The Ostracon: Dispatches from Beyond Contemporary Art’s Center, an arts writing site by Nicole J. Caruth and Paul Schmelzer, looks at figures and ideas outside the mainstream of contemporary art—from public policy, indigenous rights, and folklore to community organizing, historic preservation, environmental science, journalism, and food justice—that may offer insight into new forms of making art that are more responsive, relevant, and connected to the way we live now as individuals and communities. Taking its name from the pottery shards used in ancient Athens when voting to ostracize community members, the site aims to celebrate, instead of push out, voices from art’s periphery.
“I’m unburying these books before I’m buried,” says Jack Zipes, a retired folklorist and German professor who, at 84, is republishing long-forgotten anti-fascist children’s books through his imprint, Little Mole & Honey Bear. Despite being 80, 100, or more years old, these stories prove timely in an age of Donald Trump, insurrection, and the Proud Boys.
“I am a gravedigger,” writes Jack Zipes in the preface to the book Yussuf the Ostrich. “I do not dig graves to bury the dead. I dig up graves to bring the dead back to life.” In the last portion of his own life, the 84-year-old folklorist and retired German professor is doing what he’s always done—studying, translating, adapting, and publishing folk tales from decades and centuries past, but with a new focus. Through Little Mole & Honey Bear, the imprint he founded in 2018, he’s unearthing anti-fascist and pacifist children’s books that have fallen out of circulation and republishing them for readers today. “I feel in my last days, in my old age, I’m doing what I can. In everything that I do, I want to resist what’s going on,” he recently told me. “I’m unburying these books before I’m buried.”
Despite their vintages, Zipes’s first releases on the new imprint couldn’t be more timely. Keedle the Great, and All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Fascism, written by Deirdre and William Counselman in 1940 and illustrated by Fred L. Fox, tells tale of the rise—and ultimate squashing—of a little boy with dark ambitions. Simple with a touch of humor, the slim volume follows its titular character, a boy in the spitting image of Hitler who “hated laughter more than anything else in the world,” entertained himself by feeding bugs to his pet spider, and subsisted on a diet of “synthetic candy.” As an adult, he grew a familiar moustache and embraced dictatorial tendencies, even writing his own manifesto, Keedle’s Kampf. By the book’s end, he’s so ridiculed that he shrinks to the size of a mosquito, small enough to be squished in the palm of a hand. Zipes unearthed Keedle in the rare book section of the Strand Bookstore in January 2020 and immediately saw parallels today. “Keedle has reared his ugly head again,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “He is somewhat fatter and has forgotten how to do the goosestep, but he is dangerous and threatens to destroy all that is decent and humane in the world… He’s a liar who has no inkling he is a fascist fool. This all makes him pathetic in his rule, and domination will eventually die out not from our laughter, but also from our humanity.”
Yussuf is a 1943 tale written and illustrated by Emery Kelen, a Hungarian Jew who witnessed the grim realities of war first-hand when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He was so disturbed by the experience that he pretended to be mentally ill to get out, a ploy that resulted in his transfer to a psychiatric hospital. There he began drawing fellow patients, an act which helped him process his experiences with combat. He later declared himself a “violent pacifist” and teamed up with artist Alois Derso and gained fame—not to mention the attention of Nazis and other fascists angry about the duo’s depictions of their movement—for caricatures that critiqued totalitarianism. Due to this attention, the pair fled to New York in 1938.
Set in northern Africa during World War II, Yussuf tells of a studious and speedy ostrich who helps American troops thwart the Germans. Having volunteered as a courier (“he ran so swiftly that the Nazi gunners grew dizzy trying to hit him”), Yussuf was captured and feared for his life. But a pair of dachshunds owned by a portly Nazi general devised a plan to spring him: they convinced him to spare Yussuf for a higher purpose, using his plentiful supply of feathers to keep the vain general’s footwear polished (no Nazi bootlicking here, as the story eventually shows). Assuming he was “just a silly ostrich,” incapable of understanding much, Yussuf was in the room one day as the general and his advisors discussed plans to wipe out the entire US army. Ultimately, through the help of his swastika-clad canine comrades, he stole the plans, zipped back to the Allies, and defeated Hitler’s minions. As word of Yussuf’s heroism spread, his fame did, too. But when asked by the American general what he wanted to do next, the humble ostrich said he simply wanted to go back to Abou, the little boy who raised him, but only after a visit with his mother in the desert. Beautifully illustrated, it’s an instructive tale about friendship, assumptions, and the emancipatory prospects of education (in one passage early in the book, a donkey challenges Yussuf’s attempts to read and write: “What’s the use of an education to a bird? Look at me. I have enough hay. I have enough straw. And I never went to school.”).
“These are not outspoken, didactic, or pedagogical books,” Zipes says. “They don’t preach anything. What they do is reveal subtly what is happening in the world through metaphorical stories.”
