On Monday evening,
about 75 older Capitol Hill residents, many of them white, listened to a discussion about “Dream City,” the 1994 book written by journalists Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe about the history of D.C.’s local politics, as told through the life and times of Marion Barry. The conversation, held at the Hill Center, was fascinating: Twenty years after writing the book that the “Mayor for Life” has called exploitative, the two men who wrote it, like many Washingtonians, have starkly different views of Barry.
It was interesting to see Sherwood and Jaffe, from Atlanta and Philadelphia, respectively, opine on what they thought of the man at this stage of their lives and careers. Sherwood views Barry as a man who did not execute to his full potential. Jaffe sees the former Mayor as an opportunist. And while the back and forth between the two veteran reporters was at some times comical and other times tense, the question and answer period was eye-opening. It was evident that to many in the crowd, the story of Marion Barry is still just one that is riddled with nothing but controversy.
As a native, it amazes me every time someone stands up and acts like Barry was nothing more than a philandering, wasteful goon who never helped anyone. “I think that Barry is smart and incredibly gifted in many, many ways, but has never really done anything for that intractable, generational, black impoverished class that we have in Washington,” Eric Rosenthal, who’s lived on Capitol Hill for 30 years said during the discussion. “Does he really care? Did he care first and get led astray by his appetites? What is his feeling what is his relationship, if any, to the people who are his core constituency?”
It’s a common misconception and Sherwood was quick contradict: “Barry has a record of things that people care about. They don’t just like him because he’s Marion Barry and the prosecutors chased after him.”
Sherwood, now a reporter for NBC4, continued: “If you had a senior citizen in this city who got a place to live finally and meals to eat, Barry did that. Summer jobs for kids. A lot of it was wasted money but tens of thousands of kids, 13-21, got jobs. Some of them worked and didn’t get paid and some didn’t work and got paid, but many of them worked and got paid. He opened up the police department to African-Americans who were shut out, something he had been fighting back in the 1960s.”
“This will all be in Marion’s book,” Jaffe quipped.
“Here’s the thing. It’s better to criticize Barry for what he didn’t do if you understand what he did do and why people were not blindly loyal to him,” Sherwood added. “So your description of him having not done anything is not accurate. And that’s why people care about him. Because the other people didn’t.”
What became obvious that night is that the future of Barry’s legacy will be directly shaped by who gets to tell it. To that point, Barry is trying to have a hand in how his story is told: He’s planning to release an autobiography soon, presumably to tell his side of the story. But how his importance is regarded to future generations will likely come down to the population who have no choice but to care: D.C. natives.
At Wilson Senior High School in Northwest, Michele Bollinger teaches history. She uses excerpts of Jaffe and Sherwood’s book as a way to help kids understand the city’s history. But there’s also a large responsibility that comes with that.
“A lot of students who were born in the wake of those tragic years have a lot of questions about the impact of the drug epidemic and the war on drugs on D.C.,” Bollinger said. “Partly, there’s a lot of interest in terms of some of the mythology surrounding Marion Barry and the… ridicule that they’ve grown up hearing of Barry. So, there’s a lot of interest on that level.”
In the relatively upscale setting of Tenleytown, class makeup plays a part in how the book is taught. “A lot of my classes are really mixed for now. I’m really careful…to not use parts that are too explicit about one person’s neighborhood or another. I’m reluctant to put something out there that too directly talks about that era in a way that might make people feel a little self-conscious about where they live,” Bollinger said.
For some, Barry is still a symbol of hope above all else: A figure that shows groups of kids growing up here that someone just might care about them.His existence, however colorful, has been a steadying presence, even if at times coming at a huge cost psychologically and financially to the city. He might not have the political clout he once did, but his name is not an automatic joke for some. His story is the story of the city’s modern era and to only tell it from one side is to shortchange everyone.
Tierra Jolly is on a similar path to Barry in some ways. She’s running for school board in her native Ward 8. She’s also writing her dissertation on the relationship between national civil rights organizations and the movement for D.C. home rule and congressional voting representation. She not only was raised in the ward that he’s presided over for several terms, she studies the “Mayor for Life.” She recalled stories of meeting him for her paper and when he once changed his mind on a piece of sexual violence legislation after a family friend personally told him a story of when she was raped.
“I think that very often people who live West of the river have a tendency to focus a lot more on Marion Barry’s more recent political and legal issues,” Jolly said Thursday. “I think that as the history books are written 20, 30, 40 years from now, I think that there will be a lot more focus on … his civil rights work than there is right now.”
Barry declined to be interviewed for this column, but what is clear is that if anyone ever expects to hear the full story of his life, we’re only going to get it from one person.