DAMON YOUNG

Oblivious: Black people love Pittsburgh, too, but can’t help but wonder how much Pittsburgh loves them

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New York, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., are wonderful cities that can’t resist preening when passing mirrors to remind themselves just how wonderful they are. Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror. It just turns to its buddies and says, “Hey, yinz guys, let’s go have a beer.”

Like many Pittsburghers — native, current, newly transplanted, newly transplanted away — I read the Chicago Tribune’s Josh Noel’s ode to our city with pride. Nodding with every laud, my fiancee and I even gave ourselves cool points for our familiarity with many of the venues Noel name-dropped. (Shout out to 720!)

We felt the same spirit when sharing and retweeting Buzzfeed’s “16 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Is the Greatest City on the Planet” months earlier, and Pitt Girl’s year-end “10 Reasons Why Pittsburgh Owned 2013.”

Although not without its faults, the Burgh has a beauty and character that somehow manages to be both sneaky and striking. It doesn’t just grow on you. It grows in you. And seeing it receive so much national love — so much proof that others finally recognize what’s happening here — is not unlike the feeling a father might have when his daughter’s soccer coach finally notices and acknowledges her hustle.

For black Pittsburghers, though, an annoying bit of ambivalence has a tendency to attach itself to this civic pride. Even as we boast about living in America’s “Most Livable” or “Most Welcoming” city, we question whether it is truly livable for and welcoming to us.

This is largely due to the fact that Pittsburgh’s relationship with its Yinzers of color has always been, for lack of a better term, complex. When you read “Pittsburgh is a wonderful city that doesn’t even see the mirror,” you can’t help but continue “ … and it doesn’t see its black people, either.”

There are myriad examples I can cite to prove the truth of that last paragraph; some mere microaggressions, some more serious, but none more apropos than the Post-Gazette’s own “People to know around Pittsburgh in the New Year” — a piece naming 14 of the Burgh’s burgeoning stars. While the list does a good job of reflecting the city’s occupational diversity, naming one African American — and having that one African American be an 18-year-old college basketball player — is surprising by how utterly unsurprising it was. Basically, it’s typical Pittsburgh.

As you emerge from the tunnel, you feel you’ve never seen a more majestic little city: old but familiar, with swooping, curving lines, lushly green (in summer) and cut with a deep and expansive racial obliviousness that -spans wide from Point State Park to Point Breeze. This picturesque lack of progress is a sight to behold!

Now, I’m certain Michael Young the basketball player is a fine young man, and I do not intend to disparage him by saying any of this. But when you have so many talented black artists and black educators and black engineers and black entrepreneurs and black activists and black scientists and black young professionals and black industry titans who contribute to the city’s cultural zeitgeist, neglecting to include any of them on a list like this feels intentional. Not intentionally racist, but intentionally oblivious.

What do I mean by “oblivious”?

Well, let me put it this way: Between contributing writers and editors, there were (at least) a dozen different eyes that had a hand in creating this list. Apparently none of them thought to say “Um, guys. Not to be a stickler or anything, but out of all the black people in Pittsburgh, don’t you think it’s a little odd that the lone black person we named happens to be a basketball player? Feels kinda, um, stereotypical or something, doesn’t it?”

I’m no idealist. I don’t expect some technicolor post-racial utopia here. Or anywhere else, for that matter. I don’t even want that.

But, when it comes to recognizing the contributions of a demographic that comprises 26 percent of Pittsburgh’s population — a demographic that wants to love the city as much as the city loves itself — I do want one thing.

An effort.


Damon Young, a contributing editor to EBONY Magazine (digital), lives in Manchester (damonjyoung@gmail.com).

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