  • Madison St NE is named for James Madison
  • Monroe St NE is named for James Monroe.
  • Quincy St NE is named for John Quincy Adams
  • Jackson St NE is named for Andrew Jackson
  • Van Buren St NE is named for Martin Van Buren
  • Harrison St NE is named for William Henry Harrison
  • Tyler St NE is named for John Tyler
  • Polk St NE is named for James K. Polk
  • Taylor St NE is named for Zachary Taylor
  • Fillmore St NE is named for Millard Fillmore
  • Pierce St NE is named for Franklin Pierce
  • Buchanan St NE is named for James Buchanan
  • Lincoln St NE is named for Abraham Lincoln
  • Johnson St NE is named for Andrew Johnson
  • [Central Avenue is just an anomaly]
  • Ulysses St NE is named for Ulysses S. Grant
  • Hayes St NE is named for Rutherford B. Hayes
  • Garfield St NE is named for James A. Garfield
  • Arthur St NE is named for Chester A. Arthur
  • Cleveland St NE is named for Grover Cleveland
  • Benjamin St NE is named for Benjamin Harrison
  • McKinley St NE is named for William McKinley
  • [Stinson Parkway is named for a member of the Park and Recreation Board because it is part of the city’s Parkway system.  If you get to Stinson you’ve walked too far.]

Generous sponsors of the “We Love the Presidents Walk and Celebration” include Eastside Food Coop, Hennepin County Library, Minneapolis Public Schools Community Education, Minneapolis Park and Recreation, Northeast Bank, Northeast Minneapolis Royalty, Northeast Urban 4-H Club, and The Northeaster Newspaper.










Open Government Issues on Minnesota Legislative Agenda

If all politics is local, policies, laws and regulations pertaining to state and local government information are hyperlocal.  What matters to most citizens is the right to access to information by and about state, regional and local government information – state agencies, county boards, advisory committees and regulators, every entity from the Governor’s office to the local school board.  A citizen who wants to know about a dump sight or a school bullying or a state agency budget doesn’t – and should not — have far to go.

The spirit, if not the letter, of the state statute that establishes state information policy is clear:

All government data collected, created, received, maintained or disseminated by a government entity shall be public unless classified by state, or temporary classification pursuant in section 13.6 (Discoverability of non-public information), or federal law, as nonprofit or protected nonpublic, or with respect to data on individuals, as private or confidential.  The responsible authority in every government entity shall keep records containing government data in such an arrangement and condition as to make them easily accessible for convenient use.  Photographic, photostatic, microphotographic, or microfilmed records shall be considered as accessible for convenient use regardless of the size of such records. Minnesota Statute 130.3 Access to government data: Subdivision 1. Public.

The twin pillars of access in Minnesota are the Data Practices Act and the Open Meeting Law.  Essential guides to each include these:  Open Meeting Law, Government Data Practices ActThe Legislative Reference Library also offers a comprehensive list of guides and information about parallel laws and regulations in other states.

Still, in real life agencies have a way of setting their own procedures in light of the laws and regulations on the books. Concerned citizens need to be aware of the agencies’ responsibilities to assure compliance with the spirit and the letter of the law.  In this day of rapidly changing technologies access can be determined by everything from the assumption that everyone has web access to outright bureaucratic resistance to officials’ failure to know either their responsibilities or the public’s right to know.  Many local officials and state agency staff have had no orientation to the ways in which state access regulations relate to their work.

As the legislators unpack their laptops, there is talk among bureaucrats and advocacy groups of review and possible revision of state statutes relating to information practices.  A draft prepared by the Information Policy Advisory Division, the state bureaucracy that deals with such matters, is generating blog reaction before it goes on stage.

Prognosticating what will happen during any legislative session is ill-advised; this season it is downright foolhardy.  Still, open discussion of open government may shed light on the law, its implementation, the need for clarification, simplification or more stringent sanctions and ways to assure that Minnesotans know and exercise their information rights.

During the legislative session the place to go for information on the status of legislation relating to information policy and practice is the Bill Search and Status site fed diligently by overworked legislative staffers.  In addition to the latest information on the status of individual bills the site provides excellent guides including “How to Follow a Bill” and “How a Bill Becomes a Law” as well as a handy look-up feature if you want to reach your member.








