Mr. Brewer was introduced. He accepted the welcoming applause from the audience and smiled humbly as he made his way to the large lectern. He recognized many of the faces scattered throughout the auditorium; but he would target his speech to the unfamiliar ones, many of whom were no more than twenty years his junior. (He was never comfortable speaking in front of large crowds; he was most comfortable in the campaign war rooms of first-time candidates where he spoke using Xs and Os.)
Once behind the lectern, Mr. Brewer loosened his necktie and unfolded two pieces of paper, which he laid side-by-side. He stood with his right hand stuffed into his pants pocket and his left pensively rubbing the back of his head. He cleared his throat and finally addressed the audience in a slow, measured tone—slow and measured as if he was thinking and speaking simultaneously. “I had a teacher tell me,” he began, “that writing can be used for a number of things, for a number of situations, under a number of circumstances. And one of those circumstances includes expressing views that can’t be communicated effectively through other channels.”
He stopped in mid-thought and the audience responded with a go-on stare. “I’m not a professional writer,” he continued, “but as a personal choice I like to write…tell stories as a way of discussing certain issues. I was asked to speak today—for this lecture series—about the progress we’ve made in civil rights, some fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And in preparing, I realized that this is a rather complicated topic to cover in an hour. So, instead of giving you a lecture—which I’m really no good at doing and you probably don’t want to hear anyway—I’m going to tell a story.”
From the lectern, Mr. Brewer reached for a bottle of water, took a sip, and replaced it. “Why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because people enjoy stories. As my teacher said, people usually put aside their personal beliefs and just listen to the story. And that’s what I want you students to do today. Teachers, I hope you’ll be able to suspend your beliefs as well, but this exercise is really for the students. Students, I want you to compare your views with those expressed in the story, and afterwards we’ll have a discussion. But what I want you to keep in mind as you listen is this: Is progress an absolute certain? And if so, how is progress defined when we talk about civil rights?”
Mr. Brewer nervously exhaled as he looked down at the two pieces of paper. On them, written in long-hand, was the story he would read (overlooking his notes which lined and spilled from the margins, as well as several unfitting words which he crossed out). Mr. Brewer wrote the story just for the students of the Thurgood Marshall Academy—his own high school alma mater which remained in its same location, a few blocks from his old apartment building which no longer remained.
This is the story as read by Mr. Brewer:
“When the school year started—over the waves of laughter, when everything is new and fresh and with much promise—Keenan didn’t know what he didn’t know. And when the school year ended—over the waves of laughter, when everything had become routine and worn and marked by perpetually urgent forgetfulness—Keenan still didn’t know what he didn’t know. Sure, he excelled in geometry and English and biology and world history—mastering those had always come easy. But the lesson he would learn today—and would remember tomorrow—was taught outside his school walls. The lesson didn’t involve how to hustle drugs in the alley-back or how to rob late-night Metro riders. No, the lesson involved a different type of crime: gentrification.”
Someone coughed. Mr. Brewer looked into the audience and saw the attentive eyes of the students (and their teachers). He continued:
“Keenan had never heard anyone—not his mother, his older brother, his friends, his teachers, the neighborhood savants—use that word. Though he remembered skimming over it once in the Washington Post while researching a local current event, but he had no understanding of either the word or the concept. Yet, by the way it appeared—long, with a mocking “n” and a strange-looking third “i” and a mature “g” and a curious “a”—somehow reminded Keenan of the conversations he often heard from the dudes at the barbershop.
“These dudes, some of them old pipe-smoking dudes, some of them young pipe-cleaning and pipe-dreaming and pied-piping dudes, took turns debating and philosophizing about the nameless and faceless ‘theys’ who were tearing down Barry Farm. He also heard that these ‘theys’ were laying the foundation of an apartment building where the Big K liquor store used to be—an apartment building that the not-so-nameless and not-so-faceless ‘we’ couldn’t afford. Sure enough, week after week—especially on those good Fridays and even better Saturdays—if it wasn’t the same old talk about what the Redskins ain’t doing or what they should be doing, it was talk about the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ and the ‘we’ and the ‘they.’
“These dudes—most of whom Keenan knew by name—often took turns saying things like: ‘Look what they did up on 14th Street.’
“Or: ‘Man, have you been down H Street lately? You wouldn’t even recognize it.’
“Or: ‘When they added to that building and covered up the painting of Marvin Gaye—you know, up near Howard—that’s when I knew.’
“And in response: ‘That’s when you knew?! Man, you should’ve been known! What were you doing, walking around blind all this time? Ignoring the cranes? Thinking those stop signs out there don’t apply to you? The writing was on our ghetto walls when Lil Bow Tie sold what was left of the city to the highest bidder.’