A Storied Trajectory
Zipes was raised in a family where storytelling was king. “My father used to tell me stories about his life in Russia, growing up in Minsk and finding his way to school through the snow,” he recalls. “But, of course, my father wasn’t born in Russia and had never went to Russia. He was just a great storyteller.” Zipes was born, in fact, in New York City in 1937 and raised in Mount Vernon, a suburb just north of the Bronx and next to a town that at the time prohibited Jewish residents. There his mother read to him, regularly rotating through classics by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. It’s also where he first experienced anti-Semitism; he lost a girlfriend when he was 12 or 13, he recalls, when her Catholic family discovered he is Jewish.
He went to Dartmouth, and as “the English department was terrible,” he earned a BA in political science instead. “The college was very racist and anti-Semitic,” he recalls, but it had a few good English professors, and he took their classes, finding himself drawn to French existentialists like Camus and Sartre (whose Anti-Semite and Jew he found useful). At Columbia, he earned a Masters in English and Comparative Literature, studying critical theory and immersing himself in the greats of American literature: Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, etc. In 1961, he left for Germany to study, a year in Munich and a year in Tübingen. “Germany was a mystery to me. Still is,” he writes in the introduction of Yussuf. “When it came to understanding German history, all my friends there were silent at first. They were silent about the Nazi past because their parents and relatives were silent, just as I was silent about the anti-Semitism I experienced in America. But I no longer keep silent about it.”
After completing his PhD at Columbia, and writing a thesis (later published as a book) entitled The Great Refusal: Studies of the Romantic Hero in German and American Literature, he returned to Germany for a teaching stint at the University of Munich. During his next job, a faculty position at NYU, he became steeped in activism: at the height of the Vietnam War, he started working as an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), among other groups, which he says landed him on a blacklist. But he eventually found a teaching job—“somehow,” he says, mystified—at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He moved from New York with a girlfriend and settled into teaching, working with area socialist groups and an advocacy organization called the Wisconsin Alliance on the side. His partner began pursuing a degree in education, and Zipes started reading her books on child development, noting that much of the pedagogy at the time was focused on obedience and control. He thought: “We’ve got to get children when they’re young, and not to politicize them, but to make them aware of what is happening in the world, who’s in charge of the world, what these struggles are all about.”
“At that time, I became interested in the impact fairy tales can have in child development,” he recalls. “It’s the major genre in children’s lives, practically in everyone’s lives; from the time we’re born until we die, we read fairytales. That’s the only genre, all over the world, which has this power.”
The form became the focus of his writing, teaching, and study. “I read the orthodox Marxist views of [Bruno] Bettelheim,” whose book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales came out in 1976, “and they infuriated me,” he says. He vowed to come up with an alternative perspective. But first he had to dig into the history of fairytales, and to do so he had to learn other languages, including Italian and French, to understand how such stories worked in other cultures. He eventually started workshopping his thinking by going into Milwaukee area schools and sharing his storytelling methodology, slowly incorporating theater into his work. His publishing efforts at the time reflected his passions: he wrote books like Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979) and Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983) and edited volumes including Political Plays for Children: The Grips Theatre of Berlin (1976) and Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (1987).
In 1989, having left Milwaukee for a three-year term teaching in Florida, he accepted a position in the University of Minnesota’s Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch and moved to Minneapolis. His writing ratcheted up, with more than a dozen new titles written during his time at the university, plus another two dozen books that he edited. A 2004 volume, though, proved one his most impactful works: Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children captured and codified his thinking on the power of storytelling in education, sharing his decades of literary knowledge, but more importantly, years of experience running Neighborhood Bridges, a critical literacy program he cofounded to “empower students to become the storytellers of their own lives.”
Embodying Stories, Embracing Empathy
Based on his theater work in Milwaukee, Zipes co-founded Neighborhood Bridges in 1997 with Peter Brosius, artistic director at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis. “Meeting Jack and being introduced to his pedagogy was completely mind-blowing,” says Maria Asp, an artist involved with Bridges since its inception and most recently its program director. Through learning Zipes’s critical literacy framework and concepts from the Italian writer Gianni Rodari’s 1977 book The Grammar of Fantasy: An Introduction to the Art of Inventing Stories, “I realized that theater, storytelling, and creative writing aren’t the end product,” she says. “They’re the tools for exploring meaning-making.”
At its peak, the program brought teaching artists into more than 20 Twin Cities schools for weekly two-hour sessions all year long. But this is no traditional theater program, where adherence to a play’s text is paramount. With the diversity of student backgrounds, experiences, and even English-language proficiency in mind, the artists would customize the structure, using Zipes’s pedagogy, to help kids reinterpret existing texts or invent their own storylines to produce as plays on the Children’s Theater stage. “Instead of saying, ‘OK, this is the next scene, here’s what it’s about,’ we would ask them, ‘What do you think it’s about? What should the next line be?,” says Kiyoko Motoyama Sims, the program’s longtime community engagement director. “We want kids to be able to shape their own narrative.”
Using game-like exercises, including Rodari’s notion of the “fantastic binomial,” kids would use improvisational storytelling as a tool to explore themes and, eventually, write and produce a play. “Embodying the story,” literally taking in the experiences and vantage point of yourself or others, is key, Sims adds. “Once you go inside, I think you will learn the skill to have empathy, to want to understand experiences you haven’t had before.”
