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‘I’m a poet, not a politician’: Hawona Sullivan Janzen on the inspiration for ‘Rondo Family Reunion’

Courtesy of Hawona Sullivan Jansen
“Rondo Family Reunion: Verse and Vision” organizers, from left: Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Clarence White and Chris Scott.

In the 1950s, the Twin Cities powers that be plowed through the African-American neighborhood of Rondo in St. Paul, making way for the I-94 freeway and a lasting scar of displacement and legacy of injustice. But that is not the only story of Rondo, and Sunday at Penumbra Theater, the sold-out “Rondo Family Reunion: Verse and Vision” event will attempt to fill in the gaps.

Produced and organized by Minnesota poets Hawona Sullivan Janzen and Clarence White and photographer Chris Scott, the project will shine a light on the lesser-known history of Rondo via readings and performances by Seitu Jones, T. Mychael Rambo, Robin Hickman, Lauren Williams and Anika Bowie, and words from St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter III.

Janzen, a historian and curator of the art gallery at U Rock in Minneapolis, spoke with MinnPost about the project.

MinnPost: Where did the inspiration for “Rondo Family Reunion” come from?

Hawona Sullivan Janzen: The project started in 2016. Springboard for the Arts partnered with the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, which is the neighborhood [association] that serves the Rondo community, to invite artists of African-American descent to participate in a series of free workshops about doing community-based art projects. Everyone who participated was eligible to apply for this special grant fund that they had, to do projects on Rondo.

Poets Hawona Sullivan Janzen and Clarence White composing poems-on-the-spot at Rondo Days.
Poets Hawona Sullivan Janzen and Clarence White composing poems-on-the-spot at Rondo Days.

So Clarence White, Chris Scott and I met in that program. We knew each other from some other ways, but we didn’t know we had these Rondo connections. So at Rondo Days, Clarence and I did this crazy project where people would come and sit and talk with us and we would compose a poem for them in about an hour. We learned about all these people in the community, and we learned that we couldn’t write a poem for every single person in the community, so we did what we could on that day and had this seed of ‘Maybe we should do something else again.’

Thank god the Center For Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota has this amazing grant that’s funded by the McKnight Foundation that’s specifically for artists of color to do work in their own communities. So Chris, Clarence and I put together a proposal, and that’s how the “Rondo Family Reunion” got funding and got started.

MP: What provided the poetry and photography focus?

HJ: Clarence and I had this booth at Rondo Days and this idea to write these poems, but in between the time of when we submitted the proposal and when Rondo Days came, Philando Castile was killed.

He has strong connections in the neighborhood, and he went to Central High. … The Rondo Days festival is very much about people who have connections to the community coming back on that day and seeing each other again and connecting, but also commemorating the loss that the community suffered when the people’s homes were taken and the freeway came through.

But that day, on everybody’s mind was Philando. So many people that sat down in our chairs were talking about that, so I, as a person with a background in public relations, noticed how many stories there were in the news about him and the community, and while I was relieved that his story wasn’t marginalized — you know, the stories talking about him giving food to kids who didn’t have lunch money and all these things — but I just kept thinking, ‘Why is it that the only time the media comes to talk about us is when we are suffering from grief and experiencing loss?’

Bench dedicated to Philando Castile at JJ Hill Montessori Magnet school in Rondo.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Bench dedicated to Philando Castile at JJ Hill Montessori Magnet school in Rondo.

The reason I thought the project was great was because I thought, ‘Here’s a chance to share the stories of our community and the richness of it, not just when someone has died or in the moment when we’ve just experienced some painful injustice.’

MP: There’s more to the story of the neighborhood.

HJ: Absolutely. The contemporary stories are what are really important to me. I was trained as a historian, so I often ponder the role that our history plays in who we are and who we are becoming as a people. There are people in Rondo who know nothing of the history of that land, and then there are people there who don’t feel like they can ever move beyond the history of what happened on that land. But they’re all living there together and walking around those spaces together, and they all have these stories of which that place is a part of.

MP: How much does Philando’s memory have to do with the project?

HJ: There is a poem in the project that was written because a woman sat down in the chair who was completely unrelated to the community, and she talked about how the loss of Philando and people coming together to try to do something about the grief the community was feeling had changed her feelings about this kind of thing. She got up at 4 in the morning and wanted to do something, anything, for Valerie Castile and her family, so she worked with some friends to create a mandala outside the church where his funeral was going to be.

What that raised in me was that people are hungry for a chance to do something, to engage in a kind of way, and then I sat with that for a minute and I thought, ‘So am I.’ I’m a poet, I’m not a politician, and I pick up my pen or I type it out on my typewriter when I’m struggling with something, and I was really conflicted because I thought, ‘Is that enough? People are dying, and it seems like the only thing I can do is pick up my pen.’

“Family Piano”
Photo by Chris Scott
“Family Piano”

So I was thinking about that, and also, ‘Who’s next? Whose story is going to be lifted up next?,’ and praying that that was not going to be a story that came out of loss of another life. So the project, for me, was about lifting up these amazing stories of our community and not waiting for loss to make that happen. I guess it felt like it was some sort of act of rebellion to simply write stories about people that didn’t have to be because they had done something extraordinary. Because in the context of living in America with all of the things that we encounter — trying to live your best life, to have friends, to celebrate, to come together, to cook, to have kids, to walk your dog — sometimes those acts are tremendous acts of courage, yet we just see them as people not really connecting to the crisis at hand.

MP: How did everyday people inform the project?

HJ: For me, it was about both lifting up and illuminating the stories of old, but also bringing people back to the community who had grown up there and for a variety of reasons had left. To both see the new Rondo, but to claim their space in the legacy of this community both past and present.

MP: How do you impart that with the “Rondo Family Reunion”?

HJ: It’s a three-part project. For part one, we’ve chosen a few of the poems and images from the project and invited people who have connections to the community to read it on stage. And then there will be a slide show of some of the historic images that Chris Scott has gotten when she went to meet with people, when she went to talk with people about their families, and the new images she’s captured, as well.

Chris Scott’s grandmother Flora and cousin Orean in Rondo, circa 1940.
Courtesy of Chris Scott
Chris Scott’s grandmother Flora and cousin Orean in Rondo, circa 1940.

This summer, excerpts from the poems and photos that Chris has taken will become a public art lawn sign project. We’ll invite people in the neighborhood to host a lawn sign this summer; there’ll be 21 of them, with each one of them telling someone’s story. We’ll even have these little real estate boxes that will tell you all about the project and a map that tells you where all the lawns are so that you can walk all around the neighborhood and see all 21 stories.

Then during the week of Rondo Days, we’ll have a book release where we’ll give away free copies of the chapbook that we’ll publish with the poems and photos in it. So this is really the beginning of the three activities that we’re hoping will help to carry the stories of the community forward.    

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