America is searching for the words to let every citizen know they can have it their way

The first spoken words of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” are: Waake up! Wake up! Wake up! Up ya wake! Up ya wake! Up ya wake!

It’s a bugle call of consequence.

And the bugler is the morning radio-show host Mister Señor Love Daddy — at We Love Radio, 108FM “the last on your dial, but first in your hearts.”

Mister Señor Love Daddy is urging citizens of every ilk and hue in America to peel the scales off their eyes and wake up to racial injustice.

The movie came out in 1989 when tension between blacks and whites was running high in American cities like New York. There was the notorious Central Park jogger case in April when five young men of color were charged with raping and beating close to death a 28-year-old white woman jogging in the park. While the woman lay dormant in a coma for 12 days, people around the country formed intractable positions on their guilt.

Rhetoric blew hot.

What failed to grab America’s attention that night was the rape and assault of a 38-year-old Black woman in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. She was taken up on a roof at knifepoint, raped, beaten, and then thrown four stories down. The pain of her voice was not heard because the American Rating Chart of Human Worth (ARCHW) says the pain and suffering of a white person deserves more attention than those lower down the color scale.

The first person to wake up in “Do the Right Thing” is a young black man eating a slice of pizza at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Bed-Stuy. Sal is an older Italian American who for decades had a store in a neighborhood that’s now 100 percent Black. He and his two very Italian-American sons feel trapped in a foreign land.

The young man eating the pizza is a regular at Sal’s — Buggin’ Out — a name befitting his personality. On the wall above the booth where he’s sitting hang framed photos of Italian-American greats: Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, and a dozen other A-list Italian-American stars.

Spread across the top of the photos in large block letters painted black is: WALL OF FAME.

As Buggin’ Out sits eyeing the wall, it occurs to him that all the stars in Sal’s Hall of Fame are white, Italian-American white — and his face twists in a knot.

In a brazen huff he yells over to Sal who’s making pizza, “Hey hey, Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It’s the first shot fired at Lexington; the revolution is on.

And though Sal is culturally one-dimensional, he fully understands what Buggin’ Out means.

He doesn’t say: I’m happy you took the time to look at the photos but aggressively bull-like returns, “You want brothers up on the wall, get your own place. You can do what you want to do. You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, stepfathers, stepmothers, whoever you want.”

It’s a statement of ownership as the basis of justice; if you own, you get a say.

Buggin’ Out doesn’t fall for Sal’s trap; he shoots back an economic salvo reminding Sal that, since only African Americans eat at his restaurant, they keep him and his two sons alive: Does that not entitle them to have a say in who goes up on Sal’s wall?

Then he gets up and starts shouting in the restaurant: Boycott Sal’s! Boycott Sal’s! and looking over at Sal slams, “Yo, Sal, we’re gonna boycott your fat pasta ass.”

Sal — feeling his livelihood and personal history threatened — shoots back: “You’re gonna boycott me? You haven’t got the balls to boycott me. Here, here’s your boycott, up your ass. You’ve got a boycott.”

The temperature’s now 100.

And despite the pervasive humor in the movie it’s not easy to watch; Spike shoots out questions so fast the mind can’t keep up. And, prophetically, he foretells George Floyd’s death by 31 years, depicting the same MO: a white cop working on the neck of a Black man to demonstrate the rule of white power.

In “Do the Right the Thing” the cop has his baton wrapped around the neck of a young handsome powerful Black man, Radio Raheem; he jacks him up off the ground, tightens his grip until the young man’s feet quiver into silence.

Onlookers on the street — stunned by the murder — work themselves into a frenzy and burn Sal’s Famous to the ground.

If this were an Aesop’s Fable, what would the moral be?

America can’t say because She disregards people’s stories. The result is, as the great American poet William Carlos Williams says in his epic “Paterson”:
 

The language, the language

fails them

they do not know the words

or have not

the courage to use them.
 

It’s Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” a wounded young Black man who knows the answers but cannot articulate; he lacks the words to free himself to be himself.

History tells us that a segment of America did wake up to racial injustice and that a segment of that segment woke up even more and, though insisting that every person’s story is of value, they speak like Billy Goat Gruff.

Burger King understood the issue 50 years before in its famed 1974 commercial, a corporate manifesto letting every citizen know that Burger King valued their every need, their every want and preference, their everything when it came to buying a burger.

The commercial begins with a family of four rushing into a Burger King. When they get to the counter the father orders: “Two Whoppers, two Junior Whoppers, and four Coca Cola.”

Then, sort of sheepishly he asks: “And would I have to wait long if you made one Whopper with no pickle and no lettuce?” The Rosa Parks on the fast-food-industry bus.

The server, a young, alert, attractive woman, dressed like a stewardess — in a pink and white jumper and go-go-dancer’s hat — doesn’t flinch.

Like a supportive social worker, she grabs hold of the mic and starts singing like it’s a Christmas carol: “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” Nuestra casa es tu casa.

People of a certain age know this anthem by heart: it’s an old aunt taking you in when you had no place to go.

Burger King was encouraging America to articulate Her needs, to let every Buggin’ Out know they had a say in the Burger King Hall of Fame.

In the years I was involved with restorative justice, I came to see how difficult it was for people — after they had harmed another — to find the words to apologize, and the same was true for those who had been harmed, they could not find the words to forgive.

America in Her despair is searching for a language, for the words to let every citizen know they can have their pickle and their lettuce any way they like — every stewardess behind every counter in America waiting to serve them — without resentment.

Some say that’s the message of Christmas, and to those who do, I say: Merry Christmas.

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