Ever True

Zooming with the Fellas
Covid launched a “virtual Black barbershop” for ’80s alums.

By Mark Winston Griffith ’85
April 8th, 2024

had it coming, the hazing I was about to receive. I had been missing in action from the Zoom calls for some time and hadn’t delivered on a promise I made to the group. 

Troy Wilson ’83, a Bronx-born attorney with a reputation for leaving no opinion behind, took the first swipe at me: “Damn Griff. Whatchu waitin’ for? ANOTHER pandemic?”

The ten or so on the call—all Black men who had been Brown undergraduates in the early and mid-’80s—began to crack up. Tonight, however, the laughter was muted. One of their own, the distinguished, Brooklyn-bred physician Darren Harper ’80, the beloved O.G. of the group and sibling of another regular Zoomer, Brian Harper ’83, had died suddenly of a heart attack less than a week earlier.

The sadness on the call was irrepressible, but so was the need to deploy humor. Use whatever term you want—the dozens, signifying, snapping, ranking, etc. For Black men who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, clowning each other is a love language. (During a previous call, after Darren referenced his age, someone asked if he had met Frederick Douglass.)  It’s also an essential ritual element of what has become de facto group therapy sessions on “Zooming with the Fellas” every Friday evening. And tonight, there was no more poignant way to figuratively spill wine for the brotha who wasn’t there.

Image of a zoom meeting grid.
The Fellas on a call in January: Top row, from left: Leroy Cole ’83, Mark Winston Griffith ’85, Dorsey James ’83, Brian Harper ’83. Middle row, from left: Richard Gray Jr. ’85, Thierry Fortune ’84, Bob Alston ’84, Matt Thomas ’85. Bottom row, from left: John McBride ’84, Troy Wilson ’83, Keiron Bigby ’87, Jay Broadnax ’84

The seeds for this Zoom call were planted in our undergraduate days. Like me, many of “the Fellas” were, as high schoolers, academic standouts from working/lower-middle-class Black New York. However, folks like the Harper brothers, Troy, Leroy Cole ’83, John McBride ’84, and Bob Alston ’84 cut distinct figures when they arrived on Brown’s campus because they moved with a swagger seemingly forged in a bygone era. They loved to watch and play basketball and talk unapologetically about race politics, while carrying themselves like mature men and walking straitlaced social paths. While others were playing the field, they were mostly in serious relationships with equally formidable women who also attended Brown and ended up becoming their life partners.

These men grew tight at Brown and have remained so for 40 years, but Black community-building at Brown is prodigious in its own right.  During the ’80s, student-of-color orientation programs for newly accepted high school seniors in the spring, and then incoming freshmen months later, established indelible bonds. From there, the Organization of United African Peoples, Black Greek-letter organizations, the Third World Center in the basement of Churchill House, and the Gate, a Pembroke eatery, were hotspots for bull sessions, political activism, and cultural solidarity. By the early aughts, Brown boasted one of the most active Black alumni associations in the nation.

After Brown, the Fellas went on to become leaders in medicine, the law, education, business, and other disciplines. Many remained in close relationship by serving in each other’s wedding parties and as godparents to each other’s children. By 1993, Leroy Cole and his wife, Leisha Stewart Cole ’83, ’13 EMBA, began holding annual barbecues at their Long Island home that served as micro-reunions for their Brown homies. Inspired by the lively conversations generated at these cookouts, the late Roland Laird ’82 started a politics and sports listserv forum that comprised most of the Fellas.

One of those Cole barbecue and listserv regulars was Richard Gray who, as a member of the class of ’85, was a self-described younger tag-along. He offered the Fellas a reprieve from Covid isolation by convening a Zoom call on April 3, 2020, in which about 15 folks showed up. He also organized a separate Zoom call with his former Black law school classmates, “but there was something different about this [Brown] Zoom,” he explains. “Many of us were going through some stuff, and this felt more personal.” 

Richard conceived of Zooming with the Fellas as a one-off, but it proved so popular that the group met a week later, resulting in an even larger gathering. Before long, folks came to not just look forward to these calls, but to rely on them. The most loyal participants were from the Cole barbecue crew, but there were also about five to ten other semi-regulars from a range of graduation classes, as well as what Richard calls “guest appearances and cameos” from more reclusive members of their extended network.

“For Black men who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, clowning each other is a love language.”

Since the first Zoom was held roughly 200 weeks ago, there has not been one missed Friday gathering. One time, Leroy called in from Singapore. Fellas even showed up for four hours when the call fell on Christmas, and then on New Year’s Day.

The Zooms are consistently raucous, full of side-splitting humor, politics, sports, reminiscing, and verbal takedowns, as if you stepped into a Black barbershop or Black Cheers. One part ESPN Roundtable and one part Meet the Press is how Cedric Bright ’85 described it, with Troy adding that it’s equally one part In Living Color, the ’90s sketch comedy show.

But there are plenty of sobering moments. While America was engaged in a civil war over the pandemic and the fallout from the George Floyd murder, the Zooms not only served as an information hub where physicians Darren and Brian Harper shared medical advice, but featured tense exchanges over Covid vaccinations. On my first Zoom, Bob challenged me on my views on policing, which led to a thoughtful conversation about race and public safety. Soon the calls went beyond debate to social action as Troy enlisted Jay Broadnax ’84 in a successful legal campaign to get felony charges dismissed against racial justice protestors. In another instance, Troy recruited Richard Gray to conduct a training on community organizing. Throughout it all, friendships and mutual trust have deepened.

Darren’s passing was just one of many life transitions that have created intimate moments and reminded the Fellas of their mortality. They’ve leaned on and commiserated with one another through life-threatening health conditions, the deaths of spouses and siblings, and through caring for aging parents. Rich, Leroy, and Dominic Taylor ’87, ’95 MFA, traded notes about their parents on a Zoom call hours before Richard lost his mother. “This is a safe space, it’s where I come to be my whole self,” said Jay.

Anne Beal ’84 was like a sister to many of the Fellas while at Brown. Still, she observed that “twenty or thirty years ago, I would have interpreted their Zoom call as an exclusionary thing, as the old boys’ club and a maintenance of a power structure that women should be trying to dismantle. But that’s not how I look at it today.”

Anne, a physician-researcher and entrepreneur, says she has been able to “organically” form community with her Black, upper-middle-class women peers, in ways that she believes are elusive for Black men. “I don’t think we can fully appreciate the burden of being a Black man in America and navigating masculinity, racism, and the kind of expected manifestations of manhood that are subverted in a racist society, such as our expectations of men as providers and protectors. Black men have things that they care about that carry a lot of meaning for them that we just don’t share. Having that space for men to be able to reflect that challenge, in a safe environment, is really hard and important work.”

Mark Winston Griffith ’85 is an award-winning journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the cohost/producer of the NPR documentary podcast School Colors, which examines race, class, and power in American cities and schools.

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