Former DC Mayor, Marion Barry, passed away last night at the age of seventy-eight. It might seem strange to some, but he always reminded me a lot of James Brown. They both came from dirt-poor broken families in the Deep South. They both had remarkable talents, ambition, work ethics, and insecurities. They both tended to opulence and ostentation, obsessed with their image, and they both were brought low repeatedly as they struggled with substance abuse. They both had troubled relationships with women. They were both extremely important to the Civil Rights and Black Pride movements. They both suffered from often deserved ridicule for their foibles and run-ins with the law. And they both had legions of devoted and admiring fans.
When I think about either James Brown or Marion Berry, I begin with where they started from.
Marion Barry Jr. was born March 6, 1936, into a family of sharecroppers in the rural hamlet of Itta Bena, Miss. His mother, Mattie Carr, was just shy of her 17th birthday when she married Marion Barry Sr., a strapping sharecropper about 25 years her senior. The marriage disintegrated in conflicts over money and her ambition to flee a life of chopping cotton.
After leaving her husband, she settled in Memphis, where she worked in a slaughterhouse and as a housemaid.
Growing up, the future mayor worked hard at a variety of jobs. He had two newspaper routes and sold a third newspaper on street corners. He waited tables, bagged groceries and inspected soda bottles. He also went to choir practice.
I didn’t live in Washington DC during any part of Marion Barry’s time as mayor, so I don’t have the kind of intense personal feelings about him that long-time residents do. His record is always going to be controversial because he mixed so much needed progressive change with so much distasteful patronage and basic incompetence.
I know he deserves much of the criticism and even mockery that he receives, but I can’t help but compare how he is treated to a certain white mayor of Toronto who was even more outrageous in his excesses.
As people contemplate his legacy, they should seek out the good (because there was a lot of it) to help counterbalance the countless “Bitch set me up” references.
Most of all, people should have learned by now to treat those who successfully recover from substance abuse problems with respect. That could have been his greatest personal triumph. I wish the same for Rob Ford.