“The focus was on the children and enabling them to be able to speak, act, draw, sing, and so on,” says Zipes, who served as the project’s director until 2008. We didn’t go in and do a type of storytelling that would be just to entertain. Art was going to be provocative and mind-opening, for everyone—for the school teacher, the teaching artists, students, for everyone.” While Zipes has moved on from Bridges, so have Asp and Sims; both were furloughed in the early months of COVID-19, which left them to focus on the Speaking Out Collective, a group of actors, educators, and directors “who believe that story is a vehicle for self-expression, questioning, and creating new narratives together.” Zipes credits the collective for “keeping the tradition of [Bridges] going.”
“My philosophy,” he adds, “has always been that I teach to find people who are going to replace me, and that was certainly the case with Bridges.”
What Do We Mean by Fascism?
“Feelings propel fascism more than thought does,” writes social scientist Robert O. Paxton in “The Five Stages of Fascism,1Robert O. Paxton, “The Five Stages of Fascism,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 1 (March 1998), 6.“a 1998 essay with strong resonance in the era of Donald Trump, insurrection, and the Proud Boys. In it he outlined the “mobilizing passions” that can be present in fascisms:
• The primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether universal or individual.
• The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment which justifies any action against the group’s enemies, internal as well as external.
• Dread of the group’s decadence under the corrosive effect of individualistic or cosmopolitan liberalism.
• Closer integration of the community within a brotherhood (fascio) whose unity and purity are forged by common conviction, if possible, or by exclusionary violence, if necessary.
• An enhanced sense of identity and belonging, in which the grandeur of the group reinforces individual self-esteem.
• Authority of natural leaders (always male) throughout society, culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny.
• The beauty of violence and of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success in a Darwinian struggle.
Despite the ways Trumpism echoes these distinctions—from a charismatic leader who said “I alone can fix this” to a group of his supporters united by a shared sense of persecution—Paxton has long hesitated to apply the F-word to Trump. But the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol changed his thinking. “His open encouragement of civic violence to overturn an election crosses a red line. The label now seems not just acceptable but necessary.”
Zipes has been far less hesitant to apply the term to Trump. “There’s always been an extreme right-wing liberalist, if not highly racist, stream in American culture,” he told me last July, referencing the near-annihilation of Native Americans as depicted in the tale of Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. “So none of this surprises me. What does surprise me is that we literally have a fascist as a President.”
Speaking again just days after the January 6 insurrection, I asked his response, especially to the man who wore a “Camp Auschwitz Staff” sweatshirt while storming the Capitol. “It wasn’t surprising to me that that would happen because anti-Semitism has been replaced by racism, but anti-Semitism has really never died down because the Jews have always been associated with minority groups and looked down upon,” Zipes says. “So when somebody walks around with a T-shirt that says ‘Auschwitz’ on it, it doesn’t really frighten me. It doesn’t worry me because I’ve lived with it my entire life.”
He refers to the “soft fascism” of America, a society in which, under a democratic pretense, the populace agrees to abide by rules that are ultimately autocratic. As an example of how this tendency is expressed in children’s stories, he points to the piece he republished recently by Hermynia Zur Mühlen. “The Glasses,” written in 1923, tells of a wealthy land in which the rich exploited the poor but the poor never rose up, thanks to glasses crafted by a magician and issued at birth. “The lenses were cut in such a way that the poor people who wore them saw their brothers and sisters as small, helpless, inferior creatures” and the rich they saw “magnified as powerful, clearly godlike creatures who deserved all the best things in the world.” The king’s glasses were ordinary, but dipped “once in the blood of the cruelest person who had ever lived and twice in the blood of the stupidest person who ever lived. When the king wore the glasses, he saw whatever kings are accustomed to seeing, and he saw it in the way that suited the kings.”
As you might expect, one day a baby was born, little Fritz, who couldn’t tolerate the glasses and ripped them off. His parents tried various ways to keep the spectacles on, fearing reprisal from the king, including tying them on his head. As a young man, he smashed the glasses once and for all and started a clandestine resistance group, the “enemies of the glasses,” who drove such fear into the king that he “ran until he came to a country where the people still wore glasses and where law and order prevailed.”
Zur Mühlen was born into an upper-class family in Vienna, and Zipes notes, “if you’re born into aristocracy, especially as a woman at the end of the 19th century, you’re going to have to obey every single rule of behavior that is imposed on you.” She married an Estonian count, which helped her realize, as Zipes puts it, “how horrible all the aristocracies in Europe were.” She left the count and moved to Switzerland where she met Stefan Klein, a Hungarian writer and communist, whom she married. “All her stories were explorations in developing critical thinking,” he says. “In ‘The Glasses,’ she tells a story about people who are blinded by outside forces so that they cannot recognize how they are being manipulated and deprived of the fruit that they actually produce for the rest of society.” He finds the tale, like all of his recent work, appropriate for these times, echoing the title of the series he edited and translated the story for, Princeton’s “Oddly Modern Fairy Tales.”
That title struck me as curious: if Zipes loves “oddly modern” fairy tales, why not use his golden years to write and publish new books for children that convey the values he holds dear? He’s not sure they’d ever get published.
