Dissing Juneteenth

What’s Wrong With The Buffalo News

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 6/27/02

            Juneteenth, a celebration of African-American history and the emancipation of American slaves, is my favorite Buffalo festival.  Ours is the third largest Juneteenth celebration in the country.  It puts us on the map.  The parade is quirky and full of personality – with children’s drill and step teams making up half the parade.  It’s a welcome relief from the jingoistic militarism and ersatz patriotism that’s been both homogenizing and ruining parades by the score.  At Juneteenth there’s live music, dancing, poetry slams, children’s tents, a first rate step competition, an ever-evolving African crafts market and fantastic food (It’s worth going just for the Kirkland family bar-b-que).  I like it so much, this year I invited my five-year-old nephew and my ten-year-old niece to accompany me to Juneteenth.

Where are the White Folks?

            But there’s something weird about Juneteenth – it’s the near-absolute absence of white folks.  I’d like to say it’s inexplicable, but it’s not.  Buffalo is what demographers refer to as a “hyper-segregated” metropolitan area.  We’re firmly planted among the top ten most segregated cities in the country.  White people make an annual Easter pilgrimage to the Broadway Market.  Otherwise, they steer clear of the East Side.

            True, it’s their loss.  By avoiding the East Side they’re missing out on some of Buffalo’s best restaurants and shopping.  But it also poisons our city.  This impromptu boycott of the East Side undermines struggling inner-city businesses while strengthening a culture of segregation and racism. 

            When my sister-in-law in Central New York told her next-door neighbor about the family’s plans to go to Buffalo to celebrate Juneteenth, the neighbor, a Grand Island native with strong family ties to Western New York, warned her that “Juneteenth is no place to take children – it’s not a family event.”  To my sister-in-law’s credit, she just looked at her neighbor in a confused manner and packed her kids off to Buffalo.  Juneteenth is not for kids?  What a ludicrous thing to say.  Juneteenth is all about kids.  It’s far and away the most kid-friendly parade in Buffalo.  Absent are the drunks that mar Delaware Avenue parades with their brawls and aggressive behavior.  Also absent are the hordes of cotton candy and fried dough hucksters peddling sugar and grease to children.  In their place are interactive events for children to participate in, a crowd that understands the event and is there to celebrate, and a plethora of ethnic foods prepared by a host of local chefs.

Liberal Racists

            So what’s this shit about Juneteenth not being a family event?  Where’s this coming from?  The answer is painfully simple.  It goes beyond ignorance.  It’s racism pure and simple.  The hordes of quacking ducks that populate the Allentown “Art” festival (“quack quack quack, you lock the car? quack quack, got the credit card?, quack  quack, oh those look at those shepherd’s hooks, quack quack quack…”) don’t venture east of Main Street.  Juneteenth is a black event.  The East Side is where black people live.  White racists avoid black people.  Many deny their own racism, calling themselves “liberal.”  Their deeds, however, speak louder than their mouths.  Their actions support a segregated society.  There will be no healing until people confront their own racism.  Given her words, it’s clear to me that my sister-in-law’s neighbor is a racist.

            In a segregated society, people often don’t meet folks who are different from themselves.  Locked away in the prisons of their own homes, white people in segregated communities often rely on the mass media for a window into what they think is black culture.  What they often get, however, is a corporate bastardization, more resembling a minstrel show than authentic black culture.  With time, they come to believe that the world of pimps, hos and ganstas they see on TV and in the movies is real.

            Then there’s the Buffalo News.  A monopoly daily paper in a segregated city should try to build bridges rather than strengthen walls.  When it comes to race relations, however, the Buffalo News is still a wall builder.  Last year I criticized The News for failing to highlight Juneteenth in its Gusto entertainment section.  The entertainment editor, Mark Sommer, later explained that Juneteenth is an annual event, not a unique one-time special event, hence it couldn’t get cover-story coverage every year.  We argued back and forth about this, but fair enough, Sommer was following a rational formula, even if I disagreed with his priorities.  This year Juneteenth made the cover of Gusto, with a series of good articles in the entertainment section as well.  Sommer and his staff deserve praise for giving good quality coverage to one of Buffalo’s best annual events.  I’d be quite happy if the story ended here.  But it doesn’t.

Phantom Face Off

            On Sunday, June 16th – day two of the Juneteenth festival, the Buffalo News, on the front page of the City section, ran a Juneteenth story under the heading, “Motorcycles make merry at Juneteenth fest.”  Whatever goodwill and community building Sommer and his staff did with their entertainment section articles was quickly undone, probably unbeknownst to Sommer, by the City Desk. 

Their story didn’t begin with the food, the music, the children or the dance or poetry competitions.  It began like this: “More than a dozen motorcycles kicked up dirt, smoke and dust as they burned rubber, making thick black marks on the pavement of Best Street while leading the parade…”  Paragraph two was about two motorcyclists “facing off in the middle of the street with their front tires bumping each other, holding up the parade…”  Paragraph three purportedly quoted a parade participant who explained, “They’re at war with each other, just playing around.”   For three quarters of The News’  readers, who, according to statistics, probably won’t read beyond paragraph three, that’s the whole story – end of story.

The story, written by Angelica Morrison, painted a stereotypical picture of the East Side – one dominated by conflict and confrontation.  This story of bikers dusting parade watchers as they burned rubber, while in no way describing the myriad events of Juneteenth, serves to reinforce the ill-informed decision thousands of  Buffalonians made when they decided not to come to Juneteenth.  With three paragraphs of mis-information, both Juneteenth and the East Side were brutally dismissed as mired in chaos. 

Reality Check

It’s time for a reality check.  The conflict Morrison opens her article with never took place.  Yes, motorcycles led the Juneteenth parade.  But they were not in any way “holding up the parade.”  To the contrary, their pace was a bit too quick.  Hence, the police and parade marshals held up the lead bikes for a few minutes so the parade ranks could tighten before they approached the waiting crowds.  Yes, the bikes circled around while waiting, maybe even bumping wheels, but there was no conflict of any sort in these Shrineresque antics.  And there was no dust storm.  This was a non event.  Morrison was no more than a voyeur, watching guys waiting for the parade to begin. 

It’s standard journalistic practice to pyramid a story – reporters are well aware of the short attention spans of their readers and try to upload the most important facts of a story near the beginning.  With this in mind, Morrison’s reportage is truly bizarre.  But more importantly, it’s fear mongering as well.   


Dr. Michael I. Niman’s previous ArtVoice columns are archived at http://mediastudy.com.