Putting Up the Signal: What Pittsburgh and America Need Most are more Black Heroes

By September 9, 2020 2 Comments

Dannielle Brown (Current Photo by Kate Hagerty)

By Caitlyn Hunter
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

Two weeks ago was supposed to be a normal Monday…

I woke up, made my usual latté, took a bite out of my lemon-thyme glazed donut, and mused over how wonderful my white boyfriend is. I turn to social media, look for something to inspire me, instead of remind me of the ways in which I, as a Black woman, constantly feel vulnerable, and then like a firestorm of murder hornets,  in the span of seconds I see of the error of my mistake in checking my Instagram feed:

Alone I watch as a Black man walks away from the police towards his car. He pulls up his pants, perhaps still reeling from adrenaline, opens the door and a police officer grabs his white shirt.  Before he can even enter the car safely before he can tell his children who are sitting in the back seat that everything will be ok before he can tell the police he was just trying to stop two women fighting before the police can even identify their “assailant,” another Black man is read as a threat and his justice for being a good samaritan equates to seven shots fired into his back at close range.

I watch the video fifteen times from different threads of friends who think they are helping by sharing the video without providing a proper trigger warning. Again and again, I continue to be forced to witness Black violence that has historically been fetishized. In lynchings, white mobs would castrate, dismember, and pluck body parts of victims as souvenirs. Now, we have videos, photographs, and live feeds. The souvenirs continue and we continue to be traumatized by it. Thankfully this man survived. He survived in spite of police brutality. He survived a system that was designed for him to die. His name is Jacob Blake.   

A few evenings later I watched another video from Kenosha. A man walks calmly onto the paved blackened streets, wearing a green shirt, his trucker hat turned backwards, as if he’s hunting for pheasants. A crowd of protesters disperses as you see people run towards the shooter, now an identifiable white man, where skateboarders try to disarm him. They swarm kicking him to the ground, but it’s no use. He shoots another in the stomach. Another in the face. People run and the cops around them look onwards. One hands him a bottle of water, another salutes him. This man, who has taken the life of two people on camera, is allowed to leave the scene and at the time, is regarded as a hero.

In 1889, a Black grocer named Thomas Moss defended his right to own a grocery store that sold solely to the Black community. When his white store rival William Barrett rallied other men in the community to shut him down, Barrett and his men were met with a melee of bullets from three Black men whose heroism tried to protect their community. Four days later, the men came back, now deputized by the police department, and not only lynched Thomas Moss and his colleagues, but burned down the store. 131 years later, Kyle Rittenhouse proved that white men still can enact violence under the guise and support of martial law.

In the span of a week, I once again felt helpless. Like most people of color, I am fluent in the language of violence. I don’t need to contextualize it, I live it and this life at times, can be exhausting. No matter how much I marched, no matter how much I argued or screamed I am unable to escape the fact that Black people in this country continue to suffer. Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain’s murderers still have not been arrested. Black children, like Jacob Blake’s still witness violence in relation to the color of their skin. Every day I am reminded that history will continue to repeat itself, and I struggle in the revelation that nothing has changed. Racism in this country is the true invisible pandemic and when people argue that “all lives matter” the narrative can’t be farther from the truth.

It had been days of crying. Days of panic attacks and fear of leaving my apartment. Days of trying to maintain some modicum of normalcy where the Coronavirus has taught many of us how to sit in fear alone. Being Black is a growing pain that cannot ever fully be articulated. When you see someone get shot, when you hear a Black woman cry for the son she cannot get back, when you post something about race and Black joy on social media as a form of self-expression only to be applauded by white friends and allies, it can all be exhausting. Instead, we look for heroes.

On the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. telling us that he had a dream, the days before were living proof that his dream is far from realized. When people try to use his methodology of nonviolence, they tend to overlook the very fact that he too was shot publicly.

They tend to forget how we as a nation publicly mourned because of another fallen hero. The moment that I decided to go to the march in Washington I didn’t think about the risk of COVID-19. I thought about Kenosha. I thought about the anger, the fear, and hurt welling up inside of me. When my mother pleaded for me to reconsider my only response was “this is something I have to do. If I don’t go, I will regret it for the rest of my life.”

As I stood in the crowds of thousands I listened as the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others spoke about their loved ones, the ones who we call our fallen heroes. I stood in a sea of solidarity. In a beautiful mosaic of Blackness, I walked and marched with a family of strangers who all cried out Black Lives Matter. The day was not one of unrest. It was a reminder of why people like me fight in the best ways that we know how. It reminded me that not all fights take place in the streets, they first take place in our hearts. On the bus ride back to Pittsburgh feeling reinvigorated, a notification came across my phone: Chadwick Boseman, age 43, dead after his battle with colon cancer. And again, the pain seeps in.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther

If you are anything like me, you probably rewatched Black Panther. You shed a tear at the moment where T’Challa dies and then miraculously comes back to life to save his country. But there is no coming back. We have lost another Black hero. A man who taught us that you could be Jackie Robinson, you could be James Brown, you could save the world all while being uncompromising in your Black identity.

