Let’s Change the Way We Talk About the Midwest

Movement, changing urban landscapes, and environmental violence are all Midwestern stories. A 4-11 Fire Alarm, Chicago. Source: The Newberry Library

For the past several years, articles on Midwestern History and Culture seem to follow this same basic outline:

~ Personal anecdote about author’s small town roots or first visit to the Midwest~

~Inevitable description of a cornfield~

~Cutting remark about liberal coastal people’s perceptions of the Midwest made by an author from a liberal coastal publication~

~Tired revelation that Midwesterners are not simple provincial folk~

~Obligatory reference to 2016 election~

~Cautionary warning against generalizing a region at the end of an entire article generalizing the Midwest~

Even as Seemingly Every Article on Midwestern History and Culture aims to complicate understandings of the Midwest, they still start with the assumption that the Midwest is a static, white, rural place. This assumption is not reflected in the historical record, contemporary scholarship, or the lived experiences of so many Midwesterners (including myself); rather, it is a harmful and political statement. For example, in Minnesota the narrative justifies elevating violent legacies of colonizers while erasing past and present Indigenous presence in battles over place names at Bde Maka Ska and Historic Fort Snelling at Bdote. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota is unwilling to reckon with the racist histories associated with campus building names. The nostalgic characterization of the Midwest as perpetually white and simplistically rural is not cute or benign—it perpetuates the violence of colonization and racism and should no longer be entertained as the uncritical starting point for the next reflection on America’s heartland.

Here is an alternative starting point for discussions about the region’s history: The Midwest is a dynamic place of movement and encounter: sometimes peaceful, usually contested, and often violent. Operating at the core of this assumption is the acknowledgment that the Midwest is home of Indigenous people with histories of forced and voluntary migration beginning before European presence and continuing into the present day. Emphasizing movement and encounter also opens up opportunities to explore:

  • How both Yankee migration and European immigration shaped settler colonialism, and meanings of whiteness changed over time;
  • African American movement into and out of the region beyond the Great Migration, highlighting historical black farming and revealing how slavery and Jim Crow are Midwest stories;  
  • Mexican migrations from the early twentieth century into the twenty-first century;  
  • Historical contestations of LGBTQ+ spaces in rural, suburban, and urban Midwest;
  • Asian American immigration in the wake of United States’ military involvement abroad
  • The complex and changing relationship between humans and the environment; for example, interrogating how those iconic cornfields are not a static fixture of the Midwest but contingent on the region’s specific evolution of settler colonialism and industrial agriculture.

Changing the default stories of the Midwest in favor of embracing the messiness of migration and conflict is crucial on at least two levels. For Midwesterners, adding critical context to celebratory local histories helps us meaningfully confront our region’s violent past and present. (This should be the work of our local historical societies and museums.) The same is true on a national level, where invoking a fictional homogenous heartland seeks to erase the stories and lives of so many Midwesterners.

To learn more about Midwestern history, join this upcoming adult education seminar at the Newberry Library or check out Omnia’s course offerings here.

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