I hopped out there. I brought it up. Said what others were thinking. I wasn’t the first. But I also didn’t deem the subject of cultural ownership
to be taboo. I know that it incorporates all of the muddy stuff, the icky subjects that get pushed under the table because they aren’t the most pleasant. But I went there because I am a writer and as such, I can only type with purpose and focus and gusto.
It means something to me.
Last month, I wrote about the cultural “swagger jacking” of U St. and then sat back as readers went up in arms. I understand that my story hit a nerve, lit a fuse, created more stories about gentrification then I ever intended. Which is funny since I didn’t see my story to be about gentrification, but more who - in anyone- owns what story of a city its people, and in turn who gets to tell it?
So the story of cultural vulturalism got brushed aside for the bigger story that is always at the core of America’s story: race. Race is touchy subject to write about because it is still literally the raw exposed nerve in American skin. It is the everything and nothing of this country. It the conversation we are always having, but no one really talks about. It is the defining moment of every story in American history, and whether out loud or under your breath, you have a side. We all do. Because it is always there under something; it is stored in the pancreas of our universal collective consciousness. My story wasn’t about so much about white vs. black as it was about about the uncomfortable feelings that come along with the appropriation of black culture and the nouveau-Columbusing of spots that have been servicing blacks long before they were :discovered” by people who aren’t from here.
But that isn’t the story that people wanted to discuss.
In the superhero story of cultural swagger jacking, every body hopped on the cape. The Atlantic’s Garance Franka-Ruta wrote a historical piece about the city that spoke about gentrification, but not about culture appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the borrowing of black legacy to make money in a city that once called “Chocolate City.” To me the story of people leaving and how they left wasn’t my story.
But the more I wrote the murkier it kept getting.
In the process I was asked to do an African American radio talk show in Philadelphia, which I did. Then people wanted me to be on a few panels which I initially agreed to and then backed out of for a few reasons: First I was conflicted about the venues, both spots where the discussions were to be held were ones I’d just mentioned as being a part of the problem. Plus it just didn’t seem like a good idea to walk in lion’s den after I had just poked the lion. I didn’t really feel like arguing my opinion. It was mine and I was entitled to and married to it for better or worse. In truth, I don’t know if I could sit there and taken it if we crossed the threshold, which most readers did in their comments. Not because I can’t take criticism, but because many of the close to 800 responses didn’t feel like open discussion they felt personal, hurtful and calculated. So I bowed out respectively for the good of us both.
Then the city paper Washington City Paper published a story on Wednesday describing why I chose not to attend a forum on the various issues the original piece touched on. I told him that for me, the original piece wasn’t about race, and that it wasn’t even really about gentrification. In fact, I said, gentrification was way more about money then it would ever be about race. Then joked about how if I could afford a $500, 000 loft I am sure no one would stop me from buying it.
But the story remarked how I complained that white people think they discovered Ben’s Chili Bowl. That’s something I never said. Something I never wrote.
What I wrote was “you people,” and to me “you people” meant all the transplants. The black kid from N.Y. who is cool, but ain’t from here. The Asian who is hopped up to hit U Street Music Hall and then believes that she is a D.C. hipster. The college kids that land on Howard’s campus, do a 4-year stretch and believe they own the city. It was exclusive but not targeted at anyone other than those who land on Florida Ave. and believe Florida Ave. landed on them.
What the City Paper account inferred was that I believed that my story was about “white people”. Again, it all went back to race.
On the racial scale of injustice this misinterpretation doesn’t register much, but it did get me thinking: can a conversation about culture ever start with a clean slate or must every and all items that are loosely attached go through the lens of racial discourse? In this case the discourse was actually more complex, but it ultimately came back to just one thing.
Indeed, sometimes speaking up can pull us apart even as we come together to talk about it. And this is the bigger reason I didn’t want to attend debates on gentrification because basically I am all swagged out.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr is a regular contributor to TheRootDC. Follow him on Twitter @SACrockettJr
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