“I didn’t expect success right away, and I never stopped writing from the time I wrote my first poems in high school,” Alexs Pate told a Teen Writers conference more than 20 years ago. “I’m not a disciplined person. It was passion that kept me at the typewriter when my friends were going out. I never stopped believing that ultimately my life would be defined by words I put on paper. I had something to say, and if I didn’t say it, nobody would.”
Since then, Pate has written thousands of words, as well as teaching, mentoring and becoming a leader in the Twin Cities literary community. That’s why he is the recipient of the Minnesota Book Awards 2021 Kay Sexton Award. The judging panel hailed Pate’s leadership as “quiet but transformational” in an announcement today from Friends of the St. Paul Public Library on behalf of sponsoring St. Catherine University. The honor is presented annually to an individual or organization in recognition of long-standing dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading and literary activity in Minnesota.
Pate is president/CEO of Innocent Technologies and creator of The Innocent Classroom, a program for K-12 educators that aims to transform U.S. public education and disparities by closing the relationship gap between educators and students of color. His most recent book, “The Innocent Classroom: Dismantling Racial Bias to Support Students of Color,” explains how teachers can help students of color shed negative stereotypes, freeing them to engage, learn, and experience success. Since Pate’s creation of The Innocent Classroom teacher training in 2012, Innocent Technologies has trained more than 3,600 educators in school districts across the country.
A native of Philadelphia, Pate has taught at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota. His five novels include Minnesota Book Award-winners “Losing Absalom,” his 1994 debut that became a bestseller, and “The Multicultiboho Sideshow” in 2000. Another is “Amistad,” his novelization of Steven Spielberg’s film.
A main theme running through Pate’s fiction is the story African-American men like his father, who worked hard and raised their families. “I wanted to write about a generation of men like Absalom, men who never were drunk twice in their lives. Blue-collar men who tried to pass on their dreams — a version of the American dream — to their children,” Pate said in a Pioneer Press interview when “Losing Absalom” was published.
Pate has also published a children’s book as well as editing “Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota.” In the forefront of changing times in the poetry world, he wrote “In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap.” He taught a class on the poetics of hip-hop when he taught at Macalester, where one of his students was Vietnamese American Bao Phi, now a well-known Minnesota author, performance poet and community activist.
“It was inspiring for me to see a Black author who was not only successful, but who was shaping the discourse of how art from his community should be engaged,” Bao Phi recalled.
Another way Pate shaped discourse was through his collaborations with essayist and poet David Mura. The partners often performed “Secret Colors,” a multimedia piece about the lives of men of color and Asian-American/African-American relationships that was presented at the Walker Art Center and in Philadelphia. The men co-wrote and acted in a short feature film, “Slowly This,” which aired on PBS in 1996.
Pate, who was born in 1950, loved to read when he was growing up in North Philly and found refuge in the Free Library of Philadelphia. But to get there, he and his buddies had to trek through neighborhoods where they faced taunts and threats of getting beat up by Polish and Czech boys. After high school he joined the Navy and was assigned a ship that toured the Atlantic during the Vietnam war.
Returning to Philadelphia, Pate realized he couldn’t stay, partly because in the mid-’70s the atmosphere was not welcoming or healthy for a young Black man, thanks to a police force that was brutal to inner city youth.
Pate moved to Minneapolis where he worked at Control Data in a management position. And he found the Loft Literary Center, which provided him with, he has said, “the community that is necessary for writers.” He went on to serve as president of the Loft board as well as serving on the board of the Givens Foundation. His community involvement also included serving on the Arts Midwest Censorship Task Force, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Committee, and the Minneapolis Arts Commission.
As a member of the board of The Givens Foundation, Pate was host/curator of the NOMMO African American author series. David Lawrence Grant, author and playwright, explained the importance of Pate’s creative leadership of that program: “(Pate’s) skills as ringmaster, provocateur, scholar, interviewer and curator, have made this series serve, not only as powerful introduction for many readers to the historical Black Arts Movement, but as a kind of praxis — a place where the roots of that Movement could be watered and nurtured.”
Pate will be honored April 29 at the virtual 33rd annual Minnesota Book Awards ceremony. Awards will also be presented to winners in nine categories. The preface reception begins at 6:30 p.m. with the ceremony at 7. It’s free, but registration is required at: thefriends.org/ceremony. The official hashtag is #mnbookawards.