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Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience.

Like so many other aspiring college journalists in the seventies, I was inspired to become an investigative reporter by the Watergate heroics of The Washington Post. Ten years later, I moved to the capital and was surprised to discovered that the same newspaper which bravely felled a crooked president seemed afraid even to criticize the cocaine-riddled corruption of the city's major, Marion S. Barry, Jr.

What was going on? The Post's coverage of the Barry administration - indeed, of black Washington generally - seemed to vacillated between the obligatory and the enfeebled. Not that I minded, really. I was one of the paper's television rivals, and its neglect only made it that much easier to break local stories. Still, the question nagged: Why had one of the best papers in the country fallen down so badly in its own backyard?

In this autobiographical essay, Jill Nelson offers the most pointed critique yet on racism at The Washington Post. Nelson, an African-American reporter who worked at the paper for four years, delights the reader with a memoir that's raw, acerbic and hilarious; she happily picks at the scabs of race and sex and class that most writers prefer to leave untouched. For Nelson, payback is a bitch, and she pays back - and bitches back - with a vengeance, settling some nasty scores with the establishment organ that seduced her from freelance writing in New York and then abandoned her in the back-stabbing nation's capital.

Nelson gets her licks in good. Ben Bradlee turns out to be "a short, gray, wrinkled gnome." Bradlee utters such inspiring lines as "I want the fashions [section] to be exciting, new, to portray women who dress with style, like my wife." Publisher Don Graham is "a rich kid waiting for his mother to let go of the reins." Other Posties are uncharitably described as "weasel-like" and "mottled, plump, sour-lipped."

But ultimately, Nelson's book is more than just an angry middle finger extended to her former colleagues. It is also a poignant tale of being black and female in a white and male corporate world - "voluntary slavery," she calls it. "I envy the arrogance," she writes of the Post, "their inherent belief in the efficacy of whatever they're doing, the smugness that comes from years of simply being caucasian and, for the really fortunate, having a penis."

A soul sister who revels in the racy, Nelson describes exploits like having sex with a mortician on his embalming table ("I would have burst out laughing, but he had such a pathetic look on his face that I know if I did he'd get mad and might not be able to get it up") and the joys of male bimbos ("Whenever he did or said something stupid, I'd think about what a pure ego feed it always was to look up into his handsome face when he fucked me"). Nelson's philosophy about the opposite sex is a simple one: "One thing I love about men and pussy is that is makes them so predictable."

Still, it's race, not sex, that fuels this autobiography. Throughout it all. Nelson is forever in search of her own "authentic Negro experience," forever at war between her own pride in being black and her self-criticism for not being black enough. She writes movingly of her own particular family pathos - a brother on crack, a sister permanently disabled by a drug overdose - and struggles with her own guilt at being a member of the black bourgeoisie.

But Nelson's argument falls short when it comes to explaining the sticky issue of race at the The Washington Post. To Nelson, it's simply racism, of white-bread owners and editors who just don't get it. Take the paper's metro staff. Nelson calls it "the newspaper equivalent of Coon Town, where Negroes are happier among their own (you see, it's not segregation, they like it that way)." When Marion Barry was arrested, Nelson writes, the "newsroom was damn near giddy. Most of my colleagues walked around grinning at one another, clotted in small groups, whispering and smirking. When Negroes passed by, they would grow silent, voices lowered ... White Boys 1, Black Boys 0."

When it came time for Barry's trial, Nelson complained that she was the only African-American assigned to cover it - "The colored writer writing |color' pieces," as she puts it. As for the white editor in charge, she "squeal[ed] ... damn near salivating" as other, white reporters recapped the juicy court testimony about Barry, whom she says the Post viewed as "this powerful, arrogant, crack smoking' Negro."

But Nelson's focus on Barry-bashing at the Post begs the question: If the paper was so racist, why did it go easy on Barry for so long? Nelson doesn't really try to answer this question; instead, much of what she writes is an apologia for the coke-tooting mayor. Nelson claims Barry was only "allegedly" smoking crack on the infamous FBI videotape; that a woman who testified that Barry forced her to have sex had it coming; that the Post was "part of a de facto conspiracy on the part of the U.S. Attorney ... to |get' Marion Barry." But she does grudgingly acknowledge this: "Overweight, greasy, usually dripping with sweat, Barry speaks English like it's his second language."

Outside of that, nowhere does Nelson confront the enormity of Barry's crimes - how he steered city contracts to his drug suppliers and the corrupted the upper ranks of the city's police department to keep them from busting him. Nowhere does Nelson explore what it meant for inner city kids to watch their role model turn out to be a drug addicts, or what scars Barry's racially polarizing demagoguery left on the city. And nowhere does Nelson acknowledge the sorry failure of Washington's black establishment - District councilmen, mayoral aides, Post editors, and local TV reporters, many of whom knew of Barry's drug use but looked the other way - to take a stand against Barry.

One notable exception was Post writer Juan Williams, whoe most scathing indictments of Barry were published - tellingly - not in the Post, but in The New Republic and The Washington Monthly. Yet Nelson unfairly dismisses Williams as "a neoconservative opportunist a la Clarence Thomas ... the perfect Negro, at least in the eyes of white folks, because most of the time he writes - and apparently believes - what caucasians think black folks should feel and think."

Unfair, Williams may have other faults, but he was one of the few reporters who wrote what so many said privately - that Barry was a tinhorn dictator, a corrupt, self-aggrandizing ruler who would have been ridden out of town long ago had he been white. But it just wasn't politically acceptable to say so, at least at The Washington Post.

This is not a conspiracy of well-turned-out Ku Kluxers, as Nelson seems to believes, but a knee-jerk color consciousness that makes it ideologically unacceptable to criticize anything black, even when you're black. The paper's real crime was that for far too long it really didn't care enough about Barry or the people he represented. In many ways, this well-meaning paternalism is more insidious than the racism of a Bull Connor, because at its core is the notion that African-Americans can't be expected to choose someone better than a Marion Barry - and because the real victims of a demagogue like Barry are the poor and powerless he claims to champion.

In the end, it's not clear whether Nelson comes to realize any of this. She has a nervous breakdown, quits the Post, and returns to freelancing in New York - a loss for Washington and for the paper, both of which desperately need original voices like hers.
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Author:Feldstein, Mark
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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