“Although there are some very good writers and artists who are trying to deal with these problems for young people, I find a lot of them are not very honest and truthful. And these books that were written in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s are much more candid, much more honest. They raise issues without fear of what corporate publishing houses might think.”
“The type of censorship that exists among publishers of children’s books today, where everything has to be charming and have a happy ending, I don’t think that’s being responsible to children,” he adds. “In order to be responsible to children, I don’t think we need to horrify them, but we have to be truer than true.”
In their practice of “one-word activism,” Jeffery Darensbourg and artist Ozone504 have been working to revive usage of Bulbancha, the Choctaw name for New Orleans since well before the city’s founding some 300 years ago. Their efforts prompt a broader look at Indigenous naming and what it can teach us in fractious times.
When Jeffery Darensbourg moved to New Orleans several years ago, one of the first things he did was look up the city’s Indigenous name. A writer, researcher, and enrolled member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, Darensbourg grew up in Baton Rouge and, while his birth certificate identifies him as “Negro,” he is Creole. But people usually assume he’s white. Some of his ancestors lived here in what is now called the United States, while others came from Europe and Africa. He’s traced his last name to a forebear named Karl von Arensberg (later changed to Charles D’Arensbourg), a man “of Swedish, German, Polish, Jewish extraction” who came from what is now Szczecin, Poland to Louisiana in 1722. His son later married a Native woman. For a guy who says he’s ethnically “a mixture of things,” Darensbourg’s adopted hometown has a fitting name.
“It took me 10 minutes online, and I found it in the first ever Choctaw dictionary by Allen Wright, who was a Choctaw chief in the 19th century.” Before the French founded the city in 1718, naming it after Phillip II, the Duke of Orléans (a man who, Darensbourg says, never set foot in the city), the area was called Bulbancha. But while many Indigenous place names reference sensory experience, the most defining characteristic of Bulbancha, it would seem, was human interaction. “The place of many tongues” in Choctaw, the name nods to the mixing of cultures, the languages spoken by the area’s many residents—tribes including the Biloxi, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, and Tunica, among others, who often communicated in a bridge language, Mobilian Jargon—and economic exchange facilitated by wetlands that served as transit routes for trappers and traders.
In 2014, Darensbourg and his friend, the artist Ozone504, started engaging in what they call “one-word activism,” a project that eventually drove them to revive use of the name Bulbancha. But it wasn’t until 2018, when New Orleans celebrated the 300th anniversary of its founding, that their ideas started gaining traction. As a counter-narrative to the tricentennial, they created a zine to celebrate Indigenous culture in the area, both today and thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Their efforts suggest a broader look at Indigenous naming and the power it holds in reconciling with our past and celebrating the real, and complex, diversity within our communities today.
What’s In a Name?
In Indigenous cultures, “place names tend to describe whatever is uniquely memorable about a particular place,” says Margaret Wickens Pearce (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), a geographer and artist whose Mississippi Dialogues project is creating an Indigenized map of flooding on the Mississippi River. “That may be what is sensed (smelled, heard, seen, tasted) or what we’re obligated to do there (gather berries, look for eggs, wait for the tide) or what happened there (treaty signing place, starving place, dance grounds), and so on.”
Beyond that, they
convey history, a connection to ancestors, the earth, and other beings. “Place names remind us of our obligations to each other and our
relatives,” she emails. “Place names specify Indigenous rights and
responsibilities on land and water. Place names are our ancestors’ speech. When
we say them and visit those places, we activate and ruminate on their guidance.
Place names are our identities.”
I’ve long been fascinated by the power we ascribe to names (including my own), but my interest in the naming of places was sparked only recently by the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist, bryologist, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and by recent events here in Minneapolis. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes of the “honorable harvest” and our “covenant of reciprocity” with nature, which gifts us our food. “Understand that the lives we are taking are the lives of generous beings, of sovereign beings, and in order to accept their gift we owe them at least our attention. To care for them we must know what they need and, at the very minimum, we should know their names. It’s a sign of respect and connection to learn the name of someone else, a sign of disrespect to ignore it.” And in Gathering Moss, she writes about the importance of knowing the scientific names of plants: “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”
And seeing clearly is key to Indigenous naming, explained Dr. Kate Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux Dakota) in a 2019 TEDx talk. “Our language is very visual,” she says. “Usually place names are not political. Usually places aren’t named after people. They’re usually descriptive, to describe the history or the connection to a place.”
And today in order to include people who have been excluded from that master narrative, in order to be inclusive of us, we must create spaces where we can create our own stories. We must think about: Who do we honor? What legacies do we want to honor? And what’s our own legacy going to be? What do we want people to remember about us? But not only that, how do we create a space where the legacies of our children are able to continue, where they can make their own mark? How do allow space for them? Naming and honoring is meant to unify, not exclude and divide.
