The Mississippi river is an omnipresent force in the Twin Cities. It snakes its way down from the northern suburbs, through the heart of Minneapolis and then along stunning bluffs through downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, separating the two cities. The river has a bi-polar personality along its banks on this stretch. Minneapolis and St. Paul are positioned where they are because of the commerce and transportation the river provided from the very founding of these towns. Saint Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis is the only natural water fall along the entire length of the Mississippi of any size and strength, and that power fueled the rise of the milling district and the wealth of Minneapolis, while St. Paul grew up around the barge and steam boat traffic that would help it prosper. There are stretches of the river throughout the Twin Cities that from its banks look industrialized, yet get on any kind of boat and float its waters through the locks and dams of this stretch and you’ll find yourself surrounded more by its natural beauty tucked into this urban environment, than the concrete embodiments of industrialization along its shores.
It is a little more than the one year anniversary of George Floyd’s death from a calendar perspective but it wasn’t until Monday morning of Memorial Day that it felt like the anniversary was upon us. What’s changed in a year? Certainly an openness to understanding of the issues facing people of color past and present, but has there been any real change in terms of racial equity? Change is hard. It doesn’t come as easily or as quickly as we want, but at least it feels like the discussions are more direct and open on paths forward to real change than they once were on these issues and that in itself is a step in the right direction.
Twain as a writer and in particular the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as books may not be relevant to today’s discussions on racial justice. Regardless, they certainly had an influence on me as a young person. I was inspired by the idea of floating down the Mississippi, something I still hope to do someday in some type of water craft. I enjoyed the humor and the adventure in Twain’s writing. It was also one my first introductions to understanding America’s history of racism and slavery, made all the more real for myself as told through the eyes of two young white boys befriending a black man and their river journey and adventures together. The books are not a perfect morality play for today’s times, nor a model by which we should measure or teach racial equity, but they deal with human issues of friendship as part of literature in ways that in our efforts to make everything politically correct we may lose sight of; the ability to be imperfect and still genuinely kind to each other. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim are imperfect characters. They both assist and betray each other, love and fear each other, and in the end are friends and care about each other as human beings in ways that go beyond their differences and focuses on what they have in common. It’s a bit harder today to relate to the world of Mark Twain. Sometime this summer I will put my kayak into a stretch of the Mississippi for a day trip, and it won’t be that difficult to transport myself back to Twain’s time on the river, to the mystery and adventure that Twain explored in those books; the idea that we all have something waiting for us around the next corner as we float along in our journey called life.
On The Mississippi
by Hamlin Garland (1860 – 1940)
Through wild and tangled forests . broad, unhasting river flows— . Spotted with rain-drops, gray with night; . Upon its curving breast there goes A lonely steamboat’s larboard light, . A blood-red star against the shadowy oaks; Noiseless as a ghost, through greenish gleam Of fire-flies, before the boat’s wild scream— . A heron flaps away . Like silence taking flight.