Minnesota “race” politics –of the 1920s

I recently watched the movie Sweet Land, the tale of a girl, Inge, who arrives in rural Minnesota in the 20s to marry a Norwegian-American farmer, Olaf. Only problem is, nobody in the town expected her to be German, and her nationality sticks in the craw of the townspeople and postpones the marriage for a time.

At one point, the minister comes over to Olaf’s house. Inge makes the coffee. Olaf, already smitten, praises Inge’s coffee. The minister, enraged by her difference and by the perceived immorality of the situation, goes off on a rant about her unassimilable Germanness that includes this line: “your Germanness–it makes coffee that is too black!”

This line captures perfectly the slippery logic that assumes a natural (inherent) relationship between national identities and character as the minister accuses Inge of so much more than bad cooking. Blackness stands in for absolute Otherness. (Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark provides an insightful critical examination of the operations of whiteness and blackness in U.S. American literatures. Sweet Land, in my opinion, merely picks up on what would have been a set of discursive options in the time period for assessing and diagnosing Otherness and gradations of belonging.) The blackness of the coffee, beyond racializing Inge’s alien status, also signals her as profligate and spendy. The minister announces that black coffee means that she has used too many beans. The scene suggests that for a rural Minnesota Norwegian community a lack of frugality would be a damning instance of bad character.

(And if you think that I chose to write about coffee deliberately for my first post, well… you’d be correct!)


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