Marlon James writes about being 'big,' black and Minnesotan in the age of Philando Castile

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Marlon James says he deliberately tries to stay 'small' in Minnesota, because he can't get 'close.' Jeffrey Skemp

Marlon James is more famous outside Minnesota than in it.

This is by design.

In a Facebook post published Saturday, James tries to slice holes in the veil so many Minnesotans use to view race, justice, and themselves.

James never spells out the name Philando Castile, but the essay reads like a bleak obituary. Not for Castile himself, but for a way of feeling about a place. 

In writing about the "many fucked up ways [Minnesota] views and acts on issues of race," the Jamaican-born author seems to be shedding his last few illusions about where he's chosen to call home for the last decade. He is asking that the reader do the same.

James uses as a metaphor an old line from the black standup Dick Gregory, who said blacks in the South could get "close," but not "big," while in the North they could get "big" but not "close." This, to James, means blacks up here are allowed -- encouraged, even -- to thrive, and be as economically successful as they are professionably able. 

But they'll still be black, which means being outnumbered, and often cruelly reminded of where they fit in modern Minnesota. 

James writes:

"I did not realize until just now, that big can mean literally big, and close can mean 20 feet away, and how 10 years of living in Minnesota as a 'big, black guy' has led me to a gradual though futile 'reduction' of myself to get closer. I have a big global voice, but a small local one, because I don’t want to be a target, and resent that in 2017, that’s still the only choice I get to have."

This, James explains, means leaving parties before white attendees get too drunk and the "hella racist" stuff comes out; it means staying off certain streets on certain hours, lest he be mistaken for a criminal suspect; it means hoping when he does get treated like a criminal, he's with a white person, especially a white woman -- more likely to "challenge the cop on unconstitutional bullshit," he says -- though not one that the cops might think James is dating.

James writes about how he decided to stop being "big" physically, losing weight in the hopes it might make him seem less threatening, though being slight of build didn't save Castile.

He rides his bike to work at Macalester College, and would do so in "full academic regalia," though cops would probably only think he'd stolen the bike and the clothes, and shoot him.

As for "close," James writes unflinchingly about the classic, distant "Minnesota Nice" mentality, which means he can only count four native Minnesotans as close friends, and has been invited inside just five Minnesotans' homes.

James' whole essay (posted under the title "Smaller, and Smaller, Smaller.") is worth reading and sharing widely. With the Twin Cities on edge, raw, reeling, and grieving, reading this won't make anyone feel any better. It is not supposed to.


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