Repositioning Players in the Government Information Game

As the Legislature gathers in St. Paul this week my focus is on the maze of information issues embedded throughout state and local government – open government, accountability, transparency, data collection, preservation, access, affordability, broadband, the list goes on.  In truth, information/communications issues undergird every bill, every vote and every citizen’s interaction with elected officials and the state, regional and local agencies for which the state sets policy and establishes budgets.   For several hours I even struggled with the desultory task of writing about information policy and procedures, legal rights and how to find state government information.

Weary of the topic of access to government information I stepped back to “re-imagine” the playing field.  By today’s rules, government information providers are lined up on one side of a perceived line; the keepers are rich with data, overwhelmed by ubiquitous information and communications technology, and burdened with legal mandates.  On the other side the information seekers are lined up — parents, small business owners, health care planners, caregivers, homeowners worried about pollution in the neighborhood; the seekers are unfamiliar with the rules, the structures, the pathways to information, and their rights to access to information by and about the government. It’s a game that subtly pits keepers against seekers, a game in which neither the rules nor the goals are understood.

Imagine a Minnesota in which keepers and seekers joined forces to work in tandem towards a common purpose.  The rewards of collaboration in the information game are both unique and generous, precisely because the information rules of the game are antithetical to traditional zero sum thinking.  The unique character of the information resource are that:

  • Information is not an end in itself but a means to an end — answering a health care issue, cleaning up a waste site, creating an arts community, selecting a school board member, building a transit system or managing a drug store on Main Street.  The product of good information is a wise decision, a new connection or a great idea.
  • Information shared is information expanded (“like a kiss” as Harlan Cleveland told us long ago.)

Sharing a goal casts sharing information in a different light.  That shared goal ultimately, if implicitly, flows from the premise that the state will thrive if the people of Minnesota harness the power of good and accessible information to create a more vital economy, a first rate education system, affordable health care, a cleaner environment, livable communities, an electorate who know the issues and the options.

Though I’m still working on that user guide to state government information it’s with a re-kindled spirit that positions keepers and seekers on the same team aiming for a common goal.

And Now the Facts about Native Americans in the Minnesota Legislature

With the Legislature headed to town for the session that opens Tuesday, January 24, I find myself thinking and fretting about issues of transparency and open government.  At the same time I am intrigued by the changes in legislative composition that result from recent elections, including the election of Kari Dziedzic to replace Larry Pogemiller as Senator from my legislative district.

On the way to learning more about the history of similar legislative turnovers I returned to my hands-down favorite legislative resource, the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library.  Their resources and service are astounding – and the website supported by the LRL staff is a constant and totally reliable source of fascinating information.  Today I found this treasure I just have to share, partly to stem the free flow of misinformation and, even more, to share a good story about the Minnesota Legislature – a unique history that deserves to be known.

The following is taken directly from the Legislative Reference Library website,12/7/2011.  Though it was clearly posted before the final election, the facts are relevant, timely and prescient in light of the election results:

Minnesota Legislators of Native American Descent

Attorney Susan Allen won the DFL primary in District 61B. She will face Nathan Blumenshire in a special election on January 10, 2012, to fill the seat of Jeff Hayden, newly elected to the Senate. If elected, Allen would be the first woman of Native American descent to serve in the Minnesota Legislature.

Some news outlets have noted that Senator Skip Finn was the first Native American to serve in the Senate, and even the first Native American Minnesota legislator. Wrong on both counts!

There was at least one member of the Minnesota Legislature who was Native American who served in the Senate long before Skip Finn. Senator Henry G. Bailly served in the first state legislature (1857-1858). For years people have been inaccurately reporting that Sen. Finn was the first to serve in the Minnesota Senate. Bailly also served in the Minnesota Territorial Council, the predecessor to the Minnesota State Senate. 

In addition, there were a few House members who had Native American ancestry who also served before Finn. As we do more research, it’s more than possible that we will find other former members who had Native American ancestry. Here are the members we’ve found, so far, who are members of minority groups (there are probably more that we haven’t found yet). Self-Reported Minority Legislators Use the drop down box to limit the list to Native Americans.

