The Buffalo Syllabus, then, exists not only as a love letter to Black Buffalo, but as a remembrance and acknowledgement. It serves to fill in gaps and correct narratives.
By Adria R. Walker
J Coley, a PhD Candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of Buffalo, immediately took to Twitter following the murder of ten people by a white supremacist at a Jefferson Avenue Tops grocery store to say, “I’m sick because I shop at that supermarket. It’s located in a lower-income Black neighborhood in Buffalo. This terrorist sought out Black people to kill. Literally came to the hood to kill us. And live-streamed it all.” Their sentiment gained traction, eventually amassing over 21,000 retweets and almost 125,000 likes. People across the country, not just in Buffalo, wanted to do something, wanted to understand how a tragedy like this could happen.
From the tweet, Coley connected with Robert A. Mays, a clinical social worker who was born in Buffalo, as well another Buffalo-born historian named Tiana U. Wilson who studies Black women’s intellectual history, and William Jamal Richardson, a sociology PhD candidate at Northwestern University and another native son of the city.
As a sociologist, Coley’s research is focused on the East Side of Buffalo, where the shooting occurred, so they already had information about the history of the neighborhood and they were in community with residents there. Coley has published research on gentrification, race and class in Buffalo.
“We were all on Twitter reacting with a bunch of other scholars and activists, just talking about naming the antiBlackness that happened in Buffalo,” Coley said.
On a national scale, Wilson said, people were confused and outraged about what happened – Why was this Tops targeted? Why this neighborhood? Why Buffalo?
“A lot of people were hungry for more knowledge about the Black community and Buffalo,” Wilson said. “I was really appreciative for scholars like J, who came at the forefront of this really troubling and devastating time to be in.”
For those people, Coley’s early tweets—informed by their research in and involvement with the East Side—were invaluable. They allowed outsiders, Wilson said, who were only able to engage with the East Side through social media and the mainstream media, to have a better idea of the community. The tweets were also instrumental in countering mistaken narratives about the community that began to coalesce in the mass media and online immediately following the shooting.
Inspired by the Charleston Syllabus and the Ferguson Syllabus, both of which were crowdsourced, social-media driven syllabi created in response to racist violence, , Coley tweeted out a call about creating a similar syllabus for Buffalo. Wilson, Mays and Richardson answered the call, and thus, on May 18, the Black Buffalo Syllabus Collective was born.
Over the course of about three months, Coley, Wilson, Richardson and Mays met, gathering resources and readings that they thought would be the most beneficial for the syllabus. Eventually, they decided to expand the wellspring of information by starting a social media campaign in which they used the hashtag “#BuffaloSyllabus.” People on social media sites, primarily Twitter, then used the hashtag to share their resources, media, articles and research. The campaign lasted for about a month.
This online collective generated a Google Doc in which they collected all of the references and citations they received. From there, they selected the sources that they thought best fit the syllabus. Using those selected sources, the collective created the “official, official Buffalo syllabus,” Coley said, which is housed at buffalosyllabus.com., which has been available to the public since September 15, just four months after the massacre.
A resource for everyone
Despite being created primarily by academics and their networks, you don’t have to be an academic or scholar to use the site. Accessibility was crucial, and central, to the development of this resource. Endeavoring to ensure that the syllabus is accessible to everyone, the collective included podcasts, videos and short essays to make sure that the widest possible audience could engage with the materials in whatever capacity possible.
“It’s really important to us—we would say we’re all activist scholars—to make sure that our research is accessible to the public, especially because the Buffalo Syllabus was born out of our love for Black Buffalo and Black people,” Coley said. “It’s really important that we’re making it accessible for folks that are outside of the academy.”
Despite its rich history, culture and significance, Buffalo is “often lost in the narrative of New York City,” Mays said. He explained that Buffalo is “lost in the narrative of the Great Migration,” whereas cities like Chicago and Detroit maintain a prominent place in the popular imagination as destinations in Black migratory histories during the last century.
“It can be forgotten, and it can get forgotten that Buffalo has had a very sizeable Black population and a very prominent Black population that has produced a variety of different people—whether it’s from athletes to singers to activists to people to community; and it’s a thriving, living, breathing entity,” Mays said. “It’s not dead, it’s not standing on one leg. It’s actually a living, viable, breathing community with power.”
The Buffalo Syllabus, then, exists not only as a love letter to Black Buffalo, but as a remembrance and acknowledgement. It serves to fill in gaps and correct narratives.
