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Black Enough

Some People Wonder Whether D.C.'s Mayor Really Is. Here's One of Them.

By Anthony Jenkins
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page B1

There is a concern that's being discussed in some quarters of the District's African-American community: How black is Mayor Anthony Williams? If that seems like a strange question to pose after only his second week in office, it is important to know that the subject goes back to his days as the city's chief financial officer. Who was this man who was using a very blunt instrument to decimate the ranks of District employees? Should people of color be concerned that someone from within their ranks was wielding the ax? Or should we take a deep breath and say, "Regardless of who's losing their jobs, this has to be done. The D.C. government is a shambles."

Strong words, strong feelings, on both sides. From that point on, I knew the question of his blackness--there is no other word for it, in the minds of some African-American city residents--would become a real issue after Williams announced his candidacy. (A joke heard during the campaign: "If you want a white man, elect a real one--Jack Evans.") Even more interesting, perhaps, is the question of whether whites, assuming they care one way or the other, even understand the concept of "How black is a black person?" Of course, the most progressive and liberal whites will say they know what it means, but I think not. Not really. As a 50-year-old African American, I still struggle with the concept. I do know, however, that it is important. Very much so.

After Williams won, there was talk in the newspapers of how his victory showed that blacks and whites could come together in support of the same candidate. While there is truth in that analysis, it is also true that there was a distinct split in the black vote between those who favored the grass-roots/inner-city candidacy of D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous and those who liked the tough-guy, super-administrator (and yes, impersonal) image that Williams projected. So I knew that the blackness issue was bound to linger.

I've lived in the District all of my life, save one year in Vietnam and one on a stateside Army tour. I played pickup football on the vacant lot that is now RFK Stadium. I got my college degree here. My wife runs a business three blocks from Rock Creek Park (three blocks east of the park, since color is an issue here). My home is in the shadow of Catholic University, and my 9-year-old son attends a fine public school. I work for the federal government and I have never given a thought to moving to the suburbs. My red-brick house is sturdy and in good shape, so much so that a contractor who was doing work on it told me that he could use the moldings and other materials "to build a stronger house than the ones they are sticking up around the Beltway."

In traveling outside this area, I've heard suburban residents say that they're from "Washington," when they actually live in Wheaton, Burke, White Oak or McLean. These folks understandably use D.C. as a reference point, since no one outside of a 100-mile radius of the District would know the names of Washington's suburbs. Then they will turn right around and verbally trash the city, delighting in its woes. Whatever their motives, there is no valid reason to tell their out-of-town friends and relatives that it is not worth a trip to see my beautiful city.

To those who know me, my love of this city is obvious. When I travel and I speak of my hometown, I make sure that the people don't mistake me for a suburbanite. I was here when the city didn't have a mayor, when black folks couldn't go to see movies at Loew's Palace or Loew's Capitol or the RKO Keith, names that don't mean anything to most of you. I was the 4-year-old crying at the downtown Woolworth's lunch counter as my mother dragged me past the white kids sitting there, eating ice cream and cookies. (We could spend money there, but we could not sit and eat.) When a white waitress offered me a cookie that some white kid on left on his plate, my mother slapped it out of her hand as I tried to take it. I cried even more.

I knew nothing of other people's germs, nor condescension. I just wanted that cookie. My mom didn't have fire in her eyes often, but it was there whenever she recounted that story. But my love for Washington is unwavering, even after learning that race is not a sometimes thing. So the mayor's social conscience, specifically his blackness, is a big issue with me.

When the topic comes up in conversation, my friends and associates aren't shy about speaking their minds, either. These folks are a pretty fair mix of African Americans, ranging in age from their mid-thirties to late fifties and mostly middle class (if you stretch that term both ways). No cookie cutter here: Some are entrepreneurs, some are government employees and managers, some work for high-tech companies, a few are blue-collar workers. In most cases, these conversations were spontaneous, but when I was preparing to write this article, I also spoke to some friends in the suburbs. Some of my D.C. friends had supported Williams, some Chavous; I don't remember talking to anyone who had voted for the other candidates in the Democratic primary.

In situations where I'm asked to define blackness, and there have been a few, I have offered my personal definition: Blackness, like any other characteristic that identifies an oppressed group, is a state of common spiritual idealism that serves to unite the group for the purpose of survival. Putting it another way that's less of a mouthful, there is not one person of color who can separate himself or herself from the rest of the people of color. Although each person is responsible for the content of their character, some part of their existence is, in some way, dependent on others of similar background and experience.