While Darensbourg and Ozone504 can be credited with bringing
the name Bulbancha to the lips of so many in New Orleans, it’s thanks to Beane—along
with twin sister Carly Bad Heart Bull, father
Syd Beane, and many supporters—that people in my city speak the Dakota name,
Bde Maka Ska (White Earth Lake), every day. For more than 100 years, Minneapolis’s
largest lake was called Lake Calhoun, named after a man who, like New Orleans’s
namesake, reportedly never visited the state. As US Secretary of War, John C.
Calhoun ordered the construction of Fort Snelling on land near the confluence
of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers in 1818. This area, known to Dakota
people as Bdote (“where two waters
come together”), has bittersweet distinctions: it’s the birthplace of the
Dakota people and the center of Dakota cultural and spiritual life; it’s also
the place where, following the US-Dakota War of 1862, nearly two thousand
Dakota women and children were held in a concentration camp (some 300 of whom
died there) before being expelled from the state.
Calhoun’s name, to
Beane’s point, wasn’t one with a legacy of unity but division. His ideas for the treatment of Native people, first shared
in 1818, set the groundwork for passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830,
which led to atrocities against Native people, including the Trail of Tears,
the forced removal of Cherokee people from their homeland. Additionally, a
slave owner and avid segregationist, he
characterized slavery in an 1837 speech not as
“an evil,” but as “a good—a positive good,” one that benefited, in his logic,
“The names were changed in order
to assert power over us, to claim the land, and to disconnect us from our
ancestral homeland,” Beane says. “To sever our ties.”
A revival in
the use of Indigenous place names has grown in tandem with related Indigenous
rights movements, and momentum seems to be building. In October 2020, 14 US states and 130 cities officially
commemorated Indigenous People’s Day in addition to or instead of Columbus Day.
Last July, the Washington professional football team announced plans to “retire” its racist team name. In
December, the Cleveland Indians promised to change
its name as a way to “better unify our community.” And here in
Minnesota, a judge ruled early last month that Mike Forcia, a member of the
American Indian Movement and enrolled citizen of the Bad
River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, would avoid jail for leading the effort to topple a statue of Christopher Columbus on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in June. In lieu of a
felony conviction, Forcia was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. In a
statement, Ramsey County District Attorney
Sarah Cory acknowledged “that the violence, exploitation, and forced
assimilation that has been inflicted upon Native people has been perpetuated
from colonial times into modern times. And the trauma resulting from it is
still present. The impact of those harms is largely unrecognized and unknown to
the dominant culture. I also recognized that the legal process, of which I am a
part of, is reflective of the perspectives of the dominant culture.”
New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3000
In his research, Darensbourg found plenty of documentation
of the name Bulbancha (also spelled Balbancha): in addition to its inclusion in
Wright’s A Chahta Lexikon
(1880), it appears in the region’s first history book, Antoine-Simon Le Page
du Pratz’s Histoire de la Louisiane
(1758). And it appears as an identifier for a river in Alexandre de Batz’s 1735
painting Desseins de
Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations, the earliest known European
depiction of Native people.
But when he first started talking to scholars about it, he was taken aback. When he asked a staffer about Bulbancha at the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2014, “the librarian who helped me said, ‘Oh, there was nothing here before colonization. It was just a swamp,’ which is kind of racist.” Likewise, he notes that when he mentioned Bulbancha at a cocktail party at the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, “somebody in this conversation just laughed at us: ‘If there was an indigenous name for this place, I would have heard about it.’”
To combat this erasure—or to use the language of the Ramsey County Attorney, to counter “the perspectives of the dominant culture”—Darensbourg and Ozone504 partnered with the POC Zine Project to create Bulbancha Is Still a Place: Indigenous Culture from New Orleans, with publication timed to synch with the tricentennial celebration. Its first two issues feature contributions by Leila K. Blackbird (Mescalero Apache/Cherokee), who looks at the enslavement of Native people by colonists and how they sidestepped a prohibition on “Indian slavery” by using the terms “mulatto” and “creole” instead; an interview with Winter White Hat, a Two-Spirit Lakota teen living in Bulbancha; a poem by Rain Prud’homme-Cranford; and comics and artwork by local Indigenous makers; among others. The cover image for issue two: a photo from 1934 of the headless statue of Andrew Jackson—the president who signed the Indian Removal Act into law—in New Orleans’s Jackson Square. (“Even though no one knows who decapitated the statue,” Darensbourg says, “Ozone and I claim full responsibility.”)
The zine is also both a celebration and a reminder: “I think that when you say the word Bulbancha you are not just saying an ordinary name, you’re acknowledging that they continue in presence of Native people.”
Since then, the use of Bulbancha has gained popularity. The National Performance Network (NPN), a New Orleans–based arts nonprofit (where I first learned the term while doing freelance work), uses it in its land acknowledgement, and it’s appeared in publications from The Nation to Scalawag magazine to NOLA.com, often in reference to Darensbourg’s activism. And on the website of the Historic New Orleans Collection—where Darensbourg did his research in 2014—there are now four references. But unlike the case of Bde Maka Ska, which legally had its name changed, Darensbourg isn’t leading a charge to have New Orleans’s name officially recognized by government entities.
