Saturday, March 24, 2018

Birthday Musings: “Yes, it was My Way”

And when I die 
and when I'm dead, dead and gone, 
There'll be one child born and 
a world to carry on, to carry on

“And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat & Tears

My birthday was Thursday. I’m sixty-one. Damn!

I’m not trying to sound morbid but lately, I’ve been thinking about my last days on this planet. Life is a precious but fragile thing so, I’ve been contemplating what I’ve accomplished, what’s left to do and what I want to leave behind.

If I do kick off soon, please know it’s been a wonderful journey. Within the past six decades I’ve received incredible gifts in the guise of relatives, wives, lovers, children, supporters, friends and readers. Owning my own magazine (Take Five), writing for the Post-Dispatch and starting the Sweet Potato Project has provided me with a spiritually lush life of challenge, purpose and gratification. Writing from the heart all these years has been my doorway to many wonderful, long-lasting relationships.  I did my personal best to make the world a little bit better than when I entered it. I have been blessed.

There’s so much more I want to do before the final curtain. I’ve always known how I want to spend my last days on earth. It’s a Walter Mosley/George W. Bush/Jimmy Buffet type scenario. I my mind’s eye, I see myself in a warm place near water, writing fiction and painting pictures.

To get there, I gotta make some some stuff happen-quick like. The Sweet Potato Project, interacting and inspiring potentially young entrepreneurs who share my hue, working to build a sustainable, replicable, urban agricultural project in North St. Louis fires my soul and keeps me jazzed.  

Yet, I wonder if I’m the guy to bring it to full fruition. Raising enough money to operate the program, grappling with operational deficiencies and trying to convince politicians and people with clout and resources that this is a viable way to create a long-term economic engine in the city is more than a notion.

But just when I think it’s time to call it quits there are signs that we’re close to the finish line. I have a few students eager to own land and grow food. Across the country, urban agriculture is now viewed as a positive, productive means to revitalize disadvantaged neighborhoods. Politicians like Alderman John C. Muhammad have introduced bills aimed at putting vacant land in the hands of poor people. State Rep. Bruce Franks has introduced a bill aimed at instituting trauma curriculum in schools where kids deal daily with crime, violence and poverty in their neighborhoods. This is a huge concern of mine that I address in my soon-to-be-published book, “When We Listen.”

This summer, a collection of nonprofits representing the North City Food Hub (NCFH) will offer classes on land-ownership, writing business plans, food-growing, culinary certificates, and will open a professional shared-use kitchen in the Ville where anybody who wants to develop a food-based product can do so with the help of trained chefs. There is indeed progress on this front.

My goal is to get SPP to a place where it can operate without me. Oh, I plan to always be its champion, its spokesman and spend time learning, listening and being a part of young people’s lives. But, honestly, I’m tired of the struggle. The project needs to be under the stewardship of an organization that’s better than me at fund-raising and the day-to-day operations of a strong, viable nonprofit.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my first love, writing, supersedes all my other endeavors. For the past six months, I’ve been mostly researching and scribing. I have three books in motion, the last is a work of fiction. Doing this has been economically challenging but, it feels right. In total, the works speak to my passions, my love and concern for our city, politics and progression. Unrestricted writing has allowed me to deploy my real-life experiences, my woes, joys and dreams in real and imaginary formats.

I cherish the fact that I’m still a naïve dreamer, even in my early 60s. I still believe that the power of love, compassion and humanity will ultimately defeat greed, tyranny and restricted thinking. I hold on to the notion that genius has no color-code and I’m encouraged by the creativity, resiliency and tenacity of our youth. I want my grand exit underscored by the fact that I left something tangible behind that my children and/or another generation of dreamers-those not willing to live lives in vain-will utilize and push forward in their own unique and wonderful ways.

It’s funny. As a youngster, I used to draw. Up until my mid-twenties, I pursued a life as a painter, cartoonist and political satirist but, writing was always a part of that. As a kid I used to make my own comics that reflected the things I was experiencing in life-poverty, bullying, girls and fighting evil. There was something fascinating about creating something new and unique. That aspect of creativity transcended into my actual life efforts.

I’ve only had two “real” jobs in adulthood, Laclede Gas (12 years) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (six years). Everything else I did was of my own making-Take Five Magazine, When We Dream Together, a multi-media website and the Sweet Potato Project.  I was miserable at the gas company and the daily newspaper. I simply don’t do well with institutional racism or down-right white superiority thinking. My own projects have been economically and emotionally-straining but, Lord, so fulfilling.

I’m not itching to die but life is promised to no one. Mine, so far, has been one of living, learning and loving and I desperately want more. I’ve been blessed to paint on canvasses of my own making. Writing has been my way of coping, connecting and interacting with opposing and supporting souls.

I want to thank everyone for sending me “Happy Birthday” wishes this week. It's been an absolute pleasure sharing this journey with you. The Blood Sweat and Tears tune above speaks to my hope that young people will carry on where I leave off. But “My Way,” popularized by Frank Sinatra, perfectly sums up my feelings about my life and humble accomplishments.

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.
Yes, it was my way




Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Dope Man is Dead

"Everybody's misused him
Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan
Pushing dope for the man
A terrible blow
But that's how it goes..."

"Freddie's Dead" by Curtis Mayfield

I am in mourning. 

The neighborhood dope dealer has been murdered.

I know it’s a strange thing to write. To most, the reaction to the death of an illegal drug peddler is “good riddance.” I might have felt the same way had I not come to befriend the neighborhood dope man.

About a year ago I moved back to the city, the place where I was born and raised. I’m going to be very vague in this story because I don’t want to bring unwanted attention to my neighborhood or my neighbors. Let’s just say I live in the heart of “Da Hood.” It’s a typical low-income, black neighborhood where poverty is palpable and the sound of gunfire is somewhat routine. It’s an area where life is dangerously beautiful. It’s where mothers, fathers and kids take buses in the wee hours of the morning and the dark of night to work or school. The neighborhood overflows with fast food joints, churches and convenience stores owned by Middle Easterners who serve salty chips, candy, cigarettes, cell phones, liqueur and cheap, greasy food for a stranded demographic. It’s an amalgamation of stubborn, elderly homeowners who band together to watch out or protect what’s theirs from sometimes wandering young people.

Like a ghetto version of Game of Thrones, the back-yard mechanic, the nosy, porch-sitting griots, the night-shift worker with the mid-70s Cadillac Coupe Deville, all serve as neighborhood watchmen. They are the observers and verbal warriors who keep tabs on the wildlings and walking dead.  

Like a ghetto version of Game of Thrones... the neighborhood watchmen are the observers and verbal warriors who keep tabs on the wildlings and walking dead. 

I soon learned that the dope man, let’s call him “Zeke,” my next-door neighbor, was a Jon Snow-like character. Zeke was indeed the Lord Commander of this hobble of diligent, urban Night-Watchers. They all seemed to know him, like him even and, in a bizarre way, depend on him to help manage the mess of which he was a participant.

I learned the dangerous dynamics of my block very quickly. My first weekend there was accentuated with the sound of rapid-fire gun play down the street. I waited until the burst of bullets stopped before peeking through the blinds. There, brazenly walking toward our four-family apartment building, like Chuck Connors from the old Rifleman TV show, was Zeke, the dope man, with an automatic weapon at his side. 

There, walking toward our four-family apartment building, like Chuck Connors from the old Rifleman TV show, was Zeke, the dope man, holding an automatic weapon. 

I saw him on our front porch a couple days later and asked what happened that day. He feigned ignorance until I told him I saw him with the gun. Someone had followed him home after an altercation at a nightclub, he admitted. They shot at him and he returned fire until they sped off, he nonchalantly explained.

Initially, Zeke eyed me suspiciously. He was courteous but cautious with me. One day I was sitting in my car looking at my social media feed on my phone. I have old eyes, so I hold my phone in front of my face instead of looking down at it. The dope man pulled up in his dated luxury car. Walking to our building, he jokingly accused me of taking pictures of him. I laughed but something in his probing gaze told me he was only half-joking.

Let me say up front that I never saw Zeke actually dealing drugs, but all the signs were there. People knocked on his door at all hours of the day and late, late night. The visits were short, like someone picking up a call-in order from the local chop suey place.  

Zeke introduced me to the neighborhood watchmen. Some of the elders spoke highly of the him without directly referring to his illicit trade. They told me how the block had improved due to his efforts. He was the one, they said, who put a stop to break-ins and robberies on the block. To my utter surprise, Zeke told me how he worked with police to get them to respond quicker to complaints of crime or vandalism.

Once Zeke found out what I did for a living with the Sweet Potato Project, he became more friendlier and protective. He never confessed what he did, but he told me about his stints in prison and how much he valued life on “the outside.” As if we had something in common, Zeke bragged about the young men he tried to help by employing them at his “construction company,” washing his or other neighbor’s cars or having them cut grass or pick up trash on the block.

Oftentimes, weed-smoking or beer-guzzling youngstas hanging out in front of our apartment greeted me with a “what’s up OG (Old gangsta)?” It seemed, because I lived next to the dope man, I was given a modicum of respect.

 It seemed, because I lived next to the dope man, I was given a modicum of respect.

I guess Zeke surmised, probably because I lived next to him, that I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash. Whenever he saw me sitting in my car or entering my apartment, he’d reach into his pocket and ask, “you need anything?” I declined his offers, but I was touched by the sentiment. 

Zeke told me he had a house somewhere in the city. He allowed some "wildlings" to occupy his apartment above me. He gave me his phone number and told me to call if they ever got out-of-hand, which they did. One day, I heard someone kicking in the front door of one of the units. I called the police. They asked my name and said someone would be there soon. They never showed up. So, I called Zeke. He immediately came, talked to me, inspected the property and matter-of-factly stated, “it’s handled.”

About a month later, the owner of the Coupe Deville, called me over as I was taking groceries into my apartment. “You heard about Zeke?” he asked. "No,” I answered. My heart sank as he detailed how Zeke had been shot and killed somewhere in North St. Louis. It was a drug deal gone awry, he reasoned. As we were talking, an elderly lady in an old, gray Pontiac pulled up beside us. “Ya’ll heard about Zeke?” she shouted from her car window. My neighbor seemed to know the lady. He told me she was related to Zeke. He gave her his condolences. She shook her head, fighting back tears. “I loved him, but he was livin’ that life. It was bound to happen,” she said before driving off.

“I loved him, but he was livin’ that life. It was bound to happen.”

That brief exchange, made me love my neighborhood even more. I adore being smack dab in the middle of the ghetto life of my youth. As a writer, the way poor people manage to laugh, love, live and cope among the chaos helps me connect with the generational path of poverty, resiliency and creative survival techniques of my people. Sadly, death is an expected part of this life. Sometimes the lines of existence, of “right and wrong” are blurry. Sometimes the bad guys do good things. Sometimes “don’t ask, don’t tell” is all part of maintaining that sacred, delicate balance of survival.

Zeke played a valuable but complicated role in our real-life melodrama. Comfort and a sense of safety came from him and my elderly neighbors, the watchmen. I know they have my back and I have theirs. We all suspected Zeke was “livin’ that life,” but, in a bizarre way, he was the nucleus of our efforts to keep madness outside our doors, even though he was a contributor to that insanity.

