Washington, Then & Now
Commencement, Insurrection, The Wire, and more...
I had the privilege of graduating from high school a second time as I gave the commencement address at Sidwell Friends Friday June 10, 2022
I’m back with your twice-monthly Sunday read. If you already got this via Puck, good for you! If not, read on…
As this message hits your inbox, I’m on an Acela Amtrak train from D.C. to New York—from the city that raised me to, in many ways, the city that made me. My reason for returning to The District is among the best I could imagine: I was invited to give the commencement speech at my alma mater: Sidwell Friends.
Both D.C. and Sidwell have changed since I left in 1995. For one thing, D.C. is more white than when I left it. In the mid 1990s, the white share of the population was under 30 percent, and the Black share near 65. Today, the white share has increased to about 46 percent, nearly matching the Black share and challenging the “Chocolate City” branding I grew up with. Meanwhile, Sidwell is less white than I left it, with students of color growing from just under 30 percent during my time to 56 percent today. We live in interesting times for sure.
To return to one’s high school as a commencement speaker has got to be the ultimate and final proof that one has, indeed, completed high school. For all the years of performing and public speaking I have under my belt, I went into this event with more nerves than usual. I prepared as if it were my final final exam, scanning social media and reading many issues of the student newspaper I used to help edit. I’m probably not alone in this, but it seems no matter what age I actually am, I want to be accepted by teenagers. The paradox I’ve learned is the more you act like you want to be accepted by teenagers, the more you won’t be. They are the most fickle of audiences I’ve encountered, literally too cool for school, easily unimpressed, and with the most acute bullshit radars of any age group. They know when you’re faking it. So for Sidwell’s class of 2022, I tried to keep it real. I thought of all the commencement speeches I had heard, and vowed to do the opposite, at one point acknowledging:
“Here’s what I’m supposed to say to you: ‘You’re the future. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Find your passion. Tomorrow will be better. You’re the most capable generation we’ve ever had, not just in America but as a species…’ And maybe that’s true, but I don’t know you like that. Then I’m supposed to tell you, ‘It’s your turn to get out there and fix the world your powerful parents screwed up. All these problems are yours now: the climate and the systemic oppression and the bad broadband speeds.’ But that’s bullshit. That’s like a parent saying to their child, ‘Clean up your room… and mine while you’re at it.’ People who tell you it’s your job to save the future should be ignored. Unless they are down to save it with you.”
It worked. I offered a celebration of, and challenge to, the institutions that helped shape both them and me. And I hit them with jokes. Lots and lots of jokes. With all the painful news coming out of this country and particularly our schools, it felt good to cultivate an optimistic vibe on campus, at least for a day.
My nostalgia tour continues this week in New York City where I’ve got double gala duties: one as emcee (Brooklyn Public Library) and another as honoree (Council of Urban Professionals). Come through if you’re nearby!
Meanwhile, here’s some other things occupying my mind lately:
If there’s one thing the House Select Committee investigating the January 6th, 2021 attack on the United States Capitol has learned from recent history, it’s how to put on a public presentation. Thursday’s primetime opener revealed important details about the coordinated and sometimes incompetent ongoing effort to undermine our democracy. It also confirmed some things we already knew, like the fact that Jared Kushner is as smug and unlikeable as we imagined him to be. But I also give the committee kudos for communications. If the first installment of these public hearings is any indication, we are well past the embarrassing tech executive hearings of 2020, wherein members grilled the captains of our attention economy with the nuance of a frustrated customer yelling at tech support. We’re also beyond the lead-burying, overlong communiqués of Robert Mueller, or the first Trump impeachment (yeah, sometimes I forget there were two). The multimedia presentation led by Rep. Bennie Thompson and Rep. Liz Cheney was literally made for television and online video, and I encourage everyone to watch even though I acknowledge nowhere near enough Americans will.
We are no longer in the Watergate Era, when the entire nation bore witness to Nixon’s crimes and agreed that the guy was a crook. Today, Roger Ailes’ vision has been realized, and we have Fox News and a whole right wing media ecosystem shielding Trump and MAGA Republican supporters from the truth of the ongoing conspiracy to undermine our elections. And sadly, Trump really has become the center of this media industrial complex—the Republican party and its economic tentacles (networks, podcasts, shows, PACs, fundraising organizations) essentially all want a piece of his constituency. But the fact that many people will hide from the truth shouldn’t stop those of us interested in it from pursuing it.
I was a big fan of HBO’s The Wire back in the day and prided myself on being early to the series, telling countless friends about it. The stories reminded me of the world I grew up in during the 80s and 90s in D.C. as crack cocaine flooded the city and my neighborhood, bringing violent gang activity and violent policing tactics to so many Black communities across the country. Early in my standup career I used to explain my upbringing to Boston audiences by reference to the show: “My neighborhood,” I explained, “was just like ‘The Wire.’ We had the drug dealing, the corrupt police. We had everything ‘The Wire’ had except the undying love of white people who saw it.”
I was aware that for many viewers of the show, merely watching was an excuse to feel “enlightened” about systems of inequality without having to actually do anything about those systems. So I had to do a double fist-pumping celebration when I read this Washington Post review of the newest series from The Wire creators. Sonny Bunch writes, “While We Own This City focuses on the scandals of the Baltimore Police Department’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, it’s at least in part an indictment of how people who claimed to love The Wire failed to act on that enthusiasm.” Art alone doesn’t change the world. We do. So what are we going to do about the messages we’re receiving?
And now something from the climate files. We’re all starting to internalize the realities of the climate crisis, and you can see it in the movement of people: migrants to Europe fleeing the drought-driving conflict in Syria; migrants to the U.S. escaping the climate-fueled hardships of Central America; migrants from Southern California seeking refuge in states like Idaho and Utah. The problem is, there’s nowhere to run. Everywhere will face its own climate crisis, and this New York Times piece examines what is likely to happen to Salt Lake City as its namesake lake dries up, driven by the booming population of the region in combination with climate change. The answer: water shortages, arsenic-laced dust clouds, and abandonment. There’s a precedent in the example of Owens Lake in California which I happened to visit one year ago while filming my PBS series America Outdoors. The series launches July 5th and features not just climate challenges but some climate solutions.
To close, I wanna bring it back to where I started: my hometown and keeping it real. A friend recently shared a music video from an artist based in the DMV (D.C., Maryland, Virginia). He goes by the name Gifted Hands and offers up a message we need in his track “Why Not Start.” Whether you interpret this as having to do with personal challenges and insecurities, defending and strengthening democracy, ending the drug war, or fighting for a habitable home planet, the message is the same in all cases: it’s never too late to start. Let’s listen to the message and live it.
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