Counting Black People – Curiosity

I learned to play the game when I was a kid growing up in Toronto. It goes like this: the town, suburb, or city you live in hosts a free, public cultural event, so you and your family attend, and, on arrival, you take note of how many Black people are there, and, when you get home, you say, “I could count the Black people there on one hand!” or, “I’ve never seen so many Black people in once place in my whole life!”

One side of my family is from Jamaica and came of age in a middle-class Jamaican milieu in England. They’d never been ‘out numbered’ in social spaces, only in institutional spaces like their English high school, post-secondary schools, and workplaces. Here in North America, a place peopled with a variety of African diasporic communities, they were aghast at how few of ‘us’ attended events billed as open to everyone. And although Counting Black People isn’t really a game, I’ve learned how to play it very well.

All my life, beginning with the assumptions embedded in the declarations made when playing Counting Black People, I’ve heard rumors of what the numbers should be. At the end of the Civil War, emancipated African Americans ‘should’ have received “40 acres and a mule”. The demographics of the teaching staff in a Florida public school ‘should’ reflect the demographics of the student population. ‘Shouldn’t’ a state university’s student body reflect the population of the state?

I’m hung up on the numbers. And although I can barely tally the tip at a restaurant without a headache, I do know that numbers can tell interesting stories. For instance, when I first arrived in Minnesota, I knew a few things about its flagship public university system, the University of Minnesota. I knew it was one of the largest university systems in the country. I knew it was a top-ranked research institution.

In that first term at MCAD, I didn’t have too much contact with the U, but it was on my radar, so to speak. I can’t remember exactly what spurred me to ‘check out the numbers’ (maybe it was the super-whiteness of the Twin Cities art world), but sometime in those early days, I looked up the demographics of the Twin Cities and compared them to the demographics of the Twin Cities campus of the U. My logic was that, because it was located in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the U was likely to seek and/or attract a higher percentage of Twin Cities Black students than, say, the Duluth campus (I was right). According to the 2010 census, Minneapolis is 18.6% Black and St. Paul is 15.7% Black. Including all campuses, the student population at the U is 3.7% Black and is 3.9% Black on the Twin Cities campus. There’s a lot to untangle:

  • The census data includes non-citizen residents
  • The U’s race data excludes international students
  • The U’s race data includes out-of-state students
  • Minnesota itself is 5.5% Black including immigrants, but what percent of this group is college-age students?

Christina Schmid at the U’s Art Department invited me to participate in an exhibition this fall at that school’s Nash Gallery. We had a great conversation about ‘the numbers’, so the project I’m planning will use the Great Migration to draw a line between the postbellum promise of ’40 acres and a mule’ and 21st century educational attainment in the Twin Cities.

Education in visual art, gender studies, and literature has deepened my understanding of the world around me, finessed my relationships with my many communities, and shaped my perception of myself for the better. My belief is that such educational experiences should be truly available to everyone. So, I guess the question I’d like to address is, ‘In terms of numbers, what could/should/does equity look like when it comes to higher education?’ I’ve been told the Twin Cities is FULL of colleges and college graduates, but I’m curious as to how that narrative plays out in terms of race in particular for members of the African diaspora and why.

Up-Dated December 2015: