Black Lives, White Allies

The Birchwood Café’s Tracy Singleton: “You could say we haven’t done very much, but I want to do more.” Credit: Photo by Jim Walsh

In an interview recently published by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal, law professor and local NAACP president and Black Lives Matters advisor Nekima Levy-Pounds said: “We need to cultivate more diverse leadership in the business community. It’s not going to happen through osmosis or through the passage of time. It takes being intentional about being inclusive and inviting people into the fold and training them and mentoring them and making sure they have adequate opportunity. I don’t think that’s happening on the scale it should be happening.”

It’s happening, slowly but surely, at the Birchwood Café in Seward, where owner Tracy Singleton’s experience with the 13-month-old Black Lives Matter movement makes for a good illustration of how the oft-maligned and misunderstood protests have led to real change.

For 20 years, the Birchwood has been a foodie paradise and a community hub for progressive politics. After the Ferguson riots and after a pointed conversation with a customer about the lack of diversity on the all-white Birchwood staff, Singleton — who attended Burroughs, Bryant and Washburn schools in South Minneapolis and who has a history of confronting racism in her personal life — wanted to be the change. She donated coffee to a Minnesota Public Interest Group-sponsored seminar on Pointergate, and, at the beginning of the summer, procured a Black Lives Matter lawn sign for the boulevard outside her restaurant.

“Since supporting Black Lives Matter and Neighborhoods Organizing For Change in general, I’ve had three people of color come and apply here and so they’re all working here now,” Singleton said over a recent breakfast at the Birchwood. “I mean three, big deal, right? But we’re looking at other things like our [food] sourcing relationships, because that’s a way to be intentional about working with other farmers, and I’ve been talking with them.

“I wanted to have more diversity in my business. We talk about mono cultures and food and how they’re bad for the environment, and it’s the same thing with humans, right? Food can reveal how we’re all connected, and so can a lot of these race conversations. I haven’t really figured out how to talk about it yet.”

To her credit, Singleton is talking about it, even though she’s not sure where or if she fits in. To be sure, as Black Lives Matter moves into its second year, Singleton is one of a growing number of citizens who are actively working in the capacity of what the movement has dubbed “white allies” and “aspiring white allies.”

Which is not the case everywhere. To wit: When a conversation started on a Kingfield neighborhood Facebook page about how Black Lives Matter lawn signs might make black neighbors “feel more welcome” in lily-white South Minneapolis, a Kingfield-based real estate agent objected about the “political” nature of the postings, and weighed in with, “Do you think police officers will feel welcome in a neighborhood that supports a terrorist organization that calls for the execution of police officers? How about you make signs that say ‘character matters.’ Martin Luther King Jr. would approve of signs that said that!”

In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “The inseparable twin of racial injustice is economic injustice.” That was 1967. Last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, black Minnesotans were the only racial group in the state to regress economically, with their median household income dropping to $27,000 in 2014, down from $31,500 in 2013. Minnesota now trails Mississippi in terms of median household income for blacks.

Singleton, for one, wants to be part of the solution.

“You could say we haven’t done very much, but I want to do more,” she said. “With the sign, when James, who works here, told me how much it meant to him to have that sign up at the place where he works… I got very emotional, and that just seems so wrong. It seems pretty basic. It’s a human thing. If we’re doing anything against anybody, we’re doing it against ourselves.”

At the moment, the Black Lives Matter sign outside the Birchwood is one of the few to be seen in South Minneapolis, but Singleton is talking with the Minnesota chapter of SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice) to help distribute more. And while it may only be a lawn sign, in a world filled with racists, trolls, and all stripes of lunatics, one lawn sign may go a long way.

“People have said that I’m [brave], but I don’t know, maybe if they are afraid to put out signs, maybe this will give people courage,” she said. “I’m sure other people support it. I’m sure some customers see it and don’t want to eat here, though I haven’t seen that. I’m sure that other customers are, ‘That’s awesome,’ and maybe they’d come here for a conversation about all of this. We want to be and have been for a long time a container for all sorts of ideas.

“Because of the sign, I think, people have I think felt like they can have conversations with me. Like in yoga class, this friend of mine told me about how her (African-American) son and some friends were running across the street to get into a bar because it was chilly out, and when they sat down, the next thing they know the police are surround them and her son has a gun to the back of his head because he was running across the street. She said, ‘Tracy, I’ve told my son he can never run in public,’ and then went on to tell me about how she’s drilled into her son’s head about how to behave if he’s ever pulled over. I couldn’t believe it.

“Another friend told me about how her [African-American] daughter, every time she goes out the door to go to Southwest High School, there’s this thing in her heart of, ‘What’s going to happen?’ And I don’t have that same fear, of being [harassed] or killed. That’s a very real fear and it’s hard for me to accept that.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]