“I guess I’d prefer that to not, but on the other hand, am I ever going to ask? No,” he says. “I don’t even recognize that [the government] has the authority to do that… If someone comes into my house and tries to rename my cat, that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m going to call the cat. This is not theirs to do. And that’s how I feel about Bulbancha.”
He adds, “For this place to
be Bulbancha has nothing to do with this fictional, fly-by-night, who-knows-how-long-it-will-last
government. And if someone says, ‘Well, it’s lasted 300 years,’ my response is,
‘We’ve lived here for 10,000 years. So it doesn’t matter
to me if the colonial government ever sees it as Bulbancha.”
Instead, it seems
that seeing the name’s organic adoption by people who live in Bulbancha is far
more gratifying. On Tripod, an NPR
podcast dedicated to New Orleans’s tricentennial, Darensbourg coined a phrase, which
was used as
the title of the episode, that spoke to the status of the area’s Europeans
as relative newcomers. It seems it struck a nerve. A few
months later, just before the city shut down in response to the COVID-19
pandemic, Darensbourg was celebrating Mardi Gras. “I
was walking from the R Bar in the Marigny neighborhood, packed with people, and
I see this guy walking along. He’s in his early 20s and he has a jacket that
says ‘New Orleans 300, Bulbancha 3,000.’ I introduced myself, and he had no
idea who I was. That was great, because it means that people know about it
without having a relationship to me or Ozone or any of the contributors to the
zine. The name is being revived.”
Welcome to Bulbancha
Reclaiming the Indigenous name for Bulbancha is, of course, political. Darensbourg agrees that it could be seen as a conceptual counter-monument: “I don’t know what way it would be represented in stone, but I do know that every time the name is used, that’s a little jab at white supremacy,” he says.
But he loves the Choctaw name for the region for another reason: it’s so much more fitting for a place of such fusion and comingling, a place of welcome—the place that birthed jazz, where amazing culinary fusions were born and evolved, and where nearly every language in the world is spoken—than a name derived from a white guy from France.
“When I say ‘Bulbancha is still a place,’ I’m not saying everybody else go home,” he says. “People here say, ‘No matter how weird you are, wherever you live, you could move here and you’re probably not that weird here.’ Obviously, the land that was Bulbancha is still a piece of land. But we’re also talking about those fundamental interactions between people, that diversity, the values of those people, the way that they would all come together and form this sort of place of interaction, place of cultural exchange. That is still a place, and Bulbancha means that place better than any European word.”
by Paul Schmelzer
In Minneapolis’s Third Precinct, a restaurateur puts justice at the heart of rebuilding plans
“Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served.” Shared online after Gandhi Mahal was destroyed in the unrest sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the words of Ruhel Islam went viral. Now that the dust has settled, the Minneapolis restauranteur and sustainability advocate discusses what’s next, for his business and his multi-modal mission of “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”
On the third night of unrest over the police killing of George Floyd, Gandhi Mahal burned to the ground, and the words of the Minneapolis restaurant’s owner, Ruhel Islam—shared on Facebook by his 19-year-old daughter, Hafsa—shot around the globe: “Let my building burn. Justice needs to be served: put those officers in jail.” For those of us who frequented Islam’s business, located a block from the Minneapolis police station where Floyd’s killers worked, they were powerful, if unsurprising: for 12 years, justice—social and environmental—was as compelling a draw for Gandhi Mahal customers as Islam’s award-winning cuisine. But for the rest of the world, the moral clarity of his call struck a resonant note. Quickly, the post went viral, sparking more than 33,000 shares, 40,000 reactions, and 3,100 comments, expressing love, thanks, and pledges of support—and drawing the attention of media outlets worldwide, from the New York Times, CNN, and the Boston Globe to London’s Daily Mail, The Times of India, and the Dhaka Tribune.
Now that the dust—and ashes—has settled and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, it’s time for Islam, and Minneapolis, to begin rebuilding. A month after his restaurant was destroyed, we met at Bullthistle Gardens, one of the many backyard gardens that supplied produce to Gandhi Mahal, to discuss that night in May, the future of his creative community-building, and how he aims to expand his mission of fostering change through food at a new Gandhi Mahal.
Bringing Peace by Pleasing the Palate
It’s an understatement to say that 2008 was a momentous year for Ruhel Islam. He became a US citizen, eight years after arriving here, and, after running Little Taj Mahal in the food court of the Dinky Dome on the University of Minnesota campus for several years, he opened Gandhi Mahal, with his brother Jamil, in a building just off Lake Street. The mission was simple, if wildly ambitious: “bringing peace by pleasing the palate.”
More than a marketing slogan, the phrase has been activated at Gandhi Mahal in the dozen years since. Tough enough for any restaurant to achieve, that “pleasing palates” part of the mission has been delivered on through and through: the menu’s mix of Indian and Bangladeshi dishes earned Gandhi Mahal a visit from Guy Fieri and numerous local best-Indian-restaurant honors (my family’s favorite: the lamb rogan josh).
But its cuisine is only part of the story of peacefulness towards people and planet. “From the beginning,” he says, “my mission has been to lead by example. It’s what I’ve always done.” That aim has guided an array of endeavors that seek justice in their own right while also spotlighting practices Islam hopes are more widely adopted.
