February 2016


12angrymen feb2016I came across a chilling piece of data last night while reading last week’s Sunday NY Times (2/14/16) in an article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson: according to FBI statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every 3 1/2 days. Not shot, but actually killed.

That statistic –while horrifying — is more credible to me after watching a play this weekend based on the book (not the movie), 12 Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man in America. Using 3 actors who took on different characters, we heard how black men across the country, from New York to Washington, DC to LAX airport to Asheville, NC were stopped by the police on suspicion of “being black” and questioned, harassed, insulted and often beaten. In several instances, the men had their pants and underwear pulled down and were left naked, exposed to the public. For others, they told of feeling the cold butt of a gun on their bodies or seeing an officer place his/her hand on their gun during the encounter.  The men were both young and old, professional and working class, driving and walking. One was a former baseball MVP. Several were on the phone. One was at a playground watching his daughter and her friends playing and was approached because someone had called the police concerned that “a black man was in the park watching kids.”

The common threads in these stories were the fact that the men were black, not doing anything out of the ordinary, and they were approached by the police – who, shall we say, were less than friendly or helpful. The men weren’t angry when the police picked them out, though sometimes, but not always, they became angry during the course of the exchange. And lest you think these were one-off encounters, some of these men had been stopped multiple times.

As I watched this, I couldn’t help but wish the top brass in the NYPD and police departments around the country would spend 90 minutes of their weekend hearing these stories. Would it change the way they lead their police departments? How might it impact the ways they view and use racial profiling? The play’s run ended this weekend, but they’re hoping to raise funds to take it on tour. Perhaps until then, the book could be made mandatory reading for every new class of police officers. How might that spark some provocative conversations and perhaps even some soul searching?

Cringing through the production, I also thought of the psychological impact that such harassment has on all of us: those who are harassed, those who do the harassing (some of whom were women and/or black too), and those of us who love the harassed and/or the harassers. Dr. King reminds us that none of us are free until all of us are free. Furthermore, he warns: “if we succumb to the temptation to use violence…, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of terror.”  That is never more true now in America than it was 50 years ago when he uttered those words.

Lord, have mercy on us.

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cherie color 14feb2016Yesterday, I took my friend Cherie to lunch at the local diner. I first met Cherie 3 or 4 years ago when she began to appear on the benches in the mezzanine level of my subway station. One morning I sat down beside her and instead of dropping a dollar into her palm, I decided to offer her a conversation. Over a few weeks, we became “subway buddies.” She’d comment on my clothes, I’d ask how she was doing, and from time to time, I offered her food I was carrying — until one day after leaving her with the remains of my (very spicy) Thai dinner, she let me know very defiantly that she no longer wanted my leftover food. Fair enough. From then on, I occasionally gave her money but mostly just smiled, chatted, and even shook her hand at times, being mindful that folks with no home rarely experience physical touch. Cherie tends to disappear in the spring, summer, and fall, and several winters ago, she dropped out of sight all together. Late last year, she re-appeared, in the same spot where I first met her.

Recently I began to think about trying to get to know her a bit better by having a meal with her. On Saturday night, as I was heading out for the evening, I gave her $5 and encouraged her to get some soup. It was the coldest day of the year and I was concerned for her, and wondered what she planned to do to keep warm in the sub terrain of the station. I should have known better. The hot soup idea seemed intriguing but I could tell she had no intention of going to a diner. And since she had nowhere else to go, she planned to stay right there on her bench. I shuddered thinking about that, but as I ran for my train, I decided that if she was there when I came home from church the next day, I’d invite her to lunch.

When I asked her, she immediately shot back, “What’s the occasion?” Without hesitating, I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day.” She put her just-lit cigarette out, grabbed her bag, and declared, “OK, let’s go.”

We settled ourselves into a corner table @ the Hudson View Diner. She chose french toast, scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese. I had a farmer’s omelette with home fries. At first I asked her questions about her family and learned a few interesting facts: she was born in Cypress Hills, Queens, the 4th of 8 children; she doesn’t get along with her mother who now lives in East New York; her father’s birthday is Feb 15 (today); and she has a 37-year-old son who has a restaurant in Harlem which we talked about going to check out. “On me,” she insisted, “On me.” But she didn’t seem to want to continue making conversation so I stopped the questions and we ate the rest of our meal in silence.

When she was done, she looked around and said, “It’s really cozy in here. If I had a job and worked in here, it’s so cozy, I’d just want to go to sleep.” We laughed about that. She also thanked me heartily for lunch. After she’d ordered a second cup of coffee – as much to warm her up as to heat up her hands I suspect – we headed back out into the frigid afternoon. She tried unsuccessfully at two stores to buy loose filter cigarettes (“lucies”), and then I walked down back into the subway with her. She was heading to 42nd street to take care of something there — I couldn’t quite catch what and gave up after asking her 3 times. As I swiped her in, she slid up toward the turnstile, turned and kissed me (!), and then hurried off to catch her train.

