When the holy man was asked, “How should we treat others?” His reply was, “There are no others.”

On the second Tuesday of May I finally made it to my first meeting of S.U.R.J. Buffalo. They are an organization of white folks showing up for racial justice. Since I first heard of them some months ago, I’ve wanted to make it to one of their meetings to find out who they are and what they’re about.

They are an organization of white people who acknowledge that while their experience may be completely different, they nonetheless have a place, an obligation, to be actively mobilized toward the cause of racial justice. I was greeted very warmly, as if I was a visiting ambassador. People just wanted to acknowledge that I was there, and see to it that I didn’t feel out of place as any good host would. I appreciated that, but didn’t want to attract too much attention to myself. Remembering one of the principals from my high school science classes; there is a certain amount of impact that being observed has on the observed in and of itself. I wanted my presence to minimize that impact as much as was possible to do so.

One of the first things they did was read the names we know about of unarmed blacks who have died at the hands of police or in police custody in the past few years, and allow a moment of reflection about them. Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Philando Castile, Buffalo’s Wardel Davis, and others. To my surprise, many of these white folks began openly sobbing and weeping. In that moment, I realized I’ve never allowed myself to cry openly for these people. And for the first time, I found myself wanting to cry.

When a loved one dies, those around the family left behind are expected to be strong to leave ample room for the most immediately impacted to experience their grief fully. Everyone can’t fall apart at the same time. At best, none of the practicalities would be seen to, at worst anarchy would ensue. So the rest of the black community holds it together while the deceased one’s mother, children, sister and wife are free to experience their full range of heartache.

I said surprised earlier because I expected to find among this group hippy white folks who saw racial injustice as scant more than an abstract, and these dead men as “cause celebre du jour” receptacles for their impotent white guilt. These people cried like any one of these men could have been their neighbor, their son’s best friend that they watched play in their yard when he was knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, their niece’s baby daddy. Seeing them truly shoulder the load of what’s going on today as if it is their own too finally gave me room to fully experience my own fear and sadness. Black folks need that so that we can get up everyday, continue seeing the injustices, and keep going without losing our minds all together. We need others to say “yes, we see you, and we suffer too. Your sorrow is our sorrow.”

To black folks, I want to say to you that  we have sincere white allies out here. Sometimes they don’t always know the right thing to say or to do, but they’re showing up. And they’re trying, they really are. These folks could have been at home helping their kids with their homework on a weeknight, ironing their clothes for work tomorrow, or just chillin’ on the couch watching reruns of Friends on tbs, but they were in the city braving the notoriously bad Elmwood Ave. parking trying to figure out what they need to know in order to do their share.

To white folks still wondering “what am I supposed to do?”, start with seeing that black struggles are American struggles, period. We are American citizens, we are your neighbors, your family, we are you. And if the state and the markets can find something as fickle as the color of our skin to justify denying us rights belonging to any and every citizen, begin to disengage yourself of the capricious fantasy that having the correct skin color and following all the rules just so keeps you categorically safe. During last decade’s mortgage crisis the banks and the entities that govern them didn’t care what color you were, but you mattered little enough for them to rob your house out from under you just the same.

Once you really, really see that we’re all in this together, what needs to be done next will show itself to you. I promise.

Nuance and News

I interviewed revered African American newsman Roland Martin ahead of his February 27, 2018, Canisius College address. Martin put forth that mainstream news media only recognizes race as a factor when it is overt; “a hood, a burning cross, or mention of the ‘N’ word. They don’t even realize how nuanced it is. But black folks, we understand it quite well,” and as a result are able to provide more context where it is needed.

In the 80’s, when I still had the knees for it, I made my living selling door-to-door. In a South Buffalo neighborhood, a white kid bicycled past me and yelled “N—r!” His foot slipped off the pedal, stopping him within an arm’s length. “Oh, sorry,” he offered nervously while finding his balance, then rode on.

Buffalo business exec and politico Larry Quinn recently said “I don’t see the U.S. or our local governments having a built-in mission of discrimination… I think we have to get past the idea that there is a force in the country that wants to subjugate [blacks].” It isn’t too far-fetched to imagine that South Buffalo kid, today a middle management muckety-muck, when the agreed-upon diversity hiring goal between N.Y. and builders of South Buffalo’s SolarCity was lowered from 25% to 15%. No legislative edict here. Still, it takes a nuanced perspective to point out that blacks were used as a bargaining chip for a tax break, then that agreement was quietly abandoned. It would be disingenuous to insist my encounter with that young bicyclist was categorically unrelated.

