By Michael Kleber-Diggs
Like many gains in the American struggle for civil rights for everyone, the recent decision of the Falcon Heights City Council to name a portion of Larpenteur Avenue “Philando Castile Memorial Avenue” tastes bittersweet.
The ideal outcome—man not pulled over by police for having a broad nose, man continues compassionate work in schools—is not available to Philando Castile. What’s left for all of us is to work toward better.
I commend the City Council for its vote. I commend them for all the work they have done since Mr. Castile was killed. While we work for lasting change, I begrudgingly favor some recognition over none, ground gained over ground lost, remembering over forgetting, symbolic gestures over apathy, crumbs over starvation.
I was born 11 days after Martin Luther King was assassinated. In my almost 53 years in America, I’ve learned a lot about its appetite for destruction. The Black experience here, the experience of indigenous people, of Latinx people, of Asian people, of Middle Eastern people, of immigrants, is a centuries-long experience of injustice, violence, backlash in response to progress and erasure.
The sad reality is, in America, people of color too often achieve enduring recognition because of tragedy.
Mr. Castile is worthy of our recognition; he always was. A St. Paul High School Central grad, a longtime employee of our public schools, beloved among students he knew by name, enduring now through his family and friends. Mr. Castile has a scholarship bearing his name at Central, and the Philando Castile Relief Foundation continues his effort to keep kids from going hungry at school.
We are right to remember Mr. Castile and how he died. Because we cannot change the past, remembering it is among the things we have left.
As I write this, the trial for one of the four Minneapolis Police officers who are accused of killing George Floyd is about to begin. I won’t guess at the outcome except to say I expect it will be bittersweet too.
Whatever decision is reached, it will not be accompanied by the policy changes that are needed to end the long history of institutional violence against people of color.
When I heard about Philando Castile Memorial Avenue, I did something I should have done years ago. I looked up the namesake for Larpenteur Avenue, Auguste Louis Larpenteur.
Larpenteur arrived in this area in 1843, 15 years before Minnesota became a state. He is remembered as a settler and fur trader. He also worked in real estate. I don’t know enough to disparage the man, but I have, over the years, come to see “settler” as a near-perfect expression of how we whitewash history in America.
It almost sounds like a compliment, a noble thing, but behind the appellation there lies tremendous violence. The same is true of “fur trader.”
I’ve learned to be wary of men who worked in “real estate” in the 19th century, men who arrived at a place where people already lived and “acquired” ownership of land.
As I read about Larpenteur, I found myself wondering less about what we honor when we create Philando Castile Memorial Avenue and more about what we honor on the rest of our streets.
I found myself thinking about America’s quieter, more hidden violence, and what festers when we forget our history.
Michael Kleber-Diggs, who lives in Como Park, is a poet, essayist and literary critic.