Robyne's Hood

Other TV news personalities stay planted behind the desk. Then there's Robyne Robinson, who claims the whole Twin Cities for her stage.

Barbara Robinson was worried when her daughter decided to pursue broadcast journalism; 20 years ago it was not an "open profession." But she was there in her daughter's mind when Robyne Robinson became separated from her cameraman at a Klan rally. When she was stuck in South Bend covering southeast Michigan during the auto industry exodus of the '80s. When staff cutbacks left her out of a job in Baltimore (her last stop before coming here) in 1990.

And her father? "Robyne, what do Robinsons do?" Mr. Robinson would ask after his day's duties as principal at McCosh Elementary.

"Robinsons neh g'up," the brace-faced 13-year-old mumbles back.

What do Robinsons do?

"They nevegivup."

Robyne, what do Robinsons do?

"Robinsons never give up."

Now, if the square root of 128 is...

Ronald Robinson, who would one day become Chicago City Hall's first black Seargent-at-Arms, and Barbara, a second-grade teacher, split up when Robyne was 9. But Dad ate dinner at the house every night and took part in every decision until the girls were working in the world and old enough to make their own way. Calling on their father to liberate them from mom's home rule would have been a waste of energy.

We might assume that all our bringers of nightly news grew up under firm hands--the profession calls for a certain impulse toward ingratiation--but the people who think they see something different in Robyne Robinson are right. It's safe to bet that the young Don Shelby never had his house spied on by Nation of Islam guards as the Robinsons did each time Shirley escaped the Big House to have a smoke with her sister Barbara. Paul Magers's mom didn't put her son on the coffee table, slap on a Motown record, and say, "OK, do the Pony." And it's unlikely Colleen Needles has every word of the "I Have a Dream" speech committed to memory.

Robyne does. Barbara Robinson made sure of it. Just as she told those Nation soldiers to get off her porch. Just as she used to say, "I heard that click, I know you're tapping this phone, are you enjoying this conversation?" whenever she figured one of J. Edgar Hoover's jackals was listening in on her dinner plans--as they did, according to Robyne, for a short time in the 1970s.

Every Sunday morning Dr. King's words would fill the Robinson apartment, and they'd echo in Robyne's and Angela's heads as they piled into mom's Renault for their weekly trips to the projects. Barbara would take the kids there to sit. To watch people with dead eyes walk out of buildings with blown-out windows. To make the girls understand. They weren't just among the very few black students at Morgan Park. They weren't just the best tennis players, and the most dedicated cheerleaders, and the most voracious readers.

I want you to know why you're here, she would say. You're here so that you don't forget that your father and I worked hard to make a better life for you, and that you are not better than anyone here. You're just lucky. Robyne, don't fidget. So what goes through Robyne Robinson's head when she speaks at a high school, and some snot-nosed cultural-revolutionary-in-training demands: "How can you work in an industry that exploits the poor and minorities?" How can she respond when a white male lawyer approaches her after a speaking engagement, places an arm on her shoulder, and says, "Robyne, you are us."

How can I be them? she asks herself as the Benz blazes down 494 from Eden Prairie to Paisley Park. How do I stay true, how do I keep it real, when real and true are as conditional and as mutable as a Minnesota spring? Does that little punk from Jefferson High School understand the difference between Robinson and her peers--that, as she puts it, "Pat [Miles] will never be pulled over with her boyfriend for driving 40 and have a really awkward moment with a cop"?

Does it bother her to be the squarest hipster in town? The hippest square?

Is she scared by the story of the 60-year-old guy in Chanhassen who repeatedly told his family he was dating Robyne Robinson...that he was going to marry Robyne Robinson...that they should stop laughing, because they would soon see? Does she want to know that somewhere in Uptown there's a guy who has been telling friends that his most urgent fantasy is to sit across the table at Saji-Ya and watch her eat sushi? Not sleep with her. Not date her. Just Robyne and a plate of sushi and a lifetime's worth of memories.

 

At 1:30 p.m. on December 1, Robyne Robinson drives to Uptown, drops off her boyfriend John Murdoch (who is Prince's keyboard technician), stops by Tobacco Shop on Hennepin, buys a cute little pack of Nat Sherman cigarettes, and zips westward to Eden Prairie. Half an hour later, she's standing in a newsroom that pulses with the white-hot intensity of a General Motors management seminar. This is ground zero: where today's information becomes tonight's infotainment becomes tomorrow's amnesia. Sleeves are being rolled up, news wires are click-clacking. Or not.

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