Most of Washington's black population loves the African Motherland with the intensity that they hate apartheld. But they also love Washington and hate is persistent, systemic problems, such as schools where pupils don't learn to read, high unemployment, the communities that are being dismantled, and the poor that are being displaced.
So when Mayor Marion Barry, fresh from a whirlwind tour of Africa, played expansive host to President Sekou Toure of Guinea at a state luncheon at the Harambee House, the enthusiastic applause from most was more perfunctory from some of the diners. They worried that the mayor's new role as the city's international representative contained little quid pro quo for city residents.
For fear of seeming provincial or lacking in sentiment, these persons whispered and asked that their names be withheld when discussing the mayor's recent trip and his increasing international role. But they are questioning whether the mayor is leaping into national and international flames while the home fires go unstoked?
"Marion will have to realize the timing of what he does," said one. "I think he should have waited until his summer job program had jelled. He know our D.C. Labor Department was weak. He should have taken care of that before he wne international."
Others are asking what are the benefits for the city? They question whether any gains will be felt by the ordinary citizen for many years.
"My theory is that there is nothing that African nations have done for black people," one professional said bluntly.
For instance, they wonder why African embassies in Washington do not hire black caterers for their parties? They question when black public relations firms will be considered smooth enough by the Rafrican nations to represent them? They ponder why the credentials of black law firms, or sometimes even black lawyers who work for while firms, fail to fit the bill for many African nations?
Courtland Cox, the Africa expert who is the mayor's Minority Business Opportunity Commission director, says flatly, "There are some things you're going to see differently." He expects greater use of black caterers, lawyers, public relations firms and medical personnel by African countries. "They had been plugged into the old boy network at the State Department," he said by way of explanation. "Now we are saying that there is an alternative.
"The first benefits will be cultural and social, the economic will come later. All I can say is that you're creating a large pool of resources from which to draw.... The middle class will benefit first. The caterers, lawyers, public relations people, maybe some black banks and medical people..."
The views of the quiet question-raisers are by no means shared by all of the city's citizens. Cab drivers are apt to pronounce Barry's travels "educational" with a hedging "he should be careful" prompted by their feeling that the more important black leaders get the more vulnerable they are.
Observers like John Kinard of the Anacostia Museum applaud the "international dimension" such activities give Barry should he one day decide to run for senator of a home-ruled Washington. Barry said his international stature gives him "personal satisfaction" and he has no further ambitions.
Even the critics at last week's largely middle-class gathering for Toure approved the psychological and symbolic significance of Mayor Barry's hosting his first state luncheon at a black hotel on Georgia Avenue.
And it is ironic that this middle class will show the firsr gains should any flow from improved relations between Africa and the city of Washington. As to the folks in Barry Farms in Far Southeast, or even the city's working poor, any benefits might take a decade or more, says Cox. Barry is "laying the infrastructure" for economic development and change. "I'm talking about the children of the people we're dealing with," he says.
The appeal, then, is for the poor to be patient while the middle class gets the first cut. But it is an appeal that is fraught with dangers, for there is a parallel in the development and death of the civil rights movement.
The black revolution that had united poor and middle-class blacks in the 1960s was eroded in the 1970s partly because the educationally better-off moved in quickly to pick up on the jobs and dollars dangled by corporations and government. Many made the leap into America's longed-for middle class and forgot what they were fighting for.
Now, how do you prevent history from repeating itself? Courtland Cox says, "It's a question of leadership. We must let training drop down so when increased opportunities come, people will be ready to take advantage of them."
Truth to tell, most citizens feel that Mayor Barry can deal both with the critical issues of the city while also taking an international role. But as one observer correctly puts it: "The citizens must insist that he does."