None of us, not one, has made it solely by himself. If one were to say, "My own hard work and sacrifice got me to where I am, so let the rest of them (it usually becomes them after success separates him from the pack) get theirs on their own," he is fooling himself. Sometime, somehow, somewhere down the line, someone helped him--by giving him a chance to prove himself or offering him some advice. When a successful black man looks at his Benz or top-of-the-line sport utility vehicle in the driveway of his luxurious single-family home in his gated community and can't think of anyone to thank, let him start with Rosa Parks and all the others who refused to sit in the back of the bus.

So blackness could be measured in how much one can give back, or how far one can reach down to pull up another. For most people of color, our blackness is tested every day. Sometimes we suck it up, sometimes we blow up. We have to choose our battles. The more successful we are, the harder it is to choose. There is more at stake, more to lose.

In my conversations with friends and associates, there has been agreement on at least one issue: As a minority, we are still quite vulnerable. One told me, "We have seen whites toss us leaders with black skin who have turned out to be Trojan horses." A couple of those leaders immediately come to mind: One wears a justice's robe, reversing civil rights with every bang of the gavel. The other rides a "white" horse through California, "warding" off affirmative action wherever he sees it. (Do Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly think they gained nothing from those who came before them?) So we should always be suspicious of the people who others call our leaders. "A black-skinned person in elected office," said another friend, "should be a precious jewel. Something coveted. We cannot afford to have any rhinestones. Not one."

By far, the most telling statement was made by a close friend, who said: "There are white people I would rather see elected or appointed than some folks who are black only in terms of skin color." That, I believe, best illustrates the complexity of the issue. I could not disagree.

The D.C. mayoral race was about electing someone who could put the city back on its feet, someone who could get its services back to optimum efficiency. But to many blacks, still the majority population in the city, that objective should not be accomplished at our expense. Before home rule and the rise of Marion Barry, blacks were virtually excluded from positions of power and influence. The only black face in a position of authority was a figurehead mayor. Whites were not then, and are not now, in need of our participation. Against that background comes Williams, with his massive pink-slipping that seemed to some the only way to curb years of bad management. The firings hurt black workers most of all, creating the impression--fairly or unfairly--that he has little or no special concern for people who look like him. It is no surprise that his spiritual idealism comes into question.

As I thought about the divisions in the campaign, it seemed to me that those who supported Williams placed a higher value on competence and experience than on idealism and inclusion. One told me, "We need to show white folks that we have more than enough brain power to run this city well." That, of course, really set me off. I repeated to her what my father told me long ago: We don't need to prove anything to white folks. But I accepted her point. The bottom line is that she wants a well-run city.

On the other side, one Chavous supporter told me, "A well-run city would mean nothing if no minorities were allowed to participate and no services existed for the have-nots." Another friend in the Chavous camp said, "Barry was obviously too 'black' for the powers that be. They threw democracy out of the window and stripped the people's choice of most of his authority, and subsequently gave it back to Williams, seemingly while the oath of office was still on Williams's lips."

Point well taken. Whites may be operating under a "blackness" formula of their own. Could it be that Williams, simply because he shows no overt passion for an ongoing civil-rights struggle, is a more palatable black man than Chavous? For whites, it may be that after multiple terms of Barry's unbridled arrogance (that's vernacular for a black with a backbone), Williams seems like a godsend.

In thinking back over what I've written, I'm sure that some may feel that I'm omitting a relevant point here: Perhaps Chavous doesn't have the ability, at least compared to Williams, to run the city well. Nothing is further from the truth. In fact, he may be better able than Williams to do so. Chavous is both book-smart and politically astute. But political competence is based largely on perception, and the voters have seen Williams operate in a high-level administrative capacity. They believed he could do the job, because his previous experience made it seem as if he already had.

My feeling is that Williams and Chavous are not antithetical, but simply react to the same stimuli in different ways. They are both black men born and raised in America, and undoubtedly have had experiences so common to blacks--taxicabs passing them by, store detectives following them around, police officers stopping to question them for what seems like no reason, white women clutching their purses as they pass by. We all know the drill.

I was embarrassed once because of assumptions I made about someone, and that was once too often. I used to hold a superstar athlete in low regard, based erroneously on what I thought was his lack of "blackness." Later, I saw his true nature, which he made public at the most strategic and effective moments. That, combined with the establishment's hapless attempts to tear him down, made me an Arthur Ashe fan--and not just because of his prowess with a tennis racquet.

The concept of blackness has evolved over the years. It has gone from emphasizing self-worth and the importance of group recognition to acquiring practical skills that ensure self-determination. Economics, politics and education head the list. Keeping this in mind, Williams deserves an opportunity to show us his true colors. Whether or not all of us have embraced him is moot, for he is now the mayor. But, as I said, he's black and he lives in America, so he knows the drill. His blackness, or lack thereof, will inevitably emerge for all to see.

Anthony Jenkins, a D.C. native, lives in Northeast Washington.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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