Dancing to Barry's Blues When Others Would Prefer You to Waltz

E on DC

Returning east of the Anacostia after Council had voted to censure him, Marion S. Barry punches the air in victory. Photo: Andrew Lightman

Maybe Marion was our Mugabe. As my friend Jonetta Rose Barras recently wrote, “If he was an addict, as he admitted, he was also addictive.” Maybe only Shakespeare could explain a person like Marion S. Barry, Jr.

Was Barry a tragic figure? I suspect no more than the average human being. When he was caught using cocaine in a hotel room in 1990, I felt he was almost representative of other middle class Blacks who were letting their wealth go up their nose. Before crack – the poor man’s drug hit the urban streets; a lifestyle of the few had sacrificed the dreams of the many.

I prefer to look at Marion Barry the way history should judge him. Before Washington, DC, we have to remember the man who was a young activist in Nashville and McComb. We have to place Barry’s name next to James Forman, Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Bob Moses and John Lewis.

These individuals changed the South and the conscience of America. Because of Marion Barry, young people were taught the importance of non-violence in the Mississippi that Nina Simone sang about and where some would give their lives. Think of Barry back in the state where he was born, trying to get people to vote. Think of this man talking one night to the ghost of Emmett Till.

By the time Barry came to Washington, DC, in 1965, he was changing like many young people in America. When the slogan “Black Power” entered our vocabulary it became more than an afro and dashiki to him. Barry saw Black Power as the road leading to economic empowerment.

The man who encouraged people to vote in Mississippi would himself run for public office as he became older. So, perhaps it might be best to compare the life of Barry to that of Adam Clayton Powell.

Powell and Barry both had style. “The people” loved them. If Barry abused his political power after becoming Mayor of a chocolate city it might be best understood by turning one’s attention to the work of Pan Africanist C.L.R. James. James was concerned with how black people handled power, the mistakes they made. One could look at Kwame Nkrumah, Burnham and today – Mugabe.

Do these leaders exploit us? Do they fail us? In the case of Marion Barry there are too many things to praise. There is too much history to ignore. One might talk about Barry in the abstract but his name is on the Reeves building located at 14th and U, NW. After the riots following King’s assassination in 1968, this part of Washington was destroyed. Today, if one walks down U Street, it appears to be ground zero for gentrification.  Did anyone expect this part of the nation’s capital to rise from the ashes? Barry did. He was our visionary.

It’s ironic that at the time of Barry’s death, debate now focuses on the future of the Reeves building. If we believed Marion was ‘mayor for life’ – then how many of us will believe in his resurrection? There is an unfinished agenda in our city and it’s now linked to Barry’s legacy.

The poor still remember Barry’s Pride organization. They remember the man who represented Ward 8.They remember the man who was an advocate of the Free DC Movement and the push for self-government.

I will remember Marion Barry reading the poetry of Sterling A. Brown with passion and conviction. Barry understood the resiliency of the Mississippi and Memphis blues. Look for him yesterday, here he comes today. Your mouth is wide open but what you got to say –

I say color Barry not just Black but Brown and Sterling:

"One thing they cannot prohibit –

    The strong men…coming on

    The strong men gittin’ stronger.

    Strong men…


   (Excerpted from 'Strong Men' by Sterling A. Brown)

E. Ethelbert Miller  is a literary activist.  He is the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).  He is a board member of The Writer's Center and editor of Poet Lore magazine.  Since 1974, he has been the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.  Mr. Miller is the former chair of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and a former core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars at
Bennington College.

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