In 1977, ABC premiered the series “Roots,” chronicling American slavery. Afterwards, WKBW asked “it’s eleven o’clock, do you know where your children are?”, and the opening news story was local reaction to the show. A white reporter sitting with a black family asked the very young son, “after watching this, if a white friend dropped his hat would you pick it up?” The boy thought for a moment, then hesitantly said, “… no.”

Really? That’s the story here? “Watch out Buffalo, it’s the 1965 Watts race riots all over again. Hide the forks and knives from your kitchen staff.” Did WKBW even have a black segment producer or reporter back then? What would that journalist have asked?

A memorial opened in Alabama in Spring 2018 making stark documentation of the lynchings of more than 4,000 blacks right here on American soil. Once again, the media coverage of this event was way too slanted towards how difficult and uncomfortable the installation is for the area’s white people. There is an unbroken line between slavery, lynchings, and the 2012 Florida episode where white Michael Dunn shot ten times into a car full of black teens for playing their music too loud and it takes black media to draw it. Playing their music would be today’s equivalent of the past’s go-to, “he looked at a white woman.” Not acquiescing to their obvious place in the power hierarchy at Dunn’s first command made the teens today’s equivalent of “troublesome negroes.” Minutes after the incident, resting assured in his impunity, Dunn was at home having pizza. Given that the first jury came back a hung jury, this installation is the very answer to people who still wonder out loud “what’s slavery got to do with me today?” That’s the story here.

I am acquainted with Sylvester Monroe, who was most recently an editor at The Washington Post. I did work for him at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ebony magazine. He covered the O.J. Simpson trial for Time magazine, and appeared on ABC’s Nightline the night the verdict was announced. Years later he wrote a piece revisiting that infamous not guilty verdict explaining blacks weren’t unsympathetic about the loss of two lives. They were elated to witness the twist of a rich black man maneuvering the legal system to his own advantage.

Ethan Couch, 2013’s “affluenza teen” stole beer from Walmart, drove on a suspended license, killed four people and injured five others, and with the help of his rich parents was sentenced to only therapy and ten years probation. If whites could have stopped feeling so betrayed by the O.J. verdict for five minutes, they would have heard Monroe’s herald; “money trumps even the privilege of race. Unless you have lots of it, the legal system isn’t your friend either and black media has been trying to tell you that for decades.”

A (white) repo-man came for my very first new vehicle, a Suzuki Grand Vitara. I phoned the finance company to ask what happens next. “Report your car stolen,” they directed me, “whoever that guy was, he’s not with us.” Days later I was in a fog as police explained he was just some opportunistic independent car dealer who wrongly thought he could shake down the finance company for himself. They refused to acknowledge him so instead he traded my SUV to drug dealers for crack, no one knew where the car was, and the first thing out of my mouth was “wait, … white people do crack?”

Crack was being reported as an entirely black phenomenon then. My brain was stuck at that first seemingly fallacious premise, that my missing car had something to do with a white person smoking crack.

Fast forward to New York Senator Mark Golden’s January statement about today’s opioid epidemic. “It’s not a ghetto drug. It’s happening to doctors’ kids.” The governor of Maine opined in 2016 “these are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, … they sell their heroin, they go back home … Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave …” You heard it. Blacks, predators, incarceration. Whites, victims, Narcan, and money for treatment programs. Were it not for Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and other critiques like it, those statements would have gone as unchecked as someone calling Dr. Ben Carson “a credit to his race” in the 1950’s.

Roland Martin said white people, without black media representation, don’t recognize the subtleties and nuances of racism. What I’m hoping to get across to white audiences is the nuanced ways that racism cheats you too. If instead of locking black people up left and right during crack’s heyday we were investing in understanding more about the science of addiction, imagine how differently the wheel of fortune would be spinning for thousands of white people dying today of opiates. Imagine the amount of revenue NY state lost to SolarCity’s minority hiring tax bamboozle.

Black writers like me aren’t just out here “preaching to the choir.” We are trying to show all that if black lives don’t matter, under the right circumstances nobody’s life matters.

Black Panther: The Bigger Picture In The BIG Picture

The much-anticipated Marvel superhero movie Black Panther opened February 16, 2018, as an absolute cultural phenomenon in the U.S. What was driving all this unrivaled buzz?

Comic books are big, big business. “Eight-year-old boys with their allowance money aren’t what’s keeping these doors open,” says Emil Novak, owner of the 50-year-old Buffalo comic book stalwart Queen City Bookstore. “The young kids usually start with the cartoons, and they come in here when they’re teens with more money.”