What made Black Panther so successful was that it showed us the power of Blackness that instances of police brutality, lives spent in impoverished communities, experiences of systemic racism, and unparalleled incarceration rates often try to overshadow. It gave children an opportunity to see themselves as leaders, as saviors, and most importantly as having worth and equality among gods and giants. Now, in the death of Chadwick Boseman I ask who now will be our Avenger?

In Pittsburgh, I’ve been fortunate to witness heroism take on so many forms.

Last week I watched a video of a Duquesne University student struggling on campus. She holds her chest, her hand clenched over her heart and kneeling on the ground she hunches over grasping to find her breath. Mother and activist Dannielle Brown walks over to her. Sits with her and asks her questions. As others around them scream for campus police to help, Brown calmly asks the student if she has allergies, gives her water, and puts her hand on the girl’s shoulder to comfort her. Moments later police arrive holding batons behind their backs and upon realizing that this student is not an affiliated activist, decided to help her. Brown did not help this student as a publicity stunt. She did it because she is a mother and saw someone in need. Despite now being on Day 68 of her hunger strike this was a woman who put a child’s needs above her own and rushed in when someone needed saving.

This Labor Day I watched through social media as activist Nique Craft fell under the microscope. In the span of a 30-second video, you watch them take a drink of a white woman’s beer as other activists look on and comment. They finish the beer and walk away and then you see another protester knocking off a glass and it crashes to the ground.

The video has since garnered international attention where the title of a Daily Mail video says “BLM Protesters Harass Diners in Pittsburgh Restaurant.” What you don’t see is that moments prior Craft was being attacked by three white men who screamed a slew of racial epithets at them and other marshals. You don’t hear the white male patron calling them and other activists disgusting, an embarrassment, and finally asking them “what would MLK do?” According to Nique “I’m not that kind of person. I hate that 10 seconds of me on film. And now I’m getting chastised for drinking this poor white lady’s beer. She offered it. She even said ‘go ahead, drink my beer. I will buy you another one.’ And I was like ‘Sick, but I got to go.’” While many know Nique by their long silvery-white braids, their love of Hamm’s beer, their loud rally cry, and their impromptu activist yoga sessions, what you don’t know about are the countless death and rape-related threats made against Nique for simply trying to be an advocate for their community. They insist on being seen and heard, something which many authorities in Pittsburgh seek to vilify. 

Tactics like these exemplify the ways in which the narratives around Black lives are circulated and often lost in translation. While we all know of Rosa Parks, very few of us know of Claudette Colvin who was the first Black woman to be arrested for refusing her bus seat to a white woman mostly because she was dark-skinned and pregnant. We all know of Malcolm X and MLK but few of us know of Ella Jo Baker, the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. What other Black heroic narratives have been altered or erased?

In a time where many question what is the purpose of the Black Lives Matter movement, I want to remind you to look for heroes. Look at the people in your community who fight to make the world a bit safer. Look to the people with bullhorns and picket signs. Look to your neighbors and friends, because just existing while Black is its own heroic endeavor. Remember the people who hold book drives giving out free children’s books of people of color as main characters. The people who tirelessly walk among Black communities registering people to vote. The people who serve you drinks and meals when you want some semblance of normalcy. The people who build playgrounds to create more moments of Black joy. Celebrate the teachers and nurses who leave their homes despite the risks of infection.

We all have our heroes. For me, it is my great-grandfather who was born into slavery only to be freed and move to Pittsburgh to make a better life for his family. It is my grandfather who was the first Black machinist in the Homestead Steel Mill. It is my grandmother who was one of the first Black female bank managers in Pittsburgh. It is my father who was the first Black student to attend my former high school. It is my mother who has been the first Black woman to be a dean, a college president, and countless other firsts. It is my best friend who stood up for the people of color in her company and argued for a Diversity and Inclusion committee where Juneteenth is now a recognized company holiday. It is the countless people in and out of my life who have helped me find some comfort and pride in my own construction of Black identity.

I often wonder who will be the heroes of my future. My godchild is named Justice; a name that holds so much weight for all of those who’ve fallen because of a lack of it. Since the pandemic we Facetime regularly playing games of peek-a-boo, as I watch this beautiful child grow before my eyes through a screen. Her name, her very existence is tantamount to possibility. Between each textured curl on her head, there is change waiting to spring into action. In a time where I often am emotionally and mentally struggling, I look forward to her phone calls. This time is no different as on the screen before me Justice is wearing the green onesie I bought her that says, Little Neighbor. I ask her “Justice, how are you doing?” She smiles, saliva gurgling between newly formed baby teeth, and says “good” as she claps proudly of herself in the ways most toddlers are wont to do. In her smile I see a future. There is hope, and pure unabashed joy. In her, I am reminded that not all heroes need to wear capes or a mask. Sometimes they are the people who remind us that not every day will be so tough. Without Justice, there can be no peace.


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