David Gray, a longtime friend of Islam’s and himself an influential node in Minneapolis’s small-scale agriculture scene, says he’d often ask Islam, “How local are you?” The answer: “52 steps”—thanks to an aquaponics system installed in Gandhi Mahal’s basement in 2014, the first restaurant-based system of its kind in Minnesota, where the restaurant raised tilapia and grew tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs. The 7,000-square-foot building’s rooftop was home to both a solar array and a bee yard that provided the restaurant honey (plans to raise quail on the roof hadn’t come to fruition by the time Islam’s building burned).
Gray first met Islam at the farmer’s market a dozen years ago when he was selling produce from eQuality, an organic farm in nearby Buffalo staffed by people with developmental disabilities. Islam would push a giant food cart—the kind you’d haul lumber on at a big box store—and go from vendor to vendor, making sure to buy something at each stall. “My booth was last, and when he got to me, that cart was loaded,” he remembers. “And sometimes he’d apologize. ‘I’m sorry, friend, but I have everything I need.’ And I said, ‘As long as you just stop and say hi, that’s all I care about.'” They struck up a friendship, with Gray advising on various aspects of the restaurant, including the aquaponics system. Since leaving eQuality nearly two years ago, Gray has been running Bullthistle Gardens out of his bungalow two miles south of Gandhi Mahal, his basement filled with grow lights and his backyard home to a giant greenhouse.
He’s impressed by the genius of supplying a restaurant using veggies grown in the backyards of neighbors. “Ruhel identified people that had space in their yards for gardens, and he funded it. He said, ‘I’ll give you seeds, everything you need.’ He even had staff that would oversee it and help them. And at harvest time, they’d bring it back and he’d buy it from them,” Gray explains. “He did simple math. You come out way ahead: you get local food at a good price, but it’s from the community.” (Islam, an early member of the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council, was instrumental in getting city regulations changed to allow for market gardens and urban farms within the city.)
These values of connection and cultivating community extend beyond agriculture as well. Ruhel and Hafsa have been involved with Black Lives Matter, protesting the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and the elder Islam visited Standing Rock during the protests in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Gandhi Mahal has been hiring ex-offenders since 2012, thanks to a partnership with Volunteers of America. In 2018, he and Hafsa, who are Muslim, took a relief trip to Bangladesh in support of the NGO Sports for Hope and Independence Bangladesh and visited with Rohingya refugees, delivering letters from Minneapolis schoolkids to children there.
Fittingly, following the uprising over George Floyd’s killing, Islam took to Facebook in a pledge to continue doing what he long has, making space—and food—for people in his community:
…It is crucial in this moment to have dialogue to continue the healing process and create hearts and minds that are focused and finding a new way forward together. You tell me what table you will be meeting to have this dialogue and I will cook for you. We are not only feeding your stomach but also your soul.
May 29, 2020
Feeding is what Islam and his family were doing the night Gandhi Mahal burned. Business was slow the evening of May 29 due to roads being blockaded by police and the restaurant’s proximity to the Third Precinct station, Hafsa recalls. Then riot police moved on demonstrators and began throwing teargas canisters and firing rubber bullets. A street medic ran into the restaurant and asked if she could bring in a demonstrator who’d been tear-gassed. Islam agreed, offering space in the Climate Hub, an adjacent storefront that was home to local climate advocacy groups. With no medical training, Hafsa joined in, helping one woman get undressed (and redressed in dry clothes, including a Gandhi Mahal 10th-anniversary T-shirt unearthed from the basement by her dad) and assisting others as their contact lenses were removed, eyes washed with milk, and wounds from rubber bullets cleaned.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, staff prepared rice and dal, an Indian lentil soup, to share with medics and demonstrators. “When people had a hard time in the village over in Bangladesh, they’d send dal and rice to everyone because it’s very simple to make,” Hafsa says, “but it’s also very nutritious and gives you everything you need.” Around 1 a.m., Ruhel Islam headed to the home he shares in south Minneapolis with his wife and their four children. The next morning, Hafsa reported online that the restaurant was gone. She vowed: “Gandhi Mahal may have felt the flames last night, but our fiery drive to help protect and stand with our community will never die! “
Islam’s immediate response to that news: “We can rebuild. The main mission is not about burning buildings; the mission is justice.” But then things sunk in. “This is a labor of love. Thirteen years of building so many small pieces from all around the world, from my Bangladesh village. My grandfather’s picture was there,” he tells me. “My children grew up there. I found my home here.”
“I felt so many things,” he adds. “But I felt overwhelming support and love: I felt that right away. That’s why my pain was very little.”
With news reports investigating the role of white supremacists and other extremists in violence and property destruction, I asked him how he felt about those who burned his restaurant. “It doesn’t matter who did this, but why this happened is what matters to me,” he says. “I blame no one. This is a sacrifice of another building; it’s not a life.”
