(Three years ago this month, I was inspired to write a piece I shared with a few at the time. An edited version is posted here):
I told my wife I was in love with another woman.
“Who is she?” she asked, turning away from the show she was watching on television. As I skimmed the paper for my new love’s name, my wife said “She’d better be very special”, and laughed.
“She is”, I said, showing her my new love’s letter. “Her name is Jeanne Talpers. She even uses the same word I use about the same thing”
“Well said”, said my wife after reading the letter. “She’s worthy. What word is it?”
“The word ‘obscene’”, I explained. And with that, my wife turned back to her show.
Here is Ms. Talpers’ letter in its entirety, published in our little local newspaper (The Washington Post, Sunday, February 20, 2011) under the heading “A voting rights lesson from Cairo”:
“If Cairo can do it, why can’t we?
Watching the jubilation in Cairo, I wondered why we who are disenfranchised in our nation’s capital also cannot take our cause into the streets. Where are our young people who know the mysteries of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? What if these powerful tools could be the key to our liberation?
There are more than a half-million people in the District, and we pay taxes and send men and women off to war to spread democracy. It is obscene that we do not have the right to have a representative who can vote in Congress.”
You can understand my being smitten, can’t you? Well, maybe not if you’re into that whole disenfranchisement thing and all. If, however, you believe in truth, justice and the American way, then Ms. Talpers’ words must make your heart sing. It might break her heart to learn her chances of getting what she wants are slim to none as long as she lives here in Niggerton, DC.
Here is my definition of the word “nigger”: anyone who consistently does nothing about consistently being denied a bedrock right. Used in this context, the word carries no racial connotation whatsoever. A “nigger” can be of any ethnic background. Red, brown, yellow, black and white might be precious in God’s sight, but we’re all niggers here in the town where Ms. Talpers and I live. That’s all it takes, just being a legal resident of the capital of the free world (which has been called the Last Colony and the Last Plantation), a city in a federal district, not in any state and, therefore, denied the rights of a state by the Constitution itself. Yet the very thing that was anathema to our Founders, the thing that drove them to make radical declarations and wage a war of revolution – taxation without representation – seems to matter little, if at all, to the citizens of Niggerton. Day after decade after century, we go about our lives, compliant and complicit in our mistreatment.
To make matters worse, this town also must periodically endure assaults from foreign invaders: the Republicans who occasionally win a majority of seats in one or both houses of Congress. They seem to delight in coming here and reminding us that not only does the Constitution allow them to exclude us from the democratic process, it also gives them the right to tell us what to do – or not do – even when it comes to how we spend our own local taxes. In their budget-cutting frenzy, the 112th Congress decided the city doesn’t need as much support as it actually does. Our local government is required to perform the duties and offer the services of a state, yet is prohibited by law from doing those things the way states do, by taxing income and property. Oh, sure, income is taxed, but as Post columnist Colbert I. King pointed out, only a third of income is taxed, not the two-thirds earned by non-residents who stream into the city every day and who use city services. And property is taxed too, but only 43 percent, not the 57 percent of the city’s land occupied by the federal government, foreign embassies and a plethora of non-profit, tax-exempt organizations. The decent thing to do, as the federal government usually does, is to compensate the city with a federal payment. The Republican majority in the House had the indecency to say no. It is not surprising that the first recorded vote of that Congress was an open protest vote forced by our nonvoting delegate; it is unsurprising because of its futility.
Maybe I cannot fairly say we have consistently done nothing. Over the years there have been efforts by some, including a constitutional amendment enacted by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, where it died. Not one effort has ever borne fruit, and not once has a significant portion of the citizenry given the slightest sign of caring.
I understand how easy it might be to forget to stand on principle when living in a city where people can luxuriate in every freedom but one, or where too many people still struggle with being have-nots in the land of plenty. This one principle in particular, however, makes the act of forgetting a disgrace and makes the name given to those who commit this act appropriate.
I’m sure one reason I was drawn to Ms. Talpers’ letter was my own history of quixotic letter-writing. More than twenty years ago, I wrote an open letter to this city’s then-mayor, city council members and nonvoting delegate to Congress. I reminded them – some of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement – that nothing of such magnitude had ever been accomplished through mere words alone. I suggested that, as our elected leaders, we citizens would follow them into the streets and on to Capitol Hill to demand an end to taxation without representation, if only they would lead us. I pointed out that it was not as if I were asking them to march into the halls of Congress shouldering rifles the way the Black Panthers had done when they marched into the California statehouse. I also tried to assure them there was no need to worry that others would think badly of them, noting that there even had been many black people who thought the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was nothing more than a rabble-rouser.
