The first time I went to DC, I was overwhelmed.
I’m not the biggest fan of the United States, and I had been expecting its capital to be all that America is, multiplied.
It wasn’t. In fact, the more I wandered its wide streets, visited its monumental museums, and walked by icon after icon of the U.S. of A., from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, the Capitol to the White House, I was suffused with a sense that Washington was not so much America multiplied, or America distilled, as it was America idealized: a physical, urban manifestation of how America saw itself.
Walking through the Smithsonians, the National museums and galleries, I saw a collection of everything America had brought to the world, and everything it had taken from it.
This idea of mine this vision of DC, persisted through several visits, right up until some friends of mine moved there, and I started getting glimpses of life beyond the district’s monumental core.
Washington DC has, from its very beginnings, been a city where Black people live, more than a city where white people do. And yet, through all those initial visits, I’d been snowblind, transfixed by the white marble and pink granite, and the white and pink people staring benevolently down at me from the walls, plinths, and pedestals. The Washington that had surprised and delighted me was a Washington where Jefferson, FDR, and Kennedy did all the things they did, not Frederick Douglass, Mary McLeod Bethune, or Mary Church Terrell, nor the hundreds of thousands of others who built and defended this temple to America, and who lived and worked and kept it floating on top of the marshes and swamps upon which it was so famously constructed.
But through my friends, I saw that other DC. And I heard one friend, raised on the West Coast, educated in Montreal, white and gay and as liberal-seeming as that combination so often seems, telling me he had caught himself crossing the street when he saw groups of Black youth walking towards him, and rolling up windows when driving through pretty much every neighbourhood other than the ones I, and most tourists, stroll through.
My friends moved away, as they said they would if Bush Jr. was elected (one of them worked for the government, and didn’t like the idea of working for him), and I stopped visiting.
And then, about a decade later, they moved back. I visited a couple of months later.
DC had changed. It wasn’t about the museums, or the public buildings. In fact, it wasn’t about anything that would be directly affected by the recent government shutdown.
My first clue was Busboys and Poets. I saw Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I bought, and nearby was Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. I saw Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk, and Loving Day by Mat Johnson. I’d not heard of those, and flipped them to take a look at the author note, and because I’m very slow as a person, it was only then I noticed all these books were by Black writers. Every single one in the bookstore (which is run as a sort of permanent pop-up by renowned DC booksellers Politics and Prose).
As I was to find out later, this Busboys and Poets at 14th and V was the first location of what’s since become a mini-chain. Comfy and unfussy furniture sits beneath a collage of text and images of freedom fighters and boxers, singers and poets. The name of the place comes from poet Vachel Lindsay, who after being served by an especially poetic busboy at DC’s Wardman Park Hotel (now the Washington Marriott Wardman Park) in the 1920s, called the young man, whose name was Langston Hughes, the busboy poet. There are 365 events a year at this place, all to do with Black DC, whether it’s politics or religion, music, sports, or identity.
I go to Busboys and Poets every time I go to DC now. It’s a DC café the way Café du Pont Neuf is a Paris café, or Zum Schwartzer Kameel is a Vienna café. Everything you need to know about DC, you’ll get sitting right here.
The fact that Busboys and Poets was founded by Andy Shallal, a man who immigrated from Iraq about 50 years ago, just adds to the fact, rather than the image (or at least my old image) of what kind of a place DC is. This is a city that’s better than the man sitting in the White House, better than most of the men and women who jet in to sit in Congress and do the questionable things they do. This city is better than Jefferson, and better than FDR, who wouldn’t invite a Black person to the White House. It’s better than Ferguson, Missouri and Sanford, Florida, and Houston and Phoenix, too.
So, go to DC. Check out the galleries if you like, buy a Federal Babe Inspector t-shirt outside the J. Edgar Hoover Building. But your real visit should be to the DC that’s still there when the rest of it gets shut down. See the old bits — like the ’70s chic Georgetown of the Four Seasons (catch the Sunday brunch, it’s a social phenomenon) and the (1973 SPOILER ALERT) death stairs from The Exorcist, but do not miss the DC Busboys and Poets was pointing to when it opened, the DC that was always there. Go to the U Street Corridor, where Duke Ellington was born, where Ben’s Chili Bowl has been serving Half-Smoke (chili dog) since the Trinidadian Ben Ali opened it with his wife Virginia in 1958, and Oohh’s and Aahh’s, the soul food spot that later joined a whole strip of DC excellence.
If you’re going in November, look out for Black Restaurant Week Nov. 3-10. The Florida Avenue Grill is another historic staple (even older, opening in 1944), and DC’s status as an international hub has given rise to a bunch of African spots, like Askale Cafe, Harrar Coffee, and Sankofa Video, Books & Café.
But probably the best symbol of the DC that is, always was, and should have been celebrated a long time before this, is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, resonantly designed by David Adjaye. First conceived under Herbert Hoover (!), and later re-proposed by James Baldwin, and Reps Mickey Leland and John Lewis over the years, it finally opened in 2016, just in time to get inaugurated by Obama, with donations of $20 million from Robert F. Smith, and $21-million from Oprah (to whom weirdly but entertainingly large parts of the museum are dedicated).
Then just get right back out of the core. Maybe out to the Eastern Market, or the Navy Yard and Capitol Riverfront, or the newly developed District Wharf, out where DC can breathe, and you can, too.
Want to check out Washington DC for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to the United States here.