Strong Opinions, Stronger Love
A young woman tells how her father created a popular coffee-store chain to celebrate the history of overlooked Black heroes. Then let it slip away.
My father is too old to be standing on a ladder. Blood makes it to his heart only because of stents that keep his veins open. He says he has prediabetes, but I think he’s lying. Sometimes his feet hurt so bad he walks on the sides of his shoes. His soles look like lovers in a tête-à-tête. Sure seems like full-on diabetes to me. He should not be on that ladder. But you can’t tell my Dad anything. And there’s no stopping him from putting up that sign.
This Store Destroyed by the China Virus and the KKK
It says a lot about my father that he doesn’t see the irony in “China Virus and the KKK”— aligning himself with a hate group while at the same time claiming to be victimized by it. The sign is printed in white letters on a black canvas background. A small rope at the bottom cinches it around the end of the store’s marquee. It reminds me of a noose.
Dad is one the few Black people I know who supports Donald Trump. Over the past few years, his rhetoric has lost him my mother, who recently filed for divorce. And my brother Virgil, who no longer speaks to him.
My father has always had strong opinions. But ever since he opened the coffee business, his priorities have shifted.
“I’ve made more money than ever since Trump became president,” he brays a little too often while pumping espresso. His voice carries. Customers disappear like puddles on a summer’s day.
He didn’t used to be like this.
It began with an insult
Dad was nowhere near Rittenhouse Square when the thing happened. But he took it personally. He’s always been the kind of man who gets excited by what he sees on the news. And on that day, the news was bad.
That’s when two African Americans were arrested in a Philadelphia coffee shop for not ordering before the rest of their party arrived. The incident went viral on social media and blew up on the network news. Some people said their crime was “sitting while Black,” because white people do this all the time and never get arrested. But my Dad said their real offense was “living while Black.”
At the time, he was about one year into his early retirement from a 30-year-gig with the post office, a job he got shortly after returning from Vietnam. He took the Philadelphia arrests personally, rewatching videos of the incident on YouTube. And following comment threads on Facebook and Twitter.
“If it upsets you so much, why don’t you quit?” my mother asked. She was talking about his part-time barista job at the company where the arrests occurred.
“Because I like making coffee and talking to folks,” he shot back. “And because I don’t want to give these snotty little white store managers the satisfaction of seeing me quit. Also, they’re going to pay me to attend a day of mandatory diversity training. You think I plan to walk away from free money?”
My mother shook her head and snapped the dish towel at him. “And I hope you don’t plan to walk away from these dishes either. Come over here and help. You promised.”
“Alright, but don’t forget — you promised, too.”
Mom looked at me like I was too young to know what they were talking about. So I pretended to be as dumb as they thought I was and left the kitchen with a shrug.
The diversity training backfired
When Dad came home from the company’s racial-sensitivity training, he was sensitive alright. But not the way the training intended. Every night at dinner, all he could talk about were those two black men who got arrested at the Philadelphia store.
It was as if the diversity-day fueled his anger instead of soothing it.
“Dad, why can’t you let this go?” my brother asked.
“Because this stuff runs deep, Virgil — that’s why. They think they can smooth things over by training their little white managers not to call the cops on Black folks anymore. But this is about way more than that arrest. This is about the white coup d’état.”
That’s how Dad defines gentrification.
“You have to look deeply into things, son,” he said, failing to notice that Virgil was no longer paying attention.
“You see, there’s history in Rittenhouse Square. White folks ran Negroes away from the area back in the 1800s. Today gentrification is doing the same thing. But they’re doing it with money this time. How many Black folks you know got enough ‘chedda’ to pay for these new ‘live, work, and play’ communities where it cost three grand for a lousy one-bedroom apartment? Of course they get suspicious when you show up in one of their coffee shops with black skin. They done stacked the deck to make sure you can’t afford to be there.Coup d’état.”
I said a small prayer. “Please, God. Do not let Virgil tell Dad he’s misusing coup d’état.”