Note:  If you do make your way to the LRL website, take a few minutes to poke around this digital treasure trove – you never know what you’ll need to know and share with your representative during the months to come – it’s likely accessible through LRL.


Reflections on the “1968” Exhibit

The Minnesota History Center’s blockbuster “1968” exhibit has definitely got  museum visitors talking – during and after the exhibit.   Having made but one pilgrimage to the MHC for the exhibit I have been mulling it over in the aftermath of what I do hope is the first of several visits during the month to come.

Reflecting on my MLK Day visit evokes vivid images not so much of the exhibit but as the visitors.  First there were the young folks (because it was MLK Day the audience was skewed to the school-age crowd.)  The boys were exploding with military adrenalin at the very sight of the helicopter (which I found almost unbearable);  I heard in-depth discussions of the relative effectiveness of grenades vs. rifles – the kill-power was of great concern to a couple of pre-teens in particular.  The little girls  seemed more concerned with their own 2012-era  finery  and the blaring music from ancient times than with the subtleties of feminism.

And then there were the moms and dads – “That was five years  before Mommy was born…”  was the sort of phrase I heard repeatedly.  These were good parents, trying to expose their kids to history they themselves had learned about from stories their elders passed down or from documentaries.  They knew the big names (Humphrey, the Beatles, RFK) and many had a dad or granddad who had served in the Nam.

It was the grandparents I watched with the keenest interest.  They were quiet, reflective, remembering.   Me, too.  I was remembering where I was, with whom, what I was wearing during the protests, the day MLK died, the torturous Dem Convention  in Chicago, the Children’s Crusade led by McCarthy.  I remembered the music, the clothes, the funeral of MLK (which I listened to time after time.)

The memories and reflective spirit have been with me since.  I’ve talked with friends about our reactions.  Underwhelmed, we said to each other.  We were there.   We know what it was like.   We had friends and family members in Vietnam.  We marched for civil rights and against the war.  For my part I was working at a predominantly African American college  in inner-city Washington, DC throughout that tumultuous year so life in a burning city is etched permanently in my living memory, along with the strident voices of “women’s lib” before it had a clear thrust, much less a handle.

The MHC exhibit is captivating, informative and a fine tip of the historic iceberg it represents.  This is a good thing for Minnesotans of every age.

Still, what chaffs for those some of us who were submerged in all that – the war, the riots, the murder, the music — is that we have been “museum-ized.”  We are not the observers but the subject of the exhibit.  We want to shout out, to inform the visitor’s experience with our own perceptions and experiences.

When I mentioned this concept of museumization to a group, one friend was quick to recollect a visit that he and his wife had made to a history of technology exhibit.  They were early computer geeks, when computers were behemoth and geeks had not yet become a career option.  After viewing the punch cards and IBM 360 machines behind glass enclosures these early adapters concluded that they should be behind glass as part of the exhibit – museumized in real time.

We expect museums to explore and expose remote relics of the past to those of us who are living and learning from a position of power built on the progress of humankind and on our power to shape the story.   It’s a different and uncomfortable experience to find oneself as the subject memorialized on film or photo or bit of realia.   The universal response seems to be an irresistible urge to correct, or at least augment, the story.

This bit of introspection is helping me understand with newfound clarity the response American Indians have to the depiction and interpretation of their role in Minnesota history.  Though this was not the intent of 1968,  for me it’s a healthy byproduct of a memorable museum experience.

Museumization  is not easy for a person or for a people.

Discovering the Heritage of Filmmaker/Writer Oscar Micheaux — Just Down the Road a Piece!

Every summer Minnesotans head Southwest for the hills, eager to visit the mountains or the Coast – and every trip means a stop at the Wall Drug or the Corn Palace in Mitchell, by legend the only places worthy of a pit stop in South Dakota.  The good news – there is a treasure to be explored in Gregory, South Dakota.  It’s a treasure well worth the 45 minute drive due South of Sioux Falls – and it’s a story to be experienced.

Because I just learned about the legacy Oscar Micheaux Center in Gregory, I am enthralled with the stories of the man, the museum and related programs that preserve and share his legacy.  New to the museum and to the story, I am eager to share what I am learning.