A couple days ago, I again heard the rapid fire, “briipp, briipp, briipp,” of automatic weapons somewhere down the block. The gun play seemed to go on for at least ten minutes. No police showed up. During a lull in the noise, I again glanced through the blinds. As I did, a strange, sad thought seeped into my mind:

“The dope man is dead.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Day I Was Dissed by Dick Gregory: Excerpts from my Washington University Memorial Tribute Speech

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ I told her: ‘That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”
- Dick Gregory comedy routine at the Chicago Playboy Club, 1961

And now we're ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word: Nigger.”-Dick Gregory from his blockbuster, best-selling book “Nigger” 1965

My Moma used to grab me and wash my face…America ain’t got no mama to wash her face…all we did was went from this filth we was in to putting on some new clothes and no one has said, ‘hey, somewhere we got to apologize.” 
-Dick Gregory State of Black America 2008


I would like to thank Professor Jack Kirkland for inviting me to share a few remarks about this incredible inspirational human being. We’re here today to celebrate, to remember and honor the life and legacy of comedian, civil rights activist, social critic, writer, entrepreneur, and all-around humanitarian, Richard Claxton Gregory, known world-wide simply as Dick Gregory.

We are here to pay tribute to a home-town hero’s incredible journey from a pioneering comedian who successfully crossed over to white audiences, to a civil rights activist who sacrificed a career of comedy for a lifetime of service for the oppressed and voiceless.  We’re here to remember the audacity of an entrepreneur who developed a multi-million-dollar industry based on a simple desire to help people live healthier, longer lives.

But, before we do this, I’d like to share a video of the last time I saw Dick Gregory in person. It was in 2014, during the protests in Ferguson, MO. Please bear with me, it’s not that long.

(Note: I wasn't able to show this video at the event, so I described it)


Now I know a lot of you are asking, "err, Sylvester, why did you show that video? I mean the man literally dissed you, called your question ‘stupid’ and said you were wasting his time."

I get it. I showed it to emphasize a couple points. First and foremost, it’s not important what Dick thought of me that day, it’s what I think of him, what I’ve learned from him and what I hope to accomplish because of his influence.
Some of you may know that I am the founder of the Sweet Potato Project. Let me give you the one-minute spiel I teach my students: We recruit inner city youth to plant  sweet potatoes on vacant lots. We provide them with a 10-week summer job where they learn marketing, branding, sales, product development and more. At the end of the summer job, they turn their produce into products. At this time, the students sell sweet potato cookies. The whole idea is to show our kids how to become entrepreneurs in their own neighborhoods.

It’s not important what Dick thought of me that day, it’s what I think of him, what I’ve learned from him and what I hope to accomplish because of his influence.

So, yeah, Dick hurt my feelings a little bit that day. But after really listening to his words, I had to put those feelings aside. I was reminded of the true essence of Dick Gregory’s words and their relevance to our modern times. It is my desire that this unflattering video will also underscore our responsibility to carry on, to live lives that reflect his passions. I’m hoping that we all walk out of here asking the “WWDD” question, not what would Jesus do but “what would Dick Do” in these challenging times.

I’m hoping that we all walk out of here asking the “WWDD” question, not what would Jesus do but “What Would Dick Do” in these challenging times? 

Right now, people mostly young people are protesting in the streets. No matter where you stand on “why” they're out there, we must force ourselves to focus on “who” is out there and what Dick told me in that video:
“Whenever you have explosions like this, I go. If I came here and my head was bleeding, you know something’s wrong, right? When you see people rioting, you know something’s wrong. It’s like hearing a baby cry and you go tell him to ‘shut up.’”