Still stunned by her affection, I walked 10 brisk blocks home, musing about my most unexpected valentine’s day gift…

For someone with a Nigerian father, I have an unusual surname. Not only is my family name unAfrican and all together British but it’s also hyphenated. Hyhenated names, somewhat unusual in the U.S., are usually thought to be formed from the surnames of both parents. From time to time, people who know my background ask about my surname: ‘Brown-Peterside’. Perhaps because my mother is from Northern Ireland, they assume that ‘Brown’ is her maiden name and that ‘Peterside’ is from my father’s side of the family. That part is true, but our surname is a bit more interesting than that.

‘Brown’ is my grandfather’s first name. The tradition is that men on my father’s side of the family take their father’s first names and add them to ‘Peterside’ (the family name) to create a new surname with each generation. My father’s first name was ‘Gally’, short for ‘Galbraith’, so technically my brothers should be: ___ ‘Gally Peterside.’ However, they are not ___ ‘Gally Petersides,’ they are ‘Brown-Petersides.’ The reason  for this is that my father — as a tribute to his father, (Brown), who mortgaged his modest home to be able to afford to send Papa to the best secondary school in Nigeria in the early 1950s (King’s College), — added a hyphen and legalized ‘Brown-Peterside.’ So, we have become a new branch of the Peterside family.

Every Peterside — by birth or by marriage — can trace their ancestry to a compound on a small island in the Delta region of Nigeria, called Opobo Town. For most of my childhood, my grandfather, Brown Shoo Peterside, was the Chief of Peterside compound. He died in 1978 and was succeed by Dr. Peterside, a London-trained physician and the first in the family.  A few weeks ago, Dr. Peterside passed away at the age of 97. This weekend in Opobo, he is being buried in a 10 day ceremony with all the requisite traditions including a regatta of boats that will bring the casket from the mainland to the island with much pomp and circumstance. (Unfortunately, I was not able to go to bear witness to these events.) At some point soon, following Dr. Peterside’s burial, the family elders will select another chief for life.

You may be wondering what the origin of the name ‘Peterside’ is. It’s quite unique I believe in that it’s not Peterson or Petersen which are quite common. Our ancestral home, Opobo, is in the south of Nigeria on the Atlantic coast. When the British, our former colonizers, entered Nigeria this way, many generations back a number of families in this area — not just ours — adopted British-sounding names. It is believed that our original name was Biriye but no one seems to recall how or when the switch to ‘Peterside’ actually occurred.

So there you have it: a British family name long adapted from a Nigerian one and a lasting tribute to a (grand) father who made costly sacrifices.

Below is a statue of my great great grandfather (Sunju Sima Peterside) atop his grave. This monument sits in front of the home where my grandfather (Brown Shoo Peterside) is buried, in the living room.

sunju peterside statue opobo

I love most sports. And I love sports movies though I don’t find myself going to movies much anymore. However, 10 days ago, when I heard that ‘Concussion’ was about a Nigerian pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, (played by Will Smith – who never did sound anything like a Nigerian/couldn’t Hollywood have cast an actor with Nigerian roots in this role??) who identifies a degenerative brain disease, now known as CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that is linked to the death of a growing number of football players, I decided this was one movie I should make the effort to see.

I’m so glad I did, though on this Superbowl Sunday, I feel even more conflicted than ever about this national sport. It’s similar to the way I felt after watching ‘Supersize Me’: I can never walk past a McDonalds again without thinking long and hard about how awful that food (eaten in great excess) can be for us…

It turns out I no longer have a working TV and have not been invited to any Superbowl parties, so my coverage of the big game will be limited to the NYTimes and my local radio station, WNYC (tomorrow morning to hear the results). If I was a real die-hard, I suppose I could follow the game on line somewhere play- by-play. Still, I realize I’m actually glad that I’m free from watching the many collisions that will no doubt accompany tonight’s game.

Yes, there is beauty and grace in this sport too, and the thrill of competition, and the challenge of strategy in advancing the ball down the field through passing & dodging & tackling & catching. But it would be hard to enjoy all this without also thinking about the billion dollar entity that football has become. The 30 second ads alone cost a staggering $5 million, that’s $166,666 per second (source: NYTimes, Sports section 2/7/16, p1). Yikes! It would also be difficult to set aside the reaction of the NFL organization to Dr. Omalu’s discovery and how as an organization, they sought to undermine his findings and set up a questionable Commission to cover up what they had long known. There is a staggering amount of money tied to power in this business: According to Forbes, as reported in Sept 2015, the average NFL team is worth $2 billion, up 38% from the previous year.