It was on a Thursday night like this that my mother threw her napkin down in the middle of one his lectures. “Well, Leo, since we can’t do a thing about it, I’m going to go somewhere and think about something else.” For her, this meant climbing into bed with a drink to watch Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.
Discovering an old racial slur
With my mother gone and Virgil at the library prepping for the law boards, I stepped in to fill the void.
“Daddy, what’s a black buck?”
“Why you asking me that?”
“It was in this old cowboy movie I saw last night — Silverado. Ever hear of it?”
“Yeah, I know Silverado. Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, all-star cast. Came out in 1985. It’s not that old.”
I didn’t bother to remind him that 1985 was fifteen years before I was born.
“See, there’s this scene where a Black cowboy walks into a saloon. The white owner looks at him funny and calls him Buck. The way he said it, it didn’t sound too good.
“That’s because it’snot good, Jessica. God Almighty, sometimes I wonder if I shielded you kids too much.”
“Well, what is it, Daddy? Tell me.” He always brightens when I call him Daddy. Even though I’m in college now, he still thinks of me as his little girl.
He tells me a buck is a negative term for a Black man. “It’s another way of saying nigger.”
Just as he did when I really was a little kid, he made me open the iPad and search out a definition on Wikipedia.
According to popular stereotypes during the post-Reconstruction era, “Black Buck” was a black man (usually muscular or tall) who defies white will and is largely destructive to American society. He is usually hot-tempered, excessively violent, unintelligent, and sexually attracted to white women. Most often, any attempt to restrain, reprimand, or re-educate the individual will fail, necessitating the individual’s immediate execution (usually by lynching).
We talked about about Silverado for a little while longer. Then I went to my room to work on a term paper. Dad remained downstairs, sitting up alone till the wee small hours of the morning. It’s something he’s been doing a lot since retirement released him from the alarm clock.
The midnight genius of jazz & alcohol
Somewhere between drinking bourbon and listening to Nina Simone, he found himself half-drunk and typing up a Go Fund Me for a whimsical enterprise he capriciously called Black Bucks Coffee — The Woke Place for Woke People.
“It’s time to take the term buck back, he wrote. The way women took bitch back. And Hip Hop took nigga back.”
Apparently, this took him all of fifteen minutes, after which he went to bed and never gave it another thought.
A few weeks later, he found money sitting there. Most of it from Black athletes. Philadelphia Eagles. Golden State Warriors. Atlanta Braves. Players on teams from all over the country.
(It probably didn’t hurt that my Dad has an older cousin who works in NFL management. Someone who probably knows my father well enough not to let on that he pulled a few strings.)
Anyway, all of a sudden, Dad had ‘chedda.’
What began as a drunken pipe dream was about to become Black Bucks Coffee. The sports money was soon followed by Hollywood money. Ordinary folks chipped in donations as small as a dollar.
The ideas started rolling in too. That’s how Dad decided to put heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson on the logo. One of his earliest ten-dollar contributors came up with that one, saying Johnson was the “biggest, baddest Black Buck of all.”
I’d never seen my father so revved up. Behaving like a man possessed, he decided to put framed portraits of other forgotten Black men on the wall. Like George ‘Kingfish’ Stevens from Amos ‘n Andy. Steppin’ Fetchit. Mantan Moreland. Willie Bess.
None of the pictures he chose looked like the stereotypes these men were forced to play back in the day. They were dignified. The way these men might have looked at church or at a wedding. The way they’d look in the public imagination if America had managed to be everything it claimed to be.
Thanks to all that seed money, my father was able to do everything right. Finest fresh-roasted Arabica beans, Fair Trade all the way. Vacuum-sealed bags made with gold-colored foil, and a beautiful picture of Jack Johnson himself on the front, dressed in a vested suit, looking like he owned the world.
The craftsman bungalow
It was in the Deep South — that hell hole of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow — that my father opened his first Black Bucks Coffee Shop. Somehow it seemed to fit with his original idea of reclaiming something that had once been negative.
