The Historically Black Life of Marion Barry

The life of Marion Barry Jr. so eerily parallels the HBCU narrative, so closely resembles the tragedy and triumph of our institutions and culture, that his death almost feels like the precursor to our own culture wake. Forget that Barry, a descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers, catapulted himself to becoming one of the most visible local political figures in American history. Forget that his time as a student at LeMoyne-Owen College and Fisk University forged his identity as an organizer and nationalistic visionary.

It was his time in the gutter, in jail, and the pits of his own existence that make him such a fascinating case study in the Black experience. Even with the modified version of a political comeback in his later years, with his own evils and deficiencies still very much the headline of his own political and personal story arcs, his legacy will be that of helping Black people to accomplish more and live better – much like the HBCUs which helped to birth his remarkable story.

Marion Barry died yesterday in a Washington D.C. hospital, stunning the Black population of the DMV and many around the country. The first picture we have in our minds, particularly those of us who grew up in the Washington-Metropolitan area, was “the bitch set me up.” But the second vision of Barry was his commitment to revitalizing sections and blocks of Washington where Black people lived. And then, giving Black people jobs with decent salaries that helped to forge a middle class that spurred more Black families sending children off to college, more Black entrepreneurs, and more Black political influence in the nation’s capital. From the Washington Post:

He came to Washington as a champion of the downtrodden and the dispossessed and rose to the pinnacle of power and prestige. As mayor of the District, Mr. Barry became a national symbol of self-governance for urban blacks.

His programs helped provide summer jobs for youths, home-buying assistance for working-class residents and food for senior citizens. And he placed African Americans in thousands of middle- and upper-level management positions in the city government that in previous generations had been reserved for whites.

Barry, with his corruption, womanizing, addictions and self-serving interests, turned a town steeped in racial inequity into Chocolate City. And when these vices had ravaged his public image, his health, his family support system and much of his credibility, it was the war between man and mission that kept him politically alive as a councilman in D.C.’s poorest district, and physically as a man.

He gave into himself, and unto others, until he could give no more. And this is the same plight faced by many of our historically Black institutions today. Egos, money, power and influence tint governance of our institutions, but because we are conditioned to do more with less, and because we are capable of and committed to executing a vision of success for Black students, we can generally overcome our own worst failings to make life better for others. We don’t have a lot of wealth to give, so we don’t hardly give at all. We assume that leadership will not get better, so we don’t hold our leaders accountable.

We have been programmed to believe that predominantly white institutions will provide better education, better job opportunities and a better way of life, so we don’t seek to improve our own institutions to grow in strength and number. This is the part where we could learn a lot from Marion Barry, because even when he reduced himself to a caricature of the man he wanted to be, he never gave up on people, and never gave up on his believe that people would believe in his mission. And in D.C., they never did.

HBCUs are fast approaching the day when we will have no more to give. Our schools have clung too long to the notion that what they have always done will help us get Black folks to where we collectively need to be. We never thought that desegregation would be would be an individual benefit based on personal merit and perspective. We never projected having to deal with a term like “post-racial society” and the implications it would have on Black students and faculty and their choices to attend and work outside of Black institutions and communities.

Marion Barry essentially killed himself, not by being mayor, but by living his vision of a lifestyle befitting of the ‘Mayor for Life.’ His personal failings were the capstone of other political and social efforts to derail his advocacy for poor Black people. He’ll be forever remembered in that way, despite the millions of lives he changed with his programming and initiatives. This is a similar fate that awaits Black colleges.  In what may be the final act of their existence, our leaders, alumni, and our students must embrace the idea that loving our HBCUs is not enough to keep them open. If HBCUs are to remain open and growing, we must take an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to recruitment, fundraising, economic development around campuses, and political lobbying for support.

Doing anything less is positioning our schools to fall prey to a legacy that is far less than what these schools deserve. HBCUs will fade into an undignified obituary headlined by falling enrollment, poor career preparation, leadership infighting and corruption, lack of connection with Black students and communities, and disinterest from their own key stakeholders.

Marion Barry was among our greatest graduates, and if there is one lesson we should all take from his life and legacy, it is that happy and heroic endings are not guaranteed in Black culture – especially when personal vice and professional victory run neck and neck at the finish line.


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