The response? How is this for irony: in this largely black, big “D” Democratic town, the only replies I received were from two city council members, both white Republicans. Even though their letters amounted to no more than a polite pat on the head and a “there, there now” as one might do and say to a distraught child, I remember thinking at the time that at least their mothers had raised them properly.
The current mayor, at his inauguration, said he wanted statehood for the city. This, of course, is like saying he wants a slice of sky pie, but I think he thinks he meant what he said. Since then, he and other city leaders have participated in publicized displays of civil disobedience leading to arrests in an effort to highlight the issue. That certainly amounts to being more than just the latest HNIC (Head Nigger In Charge) acquiescing to the status quo, but if he and our non-voting delegate want to do more, they can. They could suggest something be done to relieve us of taxation without representation until we get representation, in whatever form representation finally comes. They wouldn’t have to strain themselves looking for an alternative to our present condition, since alternatives already exist for others who find themselves in a situation similar to ours.
American Samoa, Guam, The Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, like Niggerton, all have nonvoting delegates in Congress. These U.S. territories also participate in the Food Stamp Program and Medicaid. They pay taxes as well, but here’s the thing: they don’t pay them to the federal government that’s denying them representation. In the Northern Mariana Islands, the income tax system is largely locally determined. Puerto Rico imposes an income tax in lieu of Federal income tax. American Samoa, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands use a mirror tax law under which taxpayers calculate their taxes based on the U.S. Tax Code but pay them to their governments. We here in Niggerton, DC pay more federal tax to the federal government than do several states. In the famous words of a famous native son of this city, it “makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands.”
Taking my own advice regarding the need for more than words, I tried more. Like Cervantes’ dreamer, I resolved to raise a lance and joust with giants by imploring my fellow citizens to collectively do what we do best – nothing. The idea was to use the theme of playwright Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day of Absence” to our advantage. I thought it would be perfect for people too lazy or preoccupied or apathetic to march for their rights. They could do nothing for just one day, nothing – including not leaving the house to go to work or school or the corner grocer. Marching would be passé; sitting on your behind at home in protest would be the new radical chic.
I cajoled a few relatives and friends into being my Sancho Panza. We formed a committee, set a date of absence, and mailed letters and pamphlets to as many local civic, social, political and religious organizations as we thought necessary. I even spent the last night before the big day leafleting windshields in neighborhoods of every quadrant of the city. From the questions I was asked in a telephone call from Washington Post reporter Steve Twomey, I surmised he didn’t appreciate my lack of concern for the impact on local businesses. He need not have worried. There was no impact on businesses or anything else. That day passed like every other, right up to this very day.
Could anything like this happen in a place like – oh, say – Madison, Wisconsin? Few would argue that the protesters in Wisconsin were as desperate as those throughout the Middle East, yet they marched in Madison because they saw an intolerable injustice. Ms. Talpers didn’t give a shout-out to the involved citizens of that town, but that state’s frenetic, budget-cutting cum union-busting governor (though he ultimately prevailed) was provided a valuable lesson in how not to assume people will be niggers if you just step on them hard enough. Only niggers will be niggers.
So, what will it take for the folks of Niggerton to really do something? Ms. Talpers wants to know the whereabouts of our counterparts to the fed-up, tech-savvy young revolutionaries we watched on the evening news. Well, if you’re living in town just long enough to get your degree, to clerk for a judge or to be an intern for a Hill staffer, maybe you don’t care about the rest of us. If you come into Niggerton every day, but return to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia every evening over roads we – not you – have to pay for, does it matter to you that we are all Americans but not all equal?
Maybe we should form a District of Columbia Liberation Front. You know, recruit some of the young folk whose anger is currently misdirected at other youngsters whose only crime is to live on a different block. We could redirect that energy where it can make a difference. After all, some of them already possess arms and have proven themselves skilled in the use of them. It would be right in line with all the bloviating about Second Amendment remedies. But that would be General George Washington’s way, wouldn’t it? In the streets of Cairo, with their Jasmine Revolution, the Egyptian people proved that ending the status quo can be accomplished in Dr. King’s way.
It is with equal parts incredulity and amusement that I now look back at my inept, pathetic efforts. Maybe one day, in our own Cherry Blossom Revolution, Ms. Talpers and I will cross paths at some barricade while attempting to finally end this obscenity. I’ll have no idea who she is, and she won’t know me, but she’ll remember the former nigger wearing the biggest smile.
(In loving memory of Edward Calvern Adams, Sr., who was born in this city, on this date, in 1925.)