Though the story of an African American man who tried and failed as a South Dakota farmer is not a common tale, the story of Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is one of genius that is widely a celebrated by filmmakers and students of film history throughout the nation and the world.  The museum named for him and the programs of the Center now blossoming in Gregory are incomplete without background on Michieaux the artist.

At first glance, Oscar Micheaux is an unlikely hero.  Born near Metropolis, Illinois (honestly), Micheaux lived his youth in poverty at various sites straddling the Mason-Dixon line. The greatest influences in his early life were his mother, a committed, and demanding, pillar of the American Methodist Church, and the writings of Booker T. Washington which the young Micheaux read voraciously.  Both are clear and every-present influences on Micheaux’s writings and films.

At age 16 Micheaux moved to Chicago where he tackled nearly all of the underpaid jobs then available to African American men, finally making some money as a Pullman porter.  Always a loner he moved on to the area that is now Gregory, South Dakota where he was alone as an African American man who tried to make it as a farmer in a land that was soon to become a dust bowl.  At the same time Micheaux began to turn his life to writing and production of silent films and documentaries.  Wikipedia provides extensive information about Micheaux’s early life and family as well as an excellent filmography, a bibliography of his writings, extensive references and links to research.)

The good news is that failure as a farmer inspired – or forced – Micheaux to explore his creative talents.  In time he became the most prominent producer of race films, both silents and talkies.  He founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City and Chicago.  He created over 40 films, many of which he wrote himself.  Virtually all of his films clearly reflect experiences of his youth, the pervasive impact of racism.  He is quoted as having said, “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.”

The story of Micheaux’s impact overflows with the taboo topics of the day such as lynching, corrupt clergy, interracial romance and other examples of racism recalled from his own experience.  Needless to say his cinematic works were not always well received by censors, the clergy of the general public.

Still, over the decades Micheaux discovered and showcased stars of the day whose names are well recognized today.  “Body and Soul” (1925) starred Paul Robeson in his film debut.  That epic was condemned by the New York Censor Board as “sacrilegious” and “immoral” and was banned from New York theaters unless and until it was drastically edited.   In another film “Lying Lips” (1939), Michieux signed Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones, to play a starring role.

Michieux’s legacy as a filmmaker of his era is now well acknowledged in particular by scholars of film history.  The Oscar Micheaux Society at Duke University teaches courses and serves as a center for Micheaux-related research.  Numerous scholars have written extensively on Micheaux’s contributions as a writer and as a film-producer/director.  The Oscar Micheaux Award now honors the work of modern-day African American filmmakers.  He’s memorialized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honored by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

In 1994 PBS: The American Experience aired a significant video entitled Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Race Movies, described as “a tribute to a very misunderstood, and mysterious film genre that last for over forty years.”

My personal favorite tribute is the Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp (44 cents) issued by the USPS on June 22, 2010 at a major unveiling ceremony held at the Columbia University School of Arts in Harlem.  The stamp is still available from the Post Office.

When Micheaux died in 1951 he was buried in Great Bend, Kansas. He was on a promotional tour for his last film, “The Betrayal” which unfortunately was not well received by the critics or the public.  A lovely tribute to Micheaux written by John J. Dunphy of Gregory, founder of the Metro East Writers’ Workshop, relates that the memorial monument at Micheaux’s grave bears the inscription “A man ahead of his time.”

About the Museum

The people of South Central South Dakota have long known the stories of their one-time neighbor, the famed writer and filmmaker.  In 1996 they established a film series and writing festival in his honor.  Over the years hundreds of local, national and international Micheaux aficionados have visited the area for the festival.  There are loads of photos of past festivals on the Oscar Michieux Center website.

The August 2011 Film & Book Festival featured the theme “Micheaux, Cowboys and Indians: Western Facts and Fictions.”


About the Director, Jerry Wilske.

Jerry Wilske is a friend from long ago, a friend with whom I had lost all contact for decades. Until the holidays I knew nothing of him, much less of Micheaux. When we worked together Jerry was a musician and a teacher par excellence, the sort of teacher the students called “choir coach” and one who could work musical magic with young people.

