The Soul Searchers: Four Moral Histories of Washington, DC

The Soul Searchers: Four Moral Histories of Washington, DC June 24, 2016

In preparation for this exhibit at the Anacostia Museum I’ve been reading about my hometown’s long, hot summer–the years from 1968 through the late ’90s–and its aftermath. These are really just notes.

Ruben Castaneda, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, And Redemption in DC: Four stories, mostly deftly woven together. First is our narrator, a reporter in LA who gets hooked on crack before moving to DC to be the night-shift crime reporter for the Washington Post. Our man straight-up interviews the staff at the Vista Hotel after Marion Barry’s filmed arrest, then checks himself into a room and gets out his own crack pipe. The other three players are Barry himself, only seen from afar; a cop who gets jerked around a lot by the department (largely because Barry manipulated police-dept decisions to protect himself and his cronies) but does manage to do some much-needed reorganization during the high of the District’s murder wave; and, most intriguingly, a petty criminal turned pastor who plants his church in the middle of an open-air drug market.

The book bounces right along until the last few chapters, when Castaneda is off drugs and wants to write mostly about settling intra-Post scores. As memoir it’s firmly in the genre where we crawl all through the gutter but recovery happens relatively quickly and not super reflectively. The obvious point of comparison is David Carr’s phenomenal Night of the Gun but that would make Castaneda’s book seem worse than it is. The best parts of the book involve the interweaving of the four stories, not Castaneda’s personal journey.

S Street Rising is a moral tale about individual choices to do right or wrong. Bigger social structures and the constraints of circumstance or upbringing exist solely to be overcome. Nobody in this book–nobody except maybe Marion Barry, trampling around in the background but never baring his soul–is ever broken by hardship. Everybody we get to know well gets out okay. So there’s no need to extend empathy to the people who never do get better, who continue to hurt others in spite of themselves.

The strongest part of the book, and probably the one you guys would be most interested in, is the portrayal of a neighborhood church riding waves of desolation and gentrification. In the early years we watch the formation of a complicit, wary alliance between the pastor and the guy who runs the local drug dealers. When the crime rate plummets and the fat years hit, Castaneda gives us the triumphant story of a woman who held out against developers and kept the modest home her church’s financial ministry helped her buy. It’s a gritty, practical story.

It also touches on a theme I discerned in all four of these local histories: the in-betweener. On the one hand you’ve got the upstanding citizens; on the other, the criminals. If the former are Christian they have an unavoidable (though often avoided, I guess) responsibility toward the latter. The nice folk may also want the bad folk as redemption trophies, proof of the superiority of their way of life and of their personal goodness. But religious “insiders” can rarely reach the religious outsiders who were so central to Jesus’ own ministry.

And so the in-betweeners are needed, and they range along a spectrum. On the classy end are people who used to live low but are now your basic American Christians with some street sense and maybe like some tattoos. On the sleazy end are people still involved in activities that are not only criminal but immoral, idolatrous, and who have no real intention of sacrificing their street life; but who still in some way love the Church, ideally as a wayward child but often as a patriot. Castaneda offers portraits of people on both ends of the spectrum, and suggests that no church can survive the mean streets without both.

Natalie Hopkinson, Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. A short, haphazard book full of memorable scenes. I learned lots of stuff here, and not only about go-go, the music that has always laced the edges of my white DC life.

Loved the section about the failed attempt to take go-go international, to make it explode on the scene like reggae and hip-hop. There were lots of reasons that never happened, but one is just that go-go is party music–it’s about the moment and the groove, there’s not necessarily gonna be a “song” in the top-40 sense, there are tons of shout-outs to local notables, the point is to keep people dancing and sweating. It’s good-time music that can’t be bottled.

Hopkinson is an advocate, a partisan. She defends go-go against charges that it incites violence–I mean basically it does, clearly, because music does, especially the music of young men without steady money. The book is full of guys getting shot dead as they leave the go-go. Closing clubs shifts the violence around but men will always find somewhere to go that makes their blood run hot, and if it wasn’t go-go it would be something else, is my basic belief.

There’s one especially catchall chapter with some great short portraits of in-betweeners, including several converts who try various means of creating a go-go gospel church. (The less-stable church is the one started by, from what I can tell, a couple who became Christian with less incorporation into a preexisting church that could nurture and form them.) These are the most dramatic sections for me because moral and spiritual change is always more dramatic than cultural and political abstractions. The circumstances–the flight of the middle-class (both black and white), the joblessness, the champagne years when crack was king, the political helplessness, gentrification and migration–hang over the city like August haze, and they drift slowly. Whereas an individual life has all the drama of a thunderstorm. But Hopkinson, more than Castaneda, depicts convincingly both the thunderstorms and the heat in which they gather and break.

Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood, Dream City: Race, Power, And the Decline of Washington, DC (revised edition). The 20th-anniversary edition of this scouring classic has the word “decline” struck out on the cover, and “revival?” scrawled above it. But honestly it is still the book it was back in 1994. The post-Barry section is by far the weakest, a list of mayors and scandals.

