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  1. Life & Culture

A love letter to my friends of color

An appreciation for the people in our lives who make us better.
Protesters hold hands in Marseille, southern France, Saturday, June 6, 2020. Protesters marched against the death of George Floyd, who died after he was restrained by police officers May 25 in Minneapolis, that has led to global protests.
Protesters hold hands in Marseille, southern France, Saturday, June 6, 2020. Protesters marched against the death of George Floyd, who died after he was restrained by police officers May 25 in Minneapolis, that has led to global protests. [ DANIEL COLE | AP ]
Published Jun. 10, 2020

It was 1990 when Donna Britt, a gifted writer for the Washington Post, crafted her most famous column, “A Valentine for Black Men.” Three decades later, readers remember that heartfelt work.

Inspired by Britt, and trying to find a cool spot in a world on fire, I offer this tribute of gratitude to my African American friends and colleagues. It would have been better if I had sent this valentine back in February when pandemic and economic collapse were blurry shimmers down the highway.

My intent is not to show what a nice old white man I am. It’s to find a space where I can listen, learn and write in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. I need help from the friends I love.

I love you, Dr. Lillian Dunlap, for your angelic singing voice and for listening to my naive questions about race. Thanks for teaching me the value of “staying in the room,” even when things get uncomfortable.

I love you, Kanika Jelks Tomalin. You were by far the most stylish seventh-grader I ever taught, and now, as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, you have become a voice for peace and justice.

I love you, LeQuina Knox. Thanks to you and the three generations of women in your family for being great neighbors. You have emerged as a young champion of those who have overcome obstacles. Your writing about the intersection of race and disability proves you are the best writer on the block.

I love you, Dr. Karen Brown Dunlap. Thanks for being a great boss for 10 years at the Poynter Institute, not just for the fun and learning, but for those moments of personal comfort, when you let me cry in your office upon the passing of a loved one.

I love you, Rev. Kenny Irby. We both have three daughters and are married to a woman named Karen! Thanks for performing the wedding ceremony of our daughter Emily. Thanks for kneeling with me in prayer at the altar of your church for the recovery of my wife from breast cancer. And thanks for trying to extend my playground basketball career.

I love you, Estelle Hall, for being that great neighbor everyone wants right across the street. And thank you for your dedication to the schoolchildren of Pinellas County. And for your daughter Courtney, who has grown from the cutest kid on the block into a dynamic young woman.

I love you, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, for being wonderful neighbors and role models of exercise and good health. When we see you headed to the park for a power walk, Karen and I get our running shoes on. Chief Jackson, thanks for years of service with our fire department.

I love you, Dr. Alex Harris, for your devotion to young people in the creative arts. Thank you for sharing the most soulful voice in the city and for your electrifying performance of A Change Is Gonna Come. We need that change. Now.

We love you, Al the Tree Man and Mr. Simmons, for working so hard on keeping the landscaping on 63rd Avenue S looking so good. You are your team work so hard in these hot Florida months.

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I love you, Eric Deggans, for your work as a powerful voice on National Public Radio. I am lucky to work in the same building as you. Thanks for taking my questions about race in America, and for your kind laughter when I hit the wrong note. And thanks for your musicianship.

I love you, Chief Luke Williams, for a career of leadership in the St. Petersburg Police Department. What an honor to work side by side with you on programs to develop leadership and literacy among young men. You have given these students a vision of what integrity looks like when wearing a blue uniform and a badge.

I love you, Stephen Buckley. I met you when you were a 13-year-old and watched you grow into a powerful writer and dynamic leader in journalism. What better gift can a teacher have than when his former student becomes his teacher.

I love you, Boyzell Hosey, and I love your work as a photojournalist. At a time when journalists are under attack, you and your brothers and sisters have demonstrated moral and physical coverage in capturing images that shock and inspire us.

I love you, Ernest Hooper and Demorris Lee and your students, the young men of Poynter’s Write Field. Thanks for inviting me to share with these future leaders my knowledge of how to find your most powerful voice as a writer and a speaker.

I love you, Keith Woods, and your bride, news anchor Denise White. She taught me what devotion to your community looks like. You listened to my questions and introduced me to the great teachers and scholars of race in America, especially W.E.B. DuBois on The Souls of Black Folk. As musicians, we defied stereotypes. I played rhythm and blues. You played Debussy.

We love you, Casey Mitchell, and your bride Greta. My wife calls you “Tasty” for a reason: countless savory and delicious meals at the Banyan Cafe, not to mention those tasty percussions on our music nights together.

I love you, Bob Devin Jones, in all your fabulous theatricality. No one has done more over the last decade for the creative life of our city. Thanks for making a space where we can play and laugh and mourn and cry, a true theater of the heart. Thanks for saying yes.

I love you, Dewayne Wickham, for decades of powerful writing in USA Today. Thank you for celebrating my work and for inviting me to collaborate on projects for the benefit of students of historically black colleges and universities.

I love you, Rob King, for your service to the Poynter Institute. Your leadership at ESPN and the righteous voice of your father, columnist Colbert King, earn you both a place in the father-son hall of fame.

I have more love in me, and more folks who need to hear me express it. As I finish this list, I have become deeply aware of the differences between my experience of America and that of my honored friends above. I have the privilege of driving without fear of the police, of walking into a place of business without vendors eyeing me with suspicion, of living my life without the expectation of assaults on my dignity.

To all my valentines, I promise to follow your lead, to be of service to you, as you have been to me. I promise to listen and learn. In my writing and teaching, I recommit myself to racial equality and social justice.

I have come to believe in my heart the lessons of the New York Times project “1619,” that no group in American history has suffered more — or fought more courageously to uphold the ideals of America — than my African American brothers and sisters. Their friendship is my hope for the country, my anchor, my flag.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. His latest book on writing and language is “Murder Your Darlings.” He has lived in south St. Petersburg since 1977. Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.

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