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Sean Kirst: In Buffalo, hearing the song of a grieving child who 'could not weep anymore'

From the Complete coverage: 10 killed, 3 wounded in mass shooting at Buffalo supermarket series
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Tops Shooting (copy)

A police officer comforts a man outside the Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, where a shooter killed 10 people on Saturday.

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Just thinking of Aretha Franklin.

Just thinking of how she used to spend childhood summers here with her mom, Barbara Siggers Franklin, pianist and gospel singer.

Just thinking of how Barbara was lost to a sudden heart attack when Aretha was not quite 10, and how the child – in the hours after they buried her mother at Forest Lawn – went to the curb in front of her grandparents’ house on Lyth Avenue, in the heart of this city's Black community, where she wept until she could not weep anymore.

Then she became one of the greatest singers this world has known.

Just thinking of Aretha, of how she wept and suffered, and what she gave us all.

To the day she died, wherever she went, she carried that piece of Buffalo.

As a child, like everyone else her age, she must have shopped with her mom on quiet weekend afternoons.

It is a thing you do, a thing like breathing, in a community.

A community that helps define and lift this city.

Just thinking of John Lewis.

Just thinking of how he traveled here, as a kid, for respite from the cruelty he endured each day in the Jim Crow south.

Just thinking of how his life changed because of what he saw on his uncle's block on North Division Street, how it made him believe there was maybe a chance – just a chance – that people of all colors could prosper as neighbors, and how he brought that faith back to his Alabama home, where he would walk straight into arrests and beatings in peaceful keeping with that vision.

Just thinking of what he saw and believed and imagined in Buffalo, even as we double over about the unspeakable at a Tops Market, the kind of Tops whose counters and delis and checkouts are almost as familiar in this region as our own living rooms.

That is where officials say an 18-year-old, every pore enflamed with hate, assaulted a community, a neighborhood, he refused to know or comprehend.

He was driven by a madness, a blindness, the police describe "as racially motivated."

All those he attacked.

The 13 killed or wounded.

They are Buffalo.

They cannot be replaced.

Just thinking of A.J. Smitherman.

A Black journalist who fought against lynching, who stood up to the mob.

And fled for his life, from the Tulsa race massacre, to build a new one in this city.

A community so lucky for the fact he settled here.

A community where he imagined, at the least, it was safe to raise his family.

A community where his descendants, even now, are still making this place better.

Just thinking of the Central Terminal, and lingering echoes in the great hall.

The footsteps of all those families that took train rides here, during the Great Migration.

People oppressed all too long for the color of their skin who saw new hope in a place of hard Lake Erie winters and glorious springs.

They found work in the plants, the furnaces, the mills.

Sometimes facing renewed cruelty they did not expect.

But they soon were a living, breathing, generational part of city fabric.

So many folks, over the years, who helped bring magic to treasures like the old Pine Grill.

Or turned what is now formally known as the Michigan Street African-American historic corridor into an engine of individual prayers, thought and inspiration.

Such was the journey of one young man named Hank Williams, who arrived here as a child, then played in 1935 for the old Buffalo Bisons.

That long-vanished team, at the time, was part of what was known as the Midwest Basketball Conference.

That means he was the first to break the color line in the network of leagues that became the NBA.

He died at 24, of tuberculosis.

We cannot find his grave, though his grace and courage helped create deep change.

That story, in monumental ways, is repeated countless times.

It is the quiltwork of the Black community in Buffalo.

The great physicians. Educators. Musicians. Writers. Ministers. Engineers.

Families here since the beginning, or here as newcomers.

All, in labor and aspiration, part of a magnificent foundation.

Without them, there is no Buffalo.

Yet on Saturday a teenager with a battle-ready weapon, driven by what officials describe as pointless hate, traveled from hours away, they say, to kill or wound more than a dozen people as they worked or shopped.

As they casually browsed the aisles on a beautiful spring day.

He based that violence upon the "sin," it seems, of skin that did not match his own.

Lives of untouchable meaning wiped out, officials say, because of rigid, shallow poison.

It is a blasphemy. This is Buffalo. Each of the dead is us.

That true communion may be our one searing path forward.

The wound is still wide open. How can we ever speak of healing?

But there was a child here who learned how to confront, endure and share such pain.

The voice of Aretha would rise one day from the grieving child on that curb.

Who allowed herself no quarter from the hardest loss of all.

Who wept until she could barely weep anymore.

And taught herself to sing of the hardest mystery in a chord and language we can only pray for now:

Of love she buried, but love she never allowed to die

In Buffalo.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com.

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Related to this story

Three friends of Aaron Salter, the retired police officer killed in the Tops Markets massacre on May 14, are at the center of a scholarship at Hutchinson Central Technical High School, where Salter graduated almost 40 years ago. The annual award will go to a student “mechanically inclined and interested in improving upon existing technology in such a way that would make life easier and better for future generations,” someone whose work ethic and civic passion echo Salter’s. 

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