“That was the role (of the Buffalo Syllabus), … to unite and illuminate in a different way,” Mays said. “Me, Tianna and Will are natives. We know our home. J lives home. To be able to do that was really a love letter, in a sense, to reground our work. I say ‘reground,’ but to maintain the groundedness of our works, our different works, and the love of home.”
Wilson agreed, saying that “We really wanted to use the resources that we had in the ivory tower… to make sure that we’re using the platform that we have to elevate the lived experiences of Black people in Buffalo, to demonstrate their historical and contemporary struggles that are rooted, that have a history of marginalization, segregation and discrimination—but also so much more.” The syllabus, Wilson explained, exists as a way to intervene in what the scholars saw as the narrative around Buffalo that was perpetuated following the shooting.
“It was centered so much on this white supremacist person,” she said. “His networks and what this means and connecting it to white supremacy globally and all of these things. But missing from that discussion was: how can this community begin to heal form the harm that was caused to them?”
In the weeks following the massacre, Buffalo lost its place in the news cycle. People moved on. But East Siders’ lives have been forever changed.
“This is really a love letter to Black Buffalo,” Coley said. “And we don’t want to forget the ten people that were lost and the people that were traumatized. We’re really hoping that Buffalo, Black Buffalo and even Black folks outside of Buffalo continue to receive the syllabus as such.”
By creating and maintaining the Buffalo Syllabus, the collective hopes to help bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the community. This is reflected in the documents chosen for the syllabus. Instead of focusing solely on sources written by academics—though the syllabus does certainly include those—non-academic sources, including articles that aren’t behind paywalls, YouTube channels and multi-media offerings are also included in the syllabus.
From “Readings on Racism, Violence, and Police Brutality in Buffalo,” which includes articles like “Police misconduct costing Buffalo millions,” to specific op-eds about the mass shooting, like “American Racism and the Buffalo Shooting,” to “Reading on the City’s Geography” which details Buffalo’s spatial racial history, the Syllabus aims to be conclusive, while also being a living document.
The collective was also considered who exactly they anticipated their audience would be even as they were composing the syllabus. In short, they decided that it would be accessible and for everyone.
“This will be for white people, to teach them about race, teach them about Black Buffalo and marginalizations… This will be for the Black community, for them to know the legacy, the radical tradition that is left in Buffalo that they can build upon,” Wilson said. “(It is) a teachable, living, breathing document that continues to change.”
‘An all-in-one stop document’
The collective anticipates the syllabus existing in perpetuity as a resource for people to discover and rediscover, to learn from and remember throughout the years. The collective hopes that people happen upon and learn from the syllabus for years to come, even as the national media has lost interest in the tragedy which occurred here.
“As time goes on, unfortunately this won’t be the only terrorist attack in the Black community,” Mays said. “Unfortunately, terrorism has been a natural part of Black lived experience across the Black diaspora, so this will be, unfortunately, one of many. But I hope that as other people use their voice, center their voice, ground their voice, that… this will impact one person. One person. We always focus on a thousand people, two thousand, a million—but we negate and neglect how important the one is.”
Coley says the syllabus is already being used by some teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools District. The collective hopes that more teachers and professors, community leaders, elected officials and law makers and regular, everyday people start and continue using it, as well. For Wilson, the educational aspects of the syllabus are personal. Wilson attended Buffalo Public Schools, and she says the local Black history she was taught was lacking.
“What the syllabus holds is a major resource for school teachers and educators and community organizers to now have a list of sources that they can draw on to incorporate these types of documents, these stories, these histories into the curriculum, so that it is educating the next generation and provoking larger conversations,” she said.
In the year following the shooting, many East Side residents have said that they feel as if the promises made for change in the wake of the shooting have fallen short or not happened at all. Coley hopes the syllabus can be useful for impacting change.
“I know that not much has been offered to the residents most affected by this, residents in the Cold Springs and Fruit Belt neighborhoods,” Coley said. “We’re hoping that even in discussions of policies that come out of this attack, that maybe they’re able to consult the syllabus. It’s an all-in-one stop document, where we talk about every single thing. We’re hoping that that can be beneficial.”
Coley specifically said that they would like to see changes in policy and the implementation of programs like reparations for East Siders.
“We’re hoping that having this resource available to folks will lead them to hopefully make the East Side a better area for people to be in, for people to actually have the resources that they need,” they said.
