“My son has very dark skin and unusual grey eyes. They are so intense that you first see his eyes and then the rest of his body,” said Mona, who I picked up for an Uber ride at nearby Howard University, located at northwest of D.C. Our conversation began when she asked about my name and how it was pronounced. It’s a question I’m often asked and, instead of the usual courtesies, I usually cut short the exchange by saying that my name was not meant to be pronounced. It’s my signal that I am ready to chat and put the interlocutors in a comfortable position. They giggle.
“Ha,” Mona laughed, “Imagine the problems of my son. His name is Tsilhqot’in.”. I asked her to clarify, saying, “What kind of name is that?” And she was off; the words were streaming from her. When she was pregnant, Miss Mona explained from the back seat; she started to look for a name for her son by researching her family tree, digging for a meaningful connection among her forefathers. She went all the way back, she said and discovered that her fifth generation grandfather was a native Indian, a member of the Tsilhqot’in the tribe. She’d found the name for her son with the intense grey eyes. I tried to imagine the young man as I looked in the rearview mirror at Mona. She was enjoying relaying the story.
I saw where this was heading; it was an invitation to an exciting conversation and more fiction from this impressive woman. But I had to drive. Still, perhaps I could interrupt the stream of her words with questions that flooded my mind, like: Why would she complicate her son’s life with such a complicated name? How do people refer to him? Does he have a nickname? If you cannot read or pronounce Mrevlje, the difficulty of pronouncing the name Tsilhqot’in is unimaginable!
But I missed the train; Mona’s thoughts were already far away, explaining her maternal line of ancestors, and how she discovered that she was able to understand German.
She discovered her talent for German when she first heard it spoken.“It must have been something I inherited from one of my mother’s ancestors, whose name was Geiger,” she said. My car was getting too small for this “fiume di parole,” so I cut in with the question of what she was doing for work. She said she used to be an opera singer and now runs a business. My name is Mona Lisa, she told me. And when we returned to the topic of the grey eyes of her son, I asked her who was his father. His father was Sicilian, a trapeze acrobat who died when Tsilhqot’in was six, she said. An accident. We arrived at her destination, telling each other how nice it would be to continue our conversation one day. “I’ll see you around,” Mona said, shutting the door. I never managed to ask her about her African American heritage. But then again, with an Alaskan Indian Tribe, German ancestors, a Sicilian partner, the room was already crowded.
Not far from the place I dropped Mona, I got a new request from a rider, who asked, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” A young African American slid into my car, speaking perfect “hochdeutsch.” My god, I thought, what is happening today? We exchanged some phrases, testing each other’s level of German, but then switched to English. It was my time to ask how she speaks such good German. “I am a daughter of a German mother and Kenyan father,” she said. It is incredible how fast our minds clicked. The ride was short; she was going to the office at Howard University, where she organizes the departmental curriculum of African studies. I inquired about the sources she uses, how she selected them and asked about the funds for the program. We talked about Howard University and the quality of the education, vital to building up the African American middle class, so long under the thumb of white supremacy. I learned much, and I was amazed by this young lady, who could talk equally about Koln, where her mother lives, or Paris, where she studied for a while, and Kenya, where her father remarried. What on earth was she doing in the U.S., considering that neither of her parents ever lived here? She came here as part of her studies, she said, and her brother is here too. We could’ve talked forever, but we probably never will again, unless Uber decides otherwise.
The day was not yet over, though. On that very same day, a man in his mid-forties got into my car. He was born in Bali to a couple of hippies who traveled there periodically for vacations. His parents gave him an Indonesian name and, after his family moved back to the U.S, he lived for 20 years in D.C. He’d recently moved to South Carolina, which seems to be the new American paradise of a modest and laidback lifestyle. That is, apart from the recent hurricanes. Driving him to the airport, I learned some new lessons in my Uber school and in the car that is my classroom.
Because he was born abroad, when his family moved back to D.C., he was particularly sensitive to the ethnic issues in the U.S. and the history of the city I now live in. I took advantage of the opportunity to learn something.
I finally understood why the city was predominantly African American. From all my previous conversations and reading, I knew that in the mid-seventies D.C.’s population was 80 percent African American. That fact, I learned that day, was due to a Supreme Court decision declaring that separate education for people of different races was unconstitutional. As a consequence, white people fled the city and by 1957 Washington’s African American population surpassed the 50 percent mark, making it the first predominantly black major city in the nation, and leading a nationwide trend.
In 1963, 250,000 people marched on Washington for jobs and freedom. The assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, triggered strong reactions throughout the nation and the city. During the riots in that year, in the area of the city where I live now, the buildings were burned and destroyed, many African Americans rebelled against continued racism, injustice, and the federal government’s abandonment of the city. Even before Dr. King’s assassination, demands for justice forced the federal government to take steps towards “home rule” by appointing Walter Washington as mayor in 1967. In 1974, the year I first visited DC visit as a student, residents chose Washington as the city’s first elected black mayor, and the first black mayor of the 20th century.
As even a little tourist bulletin described it, by 1975, African Americans were politically and culturally leading the city, making up more than 70 percent of the population. The Black Arts, Black Power, Women’s rights, and Statehood movements flowered here. Indeed, Marion Barry, who succeeded Washington as mayor, began his public life here as a leader of local justice movements. There were independent think tanks, schools, bookstores, and repertory companies. Go-go (DC’s home-grown version of funk), as well as jazz, blues, and salsa, resonating from clubs, parks, recreation centers, and car radios. With the uniting of political activism and creativity, African Americans were transforming the city and culture once again.
To this day, in the exponential age we live in, gentrification is progressing with the speed of the light. My professor-passenger in the car told me little-known details of the white and Jewish community, who were moving back to the city. As a result, the money started to flow in again. I learned about this also from gay neighbors on my street, who moved into the area during the same period. What used to be an almost exclusively African American area is now home to hipsters and gay people, and me, not belonging exclusively to anyone. I booked my ticket for the forthcoming D.C. History Conference immediately.
With my head buzzing from all the information, I’d decided to drive home when, right on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue, Mike got in the car. He had his helmet on and was dressed in one of those yellow security jackets. He looked tired and resigned. He explained his outfit by saying he worked in architecture, and that he was in charge of the many construction sites in the capital. I was taking him from one site to another, several blocks distant from each other when Mike made known he was sure that another housing bubble-real estate crisis looms. Most of what you see, he said, all those hundreds of condos sprouting in residential areas, the office buildings and even hotels that developers are putting up will remain empty. There are not enough people or interest to fill them. We are changing the vibe and makeup of the city thanks to government-lowered taxes and other incentives for developers, he said. But it’s not what the residents want or need. If this president gets impeached, he said, the crisis will be immediate. Otherwise, it’ll happen in two or three years, when the economic investing cycle will arrive at its natural end, Mike explained calmly. Then he thought for a while and turned back to the President: He’ll never get impeached. Nobody who has money in this city will get impeached, he said to me upon his goodbye.
My last drive of the day was particularly peculiar. I was called to pick up the rider at Corcoran Street, just a few blocks away from my house. A man knocked on the window of the driver’s seat. He was holding a white envelope in his hand. Would you mind driving this letter to the address indicated on the envelope, he asked. I did; I put the note on the passenger seat next to me. It was the first passenger who didn’t speak to me that day. I was happy with the silence, busy thinking about how to put into writing one of my most exciting days yet in this stimulating and fascinating city.