Photo: Daniel Swartz
I’ve known about the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference for years, but I have never attended because a very close friend of mine went one year and came back infected with a disease from which she still suffers to this day. I know it makes no sense, but even after people told me it was basically spring break for people who use the word “unpack” and non-deacon niggas who own multiple pocket squares, I was still reluctant to attend for fear that I could contract the same incurable illness as my friend. But through a series of circumstances and coincidences, I ended up in DC covering what is colloquially known as CBC Week and, it might be my hypochondria, but I feel like I’m coming down with something…
Y’all, I think I caught the bougie.
CBC Week, Explained
The Root’s Senior Writer Michael Harriot will be documenting his first time attending the…
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After receiving the assignment, I vowed to immerse myself in the experience, which meant I had to go undercover. The first thing I did was contact my sources on the inside. Luckily, the staff of The Root is filled with former operatives who worked in and around Washington D.C. in various capacities and had attended the infamous week at one time or another.
Most people don’t know that the Senior editor of Very Smart Brothas, Panama Jackson, also serves as D.C.’s official Secretary of Cool Shit. I sat down with Panama, Damon Young and DJ Domo for a high-level briefing at an undisclosed location after an event featuring some of the city’s designated cool motherfuckers. Domo briefed me on the best parties to attend while Panama gave me the scoop on many of the panels that would happen during the week.
If you didn’t know, CBC Week is very panel-centric. Aside from posh parties and swanky networking events, panels are an essential part of the CBC experience. So on Wednesday morning, I attended the NAACP’s town hall with all four members of “The Squad” —Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). The panel was hosted by CNN’s Angela Rye who, by my calculations, hosted 83 percent of the events at the conference. It quickly became apparent that these women were becoming the rock stars of the Democratic Party because they were putting in work.
Instead of leaning on personality and political speak, the women dissected their individual legislative proposals and how they would benefit black people. Ocasio-Cortez touted the particulars of her Green New Deal while Omar revealed her legislation to fix the student debt crisis. Tlaib explained her plan to fix unfair credit practices while Ayana Pressley spoke about changing the definition of infrastructure to include housing, reforming the way the census counts incarcerated citizens and noting that the disruptive ideas that got them into office were not a result of luck or “magic.”
“I never want to give short shrift to the magic of any woman on this stage,” said Pressley. “But when we allow pundits to characterize the victories of 2018 and define them as a “wave” or as ‘magic,” it does a disservice to our work, to our strategy. It’s just like how they do with Venus and Serena. They make it all about the work and not about the strategy.”
Photo: Michael Harriot (The Root/G-O)
One of the most authentic moments of the week happened when the panel took questions and a woman in the audience recounted the trauma she faces every day working in an environment hostile to her very existence.
“There are days when I don’t want to open my eyes because I know I’m gonna go into a battlefield just because I’m an orthopedic surgeon and I dared to dream that, as a black woman, I could do that,” the woman recounted, fighting back tears. “How do you keep it together and keep pushing forward in spite of all of this?”
“First of all, it is important to recognize that it is an injustice to know that this is the reality for so many of us and it is a thing that is actually happening,” Ocasio-Cortez replied. “Because—like Rahsida was saying—so often we’re in an environment and you feel this resistance and you wonder: ‘Am I crazy?’ No, you are not crazy. And keeping that at the top of your mind so that you can center yourself and know that it is not a reflection of your worth, is the first step.”
Pressley was back paneling again on Thursday, this time for the premiere of Pushout, a documentary examining the criminalization and neglect of black girls in the education system. I was almost ready to become a full-time fan of panels when the Cool Shit Secretary texted me and asked where I was watching the Democratic debates that evening, informing me that he could probably get me into a gala honoring Rep. Maxine Waters. Five minutes after I agreed, I was on “the list.”
Yes, Panama has that kind of pull.
Unfamiliar with the policies of CBC week, I asked Panama about the required attire for the event and he responded with perhaps the coolest statement I have ever heard:
“I go to everything fashionably fly.”
What? Everyone, including myself, likes to think that they are fashionable but I can assure you that I have never been referred to as “fly.” I don’t even know what that means! I have never questioned my adulthood but I sometimes wonder if I am sufficiently glamorous enough to attend an event that is billed as “grown and sexy?” Was I going to have to purchase a pair of mint green gators? Panama has sneakers with transparent soles! I probably don’t even have the cool credentials to gain entry into a clear-bottom footwear boutique.
That’s when I realized I was going to need a suit.
So I went out, bought a reasonably-priced suit and headed to the event. I was extremely nervous as I approached the door to the gala. Sure, I’ve been on a few people’s “shit lists” but I don’t think I’ve ever been on “the list” before. I decided to channel the people I’ve seen on television and said to a woman working the table: “I’m on the list.”
“Right this way, Mr. Harriot.”
Oh shit! It worked!
