As the story goes, around 1975, God was having a conversation with a few of his apostles about the blackest city in America. The winner would have an anthem recorded by arguably the blackest group of that time. The conversation didn’t last long as it went something like, “Oh, it has to be Birmingham or Harlem,” Apostle Paul exclaimed, to which God replied, “Shawty, you lunchin’...”
And thus was born Parliament’s ode to the blackest city in the world, the blackest city on the planet, the original bizarro Wakanda in which vibranium is crack cocaine, Washington, D.C.
There is absolutely no part of black life that D.C. hasn’t touched, invented, lent voice to, protested, fought for, fought against, influenced or birthed. D.C. has its own style, culture, food (yes, mumbo sauce is a food!), language and attitude. If an alien came to the world wanting to know everything about black life in America, he would only need to sit for a few hours in the Florida Ave. Grill talking to an old head. If the rest of the world was wiped off the map and the only place left was Washington, D.C., the story of black America’s history would still be alive and well since it’s all held in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
D.C. started working for this title early. The Mecca, Howard University, was founded in 1867 and would later be called the “capstone of Negro education,” more commonly referred to as the real HU. D.C. elected its first black municipal office holder in 1868. In 1870, (yep D.C. is still in the 1800s laying down the foundation), the Preparatory School for Colored Youth, the city’s first public high school, was founded. The school would later become M Street High School and later Dunbar High School. By the 1900s, Washington, D.C., already had the largest number of African Americans in the country.
Maybe you’ve heard this story but there was a small little gathering of black folks in 1963 in Washington, D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial called the the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Some 250,000 mostly black faces converged on Washington, D.C., realized that this was the blackest city in the world with federal jobs and teaching gigs and many never left.
I was born in D.C. right off North Capitol Street N.W. I went to Bunker Hill Elementary, Alice Deal Junior High School and School Without Walls Senior High School. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. I’m good all over D.C. on the strength of the Crockett name. It means something. In my entire time in this city I can’t remember one white teacher (there was a Russian gym teacher but he taught us all about Paul Robeson). In fact, the women and men who taught at the schools I attended were really superheroes disguised as school teachers who taught us about self-reliance, the need to work twice as hard, and the importance and responsibility of success, all while instilling in us that we weren’t anybody’s “boy” or “nigger.” By the time I left elementary school, the schools had even cooled on all that Officer Friendly bullshit.
All of this is to say I spent my whole life in a city filled with people that looked like me, who taught in the schools I attended, who worked in the government, and on the police force and because of that, I don’t care where I am, I’ve never felt inferior.
That’s why representation matters and D.C. has always represented.
At some point, every black person that has ever been important to the history of black people was either born or lived in Washington, D.C. Hell I could run down the list of people and just let you take your pick: Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes—and that’s just the leaders of the movement.
While most folks from D.C. who grew up during the 1980s would argue that mayor for life, Marion Barry, would be the easy name here, they’d be wrong. Barry wasn’t born in D.C., he was born in Itta Bena, Miss. The blackest person from Washington, D.C. would have to be Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye was so D.C., and more importantly so black D.C., that he was born at Freedmen’s Hospital, the black hospital that would care for freed, disabled and aged blacks. The hospital was built in 1862, and in 1863 (we still in the 1800s, y’all) it was placed under the charge of Dr. Alexander Augusta, the first African American to head a hospital. Oh, and Freedmen’s is now Howard University Hospital and is built on the old Griffith Stadium site where the Negro League Homestead Grays played during the 1940s.
But back to Marvin Gaye. Born Marvin Pentz Gay, (the singer would later add an “e” to his name to stave off questions regarding his sexuality), he was as D.C. to D.C. as the White House. He was born in Southwest and would later move to the East Capitol Dwellings in Southeast. He was a corner-store legend performing with various doo-wop groups, literally outside on the corner. To this day, if you go into a barbershop or find yourself by the Big Chair in S.E. and there’s a person from D.C. of a certain age nearby, they all have a Marvin Gaye story.
Gaye would perform with Reese Palmer in a group called the Marquees around the D.C. area. I spoke with Palmer in 2002 for the Washington Post and he detailed Gaye’s relationship with his father.
“Marvin’s house was the last stop on the bus line,” remembers Palmer, 64, who sings with the Orioles, a doo-wop group. “After school, we would get off the bus and just sing, didn’t matter where.”
Marvin’s father, a Pentecostal minister who ruled his house with an iron hand and a fire-laced tongue, never approved. Marvin and his father would often clash.
“His father would trip, man,” Palmer says. “His dad used to tell my father that people that sang on corners were bums. He used to refer to me as the ‘head bum’ and tell me that I was leading Marvin down the wrong path.”
We all know how this story ended but the saddest part is that Marvin sent his father the gun that was later used to kill him.
Started by Chuck Brown as a way to keep people on the dance floor during sets, go-go was created, as with most things in the black community, out of necessity. The Godfather of Go-Go realized that once he had a groove going and people were finally up and dancing, he’d lose the crowd when the band just stopped playing to go from one song to the next. So he created a bridge, or a “pocket beat,” consisting mostly of drums and congas, as a way to transition so folks would stay on the dance floor. During this groove, Brown would shout out people that he knew in the audience, announce the band’s upcoming gigs, tell drivers that there cars were getting towed—he could literally say anything over the pocket beat and folks kept dancing. All of this—the beat, the sound, the talking—became the blueprint for what is the go-go sound that still resonates in D.C.
Come close and I will let you in on a little secret: go-go and hip-hop are actually cousins that play nice together but go-go was never able to reach the fame of his folks. In short, the one thing that couldn’t be captured and packaged on albums and that can only happen live is the interplay between the talker and the crowd. When the person on the mic yells, “Waa-waa-waa, where y’all from?!” there’s really nothing in the word like it.
I also have it on good authority that the people of Wakanda listen to the same music as the people from D.C.
I know I argued earlier that mumbo sauce is a food, and fine, I will let it live as a condiment, but prepare for your mind to be blown as an intrinsically D.C. food that most people have no idea originated in D.C. is.....wait, for it...the half-smoke!
D.C. is a city with no state. D.C. is the capital of America with no voting rights in Congress. The half-smoke is like this. Not quite a sausage or a hot dog, the half-smoke is made up of half beef and half pork and is served on a bun that is usually soaked in onions and chili and cheese. Half-smokes were originated by a D.C. meatpacking company called Briggs and Co. around 1950. Street vendors in D.C. sell these but don’t waste your time. Ben’s Chili Bowl didn’t invent the half-smoke but they perfected them.
In 1989, Georgetown Hoyas head coach John Thompson met with D.C.’s biggest drug dealer, Rayful Edmond III. to tell him to leave his players alone. In order to understand how important this meeting was, you have to understand what kind of place D.C. was back then. The crack epidemic was in full swing and 24-year-old Rayful Edmond III was a mythical folk hero. There were rumors that he rode around in a limousine. There were rumors that he’d take kids shopping and shut down stores. There were rumors that if you crossed him you’d get killed. Then there was Georgetown basketball, which was the blackest college basketball team in the heart of a Jesuit university in one of the poshest neighborhoods in D.C.
Big John had gotten word that his center, Alonzo Mourning, and forward, John Turner, had been seen around the Chapter III nightclub. So Big John used his resources to get Rayful together for a sit down.
“I sent the word out on the street that I’d like to talk to him,” Thompson said. “It was almost like a tacit agreement: ‘Do me a favor—if you see anything going on out there, use whatever resources you have to stop it from happening.’”
It may have been the most black gangster shit that has ever happened and links back to an old D.C. ethos in which black men talked to each other about everything.