Dick Gregory, the activist, encouraged kids to get involved and engaged on social issues:

“I tell students they should be concerned that some of their classmates can’t walk down the streets in certain cities without the fear of being shot by both gang-bangers and misguided police officers.”
Today, there are those who have mastered the art of propaganda. When protesters say they're out there because black lives matter and they want cops to stop killing unarmed black men, women and children, the antagonists say they want to 'kill cops.' When people say they're 'taking the knee at football games to highlight police brutality, the propagandists say they're 'disrespecting the flag and our troops.' 
Whether we’re talking about police misconduct or challenging police brutality or judicial oppression, Dick, way back in 1961, worked hard to make sure the messages weren’t misconstrued  

“We’re not saying, ‘Let’s go downtown and take over City hall. We’re not saying, ‘Let’s stand on rooftops and throw bricks at the white folks. We’re not saying let’s get some butcher knives and some guns and make them pay for what they’ve done. We’re saying, ‘We want what you said belongs to us. You have a constitution. I’m a black man, and you made me sit down in a black school and take a test on the United States Constitution, a constitution that hasn’t worked for anyone but you. And you expect me to learn it from front to back. So I learned it. You made me stand up as a little kid and sing ‘God bless America,’ and ‘America the Beautiful,’ and all those songs the white kids were singing. I pledge Allegiance to the Flag. That’s all I’m asking for you today. Because for some reason God has put in your hands the salvation of not just America-the thing is bigger than just this country-but the salvation of the whole world…”

“We’re not saying, ‘Let’s go downtown and take over City hall. We’re not saying, ‘Let’s stand on rooftops and throw bricks at the white folks...I’m a black man, and you made me sit down in a black school and take a test on the United States Constitution, a constitution that hasn’t worked for anyone but you...We’re saying, ‘We want what you said belongs to us." - Dick Gregory, 1965  

Let us not tell the baby to 'shut up!' Let us stand with them. Dick said, “If the old folk rise up and say we’re not going to do this anymore, the children will do the same.”

So, let us challenge police who are intent on criminalizing and intimidating our youth and anyone who stands with them. Like Dick said, let us endure the explosion with them, let us demand that they not be treated as anarchists, or terrorists. Let us acknowledge that these courageous, bodacious young people feel they can make a difference. Let us find ways to embolden them and help them channel their creativity and passions into and beyond the protests. Let us find ways to empower them in their own communities and hold them accountable for the progressive change they seek.
Now, I wasn’t planning to talk with Dick about my project that day because, in all honesty, we talked about it a year before in Washington D.C. when we were both being interviewed for a documentary on Dr. Bill Cosby.
Now, I totally understand that Dick didn’t remember me or the project but he did ask me what I was doing to help black kids.
When I did,  he pushed back saying, “You need to talk to somebody who doesn’t know that, because I didn’t. I ain’t never heard of you. There are people who live here who don’t know ya’ll doing that!”

The push-back was justified. There are many, many people who've never heard of the Sweet Potato Project. I'm working on that. But, in retrospect Dick showed me he has the desires of young folk and entrepreneurism, as a salvation for our many, many ills, at heart.

Yes, my desire is to put some of the thousands of vacant lots in St. Louis into the hands of young folk, like the Black Lives Matter group, churches and community organizations. My desire is to have a collective of low-income youth and adults owning land, growing food and creating an economic, food-based engine in North St. Louis. But we do have to challenge the powers-that-be, forcing them to understand that people are just as worthy of an investment as fortune 500 companies and the already rich developers.

One of Dick Gregory’s goals was to improve the life expectancy of African Americans, which he believed was being hindered by poor nutrition. He was an avid advocate of healthy eating as well as a vegan-living. He created the “Slim-Safe Bahamian Diet”—a meal replacement powder to help with weight loss. According to Black Enterprise in 1989, Gregory, at one point, averaged a revenue of $30,000 per day just from Slim-Safe sales alone.

Dick once said, the whole country is set up for entrepreneurship.” In order to reach Americans, he said, we have to do it with glamour. “I want to glamorize health and nutrition the same way we have glamorized athletics and sports. We have to make teenagers just as excited about drinking juice as they are about buying a pair of Michael Jordan’s tennis shoes.”

