Politics and Prose doesn’t have a problem with go-go. I know this because when I was there two weeks ago, I was happily surprised to see a Chuck Brown CD set on sale at the cash wrap. Of all the Brown albums I expected to see at the epicenter of casual luxury in the District, it would have been his 1992 collaboration with Eva Cassidy — not a live show collection.
So when controversy broke out at the bookstore, in the District’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, over the suggested playlist for journalist Natalie Hopkinson’s book signing for “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City,” frankly I was shocked. But then I remembered Frank Winstead.
In 2008, Winstead, a former commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3F, Single Member District 4, started an unforgettable battle with Comet Ping Pong. It was well documented on city blogs at the time, with Winstead clandestinely videotaping outdoor table-tennis players at the establishment. The claim was that having a ping-pong table on the sidewalk was a violation of public space.
Many people were on Winstead’s side. According to a DCist post from ’08 , the community came out in force to an ANC meeting to discuss proposals from Comet to stay open later and allow later outdoor seating and live music.
Eddie Kim wrote that Winstead “accused [Comet owner James] Alefantis of, ‘trying to turn this area into Adams Morgan with the murders and rapes,’ and, ‘filling up his fat wallet.’ He also made assertions that the restaurant wasn’t up to D.C. health codes and directly asked Alefantis if he had ever spit in a customer’s food.”
Nowadays, the outdoor ping-pong table is there, bands play and all the cool kids bring their kids for eclectic urban fun. But the effect of that Winstead situation clearly still affects that block.
Upsetting the apple cart in Chevy Chase can be a risky proposition for businesses. Any crossing of regular clientele or potential neighborhood heavyweights can put you in a position of political self-defense that nobody wants to deal with.
But the element of race in last week’s story is particularly upsetting. I guess we’ll never know whether the woman that apparently ordered the shut-off of the song “Chocolate City” by Parliament and “Run Joe” by Brown was thinking. If she did say the songs were racist, she got it backward.
What’s racist is insinuating that a pair of songs about the black existence in America have no place in a relatively otherwise whitewashed bookstore. And although I might not agree with the overall thesis of Hopkinson’s book, I have incredible respect for how she handled the situation.
Some have implied that they don’t understand what the big problem is. If the music was cut back on, and the playlist eventually played, no harm no foul, right? Wrong. On her blog, Hopkinson said the interjection had a chilling effect. I would say frightening.
The fact is that beyond a statement of “regret,” I hope Politics and Prose issued Hopkinson a personal apology. Allowing, even for one second, a patron of any creed to alter the creative vision of the store is something that should have never happened. In our allegedly post-racial society, it seems easy for people to forget that oftentimes the biggest scourge of racism are not the outright acts of bigotry.
It’s the subtle things, like letting a black author know that she can be shut down on a whim if someone so chooses. No matter your stance on the merits of the discussion about race relations in the city, in my mind, what that woman chose to do was nothing short of an intimidation tactic.
That’s a plain fact about the effect of institutionalized racism. Think about this: If I walked into an establishment playing Guns N’ Roses and demanded that the music be shut off because Axl Rose once unapologetically used the n-word in a song, I doubt my protests would be heard, never mind addressed.
But the Chevy Chase neighborhood culture is just as much to blame in this situation as any. What’s hilarious is that it’s the kids of many of that bookstore’s very neighbors that are helping to keep go-go alive. The irony of that fact, along with the very topic of Hopkinson’s book, is enough to make you want to scream.
Next time I’m in Politics and Prose, I might just buy that Brown CD set and one of the many magazines the store sells that so few other places stock, as I did recently. But this time, I might just read it out front in the car, blasting my new music, instead of downstairs on my headphones, in the cafe enjoying a prosciutto sandwich.
Clinton Yates is a contributor to The RootDC and local editor for Express.
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