So tonight as the nation gathers around TV screens to celebrate the 50th Super Bowl, let’s not forget that as the hits pile up and concussions ensue, we may also be witnessing the acceleration of one or more of those athletes’ brains degenerating. CTE can only be confirmed posthumously but let’s not be naive about the fact that it has its antecedents in events such as these which we so readily glorify.

 

 

arthur ashe wimbeldon1975 tony triolo sports illusArthur Ashe died 23 years ago today at the age of 49. If he were still alive, he’d be 72. The cause of death was pneumonia, an opportunistic infection his immune system developed, ravaged by the HIV virus. He received HIV from a blood transfusion that he was given during heart surgery in the early 1980s. This was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before all donated blood was carefully screened for HIV and well before there were medications that could enable people (at least in those in the West)  to live full lives treating AIDS as a manageable, chronic infection.

Arthur was my first real hero. I learned to play tennis @ the age of 15 in Nigeria when a Nigerian coach approached the PE teacher at our American school offered to teach tennis to anyone who was interested. I was one of three who stepped forward to learn. To this day, and despite a chronically injured body, playing tennis remains one of my great joys and passions. I grew up knowing that Arthur was the first (and so far only) black man to win Wimbledon (1975) beating Jimmy Connors for the first and only time in his career which was a huge upset. He also won the US Open (1968) and the Australian Open (1972). On the court, he was known to have a fiery serve-and-volley game (sadly, all but gone among today’s players).  As the only black player at the time in an all white country club sport and growing up in segregated Richmond, he learned from a young age to conduct himself both on and off the court with the utmost integrity and respect. The likes of Zina Garrison, James Blake, Mal Washington, Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys – and the list goes on – stand on the shoulders of Arthur.

I never had the privilege of seeing Arthur play tennis. He retired over a decade before I came to the US. But on one occasion, I did see Arthur up close. I was at the Wimbledon Women’s final in 1990, sharing a single ticket with a friend. I watched the first set: Zina Garrison lost that one 4-6 to Martina Navratilova, and then I came out of Centre Court to give my ticket to my friend so he could go in to watch the second set. Arthur was milling around outside. Of course I recognized him, looked at him, and he looked at me, but that was it. I didn’t know at the time he was living with HIV and that he had less than three years to live. I wish I’d had the courage to shake his hand and thank him for all that he’d contributed to tennis, but I was too shy (and frankly dumbstruck) to seize the moment. I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of anything to say, so I kept moving and that opportunity passed.

Arthur was far more than an outstanding tennis player who made history. He was also a scholar (compiling a 3 volume work on the history of African American athletes called ‘A Hard Road to Glory’); a writer (he was just finishing his memoir ‘Days of Grace’ when he passed away so it was published posthumously; an activist (demonstrated against apartheid and got arrested for protesting the treatment of Haitian immigrants); a non-conformist (the first black man to be given a visa to play in a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa), a mentor (founded what is now called the National Junior Tennis League to introduce city kids to tennis and the skills to that go along with being a upright citizen of your community); a philanthropist (he started the Arthur Ashe AIDS Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to contribute to research that would limit the impact of this disease); and a recruiter (he plucked Yannick Noah from the tennis courts of Cameroon who later became the second black man  – after Arthur –  to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 1983). He was also a father (he died when his daughter was 6, sadly, just as his mother had passed away when he was 6), husband (married to the esteemed photographer Jeanne Moutousamy), friend, widely respected colleague, and beloved son of Richmond, VA. Thousands filed past his open casket when he lay in state there for two days before his funeral on Feb 10 and 5,000 were thought to attend the memorial service @ Cathedral St John the Divine on Friday the 13th.

I was one of them. There was a snow storm that day and the city was shrouded in a blanket of thick, wet flakes. I remember being cold inside that Cathedral; large old churches like that are notoriously difficult to heat. But I was warmed by the love and affection countless friends and colleagues had for Arthur and how well, it seemed, he’d lived his all too short life. Billie Jean King had been a commentator with him @ Wimbledon and she wore a purple blazer – one of the Wimbledon colors – in solidarity with him. His best friend and lawyer, Donald Dell, told us how Arthur was as a solid a person away from the publicity as his celebrity status  had led us to believe. I was always impressed that Arthur used his platform to speak (and act) out against injustice and for those less fortunate than he. He remained a man with simple tastes, understated to the end, but his legacy as a Renaissance man lives on and for that I am grateful.

Hallelujah Arthur Ashe, hallelujah! (Courtesy of Andrew Young who married Arthur and Jeanne. This is how he concluded his Eulogy @ Arthur’s funeral)

(Photo credit: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)