By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Clarence White is a fan of things that don’t go out of style: Baseball, typewriters, and the East Side Freedom Library, to name a few.
- Have you, by chance, forgotten about the Seattle Pilots? Or perhaps you were not born yet, when they played their single season in Major League Baseball in 1969 before moving to Milwaukee to become the Brewers? Clarence White reminded this reporter of their ephemeral existence.
- Speaking of dusting off old things: That manual typewriter Grandpa left behind? White owns “about 40.” He also is a creator of typewriter poetry events. And he can tell you where to buy the correct ribbon for that “antique” compact portable typewriter.
- Need an introduction to the East Side Freedom Library, located in one of the three Carnegie-built buildings in St. Paul? White is the Associate Director of ESFL, a collection of 38,000 books and other writings about and by people involved in labor history, social justice, and racial equity efforts. The newish director is Saengmany Ratsabout, who formerly worked in the University of Minnesota’s Elmer L. Andersen Library and is one of the founders of the Immigrant Stories project.
Add to that list of treasures that don’t rust the Friends of the U of M Libraries, whose board he recently joined. As a new board member, White says he is still learning about the board’s responsibilities. He is certain of one thing: He greatly appreciates the work of the Libraries.
“What’s most important is that people have access to resources,” says White, who sold books for more than seven years at the former St. Paul book hangout Hungry Mind.
“Being able to put a book in someone’s hand means everything.”
A broad reach
“Being able to put a book in someone’s hand means everything.”
Access to resources for White means being able to grasp everything — the accepted histories, the little-known stories, and the suppressed truths. During the Jim Crow era, White points out, entire states were willing to “shut their schools for one and a half years so that their children didn’t have to sit next to Black children.”
This is not just history that must be known, but also because it illustrates the present-day threats to our bases of education, our libraries, and the emerging absent voices. It is another reason why the U of M Libraries are so important, he says.
He recently related one of his personal educational challenges to his Minneapolis College students, where he is an instructor. From elementary school on, White says, he has been forced to spend part of his intellectual and emotional energy “not navigating ideas” but rather “navigating race and the treacherous landscape” created by the dominant culture. It’s a burden “to always have to position yourself in discourses that are always weighted in someone else’s advantage,” White adds.
Experienced in political jobs both in St. Paul and in Washington, D.C., he now focuses on spreading the word about the variety of voices that should be heard through libraries, bookstores, and communication-based arts. ESFL is a community gathering place that has served this purpose for the past decade, although that has been hampered by the pandemic; nonetheless, it still serves people with information.
Labor historian Peter Rachleff, who, with his partner Beth Cleary, were the founders of ESFL, met White when White worked at Hungry Mind (which served as the Macalester College bookstore) and Rachleff was then a professor at Macalester College. Rachleff writes of White: “in my 35 years in academia and my eight years in the nonprofit industrial complex, Clarence is among the most impressive people I have known.
“He is smart, principled, intellectually curious, and kind. Our collaboration at ESFL has given me the opportunity to witness the great respect he is accorded by a breathtakingly diverse collection of writers and artists — old and young, BIPOC and white, men, women, and gender-fluid, poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, visual artists, musicians, librarians and teachers, and just plain folks, …” Rachleff writes.
“He has been a soft spoken, in-the-background, cultural midwife for dozens and dozens of developing writers,” he adds.
White says of his role promoting engagement among all people, of all backgrounds: “Everyone needs to be part of these conversations.”
“If you don’t have that [historical and political] knowledge,” White adds, “you are susceptible to not having that privilege” to be listened to carefully.
Chilly start in Minnesota
“Another winter will not find me here,” said White’s father, when he arrived by train in St. Cloud from New Orleans. Well, he must have purchased a warmer overcoat, because he became a kinesiotherapist at the VA Medical Center there — and many more winters found him, and soon after, his new bride, there. The elder White raised his family there, where they attended the Swedish Baptist Church — which, in the mid-1800s, was established in the midst of a German Catholic community, where these new immigrants from Sweden’s lower-caste of stonecutters made a home in the Granite City.
After high school, Clarence White moved up the road to Collegeville to attend St. John’s University. He points with pride to fellow alum Eugene McCarthy, a former U.S. Senator from Minnesota who campaigned for U.S. President in 1968 — although it was Hubert Humphrey who was ultimately endorsed at the national Democratic convention.
While at St. John’s, White took a class from Jon Hassler, a Minnesota writer known for his compassionate depictions of small-town life. “He was very generous to me,” White says. He remembers his writing teacher sharing one of his rules: “Almost never use the words only and just and when you are not sure whether to start a new paragraph, start a new one.”
He has been learning about American society and its contradictions for his whole life. “Whiteness is an exercise of erasure,” White says, “regardless of who you are and how you got here, you’re expected to act in a certain way.” Native American people and Blacks, he adds, are not allowed to become white, even while Black music and culture have been appropriated and used for the dominant culture.
In other words: The chill in the Minnesota air may not arise from only the latest polar vortex.