“Keenan clearly remembered that Terrell Dorsey had made that comment. He was a different type of neighborhood boy: urban to the core and well-read. He recently graduated from Duke and was back home to start law school at George Washington University. He was charismatic and spoke with an unapologetic edge. And more so than anyone from the neighborhood, Keenan was fascinated by Terrell, especially when his raspy voice carried some of the most jagged words and back-handed phrases he’d ever heard. Terrell’s reputation was such that each time he spoke, he almost always drew just as many jeers for being critical of President Obama as he did cheers for speaking of D.C.—especially his beloved Ward 8—in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’
“ ‘But you know what I hate?’ Keenan recalled one of the dudes asking. ‘I hate it when they call it ‘urban renewal’ or ‘revitalization’ like we too dumb to know what it means.’
“But what did it mean? Keenan would ask himself that over and over: as he stood adjacent to a tell-tale palimpsest; as he walked past the ‘One City’ caricature mural; as he rode his bike home, up Hunter Place. He wanted to know what it meant—the G-word and ‘urban renewal’ and the clumsy-sounding ‘revitalization.’ What did it all mean to a rising 11th grader who planned to spend most of his summer vacation playing Madden and studying for the SAT and hooping with his cousin and the other neighborhood boys.
“And he questioned still, as he sat on the small concrete porch of his cousin’s row house. It was set on a patchy grass hill along the pot-holed Morris Road, in a long sequence of houses equal in their run-down appearance. While waiting for his cousin, Keenan saw three well-dressed men across the street, talking with each other in front of a boarded-up house. One man pointed north. The other man nodded. And the third man tapped on his smartphone. They weren’t the police. No, these men were a different type of authority, carrying with them a menacing clipboard, a brown folder, and a map.
“ ‘Conquerors coming to conquer the last of a savage land,’ Keenan thought. He actually surprised himself, because before today that kind of colorful thought would’ve never entered into his consciousness.
“From his right Keenan heard a door open. He looked over his shoulder and saw an elderly woman peering through her screenless screen door. She lifted the lid of her black rusted mailbox, which vertically hung underneath the house number, and pulled out a couple of white envelopes.
“ ‘Hmmm, they’re still here,’ she noted. Her voice was low and contemplative.
“Keenan looked back across the street; the men were still talking and seeming to agree with one another.
“ ‘You’re Elsie’s boy, right?’ the woman asked. ‘The smart one?’
“ ‘Yes,’ Keenan replied, as he turned back to face her.
“ ‘Well, whatchu make of that over there?’
“ ‘What? Them?’
“ ‘Yes, them. Over there.’ She pointed with her chin.
“Keenan turned back towards the men and said, ‘I don’t know. What’re they doing?’
“ ‘Getting ready to kick us out, that’s what they’re doing,’ the woman replied. ‘They come ‘round here saying that they going to fix up the neighborhood and whatnot. I got the paper they left in here somewhere. But what I want to know is why they wait so long to fix it up? Where was they at years ago?’
“ ‘Who are they?’
“ ‘I don’t know, son,’ she answered. ‘Could be some men from the city. But what I do know is that they don’t care nothing ‘bout us, ‘bout us poor folks. They just come ‘round here kicking us out our homes. And where they think we can go? Humph. I guess it really don’t matter to them because soon, I tell you, there ain’t going to be none of us left to say anything about it one way or the other. Look at them, grinning. Can’t wait to get us from over here. Dying to take what little we got. I’m telling you the truth, just when we think we made it. Mmmm. The devil can sure cast a long shadow, can’t he? Oh, but there ain’t nothing I can do ‘bout it no more. My fights were back then. I’m too old. You, you got to be the one to beat him back now. But just promise me that you won’t forget what it’s all about.’
“ ‘I won’t,’ Keenan promised, as he looked past the men and into his thoughts. The woman mumbled something and then closed (and locked) her door.
“Still waiting for his cousin—wondering what in the world was taking him so long—Keenan watched the three men load into a gray car and drive off, towards MLK Avenue. And that was the day when Keenan learned that thousands of days—past and future—can be melted into one conversation. The end.”
The audience applauded as Mr. Brewer folded his story and pocketed it inside his sports jacket. He reached for the bottle of water and moved from behind the lectern. “Now, let’s have a discussion,” he said, before taking another sip. “Does anyone want to comment or share their thoughts?” Silence. “What message about civil rights is the story trying to convey?” Silence. “Well, let me ask it another way: What is gentrification, and how does it relate to our understanding of civil rights progress? What are the characters implying about gentrification?”
The auditorium was still silent, until someone coughed (again). Mr. Brewer waited…and waited…took another sip of water…and waited. And just when he thought that either the topic was too complicated or the story was too futile, he saw a student raise his hand. Immediately, another hand rose…followed by another one…and then another one…and three more, simultaneously…and another one way in the back….
Mr. Brewer smiled inwardly and then called for the first comment; and it was one that he had hoped to elicit.