Though the directors of local punk venue Mr. Roboto Project apologized on Nov. 14 for the racist fliers used by a show promoter, it took a local minister to notice the promotion in the first place.
Jasiri X, minister of the Wilkinsburg Nation of Islam mosque, was walking through Oakland in late October with a few black students when they came across fliers bearing images of black minstrel characters with dark skin and puffy lips.
X had just hosted a meeting on the University of Pittsburgh campus with people who attended the Millions More Movement. The march took place Oct. 15 -- the same day as "The Nineteenthirteen Massacre," a rock show being advertised at The Mr. Roboto Project performance venue and gallery in Wilkinsburg.
The flier said the event was "an evening of audible stimulation featuring sonnets by the world famous minstrels."
"The images were obviously from a time when it was cool to mock black people, which back then was entertainment," says X. "But my biggest problem wasn't the images per se, but the fact that the Roboto Project was a place that operated out of a predominantly black community."
X, Wilkinsburg residents and black Pitt students approached Mr. Roboto's board of directors at a public meeting and demanded an apology. The board complied, saying they were not aware of the flier, since Roboto leaves all promotions to individual show promoters, who must be registered members of the cooperative. It is also Roboto's policy (as their Web site states) to refuse "any performer or promoter a show based on the message or content of the material to be performed (i.e. no racist, sexist or homophobic material)."
According to Roboto board member Jennifer Briselli, the group attempted to contact the "Massacre" promoter, who at the time worked under the moniker "Aychbe Wheatstraw." His e-mail response, reports Briselli, "included a defense of the fliers as not racist, but 'provocative.'"
The Roboto board tried to hold a meeting between the promoter and activists including X and Folayemi Agbede, a black student at Pitt. The promoter, whose phone number indicates he was local and who was registered on their membership list under another fake name, Joe Hatbob, would not respond, says Briselli, so his membership was revoked.
The promoter's phone is disconnected and he did not return e-mails requesting comment.
The flier's images were bracketed by text from the Unabomber Manifesto written by Ted Kaczynski, reading in part: "The leftists will reply that the last thing they want is to make the black man into a copy of the white man; instead, they want to preserve African American culture. But in what does this preservation of African American culture consist? It can hardly consist in anything more than eating black-style food, listening to black-style music, wearing black-style clothing and going to a black-style church or mosque. ... In all ESSENTIAL respects, more leftists of the oversocialized type want to make the black man conform to white, middle-class ideals."
Paradise Gray, an educator and musician in Wilkinsburg, was part of the group that approached Roboto about the fliers. He says the people at Roboto, "to their credit were very receptive and understanding," a sentiment echoed by X and others. Sometimes, Gray adds, progressive white people "are blinded to the fact that racism is alive and well in America and sometimes they take lightly the issues that are sensitive to us."
Still, for Gray, there's a major issue in Wilkinsburg that is still unresolved: "You look around and see no venues for African-American artists anywhere but it's so amazing how the young white kids have this great outlet in a black community where we don't have anything."