If Washington, D.C., is "Hollywood for ugly people," the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference — informally known as CBC Weekend to those who skip the panels and attend the parties — is an HBCU Homecoming for grown people with jobs. It's a Beltway Freaknic for people who favor MSNBC over BET. And I'll be there.
Designed to advance the CBC's mission to develop leaders, inform public policy and educate the public, the event includes dozens of forums addressing issues of interest to the black community. But for the young, professional target audience of the conference's Emerging Leaders Series track, the highest-priority theme is not always "creating a progressive black agenda for the 21st century." Instead, as a jaded lobbyist friend put it, much of our enthusiasm is for "partying with people in suits."
I have a girlfriend who claims the pretentious atmosphere of CBC Weekend socializing "inspires unparalleled levels of douchebaggery," and is planning to hide out in northern Virginia. But I'm not in a position to take part in the condescension. There's a thread stacking up in my Gmail account right now, in which four friends are coordinating attendance at receptions of all varieties — welcome, networking, red carpet, anniversary, women-only (probably not gonna happen), cigar and cognac — over the next few days.
And my concern as I peruse the schedule is not about "critical challenges facing the African-American community," as the press release suggests it should be. It's whether a one-shoulder black dress will be appropriate for a 7 p.m. event called "Supreme Court" on Thursday evening, or if I am actually supposed to pretend to show up in the same thing I wore to work.
I care about politics and social issues. I devour political news, mercilessly delete Facebook friends for ideological infractions in status updates, and have long held that my only hard-and-fast dating deal breaker relates to party affiliation. It's time to admit that I'd make no more impact on policy issues by playing polo on the Mall with the cast of RHODC than I would rapping along with Tupac lyrics at the "Salute to the Chairs" reception (aka "the California Party") on Friday night.
There's no harm in mixing fun with substance. This combination isn't unique to black people, young people or people who live near the White House. It happens at just about every political conference. Not to mention that the simple act of gathering in association with a political event is understood by some to be a form of political behavior in itself.
Still, I worry that for my peers and me, party priorities during CBC Weekend reflect all that's left of involvement in political, civic and social issues. Stripped of the built-in opportunities for activism and involvement that school provided, we're still willing to participate … but only if it involves a little black dress, champagne or the virtual equivalent (like a celebratory, "That's my president!" post after a moving speech, or a hot picture of the first couple after a state dinner).
I'm talking about those of us who have gradually replaced the not-so-sexy side of participation with cushy after-work affairs, like the one I recently attended in support of a mayoral candidate where 1) no money was charged or collected to support the campaign; 2) complimentary glasses of white sangria and shots of Remy were distributed to the crowd; and 3) the brief remarks were squeezed between serving of bruschetta and chicken wings to an audience too chatty from aforementioned free adult beverages to pay much attention. I didn't disagree when it was suggested to me that "the event" would have been more appropriately called "the club."
At another function for a California politician at a swank Georgetown lounge, the guest of honor closed her remarks by gently chiding "supporters" for the fact that many of us did not know anything about her and had simply shown up on the off chance that we might meet our future spouse that evening. The crowd laughed knowingly. It was true — half the people there couldn't pronounce the candidate's name with the proper emphasis. But my roommate left with three phone numbers.
Mornings after these occasions, we get ego-inflating "Thank you for coming out" e-mails that make it feel almost as though we did something more heroic than sign the sheet, slap on a name tag, remember to tip the bartender, and maybe write a check barely covering food and drink consumed.
My fellow reception hoppers and I do have the capacity to do more. We did it during the Obama campaign, when the pure exhilaration of the whole thing made knocking on doors in the suburbs or phone banking at a stranger's home more compelling than mingling in a dark lounge. With guests high on hope and change, the conversations at debate parties were naturally on-topic.
We're not going to have another first black president, so what will it take to draw us back into the important drudgery of political engagement, both formal and informal — following and debating the issues, making phone calls, and gluing ourselves to C-SPAN tapings of panels and town halls as if they're the Superbowl?
"Put the conference back in CBCF-ALC" doesn't have the same ring as "put the Christ back in Christmas." Nevertheless, we would do well — for our own personal reasons and for the issues that motivate to us — to remind ourselves to include some substance with all the style, this week and beyond.
When my future children ask what I was doing during what's known as one of the most important gatherings of African-American leaders in the nation, I don't want to say I was holding a seat for a friend at the bar. So I'm going to take another look at the schedule, this time focusing on the events that occur while the sun is up. Now, to find an outfit …
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a regular contributor to The Root.