‘There’s Still Work to be Done’
Though there is some overlap, each member of the collective focused on different sections of the syllabus. Wilson, for instance, is drawn to the section that considers an abolitionist future. For her, that section provides readers with an opportunity to “think about alternative forms of healing that don’t center the police or the carceral state.”
“By uplifting community activists, their labor, their networks and their way to care for each other when all of this attention is gone—I hope models for the younger generation that more police are not the answer,” Wilson said. “When you’re focusing on the aftermath of this really tragic event, centering what the community needs… I think #BuffaloSyllabus offers a framework and a starting point to begin to have these types of conversations.”
Coley thinks the history of segregation in Buffalo—a history that made it easy for the Tops shooter to find victims—is a good starting point for readers. Segregation in Buffalo, they said, is by design.
“It’s not that Black people just chose that they all wanted to live in the same area,” the said. “We know that through redlining and disinvestment and all these federal policies and state sanctioned policies and city sanctioned policies—that’s what they wanted. They wanted the folks that were west of Main Street to have access to loans and to become homeowners. And folks that were east of Main Street, which is predominantly Black people, to not have access to loans to be able to get homes.”
In the syllabus’ section about segregation, the collective included texts and media that explore redlining and the exclusionary zoning of urban renewal that “displaced thousands of Black people and destroyed beautiful thriving communities,” Coley said.
“We’re giving you this history of all the things that led up to this Tops supermarket on the East Side of Buffalo being the ideal site for a white supremacist to enact an anti-Black terrorist attack,” they said. “It’s important to provide the history of Buffalo and saying that Buffalo is not that different from all of these other cities, all these other cities that are considered Rust Belt cities that had a lot of Black people migrate during the Great Migration. Buffalo is like a lot of these other cities, so if it could happen to Buffalo, it could probably happen — definitely happen somewhere else.”
Drawing the connection between the history of racist policies and the legacies of those policies is vital, Mays said. It’s not enough to know things happened and to view the past as having existed in a vacuum. Racist policies, histories and decisions, he said, shaped the world we live in today.
“It impacts your housing, it impacts your health, it impacts your mental health, it impacts where you go to school, it impacts where you can buy a house (and) where you can’t buy a house, it impacts your food, it impacts your built environment,” he said. “The attack on that grocery store shut the grocery store down for months. That was an environmental injustice issue. So, the (section explains) that in a detailed way and really brings light to the lack of food options, grocery stores, supermarkets for people to shop for food is intentional… the separation is intentional, so is the subsequent response to that separation… Now you don’t have access and you are cut off.”
Mays notes that the racist and classist policies have not only harmed East Siders, but it effects other Buffalonians as well. The city of Buffalo is largely a food desert. Most grocery stores are on the periphery of the city or in the suburbs, but rarely in the city itself. Many of the stores within the city lack fresh produce and largely carry pre-packaged items. The built environment is “limiting and impacting people’s physical health,” Wilson said.
One of the aspects of the syllabus that is most important to Wilson is the way in which it highlights Black resistance. Growing up in Buffalo, she did not learn about the ways in which Black people resisted violence. The syllabus exists, then, in part, to fill in the gaps of what is provided in mainstream education.
“So much of the media is dominated by the violences that happened on these people, but missing from that is the agencies of these people and the work that community organizers and Black led institutions, the role that they played in resisting this violence,” she said. “The syllabus offers that component as well, so I hope that future generations really find inspiration and a model for how to move forward.”
The collective is aware of the number of sources they included — about 200 sources divided across twelve categories — and they know that people might be overwhelmed by the wellspring. But they see the syllabus as a beginning, not as a final destination or completed resource. In aggregating sources for the syllabus, the collective found a dearth of information about the Black experience in Western New York and about queer history.
“There’s still work to be done,” Wilson said. “I hope that more work continues to come out of this… More history on Black people during the Black power and the Civil Rights Movement. Black people, Black Buffalo and the abolition of slavery, that’s still missing. Even in the midst of this long list, what was very revealing is the work that still needs to be done, which is exciting for young scholars, young educators, young activists (who are) interested in continuing to use education, political education as a tool to disrupt and challenge global white supremacy.”
Image courtesy of Tina Macintyre-Yee of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Adria R. Walker is a narrative reporter, whose work has appeared in The Guardian US, USA Today, Scalawag Mag and other publications. Originally from Mississippi, she has spent the last several years in Western New York. With over a decade of journalistic experience and a deep appreciation for history, Adria aims to help shed light on untold or lesser known stories. You can find her on Twitter at @adriawalkr.