I share his sentiments. We have to glamorize the idea of young people as entrepreneurs, as stewards of economic change in our neighborhoods. The Bohemian diet serves as a model of what we can do to empower individuals and neighborhoods.
I ran across a Youtube video titled Dick Gregory: Advice to Black Youth where Mr. Gregory stressed the importance of entrepreneurism among our youth. This is what he said:
“I would say to young folk, ‘don’t be in a state of denial of the racism and sexism but don’t that block you. I would also like young black folk to understand that about 80% of all employment happens through small businesses. I would say, we will never catch up with white America until we get into business. We will never survive as a group until we have communities, not neighborhoods but communities that control the police, the banks and control of the flow of money.  I have no problem when I go into a Jewish neighborhood and the shop -owners are Jewish, are an Italian neighborhood and the shop owners are Italian. I have a problem when I come into a black neighborhood and the shop owners are not me.”

Ladies and gentlemen, every now and then the universe, God or a higher power will toss down the gauntlet of change before us. It will demand that those of us who stand for justice, dignity and humanity make our voices heard. Each of us must search our souls and find a way to fight back. We have to stand before the Almighty and say “here I am Lord, send me, send me.”

"I would say, we will never catch up with white America until we get into business. We will never survive as a group until we have communities, not neighborhoods but communities that control the police, the banks and control of the flow of money."-Dick Gregory -"Advice to Black Youth"  

On his own life and legacy, Dick said:

“We thought I was going to be a great athlete, and we were wrong, and I thought I was going to be a great entertainer, and that wasn't it either. I'm going to be an American Citizen. First class.”  
How do we all strive to be “First-Class American citizens? My way, if you will, is the Sweet Potato Project. But how should you honor the legacy of this great, brave, bodacious American icon? How can we all grasp and utilize the WWDD mantra?
I believe Dick’s son, Yohance Maqubela, gave a wonderful example in a recent interview I read in the Economist when he said:

“Every sacrifice that my father made whether it was financial in stepping away from the comedy and entertainment to support civil rights, whether it was in the business world where he was one of the leading entrepreneurs in the area of health and nutrition and not compromising his values. He did so much work in the Black community because he realized that you can’t help somebody else until you are whole and healthy yourself.

“So, if you’ve ever been moved, touched, or motivated by the words of Dick Gregory, by the writing of Dick Gregory, by the albums of Dick Gregory, by the videos of Dick Gregory and you want to honor him, please take action. Please go forward in the areas that my father stood for and represented." 


“So, if you’ve ever been moved, touched, or motivated by the words of Dick Gregory, by the writing of Dick Gregory, by the albums of Dick Gregory, by the videos of Dick Gregory and you want to honor him, please take action. Please go forward in the areas that my father stood for and represented. Whether it’s being a part of the national Black Lives Matter movement or volunteering your time at a local school or soup kitchen, just be involved. Continue that legacy which is lifting the human spirit and the human condition, and that’s how you honor my father.”  

Thank you very much.

-End of Speech-

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Plan After the Protests...

Photo by Richard Reilly

Say what you will about our racially-divided, culturally-backwards, pro-police city there’s one distinction where St. Louis has become the absolute best: Protesting. No other region has been more resilient, more diverse in age and race, more spiritual, determined, persistent or more braver than ours.  The level of creativity, organizing and deciding where, when and how to protest has captured the world’s attention and exposed the deep, deep layers of systematized racism in a major metropolitan area.  History will record St. Louis as the 21
st Century version of Selma Alabama in terms of civil unrest and push-back against non-violent demonstrations against unwarranted police aggression.

But then what? Where will this audacious movement take us?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the protesters. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do: Protest. People, mostly young people, have put their safety, their jobs and their lives on the line to confront and expose injustices. Young, progressive politicians, religious leaders and business-owners have stepped to do their part as well. They’ve made it abundantly clear that this city will not be cowered by police acts of oppression or intimidation. Yet, it can’t be denied that the rest of us have not done our part.

But then what? Where will this audacious movement take us?

