Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian who is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning CNN Original Series “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.” Kamau has a Netflix stand-up comedy special, “Private School Negro” and a book with the easy-to-remember title “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’ 4”, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian.” The views expressed here are his; read more opinion on CNN. For more on Washington, DC, watch “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
If there is one thing that regularly brings our country together, it’s our hatred of Washington. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or a fake Republican pretending to be one for your job security, odds are you have at times harbored some level of dislike for the nation’s capital. But the truth is, if you hate Washington, DC, the thing you actually hate is Washington – and, most likely, you don’t know much about DC.
When I was in town, folks who actually live there – as in, not the politicians who just work there – told me they refer to Capitol Hill as Washington and everything else as DC.
Hating Washington has been a thing since we decided to put the capital there in 1790: It was too far south for the North and too far north for the South. And because our Founding Fathers didn’t want the nation’s capital to be under the sway of the state it was located in, they decided it would remain under the rule of the federal government – which sounds fine, unless you live there.
Since Washington isn’t in a state, it can’t really govern itself. The city does have a delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, but although she can serve on committees, she cannot vote on final passage of any legislation. This is weird, especially when you consider that DC is the capital of a country whose whole existence is based on self-governance.
But as quiet as it’s kept, Washington is not just the capital of the United States. It’s more like a tale of two cities – and this Sunday on “United Shades of America,” I learn what that’s like for the people who just happen to live in the District.
Where Washington is a scene that has long been and is still mostly dominated by white men, DC is one of America’s great black cities – so black it’s called Chocolate City. (Or at least they used to call it that. Gentrification has some of the people I talked to people calling it “Milk Chocolate City” or “Reese’s Pieces City.”)
DC has had decades of black leadership. And no matter who is in charge over on the Hill, DC is a reliable bright blue dot on the electoral map. It is a city that regularly leads the rest of the country on lefty issues like gun control, marriage equality, and legalization of marijuana.
Or at least it tries to lead the nation. Since DC isn’t a part of a state or its own state, when the District decides to vote for something like legalized marijuana or banning handguns, the federal government often steps in and says not so fast. As one of the guests on the show, Howard University professor Dr. Greg Carr tells me on Sunday’s episode, “DC has more in common with Guam and Puerto Rico. It’s an occupied territory.”
Sit with that for a little bit in the so-called land of the free.
Many of the DC residents I talked to discussed how their sense of occupation is connected to race. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, more than 25,000 formerly enslaved Africans moved to town. Back then, DC was mostly pro-Union, and it had a burgeoning infrastructure of black education, small businesses and churches that were centers for social justice.
But while DC residents empowered themselves locally, it’s always been an uphill battle with the federal government. They weren’t even allowed to vote in the presidential election until 1961, the same year we first put a man in space.
My goal this episode was to talk to as many people off the Hill as I could to get a feel for the real DC. I started at one of my favorite spots in the city, Calabash Tea & Cafe, which is owned by my friend Sunyatta Amen. It’s right around the corner from Howard University, so it’s a regular hangout for students and professors. That’s where I met Professor Carr, and it was the first of many times that week that I heard about the man DC calls “The Mayor For Life,” Marion Barry.
He wasn’t actually the mayor for life, but he was DC’s mayor multiple times across many years with a break in the middle. That break is why I’m guessing that, for many people who may only have heard the story of him getting caught smoking crack, he’s just the punchline to a joke.
But what’s less known is that he’s also a hero to the city. In the 1960s he was a civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. In the 1970s he an architect of the Home Rule Act, which meant there could actually be a mayor in DC. As mayor, he got more black police officers on the force and launched the Summer Youth Program, which gave many DC residents their very first jobs.
After tea, I went to Lee’s Flower and Card Shop, a community hub that has the laughter and conversation of a barber shop. It’s one of DC’s oldest black-owned businesses and employs many local residents. When I was there I quipped that there were more black women working there than in the Trump administration. They laughed. I wasn’t really kidding.
I also talked to people in DC who have seen what is going on over on Capitol Hill and have felt inspired to go to do something about it. That included Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old girl who spoke at The March For Life rally held after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and activist and mom Kristin Mink, who went viral for confronting the embattled then-head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who seemed to specialize in doing everything in his tenure except protecting the environment.
I met up with DC legends Henry Rollins and Trouble Funk, the band that helped pioneer the DC area’s beloved genre, go-go music. I was also honored to meet with longtime White House correspondent and Black Twitter doyenne April Ryan. Ryan was born and raised in Baltimore, not that far from DC, and she talked about how she never could have imagined her life as a White House reporter.
I even embedded my audition to be the new host of “Kids Say The Darnedest Things About Our Crumbling Democracy” in this episode by talking to a bunch of fifth graders at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. Oyster-Adams is a public school that in addition to the regular stuff teaches English, Spanish and eventually Mandarin to its students. It’s a diverse school, and serves a portion of DC’s large Salvadoran community. The kids I met with all expressed their love of DC and their fear of what is going on in Washington. Each of them spoke more eloquently and intelligently than anything we have had coming out of the Oval Office since January 17, 2017. But before you think my visit was too one-sided, I also met with Prentice Wolf, a black woman who, as you can tell from her red MAGA hat, ain’t with her. She talked of her discomfort with letting people know she’s a Trump supporter in such a bright blue city.
DC is a beautiful place, a city with a proud black history when it wasn’t easy to be black and proud, and a city that has consistently turned out some of the nation’s best artists and thought leaders. And many of those people also have a real problem with Washington, because Washington won’t let DC be DC: a diverse place with progressive politics and a history of fighting for the voices of the unheard. Many feel like they are being ruled instead of governed, and that is especially clear during the Trump era.
Washington will probably in some ways always be a mess, but that’s not DC’s fault. And whether you’re on the left or the right, you have to support a city being allowed to decide what’s good for itself. Let DC be DC.