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The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of

Bancroft Press, 309 pp,. $24

The political analyst James Q. Wilson once wrote of the most flamboyant black politician in the nation’s capital, “The more whites deplore him, the bigger the vote he amasses….[He] has been running against real and imaginary white enemies for years and although he can be re-elected…without even the pretense of a campaign, he would probably like to keep a few white critics on tap, just in case.” Wilson was not, sadly enough, referring to the now politically neutered mayor of the District of Columbia, but rather writing 32 years ago about his Teflon prototype, Adam Clayton Powell. That Powell, the first black elected to Congress from Harlem, drank, mismanaged funds, and pursued extramarital liaisons with reckless abandon was common knowledge in his home district. And yet he was re-elected 11 times and spent more than two decades in the House of Representatives. The Harlem electorate was not gullible; they simply accorded a greater weight to Powell as race hero than to any matters of practical politics, and the same must be said of the enduring vitality of what can only be termed the Marion Barry Movement.

If one is in accord with Jonetta Rose Barras and the arguments in her book, The Last of the Black Emperors, the time of the politician as racial folk hero has come and gone, and Barry is an atavism who refuses to heed the voices urging him to ride silently into the good night. Would that it were so simple. Barras, a columnist for the Washington Times, and a contributing writer for Washington City Paper, does not savage Barry so much as she impertinently discards him, relegates him, as Lenin would say, to the trash bin of history. The story of the rise and extended fall of Marion Barry is epic, tragic, and, ultimately, pathetic. It is no kind reflection upon Barry that he no longer even merits outrage from his critics, but instead evokes wearied tones of exasperation.

In writing what is essentially a postdated obituary for a former political kingpin, however, Barras remains keenly aware that she is not dealing with a simple subject. As the words of Barras (and the public record) make clear, Marion Barry, like the lascivious Gov. Jack Stanton of Primary Colors, is a deeply flawed man imbued with a wide measure of talent, a degree of human concern, and a missionary zeal that has him convinced that the salvation of his people, whoever that happens to be, can occur only through him. The active ingredient in this political mix is the most volatile of four-letter words: race. Barry has always been buffered from the full impact of his missteps, blunders, and outright betrayals simply because he could count on a chorus of white critics who would inevitably grate against the sensibilities of a majority-black electorate.

Barras, for instance, advances the novel argument that were it not for the intervention of whites (some of whom had racist intent, some of whom simply disliked Barry), blacks might well have come to the decision to dump Barry years ago. Instead, the black community, seasoned by historical experience with racism and an indelible distrust of whites, came to a circle-the-wagons mentality that made “protecting” a black man from the jagged edges of white racism its foremost priority.

Knowledge of the insidious COINTELPRO, in which the FBI attempted to disrupt civil rights organizations, and of government complicity in the notorious Tuskegee experiment, in which black men were allowed to suffer, untreated, from advanced syphilis, made the job of demonizing the Vista Hotel sting easier. Barry was re-elected in 1994 not in spite of the negative media attention, but precisely because of it. The Washington Post, at least in Barras’ version of the events, helped make Barry’s re-election a fait accompli by offering a backhanded endorsement of John Ray and attempting to engineer the defeat of D.C. Councilmember Linda Cropp. In the wake of his notorious crack arrest, incarceration, and rehab, Barry’s opponents seemed to underestimate the appeal that a flawed man can have in a city where the disparity between grand achievement and bitterly deferred dreams can reach Dickensian proportions. In short, Barry was an imperfect candidate voted for, in part, by people who were painfully, acutely aware of their own imperfections.

This explanation covers how the Mayor-to-Be was able to sell his newly spun version of Barryism to the bamboozled residents of Ward 8 in 1992, and to the District at large two years later; but Barras is also intent on providing a thoroughly balanced perspective on the human being who found himself so consistently at the storm’s vortex. Barry’s post-prison administration, she writes, was doomed by the fact that tightwad Republicans were in control of Congress, but

Barry hadn’t divested himself of his rural beginnings….[H]e knew poverty far too intimately, the kind of shoeless, growling-stomach days that remain in the subconscious. When he saw others aching, bruised by similar privations, he traveled back to his own pain.

