Chatter: Oral Arguments
What you said about what we said last week
Dream City, the 1994 account of Marion Barry’s D.C. by Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe, never got a paperback edition, but 20 years later, it’s become a cult read among the city’s aspiring political cognoscenti—and the subject of last week’s oral history by Will Sommer. “Dream City is a great read,” commented Ernie. “I’ve wondered if the recent interest in the book is part of a white guilt over gentrification and the changes in the city since the 1980s and 1990s. There is a ton of local history being produced in recent years. As newcomers arrive and feel some sense of responsibility for ‘destroying’ the old neighborhoods, do they turn to the history?”
Reader Parisa suggested some further reading: “A great alternative to Dream City is Captive Capital by Sam Smith, which chronicles the earlier era of D.C. politics including the founding of the Statehood party and the activism of Statehood Councilman Julius Hobson. It is also out of print and you have to purchase used copies online—but well worth it.”
In Sommer’s oral history, Sherwood and Jaffe lamented the Washington Post’s negative review of their book, particularly this sentence: “Dream City is really a biography of big, bad, black Marion Barry that uses the sandwich technique: Take the meaty story of someone’s life and slap it between whatever layers of history you know best.“ The author of that review, longtime local journalist (and former Washington City Paper contributor) Paul Ruffins, sent a response:
“In Will Sommer’s ‘Dream On,’ both Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood recall their disappointment caused by my review of Dream City in the Post. When I tried to speak with Mr. Jaffe about another matter about 10 years ago, he was still angry, but Harry never asked me why I had problems with it.
“I respect both men as fine reporters, so this might be a good time clear the air. After all, when my review came out, several of the book’s many supporters accused the Post of caving into the black community’s criticism of its relentless coverage of Barry’s behavior by asking one of his ‘friends and allies,’ meaning me, to pan the book. This was absurd because I was one of Barry’s most vehement critics in D.C.’s black press, as well as in City Paper and The Nation. In fact, at one of Barry’s regular love fests with editors of black papers, many of whom actually stated that it was their job to protect him, Barry said, ‘Ruffins, you are as bad as those Sherwood and Jaffe, and those SOBs are white.’ Barry said it with a laugh, and later told me he hoped we could all go out for a beer sometimes ‘after this is all over’ because he still considered Sherwood a friend.
“The Post asked me to review Dream City because of my knowledge of black politics. Looking back, I feel that it was a good book whose early mistakes gave me a bad first impression. For example, in its opening pages, it asserted that D.C. was the most socially segregated city in the entire country. I thought, ‘Have these guys ever researched Birmingham or Chicago?’” It also presented black D.C.’s reactive support of an African-American politician under attack by whites as unprecedented, but Harlem re-elected Adam Clayton Powell when he could no longer vote effectively in Congress. I felt that anyone writing about black political history should have known that.
“In my frustration at what Dream City got wrong, I probably didn’t put enough emphasis on the many important things they got exactly right. Similarly, while Mr. Jaffe and Mr. Sherwood remember my sentence about the sandwich, they may have forgotten that I also wrote that Dream City was even-handed and fair. It was an important document of its time and I’m looking forward to the film [on HBO]. I hope the movie is fair to the book. If Tom, Harry, and Barry can bury the hatchet, the beer is on me.”
Department of Corrections. An item on local universities’ commencement speakers originally misspelled the name of Paul J. Diaz, who is addressing graduates of American University’s Kogod School of Business.