Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Love You, Black & Gold": An Open Love Letter to Pittsburgh

View of Downtown Pittsburgh from the West End Overlook
by Marcel L. Walker (that's me, folks!)
LAST WEEK I attended an event at The Union Project in Highland Park in commemoration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It was wonderful. The level of community participation was high, and by all accounts the event has grown bigger, better, and more popular with every one of its fourteen years. There was discussion, creative activities, singing, and food, all of which were shared in the spirit of fellowship. It was a truly uplifting event.

I participated in the love-letter writing activity. The organizers provided letterhead adorned with different quotes from Dr. King and gave us a prompt, written directly to the attendees, as an example of what we could write. The sample letter thanked us, told us that we were loved, and encouraged us to keep the world around us in mind as we moved forward. We were allowed to write to anyone we wanted to, which was surprisingly daunting. One of the organizers explained that an earlier participant had written a letter to the 1960's, which inspired me. This could be more abstract than just telling a single person how much I loved them. And it could be bigger.

Not wanting to be outdone, I chose to write a love letter to the City of Pittsburgh. The writing went on for two-and-a-half pages and only stopped when the food was served. What follows is a slightly-expanded upon version of that letter, which was debuted at the PAGE open reading series last night in Lawrenceville.

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Dear Beloved Pittsburgh –

I really do love you. I want you to know that. I’ve known you my entire life, and I know you better than any other place I could hope to keep company with. It’s part romantic love – despite our age difference – and part agape love, yet it’s all sincere. You run through me at least as much as I run through you. So this is an attempt to put into words how I feel about you.

It’s simple: I love you…but this relationship has become complicated, or perhaps conflicted. I need to address a couple of things with you, and this involves a little tough love, but it always comes from the heart.

I love you because you gave me everything that makes me who I am. You gave me family and friends and coworkers and fellow artists…the list goes on and on.

I’ve been sheltered and comforted and supported here, and all of my best days happened with you. I’ll always be grateful for that and I expect even more of them. I love you and when you’re great, you’re fantastic…but you’re far from perfect.

You can’t control the weather and I’ve come to accept that and chalk your moodiness up to part of who you are. That’s life, right? My favorite color is yellow (which makes me Black and Gold, I suppose!) while yours is gray, and we make it work. I’ve also come to accept there will always be potholes, construction and traffic. We all have ups-and-downs; we all are re-inventing ourselves; we all have someplace to be.

But you’re not exactly fair to everyone, and you know it. You’ve treated me pretty well over the years – better than a lot, not as good as some, but I can’t really complain – but I notice your favoritism more and more as I get older. There are a lot of people you aren’t as loving towards with no good reason, and you have to know that.

You need to watch your emotions and better protect your citizens. We need far fewer casualties. You also need to make more opportunities for people who aren’t doing so well. Give more Black folks more of what they need to build their lives up. And women folks. And young folks. And artists. Frankly, you need to get more demonstrative with the affection.

The people have been leaving because they’re feeling unloved and it’s on you to turn that around.

You see, I know you have lots of pretty hills, but we need a more level playing field. And the kind I’m talking about doesn’t require you to demolish a stadium to make room for it.

I do still love you. I swear I do. That’s why I’m asking so much from you. You don’t need to be perfect – but you do need to live up to your potential.

You’ve done it before when you knew you needed to change. You got some work done here and there, and you’re still willing to go under the jackhammer to look pretty. It pays off almost every time (even if you make us pay for it too often). And when you decided to stop smoking, started attending all of the schools, then got into medicine? Look how that’s paid off! You can make a smart decision when you try.

So now, I’m asking you to make some smart decisions for all of the little folks like me who need to know that you care about them. You’re not always the best at saying it like you mean it...I suggest you put up a few more billboards. (The nice new ones with the lights that change messages. Pull out all the stops like it’s Valentine’s day!)

I expect even more beautiful days from you for everyone here. I know you can make them come to pass.

Because I love you – and I know you love me.

We’ve got this.

I love you!

- “Black & Gold”

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There were similar events in town last Monday, and they continued in the days to come.

There was another MLK Jr Day celebration at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, then on Saturday there was the 18th annual Summit Against Racism at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, as well as a special community showing of Chris Ivey's immensely powerful documentary series EAST OF LIBERTY, again at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. I attended the latter, and spoke to folks who had attended both. There is a palpable sense that much-overdue change is the air, begging to occur, and the time to see it happen is right now.

And on a very personal note, it was just nice to be out at events where there were mixed crowds of all kinds of people. I'm pretty darn sure that's what Dr. King talked about so fervently. And despite what certain media outlets would have you believe, Black people really do make up a sizable portion of Pittsburgh's population. (Yeah, that's right, I'm still looking at you New York Times. We have unfinished business...) And we can all get together and be productive without it turning into a free-for-all, even while discussing some really intense subjects. We can have hard discussions if there's mutual respect involved.

If you see an event of this type pop up here - or anywhere in America, really - I encourage you to take a trip and go get involved. There's the notion that unless one is expending blood, sweat, tears and fears toward a cause at every opportunity then they aren't invested in it. I'd like to dispel that line of thinking and reassure anyone reading this that the pen - any the keyboard - are still immeasurably mightier than the sword.

So go use it to write a love letter and kick someone you care about in the pants.

Let's level the playing field so we can start playing together.

I suggest we re-build that field East of Liberty.

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