Barry, she reports, cried when he witnessed the conditions under which blacks were forced to exist in apartheid-era South Africa. But the rules of political hardball make no exceptions for those who can honestly look at an electorate, and state, in the words of that most sexual leader of the free world, “I feel your pain.” Barry’s vices would always trump his virtues, and in proving this axiom, Barras is absolutely relentless: Here is Barry, the empathetic, rebuilt leader of the nation’s capital, attempting to buy crack inside the mayor’s office at One Judiciary Square. Here is Barry, the supreme trickster, out-maneuvered by an even trickier Chief Financial Officer Anthony Williams.

This is certainly not the last book on Marion Barry or the travails of the District of Columbia. It is, however, destined to be one of the most notable. Barras trails an extended cast of characters in the Barry saga and takes the measure of each person’s temperament, history, and motivations. Like all charismatic leaders, Barry attracted a host of the talented, the mediocre, and the truly bacterial, all seeking to further their particular agendas. Barras also brings to bear an enormous amount of information about the District’s politics in a relatively concise 295 pages of text.

Where The Last of the Back Emperors runs into trouble, however, is in Barras’ forays into the anthropology of Negro America. Although the contextual information is generally an asset of the book, Barras delivers a fair number of non sequiturs. When Barry appears nonchalant in the midst of disaster, she attributes it to a specious “cool pose” mastered by African-Americans, rather than simply good political instincts. Providing context also allows Barras to make tenuous generalizations or refer to blacks in America as a singular entity. She writes, for instance, “In black America, there are few atheists or agnostics”, a point that may hold true in Mississippi, but not in New York City. African-Americans are, at this point, far too riven by class, gender, age, political affiliation, and geography to bear up under such generalizations. Still more questionable is Barras’ willingness to repeat an unattributed rumor that Barry is bisexual. Not only is this point unsubstantiated, it is ultimately irrelevant to the story Barras is narrating.

The closing chapter is essentially an assessment of the political direction in which black America is moving. Barras posits that the political practice of racial symbolism, of blacks’ using white America as a foil to camouflage their own failings, is a dying tradition. Urban blacks have, unquestionably, experienced declining fortunes during the tenure of symbolic politicians like Barry and Coleman Young in Detroit. And, according to Barras, voters are now hip to the game and choosing substance over symbols. A new generation of black managerial politicians, epitomized by Michael White of Cleveland and Wayne Curry of Prince George’s County, is on the rise. Here the author is demonstrating a high degree of faith in the proposition that American politics will even allow such nonracial leadership. We would do well to remember that David Dinkins’ sincere attempts at nonracial politics in New York resulted in a spectacular and fiery failure. Besides, the fact that a significant number of black people would line up to defend a loser like O.J. Simpson, or that Farrakhan brought four times more people to Washington than Martin Luther King at the height of the civil rights movement, indicates that racial symbolism in not yet on its deathbed.

It is perhaps the cardinal virtue of Barras’ book that she lays bare the factors underlying Barry’s resurrection that have heretofore been a complete enigma to the rest of the viewing world. Barras is absolutely correct in asserting that, for both blacks and whites, the politics of racial symbolism is self-defeating; and she is accurate in arguing that politicians of Barry’s ilk are poisonous. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the new generation of politicians will provide the antidote.

It almost literary that Barry’s not-insubstantial reservoir of talent could do so much to bring about D.C. home rule and that his colossal flaws could then become the catalysts for its dissolution. Barras is aware of this contradiction and skillfully pulls together the loose threads that have been Barry’s undoing. To her credit, the flaws of the book are vastly outweighed by her political reporting. The Last of the Black Emperors makes painfully clear that the most fitting epitaph for Barry’s career is the line used to sum up Adam Clayton Powell’s equally dismal decline: “If he had character, he would be a great man.”