He’s heartened by the response online to his words and the fact that they reverberated around the world and to his village in Bangladesh, where as a darker-skinned child he felt the sting of colorism. “I felt that pain. It’s a different kind of pain [from what Black Americans experience],” he acknowledges, but one that has reinforced his longstanding solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other anti-racist movements. “As Brother King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'”
One bit of praise from back home was especially bittersweet. Islam’s 85-year-old uncle, Faizur Rahman, called in late June, a few days before our meeting. “He told me, ‘I’m happy because you spoke out. This is what we are! I’m so proud looking at you in the New York Times.'” Then he advised, “Don’t take too long to rebuild. Rebuild it quickly because people are watching you. We are all watching you. Our prayers are with you—and a lot of people who did not get justice, their prayers are all with you, too.” Then Islam’s uncle blessed him.
What Rahman didn’t tell his nephew was that he’d contracted COVID-19, and two days after that phone call he passed away, one of the nearly 3,100 Bangladeshi victims of the pandemic so far.
Food and an Uncertain Future
In planning to rebuild—a process Islam says could take four or five years—Gandhi Mahal’s owner takes his uncle’s words to heart: people are watching, giving Islam the opportunity to leverage that attention to promote his family’s values around sustainability and community. He’s convened a group of restaurant staff, neighbors, architects and designers, community elders, and others to work collaboratively on a rebuilding plan that could put a structure up to six stories tall on the restaurant’s former footprint. His dream for the design: “addressing every single issue we have in our life. One of the main goals I want to achieve is a fully fed community. And everyone means every part of our community: people, plants, trees, bugs, birds, animals.”
But the start has been slow. Islam is partnering with MIGIZI, the Native youth center next door, to share demolition costs, but two months after the restaurant’s destruction such work hasn’t yet begun. The City of Minneapolis, Hafsa reported on Facebook on July 25, is making demolition permits conditional upon tax payments, an additional burden for business owners, many not fully insured, who she says may have to pay between $100,000 and $200,000 to move rubble and prepare for rebuilding. (Following publication of this piece, a city representative shared that state law requires collection of property taxes before demolition permits can be approved.) Just today, July 31, Islam signed a lease that will reopen the restaurant on the site of the former Chef Shack restaurant on the corner of Franklin and 31st avenues during construction. He notes that a food truck will likely be part of the temporary solution while the new space is being developed.
With the new building, Islam’s aims are to “come back strong.” He promises to continue sustainability efforts from the past and incorporate new ones: he’ll again build a zero-waste operation that utilizes solar panels, aquaponics, and a rooftop bee colony, but he also hopes for a LEED-certified building that has room to raise chickens and goats on-site. He’s interested in exploring sustainable materials like compressed earth blocks and passive solar, and he plans to design with future pandemics in mind. “COVID is going to be a long-term problem,” he says. “I’m thinking about when it comes back in one, two, or 30 years.”
One idea is to combine sustainability and physical distancing: “Tables will probably have planters between them or an aquaponics bed,” he says. “If you like spicy food, maybe you can just reach over and grab a chili or salad greens.”
He’d also like to incorporate community housing. “My thinking is, by calling it affordable housing, you’re dividing people,” so he’s interested in multi-generational, intercultural housing instead, with affordability as a key value.
Over time, chances are Islam’s plans will be scaled back, whittled down by pragmatic factors from city permitting delays and the intricacies of municipal ordinances to funding hurdles and the nuts-and-bolts realities of translating a vision in his mind into a bricks-and-mortar facility. But it’s this vision that drew me to Islam for The Ostracon: he acknowledges the power of art but doesn’t identify as an artist, yet he lives like one. He interrogates the world around him, investigating what can be different. He brings into view ideas he wants his community to know matter. He experiments, reworks, tries again. And he models for the rest of us that other, more just, futures are possible.
He envisions Bangladesh. He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living.
As Gray puts it, “He sees how powerful food is, culturally speaking.”
He’s compelled by Islam’s vision, too: “He envisions Bangladesh,” he says. “He wants a village. He wants a true, sustainable way of living. If you could walk to Uptown and there were fruit trees you could pick from, vegetables growing everywhere, raised boxes, people growing things on the rooftops, just a complete free-for-all based around food—that’s what he sees.”
While Islam’s plans sound positively utopian—a six-story, zero-waste complex that houses community members affordably, raises bees and fish and vegetables, while also serving as a hub for social justice activism?—I have hope he can do it.
Passing the site of Gandhi Mahal recently, I spotted a small white plastic square affixed to the chain link barrier surrounding the pit of rubble and burnt metal. Apparently a sign used when the restaurant had donated catering services for community events, it depicted a black tree, its thick branches extending wide to each side, along with the words “Special Thanks to Gandhi Mahal.” In marker, someone had drawn a heart and wrote, “We love you!”
The tree at the center of Gandhi Mahal’s logo, a rain tree, is based on one outside his primary school in Bahar Mordan, a village in the city of Sylhet in northeast Bangladesh. As a child there, Islam followed the lead of his father, who’d won a gold medal for leading a tree-planting campaign in the community, and rallied his brothers and classmates to join him in planting the tree. More than three decades later, it still stands there today, larger and stronger, a testament to a leader whose vision grew something tiny into something much, much bigger.