Recently, a mutual friend told me that he had heard word that our friend Jerry has taken on a new project, one suited to his creative energies.  He had discovered Oscar  Micheaux when he attended the Film Festival in 2001; in 2005 he took over as Director of the Oscar Micheaux Center.  Since that time, he has contributed a considerable personal fortune, as well as his time and boundless energy, to restoring his legacy and sharing the stories.  The Oscar Micheaux Center in Gregory, SD, is his project.

Jerry has purchased and restored one of the town’s architectural treasures, the 1910 vintage bank, restored it as the Oscar Micheaux Center, then added garden and a Walk of Fame for African American film makers and stars. (Jerry is proud to note that, unlike the Hollywood Walk of Fame this one has real granite makers.)  He splits his time between his over-the-museum apartment in Godfrey and a home near Iowa City.  This when he is not on the road promoting the accomplishments of Micheaux and of the scores of African American film artists and actors who, like Micheaux, are too often overlooked by the general public.

If winter continues to restrain its fury, I hope to make the trip soon to Godfrey where I can learn more about the Center and about Jerry’s vision for the future.  I’ll have camera and notebook in hand so there will no doubt be more to report on this fascinating man and the story he is sharing so generously.

Meantime, I have reams to read by and about Oscar Micheaux, his life, his insights on race-related issues of the first half of the 20th Century, and about the films he created and books he wrote.  I have much to learn on the road to Gregory!

Note:  The Oscar Michieaux Center is open year-round; there’s a detailed schedule online.  The Center includes a 90-seat theater, where two or three of Micheaux’s films, along with the films by and about other African American filmmakers and stars, are shown.  Though only 15 of Micheaux’s films survive, the center has DVD copies of all 15 for sale.

To keep in touch with evolving plans for the 2012 Film Festival and Writers’ Conference, check the Festival website or to learn more about the Center, follow the website or get on the mailing list by contacting director of the Oscar Micheaux Center:  Jerry Wilske, 524 Main Street, PO Box 26, Gregory SD, 57533 – 605 835 9478 or

Reflecting on the Resource More Than the Opponents

When matters relating to information policy or practice rise to the palpable public agenda, it’s usually because complex issues have been over-simplified – good guys and bad guys pitted against each other – a mighty struggle between the forces of access vs individual privacy, free speech vs producer/performer/author rights, or another version of the confrontation between forces deeply rooted in history and philosophy – like good and evil.

The problem with this bifurcation of powers is that it isn’t that simple.  The Information Age is fundamentally unlike the industrial age or any of its antecedents. The Information Age in which we are marinating is substantively new in deep-seated, gut-level ways — the rules of the game are clearly “not even new yet”, the law is woefully inadequate, crafted and administered as it is by mere mortals.  The players, no matter their position, seem stuck in a bygone day.  Rules, fiscal negotiations, rights of all parties concerned are running full-speed ahead into a barrier constructed by trying to fit today into yesterday’s ill-fitting vessels.

It’s time to revisit the insights of a 20th Century intellectual giant Harlan Cleveland whose thoughts I invoke whenever information battles rage in the public arena.

Cleveland, who was neither predictive nor pedantic, simply reminded us that information, the resource itself, possesses characteristics that are inherently other than the stuff we know how to manage.  Information, a resource of inestimable value, just does not conform to the rules we know, the rules we try so hard to impose.

Time to take a deep breath and re-think the characteristics of information, that ubiquitous, fluid, quixotic, perplexing, immensely powerful force about which and from which we have so much to learn.

Here’s a quote from something I wrote about Cleveland five years ago.  (Cleveland’s words are more eloquent; mine more spare.)

Focusing on the information as a resource, Cleveland argues that a society based on information will look very different than one based on raw materials and heavy manufacturing. The uniqueness of information as a resource lies in that fact that it is

  • expandable without any obvious limits;

  • compressible for easier handling;

  • transportable at least at the speed of light;

  • substitutable for capital, labor, or physical materials;

  • shared among people;

  • not a drain on our resources;

  • diffusive and hard to contain; and finally
  • information shared is information expanded ( like a kiss, he tells us…)

The mighty quiet imposed by the Wikipedia shutdown, offers a chance to dust off the reference shelf or to seize the moment to reflect.  Cleveland’s prescient observations on the challenges presented by the very properties of information per se offer a worthy starting point.   We live in complex times that deserve more thought and than unenlightened self-interest.