In one of my recent commentaries, I quoted Mayor Lyda Krewson who defined St. Louis’ current climate as one impacted by “institutionalized racism.” I agree with that definition but we must honestly unpack our collective culpability in enabling and abiding the “systems” that have deemed black lives expendable and worthless.

Brace yourself. I’m not going to detail our region’s long history of economic, housing, criminal justice or educational disparities along racial lines. That’s well documented.  I’m going to discuss how we, black folk have failed our young people; how we, black folk, need to develop plans to combat institutionalized racism in our region; how we, black folk, need to create our own, alternative systems to finally, finally uplift and protect our young people. I'm writing about how we can ensure that they can transform the historic societal nightmare into the ballyhooed “American Dream.”

At some point in time, black people, and those who love us, must confront the fact that this system was not created for our benefit. It is a greedy, class-based, racially-tilted structure designed for the advantage of mostly wealthy, mostly white men. The civil rights movement was mainly about racial equality but there's still much to do in addressing racial equity. Many of us settled. We allowed ourselves to believe that integration and access to politics, being allowed to move into white neighborhoods, work for white-owned companies and, eventually, elect a black president would solve our collective ills. We were wrong.

Back in the late 1960s, when laws outlawed overt segregation, many of us abandoned traditional black neighborhoods for better opportunities elsewhere. Some celebrated upward mobility while turning blind eyes to those left behind. We willingly turned our young people over to the employment, educational, social welfare and criminal justice “systems.”

At some point in time, black people, and those who love us, must confront the fact that this system was not created for our benefit. 

Let’s be honest, poverty, which nurtures and breeds crime, is disproportionate in black neighborhoods. America, which doesn’t have the capacity or compassion to tackle generational, race-based poverty has opted for the detrimental preschool-to-prison pipeline as its solution.  Because of this moral deficit, our children are adrift. Many are caught up in the dangerous game of survival by any means necessary. All must fight the battles of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and the stinging legacy of slavery and racial oppression.

So, again, what’s the plan after the protests?

Krewson, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and many other media outlets point to “solutions” outlined in the Department of Justice’s report and the report compiled by the “Forward Through Ferguson” Commission after the 2014 police shooting of Mike Brown. There’s nothing wrong with these assessments. Both stress systematic injustices, both address police reform and one highlights job opportunities inherent in the corporate world. What they don’t do, perhaps can’t do, is detail how black people can “do-for-self,” sustain themselves and their neighborhoods and create environments where they control wealth, politics and police interaction with the targeted populace.

Herein is where liberal ideologies collude with far right-wing fears. You see, oodles and oodles of whites (both conservative and liberal) believe blacks should be treated fairly; that unarmed blacks are killed disproportionately by police and that blacks have received a bum deal in this society. However, some balk at the idea of truly “empowering” black people by giving them the same resources historically gifted to whites. Most won’t admit it, but many-and public opinion polls back this up-believe that if blacks “get something” it will be at the expense of whites. They believe that investing in real “black power” is the antithesis of Dr. King’s "dream" where all races reach the proverbial “mountaintop” together.

However, some balk at the idea of truly “empowering” black people by giving them the same resources historically gifted to whites. 

It is in this radical, revolutionary arena where black leaders and those who truly empathize with the plight of black people must step up.  It is here where the lessons of Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X must be mainstreamed and adapted into a modern-day game plan for social, educational and economic progress. What they preached back in the day-land-ownership, economic independence and growing our own food-is just as pertinent today.  

Let us take a candid look at black communities here and around the country. For centuries, every ethnicity (accept black people)-Jews, Germans, Koreans and Middle-Easterners-have capitalized off the wealth of black neighborhoods. To be clear, I’m not criticizing people who were smart enough to decipher how, why and when black people spend their money. In fact, I am in awe of the numerous gas stations and convenience stores operated by Muslims in the ‘hood. They have studied us. Walk into any of these operations and you’ll find they sell the “bling,” the fast, fatty foods, the cell phone services and other commodities unique to the black consumer base. This maxim also applies to the myriad of fast food restaurants, pay-day lending and check-cashing operations owned and operated by non-blacks in black neighborhoods.  

