Life in D.C., Between Homeland and Diaspora

By Chantal James


Washington, D.C.

If I was trying to run away from the South when I moved from Atlanta, perhaps D.C. wasn't the place to run to.

Not this town, where neighbors still brew their own corn liquor to sell out of their basements, a practice harkening to days not far gone—even into the 1990s—when buying alcohol in the district was illegal on Sundays. Not a city where collard greens sell out of the grocery stores by December 30, so you'd be out of luck trying to get a proper New Year’s Day dinner together at the last minute. Surely the best place to escape a Southern identity was not Washington, where, when I mention having grown up in North Carolina, everyone I meet brings up their Grandma in Rocky Mount, their cousins in Fayetteville, or the summers they'd spend with families in Greensboro.

That Washington until recently had been a majority-black city for decades has meant it's been a town where people with roots in the American South held a majority. At the time my mother arrived at Howard University in the late 1970s, she found herself in what people called Chocolate City, because the city’s population was 70 percent black. Most of that 70 percent was removed by a generation or less from life in the rural Carolinas or elsewhere in the South. They brought their barbecue and established their churches. Now, the dynamics are shifting as the city gentrifies. Newcomers who came to cast their dreams of living in an important city are shifting the cultural dynamics of Washington, shifting the city's accent, even. Yoga studios and juice bars sprout in neighborhoods that a year ago starved for a full-service grocery store.

Every city is someone's Mecca. Every city is the utopia someone from a rural area dreams of immigrating to, where their lives will be bettered: Maybe they'll find fairer work, maybe they'll find a place they really belong. Chocolate City was that for many who’d heard whispers of it drift from across the tobacco fields. I came for the freedom here, too, like people before me did. To breathe that Northern air, and maybe be able to get a clearer picture of who I was supposed to be.

The rumors were too good to be true. Washington is a few blocks of majestic marble buildings and some monuments surrounded by a community that is in many ways small-townish — sleepy, even. Those buildings downtown were built with the blood and sweat of the enslaved, who were denied access to them except in servants' corridors. The descendants of enslaved Africans have always peopled the District. And in Washington’s history, it has always wrestled with identity markers we think of as Southern, like the institution of slavery and its the legacy of racism — so that the question of whether Southerners in D.C. are part of a Southern Diaspora, or whether they're still in the homeland, has always been real.

If South is geography, then I suppose we are to believe in the 90 miles that separates Richmond, Virginia, once the capital of the Confederacy, from Washington, the capital of the Union. So it is that in 90 minutes on the Megabus, one should be able to visibly observe the stain of uglier aspects of the South's heritage lifting. I've found it's not so simple, that South lingers. South stays in the blood and on the tongue despite our attempts to shake it. It could be the city and I have the same problem: the thumbprint of the American South is pressed deep into our tissues..

Washington is a city of grand aspirations. It has a lot to live up to and a lot of claims to fulfill. It's ground zero for the experiment called American democracy, so it has to be careful about appearances. It has to keep up for its visitors, so there are parts of the town that cater to them. I assume the city has always been this way, a bubble of power surrounded by a disenfranchised colony. It's a city that's supposed to grow to accommodate pilgrims and tourists. Parts of it are preserved impeccably for them, parts that seem worlds away from the common pulse of the town, those Victorian row houses, the lines of porches, and the rusty metal outdoor furniture where aunties perch while snapping the ends off of green beans into an aluminum bowl, with a word for everyone who passes. Those shady streets where when the sun goes down, where every mother is opening her front door to holler her kids home for dinner, somehow exist in the same town as the White House.

We have no voting representative in the federal government which the city graciously hosts, and didn't even have a mayor of our own until 1975. The residents of Washington live in a city built for others but have always insisted on making it their own, in ways stamped with the South. It's the way we live among one another: The fact that I know my neighbors watch out for me because of the respect they had for my grandma, or that little boys remind me I present as a grown person by calling me ma’am.

I've revised some of my notions while I've lived here. I've abandoned the romantic idea that freedom is something I can run to, something located in a specific. As a Southerner, I've run into myself again and again in D.C.. Now that it's crab season, somebody will buy buckets of them, and this person's house will fill with steam as they boil the creatures live with Old Bay, and their house will also fill wall to wall with neighbors and relatives, and maybe I'll be among them. In the tradition of many in this corner of the South, we'll spread them out across a few card tables pressed together to make one table, over which a bed of newspapers that will soon  be soaked in crab juice has been laid, and the best of us will be able to get every fiber of sweet meat out of every crevice of the crab without any metal tools. Crab is a sacrament akin to any of the others in a culture where the table is sacred, everything edible in the animal must be devoured, and community is serious. That's the kind of South I don't think D.C. will ever be able to disclaim.