Not sure I’ve ever been more proud of being a native Western New Yorker and UB graduate than I was on Friday after seeing the pictures of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors in Buffalo, N.Y. demonstrating against police brutality. Watching students and faculty from the University at Buffalo’s health sciences college protesting in their lab coats and reminding us racism is a public health problem was very powerful.
However, it also raised one question I have for some people who are protesting around the nation.
Why do people who carry signs that say “All Lives Matter” choose to stand on the OPPOSITE side of the street from those supporting Black Lives Matter?
If one truly believes ALL LIVES MATTER shouldn’t we all be standing together on the same side of the street?
Photo of Black Lives Matter protest in Gillette, Wyoming from gillettenewsrecord.com.
Buffalo, N.Y. has long and convoluted history of civil protest and unrest. I was ‘coming of age’ as an adolescent in 1968 when people took to the streets to protest segregation and police brutality in WNY.
Hearing racist words as a child lit something up inside me at an early age. The irrationality of racism that was quite evident in 1968 is one reason I grew into the loud, foul-mouthed person I am today. I guess I should be thankful… but the rest of the world has paid the price, especially my husband :)
Most native WNYers are the sons and daughters of immigrants of all colors and nationalities. The loss of manufacturing jobs and its less than-ideal climate kept Buffalo from growing much since the 1960s and likely one of the reasons why our WNY culture appears to be simultaneously progressive and regressive.
I remember my Grandmother telling me what it was like in the area around Ridge Road in Lackawanna after arriving in America in 1904 to start a new life with her husband and infant son at the tender age of sixteen.
Grandma told me about how immigrants formed micro-communities around Ridge Road. She said she could walk six blocks and hear three or four different languages being spoken as she went along.
She often told me about how these neighborhoods were great for transitioning to life in a new country, but she also talked about how they sometimes fostered ill will for various reasons.
The type of segregation that evolved from seeking out people who speak the same language ended up hurting the progress of integrating people from various backgrounds in the long run. Though my Grandmother did not have much in the way of a formal education, she was a very wise old woman. She shared her concerns about how our country would fare in the long run.
These were the kind of ‘fairy tales’ I heard at bedtime by this wonderful Grandmother who raised me. By the time 1968 rolled around (she died in 1973) we had many long talks and she often shared her reasons for fleeing her homeland because of political unrest.
My Grandmother’s version of “Coming to America” was as funny as the Eddie Murphy movie at times. Her stories about the “good old days” were inspiring but also tragic. She laughed about the times friends speaking different languages tried to learn to speak English. But she also said they clung together because they couldn’t speak English and were fearful of people whose language they didn’t understand.
Recalling her stories made me realize Buffalo has a unique opportunity to harness some of that good old fashioned wisdom poured into us by our ancestors. We can be the example how communities of people from places all over the world can come together and find a way to speak the same language. And maybe even learn to love each other.
But to get there requires not only opening our hearts and our minds… but more so our ears. In order to truly understand someone else’s language, we must have enough empathy to literally get inside the pain they experience. We must get outside ourselves and our defensiveness. And we must learn to accept we are all imperfect in our own way.
Buffalo was born into existence on the backs of immigrants looking for a better way of life… mostly from European countries. Our ancestors weren’t forced onto boats to land in a strange place like African Americans, who were then bought and sold like cattle.
In Buffalo, African Americans were welcomed and assisted across the border to Canada and freedom during the Civil War era. I spent my youth next to a home with underground tunnels that led to a creek bed where African Americans traveled to get to reach their destination across the border. Those tunnels haunt me to this day.
Bottom line, Buffalo has the opportunity to be leaders supporting African Americans once again. We can be an example for the rest of the nation just like we were during the Civil War. However, to do so will require the same two skills my Grandma said helped her learn to speak English. Keep your mouth shut and listen.
Editor’s babble: Thanks for allowing me to share these words with you. I promised Granny I’d keep her spirit alive by sharing her wisdom with anyone willing to listen. You can also find me blabbing on Twitter @RobynMundyWYO.