It means discipline, courage, wisdom and love. It was culture shock to return from traveling around the country with Nelson Mandela and then to catch up on the trial of Mayor Marion Barry.
Mandela is an exceptional human being to whom millions of people were drawn for his courage, dignity, brilliance, wisdom, gentleness and discipline. I felt fortunate to be in the presence of such a luminous human spirit.
Then, on the first day I was able to read the Barry trial stories, I was treated to allegations of crack smoking, a demand for oral sex, a rejection and the consequent cancellation of a city contract. There was also the story of two ministers who revel in headlines exercising their blackness by protesting to the heavens their denial of seats at the trial. I was back from the sublime.
I can hear the rumbles from some black precincts about attacks from somebody who never supported the mayor, from an elitist who doesn't understand human frailty and from somebody who has been on the national scene and doesn't give a hang about the city. Wrong on all counts.
I've known Marion Barry since the 1960s, when we both did civil rights -- he for SNCC, I for the Community Relations Service. Those were the days when we talked about black power, black pride and black excellence. It was the spirit of those days that led Barry into Pride Inc. It was the sense that he was connected to the plight of the black poor that led me to support him in 1982 not just with my vote but with what was for me a substantial contribution.
As for frailties, I'm a recovering alcoholic, and I sent a message to my old friend Marion after the Vista sting that I had stopped drinking at his age, urging him to do the same because I could guarantee that if he would give it up, his best years were yet to come. He thanked me for the message, and I repeated it last month in thanking him for his gracious letter to Nelson Mandela promising not to touch the visit with Barry's legal troubles -- a promise the mayor subsequently broke when he ambushed Mandela with a photographer at the Convention Center.
Finally, I have loved this city since I moved here in 1962. I served on the commission in the '60s that helped create its governmental structures. I have been its advocate in print and in a television documentary. I now serve on the board of the University of the District of Columbia.
It is not the tawdry, low-life details of how Marion Barry found sport and recreation that disgusts me so much as it is the betrayal of everything we fought for in the '60s. I am not unmindful of the excesses of media coverage of the Barry administration and the media's demonstrated inability to paint a rounded portrait of the black community and its continuing struggle for equity. Nor am I unmindful of the outrageous conduct of both the diGenova and the Stephens offices in pursuing the mayor. As a former Justice Department official, I have been disgusted by their heavy-breathing and leaking prosecutorial style.
But simply to scream "racism!" 50 times a day does not lift Marion Barry out of the cesspool he created for himself. Nor does it make his defenders saviors of the race. We must have standards in the black community. This is a racist society, and it will be for a long time to come. That people make racist attacks on certain black people does not absolve those who have been attacked of behaving decently and keeping their human commitments. There was no such absolution during slavery nor during the hellfire time after Reconstruction, so it surely shouldn't work that way now for a man who asked for our trust and promised us his best.
When we talked about black power in the '60s, we meant obtaining power to use reverently in the service of a broader humanity than the bearers of white power were able to do, crippled as they were by American racism. We meant using power to nurture children, especially little black children whose humanity we could see because they were us. We meant caring for our elders because we understood the storms they had weathered. We meant building institutions of excellence to serve our people. We meant using our power and excellence to wrest respect out of the breasts of a reluctant white populace so that it would deal with us on terms of black pride rather than white racism.
Marion Barry used the elders and lied to the young. He has manipulated thousands of others with his cynical use of charges of racism to defend his malodorous personal failures. That is the cesspool. Though we may wish the private man well and try to help him, the public man is history. He did it himself. And now he is doing it to our politics. Our blackness is all tangled up with his personal frailties, and we cannot begin to build the people and the institutions that it is our generation's charge to do.
There are better things for people who deem themselves really black to do than to yell at white people because they harped too long on things Marion Barry shouldn't have been doing in the first place or because the government lured him into a trap that even his wife says he should have been smart enough to avoid.
We need to be getting about the business of blackness. There are children to be saved and an educational system that needs repair. There is a university structure to be built and a health care system that is being crushed. There are old people in need and homeless people on the streets. Some of our boys are murdering each other, and others are falling out of the economy while many of our girls are giving birth to fatherless children. The needs of the time when we fashioned the concepts of black power and black pride are still there. Some are worse. But one thing is different. We have some of the power now.
To do things that we talked about doing takes staying power and discipline. It takes courage and a greater love for black people than for self-promotion. The civil rights movement wasn't an end in itself, but merely a stepping stone to permit us to inject our black humanistic values into politics and education and health and care for the elderly and economic development. It didn't mean sleazy "networking" by black pols and their circling sharks. It meant lifetimes devoted to nurturing black people, developing strong institutions and struggling to change the prevailing values of the society.
Blackness meant discipline, courage, steadiness, wisdom, strength and love. It is, in short, what we loved about Nelson Mandela, a man whose virtues added up to the blackness to which we once aspired. We need now to leave Marion Barry where he took himself, to raise our aspirations once again and to begin to heal our poor and fractured community.
The writer is a history professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.