He found a Craftsman bungalow on a corner lot in SWAT for almost nothing. SWAT stands for South West Atlanta. The nickname refers to all the drug raids that went down in the 1990s before gentrification got started. As with everything else, the timing was perfect. It was like the Universe wanted it to happen or something.
After a few renovations — walls removed, hardwoods installed, stainless steel equipment, awnings, a screened-in porch — Black Bucks Coffee was off and running. One day we opened the New York Times to find a feature called “Making Mocha in the South’s Black Mecca,” which featured Dad’s store along with a huge photograph of the renovated Craftsman under the headline.
Dad was on his way. Within a year, he had locations in seven major cities, all modeled on his original Craftsman bungalow.
But his success was not without irony. Although he had once railed against gentrification, he was now one of its beneficiaries. Getting great real-estate deals in black neighborhoods that were gradually turning white.
“Doesn’t this bother you?” I asked him.
“Sweetie,” he said, “the only color I see is green. Besides, I’m a Black man doing business in a historically Black neighborhood. Noproblema!”
He had envisioned a laid-back environment where people of color could come in and enjoy themselves without having to worry about getting arrested. And that’s how it was—at first. Brothers and sistahs hanging out, feeling free, looking good.
But he probably shouldn’t have used The Woke Place for Woke People as a tag line. Because pretty soon, the same thing that happened to Hip Hop happened to Dad. Every Black Bucks Coffee House in the country was over-run with white folks.
“White folks are funny,” my brother Virgil said before he and Dad stopped speaking. “They don’t like us, but they love every cool thing we come up with.”
Enter the demagogue
Dad’s success was off the charts till the end of 2019. By that time, woke had begun to acquire some baggage. Then he began making mistakes. Probably the worst was putting up a photograph of Donald Trump signing a posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson in every store.
Mom told him not to do it. Virgil told him not to do it. And I told him not to. But Dad has always had strong opinions. Once he digs in, you can’t budge him. Which is why we also couldn’t stop him from wearing a MAGA baseball cap at work, the red duckbill shading his face so much you had to look hard to see if it was really him.
By March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Black Bucks Coffee one store at a time. He tried to get some of the government money that was supposed to help small businesses stay open. But the commercial banks in charge of handling the funds turned him down. Insufficient track record. Insufficient relationship with the lenders.
“Insufficient whiteness,” my brother murmured. But not loud enough for Dad to hear him.
As the vise tightened, my father’s support of Donald Trump seemed to tighten with it. Aligning himself with the president’s optimism, he tried to believe his business would survive the pandemic.
“Soon there’s going to be a vaccine,” he told my mother, looking up from the president’s Twitter feed on his iPhone. He and my mother no longer watched the same newscasts. They no longer did much of anything together. I haven’t seen her flick a dish towel at him for months.
“It’s because Trump poured billions into Operation Warp Speed,” Dad told her. “And he closed the borders, too. You have to give the president credit for that.”
“I do give him credit for that,” my mother said flatly. “I also give him credit for the 240 thousand people who died unnecessarily because he downplayed the pandemic for almost a year.”
Until now, I believed it was only white families that became divided over the Trump presidency. Mothers and sons not speaking. Brothers at each other’s throats. Marriages ending. This was a white thing.
Black middle-class families like ours couldn’t succumb to such nonsense. Beyond family ties, we’d been through too much. We had “overcome.” Were clotted by every drop of blood since the Middle Passage. Had risen above inner-city pathologies. Could not be riven by politics.
Apparently, I was mistaken. It doesn’t look like Mom is coming back. Now in his second year at Yale Law School, Virgil raises a palm when I mention Dad. Talk to the hand.
In the space of a few years, my father — unmasked — has become exactly like the people he used to despise. But I haven’t the heart to tell him that.
All I can do is stand out here in the cold and pray that he doesn’t lose the rest of his balance while standing on that ladder.
©2020 Andrew Jazprose HIll @jazprose.com All Rights Reserved