Let me begin by saying thank you to the Washington Times and American CurrentSee for an opportunity to share my views on Black History Month and pass a few thoughts onto readers. The question posed though is a massive one: “What does Black History Month mean moving forward?”
My father’s teachings scarcely allow me the hubris to believe that I should speak with authority on such a topic. I think the magnitude of the question requires the intellectual wrestling of a Gates, West, Wilson, Dyson, or Ogletree — maybe all of them.
Let me simply share a perspective borne out of a new commitment to make a difference in the Greater Washington Community. I believe it is time that we reconstitute the meaning of service. For me, the way I intend to serve is through elective office. I am a candidate for the D.C. Council, running for an at-large seat in this year’s Democratic primary.
Let me share with you who I am and how I arrived at these intentions.
I am a fifth generation Washingtonian, and my family story tells the tale of two cities.
My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was young, and one morning when I was eight, my dad came into my bedroom to tell me she didn’t make it home from the hospital that night.
A month later, a horrible car crash left me in the hospital in a coma and with a cracked skull. Numerous operations followed.
My dad struggled. But he worried about me, not himself. He worried about my education, and he stretched every dollar so I could attend a Catholic school. It was important to him that I had opportunities he didn’t. As I start my own family, I am feeling this lesson take hold and recognizing that it’s my responsibility to make life better for those who follow me.
My time in the hospital and internally, quietly coping with the loss of my mom, caused me to fall behind in school. My struggles in the classroom continued for years. While facing these troubles, it seemed hard for some people to see my path forward — to see that I had a future worth believing in. There were many times when people shut doors on me, and in one situation, a guidance counselor’s blunt estimation of my limited potential lit a fire that propelled me to push through. With my father’s steadfast support, I graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School, St. Mary’s College of Maryland and American University Law School.
I had the honor of serving as a law clerk in the Maryland District Court for Montgomery County, as legislative counsel to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton in Congress, and most recently, directing community outreach for the District’s first elected attorney general, Karl Racine.
I met my wife, Christy, in law school, and while we could have gone anywhere after school, we chose to make D.C. our home.
Not everyone in my family has been as lucky though. Some took different paths. Now, I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t make an hourly wage, and the only one who can still afford to live in D.C. That’s simply not right.
So many of our African-American and working-class families, like mine, have been pushed out of the neighborhoods that they called home in a time when others didn’t see a future worth believing in.
Today, D.C. has the largest percentage of college degree-holders in the U.S.; but also has a significant returning citizen population — my brother among them. One end of the city is very white; the other end is very black.
We see the signs of excited prosperity everywhere we look, but our greatest tragedy is the hopelessness of people who suffered through our worst days but now feel like they are being shown the door.
I’m running for the D.C. Council at-large with a vision to pull the two D.C.’s together, because I believe I can bridge the divides we have in this city. I know that I can bring the people together in a time when some politicians capitalize on our division.
Seeing division in the town that shaped me, in a time when all of us are looking for the same things — strong schools, housing we can afford and to feel safe in our neighborhoods — has pushed me to channel the spirit of my father, a man who will not be recorded in history books, but who gave me everything.
I am a lawyer, homeowner and husband to an incredible wife only because of the platform that my father created for me with years of selfless dedication to my future. My debt to my father and his sacrifice compels me to make the same sacrifice for my children. But as a young lawyer on Capitol Hill, I realized that in elective office I can create a higher plain not just for my kids, but for kids born and unborn across our region by using my skills as a policy attorney to improve their futures.
So many of us get lost and discouraged in the pursuit of change by measuring ourselves to the legendary greatness of Martin, Malcolm, Dubois and the like. We forget that we are who we are because of the small sacrifices of everyday people, like my dad.
Where will Black History Month go in the future? The only answer I have is that new chapters have to written. One of those new chapters is about younger African-Americans like me turning gratitude to courage and accepting a mandate to serve.
For my part, I’m not looking to be in a history book. I’m only looking to clear a path for a kid that has been counted out. As the scholars debate the meaning and utility of Black History Month going forward, I will forge on with a path that can change futures the way mine was changed.
• Robert White is an at-large candidate for the D.C. Council.