For a piece titled “The Graham Crusade” (Loose Lips, 12/2), I was interviewed by James Jones, who wished to know my opinion on the problems surrounding the violent episodes that had occurred at Kili’s, a local nightclub.
The delay in my response to the article is because of my relationship in the past with Jones and my respect for the Washington City Paper as an institution. I wished to express my feelings to Jones and to the paper before publicly expressing my concerns. I talked with Jones and, to be quite frank, am not totally satisfied with his response. To Jones’ credit, he apologized for some of my concerns and admitted to being mistaken as to the manner in which he categorized my store. He also stated that a correction would run in the next edition of the City Paper.
That being said, let me express my concerns:
First, I am not quite sure what an African-American boutique is. A great deal of time, effort, commitment, energy, and money were committed into opening a fashion-forward, trendy, first-class boutique that would cater to the demographics of an upwardly mobile, sophisticated, diverse clientele such as exists in the U Street corridor. In fact, one condition and promise made to the Ellington and its owners—Chris Donatelli of Donatelli and Klein, and Nigel Gragg and Vance Gragg of Gragg and Associates—was that if given the opportunity, we would open a boutique that would not only be first-class, but would also be representative of what the Ellington stands for—dignity and class.
In addition, this store was to be not just a clothing store, but also a living legacy to my son, murdered on U Street at his clothing store in September 2001.
When I asked Jones what his definition of an African-American boutique was, his candid reply was that he had not visited our store and he thought it sold African-American clothes. The logic, I assume, was that with my being African-American, if I opened a clothing store, it must be to sell African-American clothing.
Second, and no less importantly, I take offense to the fact that the adjectives “African-American” and “black” were each used twice in two short paragraphs, as if to not only make the reader well aware that I am African-American, but to also make a conscious effort, it seems, to bolster the position that I oppose the position of two other African-Americans: Lawrence Guyot and Sinclair Skinner.
Kenneth Barnes, who recently opened up an African-American fashion boutique on U Street, doesn’t fear Graham’s stance on clubs. Barnes’ son, Kenneth Barnes Jr., was murdered in his U Street shop in 2001. The elder Barnes runs an anti-violence group called ROOT and is the public-safety chair of the U Street Business Association. “I think that Jim is looking at his constituents, he is looking at the public safety aspects, and citizens are raising hell about it….And you want to know something? I don’t care what color you are, the first thing you think about is being able to walk down the street without fearing violence.”
Barnes, who is African-American, supports the Kili’s closing. “I’m going to catch some flak about it because it is a black-owned club, but we’ve had four or five incidents [at Kili’s], and now they say they want to close you because you’re black.”
I need to make quite clear my admiration and respect not only for Graham, but for Guyot and Skinner, as well. Guyot was marching for civil rights and risking his life when I was a teenager; Skinner is a voice for those who in too many instances go unheard.
For the most part, I refrain from commentary, because I try to look at myself as being somewhat above the fray and assessing all points of view. However, I felt I must take a stance in this instance, because in matters of public safety, in matters where people are being shot and killed, in matters where our youth and community are at risk, I refuse to compromise or be drawn into political debates or racial diatribe. It is not about taking sides.
Let me state my opinion as regards Kili’s once and for all and use my store as an analogy. If for some reason numerous violent incidents occur over a period of time as a result of the clothing I sell, then as an obligation to the community I serve, I should re-examine the way I do business. And if I refuse to do so, then I should expect an outcry from citizens living around my establishment for the city government to react, including police intervention if necessary, to force me do so. That has nothing to do with race. That has everything to do with the right of a community to be safe within its own confines, young people being able to enjoy themselves without fear of being shot or shot at, and my being concerned as much about the welfare of my neighborhood as I am about making a profit.
Destination U at the Ellington