I was ushered past the line with all of the non-list peons into a back room with a large screen television airing the debate, which had already started. I sat down near the front and began live-tweeting the debates but the room was buzzing and people kept walking past me. It was very unnerving so I decided to shush the other attendees in the hope that I could hear. Unfortunately, they paid no attention and kept parading in front of my field of view. When I looked to see why there was so much commotion, I turned to my left and discovered the room was buzzing because of the person sitting to my immediate left. They were taking selfies and talking with no regard for my personal space. Maybe it was the suit, but someone even asked me how long I had been doing security.
That’s when I realized who the person was sitting in the chair beside me.
Auntie Maxine Waters.
I kindly excused myself from the area and somehow wound up in a conversation with two impeccably-dressed gentlemen. One of them explained that he founded an organization seeking equitable partnerships in the cannabis industry while the other told me that his daughter was a big fan of my writing. After a minute or so, the man’s daughter joined the conversation and formally introduced the pair.
“Hey, daddy! This is the guy I was telling you about,” said Angela Rye. “Michael Harriot, this is my dad.”
As she disappeared into a crowd of bowties and sequins, I slowly realized something:
I was networking!
I began to feel like I was in over my head. Sure, I had on a suit but I wasn’t even wearing a lapel pin or one of those fancy flowers most of the dudes had pinned to their suit jackets. I wouldn’t even know what to ask for if I wanted one. A blazer blossom? A “collar-flower?”When I heard someone ask the bartender if he had an “Old World pinot noir,” I decided that I better leave before I was exposed as an imposter. So I texted another expert and asked if he could give me some more intel.
I met The Root’s politics editor Jason Johnson at an event near Howard University that was packed with more “fashionably fly” debate-watchers. As I arrived, he texted me that he was at a private table in the back. Surrounded by people sipping smart cocktails and wearing decorative socks, Jason gave me the scoop on CBC Week.
“It’s basically the reunion of all of the cool kids,” he explained. “So all you have to do is act like one of the cool kids.”
I wanted to jot down what he was saying but I had the suspicious feeling that cool kids don’t take notes. We chatted about the debates until he informed me that he had to leave so he could be on MSNBC in a few minutes, which is one of the most subtle flexes I have ever heard. I headed back to the hotel to prepare for another day of rubbing shoulders with thhe people still trying to status-climb their way into a seat at the cool kids table in the high-school cafeteria.
First on Friday’s agenda was a brunch honoring innovators and tech and media. According to the FDA, brunch is the bougie-est meal of the day. I have no idea why CBC-goers love brunches but I suspect it’s because “brunch” is a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch,” and very rarely does anyone get to use the term “portmanteau” over avocado toast, which—I’m not kidding here—was actually on the menu.
I discovered that the lunch was hosted by Angela Rye who was honoring, among others, Maxine Waters and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex) for their leadership in diversity. How? I was still half asleep from the debates and I left those two up gala-ing! Now I don’t want to contradict Pressley’s comments, but I’m pretty sure some kind of magic may be involved. They must know some anti-sleep incantation at the very least.
After my fill of avocado toast, I jetted over to the Ritz-Carlton (might as well do it all) to interview Motown President Ethiopia Habtermariam and film director Savannah Leaf over a cup of tea. As they waxed poetic about the importance of activism in art and told stories about Motown Legends, my social anxiety kicked in again and all I could think about was if I was supposed to sip the tea or use a spoon. I’m sure they had a good chuckle about my tea-sipping techniques although they couldn’t have been nicer in person.
Next was The Root’s official CBC event, in partnership with Motown and Universal Music Group. Hosted by Panama Jackson (of course), our panel featured BJ the Chicago Kid, Habtermariam, Leaf, Flint. Mich. Mayor Karen Weaver and Benny Napolean, Sheriff of Wayne County, Mich. Not to be outdone, a reception followed on the rooftop of the previously-mentioned Eaton Hotel because we know that the only thing that out-snobs a brunch is a rooftop. “Upscale” motherfuckers love a rooftop party.
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All my fears whether or not The Root was cool enough for CBC Week were quickly allayed when the doors opened and the room filled with slim-fit suits and pencil skirts. I don’t know if it was the open bar or the fact that the coolest Congressman of them all, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), was working the crowd. But if CBC Week organizers gave an award for the blackety-blackest event, the spontaneous electric slide that followed Jeffries’ impromptu speech laced with quotes by the Notorious B.I.G would have at least garnered The Root a nomination.
The next day was filled with me detoxing from the week’s events by watching college football after attending another brunch at American University. Late that evening, I wandered the streets of DC with the regular people who wore flip-flops and sleeveless shirts before packing for my early morning flight home. Because I am registered for TSA Precheck and Clear, I was whisked past security and, when I checked into my flight, the app notified me that I had somehow been upgraded to first class. I had barely sat down before the flight attendant asked if I would like a cocktail.
“Sure,” I replied.
“You got an Old World pinot noir?”