Until I was about 12 years old, it never once occurred to me that African Americans were a minority group, or that less than a decade before I was born, the inner city had smoldered in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. In retrospect it seems ridiculous, I know, but I had my reasons and they made perfect sense to me back then. One, the most important, was that Washington, D.C., in the 1980s was very much a black town. The struggles for equity and opportunity that our elders had endured in pre-1968 D.C. and risen up for upon King’s death had been replaced, in less than a decade, with access and upward mobility. For all the backlash typically directed at urban uprisings, they were a catalyst for change in D.C. Should it have had to come to that? No. Did the uprisings (not riots) yield a result that peaceful protest alone was unable to produce? Without question.
By the time I came of age in the ’80s, everywhere I looked black people were thriving and, in many instances, in charge. My dad ran his own business. Friends’ parents were doctors, lawyers, news anchors, professors, architects, and award-winning journalists. They all lived in nice homes, drove nice cars, shopped in fine department stores, sent their children to private schools, and vacationed on the Vineyard. Howard was the first university I ever knew; therefore, quite naturally, the idea that it was a black college never crossed my mind. I just assumed that a lot of black people went to college. Equally telling, I also assumed that lots of black students attended Georgetown University since its basketball coach, John Thompson Jr., and the entire Hoya team was black. Then there was Mayor Marion Barry, who by the time I was old enough to wrap my head around our minority status, was already well into his second term.
I can remember being amused that the combination of his name and title formed a literary device I had learned in school. I can also remember being fascinated that the two words Mayor and Marion sounded almost interchangeable. In fact, I would contend that the blurring of the line between his birth name and the title bestowed upon him four times by the residents of D.C. was at the core of his undoing — that, over time, the rhetoric of “Mayor Marion” became the reality of “Mayor for Life,” the nickname his faithful awarded him, only partially in jest, later in life.
By all accounts — that is to say the untold hours my elders and now peers have expended arguing over his legacy — Barry entered office an earnest, intelligent man with a vision for black economic uplift. He was shrewd enough to institute a summer jobs programs that bred generations of loyal voters and economic policies that built the black middle class in D.C., my family included. He was personable enough to remember your name years after meeting you and ask about a sick family member when you least expected it, and he would leave practically everyone he encountered genuinely believing with utter certainty that they had a special bond with him.
My mother was one of those people. The morning he passed she sent me a text message recalling the last time she saw Barry alive, which was a mere two Sundays ago. He’d hugged her and told onlookers, “This young lady used to work for me, and she was an excellent employee.” My mother took pride in her work for Barry and for his administrations because she remembers what the city was like before he took office. In fact, as a city government employee for 30 years she worked in the office established by Barry to ensure that minority-owned businesses secured a share of city contracts. To put it bluntly, my mother’s career and the retirement she now enjoys would not have been possible without Marion Barry. Ergo, I, as her son, am an indirect beneficiary of Barry’s policies as well.
I distinctly remember the summer afternoon that the surveillance footage of the mayor smoking crack aired on the news. I was at home alone. I sat in a chair in my kitchen and watched the footage over and over again. I could not text, tweet, or distract myself with Facebook. I had to simply sit with that image of one of my heroes in such a weak and pathetic state. Even then it seemed like more than an effort to take down one man; it felt, to me, at 15, like an attempt to break a people’s spirit, to shame and embarrass a city, to make us all look like fools for ever having believed in a drug-using, women-chasing beast, to issue payback for the uprisings that had spurred the creation of D.C.’s black middle class. A quality of pleasure and smug satisfaction seemed to be lurking in the reporting of the story.
That afternoon marked an awakening for me. Certainly, I witnessed a leader fall from grace and, in the process, let so many people down. Yes, I saw the corrupting influence of power and privilege. But I also saw a ruthless media looking back through the screen and mocking black America. Whatever impressions I had about the power that black people had in D.C. became inconsequential in that moment. There was absolutely nothing I or anyone else could do to stop the story from oozing across the country and coagulating into a stock punch line in every comic’s arsenal for the next decade.
For the record, I’ve never chuckled under my breath at a single “crack mayor” joke. They’ve never been funny to me. They’ve always struck me as mean-spirited and flippant since, more often than not, the teller couldn’t possibly understand how important it was to come of age in a city where blacks folks had real social, political, and economic clout and how disorienting it’s been to watch it all disintegrate into memory, even as the city experiences unprecedented prosperity. In that light, Barry’s departure is the perfect metaphor for the still tenuous and conditional nature of black progress. His rise and fall is a reminder that black uplift is an ongoing struggle, the maintenance of which requires vigilant oversight and, at times, desperate measures. With respect to the flames engulfing Ferguson, Barry’s passing might also remind us that despair can be a catalyst for courageous, transformative leadership that can change the destiny of a city.
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