The Fallen Mighty – Stephanie Renée

Written by on November 23, 2014

November has been a hard month for Black folks.

From midterm election results to watching and waiting for justice in Ferguson, to the dismantling of hero worship with accusations against one of our beloved cultural icons, there is a lot to take in about who we are and what we want, in this segment of the Big Blue Marble we call America.

Today I woke up to the news that Marion Barry has passed. There are few public figures whose lives encapsulate the topsy-turvy nature of being Black in America as his. I am too young to know firsthand about his activism during the Civil Rights Movement that endeared him to so many “Chocolate City” residents. Like many children who are now growing up in a world where Barack Obama as President is business as usual, Marion Barry is the person who defined the role of Mayor for my childhood. Especially in contrast to the Mayor Rizzo I was warned about when I came North to spend part of my summers with my Philadelphia relatives. In the City of Brotherly Love, I was taught to be wary of anyone in uniform and to look for a nice Black family to go to for help if I ever got separated from my own. In DC, my world was full of “Black is Beautiful” and reminders that we are powerful enough to chart our own destiny. Marion Barry was the outspoken, strident architect of a good portion of that self-love and political might.

I am clear that much of my fondness for the image and legacy of Mayor Barry (who he will always be in my mind, regardless of his jail time or his latter-day election to DC City Council) is rooted in the fact that my family has been solidly middle-to-upper-middle-class Black DC folks since Reconstruction. Barry’s father was a Mississippi sharecropper. My great-great grandfather was a former slave on a Florida plantation. Yet our families’ desire to squeeze more out of life brought us all to Washington, took us to Howard University and the famous U St corridor, taught us to be unapologetically Black, educated and demanding of respect and results. This does not mean that there weren’t gloriously epic failures along the way.

As the preacher eulogized my father with the refrain, “He was a good man, but not a perfect man,” so shall I remember Mayor Barry. And I will hear the echo play out in the coming days as we watch Ferguson with bated breath, await any honest words from Cosby about the allegations against him, and judge President Obama by the way he wields his executive power in the waning days of his tenure. Can we embrace the good in the man, the legacy by which he has risen to power, and still properly scrutinize, chastise and hold him accountable for the glaring missteps and abuses? Time, and the ever-evolving moral compass of a consistently-oppressed people, will tell.

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