By the time the white people showed up on Sunday, the rain had stopped. The food line for the needy that once snaked around Chilly Waters barber shop had significantly shortened. Buffalo police no longer needed to direct traffic to protect the steady flow of mourners bringing flowers, cards and trinkets memorializing the 10 lives lost at Tops Market, the community’s only supermarket, a week earlier. The local chapter of Black Lives Matter was long gone, as were the sorority passing out feminine hygiene products and the teen volunteers.
Had someone unfamiliar with Buffalo’s demographics ventured to the site of this makeshift community memorial over the past seven days, they might have left with the impression that Buffalo was a majority Black city. However, as someone who has covered these kinds of tragedies – from Freddie Gray to George Floyd, Charleston to Charlottesville – I can assure you that this noticeable lack of white presence in the aftermath of Black tragedy is not unique.
So, on Sunday, when carloads of white mourners descended upon the makeshift community memorial with hymnals to sing from and to pay their respects, the Black residents of Buffalo’s East Side stood shoulder to shoulder with the visitors from the place where well-stocked grocery stores are not a luxury and listened to the prayers and plaintive testimonies about “healing”. They were grateful for the solidarity because they had no idea what was actually happening.
This is how the forgetting begins.
This week marks the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. I remember the outpouring of grief, the promises of change and the performative display of solidarity after the white people showed up. Two years later, we are still waiting for police reform and a much-anticipated “racial reckoning”. When it comes to Black lives, apparently “healing” is synonymous with forgetting.
Whenever the loss of Black life is tragic enough to be deemed newsworthy, there is an all-too predictable order of operations that comes before the forgetting. Whether the death dealer is a law enforcement officer, a mentally ill “loner” or a far-right extremist, the path to cleansing our national palate is always the same. The process usually begins with the perfunctory offering of their condolences. After announcing their sorrow “for your loss”, there comes the customary moment of silence. The final step of the healing process cannot begin until the white people show up.
When the white people showed up, Grady Lewis had not slept for more than two hours at a time since the terrorist attack. The day before the massacre, Lewis confronted the shooter and asked why he was suspiciously lurking around the Tops grocery store. “When I saw him going out of the exit, the ancestors said to me: ‘He’s not supposed to be here; get him out of here”, Lewis told the Guardian. “So when I asked him what he was doing there, he didn’t really have any answers so I …”
Lewis was interrupted by the sound of a car backfiring, causing a reaction indicative of the stress that accompanies traumatic experiences. But Lewis is a practitioner of African spirituality. Lewis is a Black man in a poor Black neighborhood. So, when the white people showed up to offer their solidarity and solemn prayers, instead of counseling services and therapy, he and his residual trauma were left alone to forget.
Asked why he thought it was necessary to question a stranger, Lewis looked puzzled. “But this is my community,” he said. “I don’t know what you mean.”
While the constant refrain of “… but what about Black on Black crime?” may seem counterproductive to some, it is totally reasonable to anyone who covers incidents of white supremacy. The sororities, fraternities, church groups and community organizations who fight the violence and poverty in Black communities had been helping this community for days by the time white people showed up with their thoughts and prayers.
“My people are not processing; we’re numbing out,” said therapist Ashley Watson, who was surrounded by members of her teen organization, Real Talk. “We are disconnected. I have to do my decompressing, my screaming, my raging, my meditating, and my praying later because, right now, we don’t have time. By the end of this weekend, this could all die out. They know this is a food desert. They know there is a lack of a mental health infrastructure. But by the end of this weekend, they could return to not caring any more. I hope they won’t, but this is a unique situation.”
Donald King was comforted by the overwhelming sense of compassion. A former resident of the now-demolished Ellicott Mall housing development, he said he hoped it finally would create the opportunity to address white supremacy. Eleanore, another former Ellicott Mall resident, believed it might offer the chance for economic empowerment in the community. They both nodded in agreement as the neighborhood visitors prayed for unity, prosperity, equality and the courage to come together and have “the tough conversations in the wake of this unique tragedy”.
To be fair, when the white people showed up, Donald, Eleanore and I were already having a conversation about race. The two had already talked about the Buffalo of the 1970s, before their neighbors were displaced by private developers. When asked what they thought of the white people who were finally coming to pay respects, Donald said that he didn’t really know what it means.
“I actually hope they keep coming,” Eleanore said. “It’s time for everybody in Buffalo – the suburbs, the politicians, the people in the suburbs … all of them – to stop acting like this place doesn’t exist.”
Miss Trisha, a sharply dressed septuagenarian whose finest church hat stood out among the white parishioners, was elated when the white people showed up. Miss Trisha and I walked to the corner store across the street from the now-closed supermarket, next to the barbershop feeding the hungry, to buy some food.
Asked if she thought her fellow white parishioners would change her neighborhood for the better, Miss Trisha laughed. “I don’t know them people. They’d probably follow me around the store if I was over on the West Side. But we can’t treat them the way they treat us if we want things to change. Everybody is welcome here.”
When we emerged from the store, the area had quickly grown empty. Lewis sat alone under the tree where he’d witnessed the massacre. The DJ at Chilly Waters was playing KRS-One’s Love’s Gonna Get Ya. I pointed out to Miss Trisha that all white people were now gone.
“Well … I’m always gonna have faith,” Miss Trisha replied. “The bible says faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. You know what I mean, young man?”
I do not know what she means.
I have witnessed this phenomenon after too many “unique tragedies”. The anger and grief aftershock that follows funeral processions through Black communities is often tempered by a curious mix of hope, faith and patriotism. Maybe this is what is required to survive the constant barrage of death and discrimination that this country flings at Black human beings. It is possible that our collective sanity necessitates the hope that there is a sense of humanity buried somewhere deep in this nation’s soul – or that America even has a soul. Black people are hopeful enough to believe that the things that keep happening to us will stop happening to us. One day, the people who have always witnessed these things will suddenly have a change of hearts and minds. Perhaps this, our willingness to forgive this country’s trespasses against us, is our most endearing quality and our most tragic flaw.
Or maybe I’m just jaded because I’ve seen too many of these “unique tragedies”. It’s totally possible that this country will not forget about Buffalo the way it forgot about the Jena Six or Ferguson or Charlottesville or the 16th Street Baptist Church or the Lorraine Motel or Mother Emanuel or all the places still stained with Black people’s blood long after this nation has “healed”.
Two years ago, George Floyd was still alive. Perhaps he and the 10 people who became ancestors at Tops Market are all trying to speak to us.
Ask Grady Lewis.