It’s easy to list Dream City‘s weak points. It’s way too focused on the mayor as king (this gets esp noticeable once Barry is no longer mayor–though always, always king). It has a ton of politico voices but reduces the District’s poorest to generalizations–we almost never hear their voices.

There’s an excellent history of racist opposition to home rule (with literal racist watermelons in case you’re wondering how grossly people could misuse God’s greatest fruit) but a kind of emotional tone-deafness to what it meant to live in Chocolate City. Hopkinson’s book has a terrific anecdote about a relative of hers who brought her little kids into DC for the first time. For the first time in their lives they were in a world where everybody they could see was black. Where black accents, music, experiences were understood by everyone, shared by most. Where being black was not an act of resistance.

One of the kids asked in pure wonder, “Are we in Africa?”

That world is virtually gone now. Dream City is pretty up-front about its worldview, in which rainbow coalitions and rainbow cities are always preferable to black movements and chocolate cities. Race politics protected shockingly bad officials here, and I get why Jaffe and Sherwood are allergic to it; but you don’t get DC if you don’t feel some longing for the world Hopkinson’s family found.

But so, those are the flaws. What’s good here is the unflinching portrayal of the worst of the Barry machine. You’ll find yourself muttering, “Jesus,” as you read about Barry’s government’s utter abandonment of the poorest DC residents. They closed public housing, shuffled people into ramshackle rat motels, and when the residents complained, the city blamed them for trashing their own homes. The massive cash grab by Barry cronies–the covert transformation of the police department into a protection service for Barry and his friends, while city streets ran with blood–the chronic use and abuse of women, starting long before the mayor touched cocaine and including at least one rape–you can say “structural factors” all day long and God knows every American city suffered through the ’70s – ’90s, but Jaffe and Sherwood pile up convincing evidence that one man can make a difference, for the worse.

There are so many poignant moments and stories here. Carol Thompson, a light-skinned black girl, targeted by her classmates the day after the 1968 riots for being too close to white. Barry himself, still too much of a cipher in this book, giving anti-drug speeches while sweating and slurring his words and ducking off to the bathroom. Effi Barry standing there onstage like a steel handkerchief while Louis Farrakhan’s wife tells her (this won’t be an exact quote, sorry), “Black woman, support your man.”

So what do I take away from all this? I read the first edition of Dream City in college, right at the beginning of my transition from relativist-leftist into conservative. (Into whatever I am now, yes, I know.) And it’s a ferocious portrayal of the worst of the urban/racial left: Stokely Carmichael throwing the first brick in the riots that destroyed DC’s black middle-class neighborhoods, then buggering off to the Motherland while the city lived with the consequences; a young Barry making his name with possibly-exaggerated claims of white police brutality; money pouring into government only to be alternately embezzled and mismanaged; cops were first undermined, then corrupted, as people tried to raise their kids in lawless free-fire zones; the best of everybody’s intentions, and their common destination.

Dream City is also unsparing in its depiction of white lawmen, though. Order is chaos is present here too. The whole bungle of the verdict in Barry’s trial is its own story: The jury split down racial lines, handing in one acquittal and one conviction and a bunch of no-verdicts, in large part because the sting operation and the feds’ goony attempt to force Barry out of office made the whole thing look like a political gambit by white Reaganites. (Barry’s trial offered a preview of the OJ Simpson trial a few years later.) The District’s situation, where a liberal white government warily grants a black city conditional independence as conservative white lawmakers pretty openly say they don’t want Negroes running the nation’s capital, was always going to provoke racial resentment. The city’s complex quasi-home rule meant nobody ever had to be fully accountable: The buck stopped wherever you weren’t. You could choose accountability anyway, if you were an unusually decent human being. So, let me know when you find one.

Barry himself was an in-betweener. Early on, we see him creating Pride, Inc., which gave unemployed young dudes city jobs. The goal was to take young men with few prospects, often with criminal records, and get them steady work cleaning streets and doing other necessary manual labor. And it worked. The work got done, the men from all accounts took genuine pride in it, Barry led a miniature parade of newly-employed black men banging on trash-can drums. He inspired these guys in part because of his in-between status. He wasn’t, like, McGruff the crime dog coming to tell them to stay in school. He was someone who genuinely conveyed that hard low-wage work is honorable; he knew that because he’d done it, and he knew that because he knew the guys who needed honorable work the most.

What stands out to me now is the relative lack of religion in a book about a city where Jesus is as inescapable as the humidity. We only see religion when it’s being marshaled to defend Marion Barry–“Free at last,” he says when he is met halfway home from prison by a delegation of church ladies.

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry: This is a documentary but really more of a footnote to Dream City. Images and scraps of information are presented largely without context. We get somewhat more of Barry’s inner life–it would be hard to get less than in Dream City–and see his pretty heartbreaking relationship with his godson.

This documentary gets closer than any of the books (even Castaneda’s imo) to seeing Barry as a mirror: showing us ourselves in him rather than using him as a symbol with nothing beneath the skin. If your basic response to Marion Barry is baffled outrage rather than humiliated recognition–well, you probably didn’t grow up here.

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