Grown-up salaries like that of 27-year-old Anthony Pierce and veteran Buffalo police officer Roscoe Henderson III are what keep comic stores and franchise movies going.

Anthony believes adults like him are continually drawn in because “we see injustice in life, and identifying with these characters helps reinforce our sense of ourselves as protectors and leaders.” He attributes some of Black Panther’s mojo to “a lot of mystery surrounding this character. Everybody knows everything about Batman and Superman, there is still so much to discover here.”

“Besides,” Anthony reminds us, “the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise has already put out seventeen other movies and all of them are amazing.”

Henderson has, at last count, somewhere around 20,000 comics, along with action figures and statuettes costing up to three hundred dollars a pop. Henderson’s been a fan dating back to third grade. In the right mood, he might even show you the Batman tattoo on his shoulder. “I took the bus to Queen City Bookstore’s old Bailey Avenue location every Wednesday as a boy.” Henderson notes that “comics have very mature storylines and sophisticated art. It is now a respected art form; some buy them for the artwork alone.” Henderson sits on the board of directors for the Albright Knox Art Gallery. As a black man from a humble East Buffalo upbringing, he feels it is noteworthy to acknowledge how his progression with comic books and its art has led him to a place where he can have influence over the diversity of exhibits being brought to the gallery.

It is no accident this film premiered in the middle of Black History Month and the timing was clearly not lost on black audiences. Around a hundred GoFundMe and Kickstarter campaigns sprung up across the country to cover the cost for children of color to see the movie in large groups. Officer Henderson puts it into perspective. “Marvel came out with the X-Men in the middle of the civil rights movement. Those characters were all about people who are different and how they were being treated.”

Budgets for Marvel movies tend to range in the neighborhood of $200 million dollars. Black Panther is the first Marvel heroes movie with that kind of firepower behind it with a black lead and mostly black cast. It would be disingenuous to talk about this movie outside of that context. Barely fifty years ago white pop star Petula Clark almost had to go to battle with her sponsor, Chrysler, over having touched Harry Belafonte’s arm during the taping of her TV show. It was considered potentially an affront to American audiences to show a black man such public parity as to touch him. “I’d like to see white kids in Black Panther Halloween costumes,” says a black Buffalo fan, “that would show me we are truly moving forward culturally.”

Dr. Tribetta Spires is a Cheektowaga veterinarian. In her early thirties, she is a gamer (Starcraft, Diablo 3), and a buff for the card game sensation “Magic: The Gathering.” Her foray into the world of comic book heroes began with the HBO animated series “Spawn,” a character which also bred a movie starring a black actor in a superhero lead role (Michael Jai White, but in head-to-toe makeup). For Dr. Spires, having a black lead and cast “gives me someone to identify with, immersing myself into the storyline more.”

But why is this so important? What is that tiny bridge of connection lacking with other characters? Dr. Spires perfectly bottom-lines black America’s juggernaut of enthusiasm behind this film.

The presence of more black characters “makes it more normal for that to be ok. From then on it will be easier for white people to be able to say ‘that was a good movie’ and not have to see white faces in order for it to be considered mainstream.”

The implications are far-reaching. For example, names like Peter, Bruce, and Diana are considered “normative” in our culture. If you Google “resumes, black names,” you’ll easily find study after study showing that DeShawn Johnson’s uniformly equivalent resume to Allison Stewart’s is often as much as half as likely to get a callback for an interview. In a world where names like T’Challa, N’Gassi and Okoye have been associated with people who are wise, rich, loyal and scientific, a Chief Finance Officer named DeShawn (or Tanisha, or Shivansh Patel Singh) could be as normative as, say, a woman firefighter.

It might be stretching it a bit to say the movie has consanguinity with Buffalo because its star, Chadwick Boseman, was here shooting the film “Marshall” only a year and a half ago. Black Panther has produced its own minor celebrity, though, in 23-year-old Anthony Johnson. While living in suburban Atlanta in 2016, he answered a casting call for extras on Facebook. They needed children, waiters, and “Tourist #2” types. Having learned a few martial arts fighting moves as a kid, Anthony stood out. He also convincingly remembered just enough about handling “kali sticks” and a “bo staff.” After a successful audition, Anthony shaved his head and stepped out of the wardrobe and makeup trailer as a Wakandan warrior. “It was very surreal,” Anthony recalled. He shot for nearly six days. “When people find out you’ve been a part of this movie, it gives you a small sense of fame, so that’s a bonus.”