I am in awe of the numerous gas stations and convenience stores operated by Muslims in the ‘hood. 

In my 30-plus years of researching, writing and talking publicly about black people and our many, many societal woes, I’ve concluded that the only way to end the trajectory of “victimhood,” is to do-for-self and build “systems” that we control. This is why I, along with the North Area Community Development Corporation (NACDC), created the Sweet Potato Project.  Since 2012, we’ve provided at-risk youth (16-21) jobs where they learn how to grow produce on vacant and community lots. We teach them marketing, branding, sales, product development and how “supply & demand” dynamics work inside and outside their neighborhoods.

Our vision is that of a large collective of North St. Louis land-owners growing, packaging and distributing fresh food and food products together. This, I maintain, is a practical, common-sense approach to addressing unemployment, food deserts and nutritional needs and community redevelopment.

How? Well, imagine young, urban youth trained to be a part of the burgeoning locally-grown food movement? Envision them owning vacant properties, growing food and making money off their yields. What may happen if their parents, siblings, and peers plant and grow together? Well, they will be empowered and accountable for the safety and stability of their neighborhoods. Furthermore, imagine the all-around impact of restaurants, bakeries, grocers, schools, hospitals, public institutions and individual consumers all buying food and food products from this collective. We will then have a food-based economic engine in North St. Louis designed to fuel sustainable entrepreneurism, jobs, and small business growth.

Please don’t misunderstand or assume that I’m offering an all-out panacea for the ills that impact poor black people. I’m not naïve. However, I do believe it’s a viable plan. It’s one way to introduce do-for-self economics and entrepreneurism into black communities. The goal is for other entities to build off the template. I recently read about a housing initiative in Detroit where Cass Community Social Services are building 250-to-400-square-feet “tiny homes.” At building costs ranging from $40,000-to-$50,000 each, low income people rent-to-own homes in seven years or less.

This may be a sensitive subject for some. But I’ve been sharing this message since 2015 when I spoke at the Conference for Catholic Bishops in Washington D.C. There an audience member asked “what can whites do” to better the conditions of African Americans? My suggestion was/is: “Bet on and invest in Black. Look for ways to socially and economically empower black people where they live.”

Let’s give the Black Lives Matters group and other bodacious young protesters another place to practice their resiliency, creativity and resolve. Imagine a housing program like this added to a land-ownership, food-growing initiative in St. Louis. Those 21-year-olds or older, who own land, grow food and make money will have the additional opportunity to build off their accumulated wealth in their own neighborhoods.  With city resources and institutional support, they can use their combined collateral to open restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores, nightclubs and alternative educational institutions. Their collective economic influence can be used to finance the campaigns of progressive, political candidates, develop private security operations and demand police give them the same attention and respect afforded more tonier areas.

Let’s give the Black Lives Matters group and other bodacious young protesters another place to practice their resiliency, creativity and resolve. 

This has been the clarion call of the Sweet Potato Project for six years. Fortunately, we’re not alone. We’re working with other like-minded nonprofits who are similarly intent on using food to empower poor people. What’s missing is vision, powerful alliances and partnerships and, frankly, the involvement of black people who believe in the potential of ourselves and our young people.  

In a recent commentary, I chastised the Post-Dispatch for insisting protesters have “a plan.” In a city tethered to the teat of uber-rich developers and void of urban solutions, I challenged the newspaper to examine its role in codifying the status quo.

Today, in all sincerity, I challenge black leaders, black people and those loyal to our cause to step up. For once, let us commit to forging a progressive, all-encompassing path forward after the tumultuous protests.  


Sylvester Brown Jr. is a writer, community activist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, a program that seeks to empower low-income youth and adults through land-ownership and urban agriculture.