Marion Barry Discusses Health, D.C. Ahead of Release of Memoirs


An AFRO Scoop

Former D.C. Mayor and current Councilman Marion S. Barry is still standing following a spate of health problems during his political career, and was eager to share his story ahead of the release of his memoirs later this month.

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Former D.C. Mayor (center). (Courtesy Photo)

“I’ve had a miraculous life,” said Barry as he gave a chronology of his health problems in a conversation with the AFRO. “At 78, I realize that lots of ailments come and go.”

Barry said he has remained cancer-free after his 1995 diagnosis of and treatment for prostate cancer.

“Do you know more Black men have this curable disease than any other group of men? I want to tell them, look at me,” he said. “Get screened, tested and get surgery if you need it. But just don’t sit there and do nothing.”

Born in Mississippi, Barry said he and his four sisters also inherited diabetes from his grandmother.

“It’s not always a matter of diet,” he said. “I eat healthy. My diabetes is hereditary so I still must visit my doctor regularly and do what he tells me to do.”

On top of those maladies, Barry underwent kidney transplant five years ago and remains thankful to the person who saved his life.

“I will never forget Kim Dickens for donating her kidney,” he said. “I would have been on dialysis for the rest of my life. Not only do I have a compatible kidney, I have an intelligent one. Kim is very healthy, a vegetarian for 20 years and she works out daily. I know God wanted me to have this kidney and I’m so thankful.”

Barry and Dickens, 51, are starting a kidney donor foundation to educate African-Americans about the benefits to the community of organ donation.

“Most Black people want to take all their organs to Heaven with them,” he said. “But to give another person life is vitally important too.”

Barry has also battled with chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, blood clots and severe reactions to prescribed medication.

“I am so very blessed by God to be alive to do the work He wants me to do,” he said. “I live life to its fullest to be successful in my vision.”

Turning to his city, Barry said he has a 20- to 30-year vision for D.C., which continues to change before his eyes.

“When I first became mayor, the District was a sleepy Southern town with extreme height restrictions, and low level shops,” he said. “I led the effort to transform downtown, Southwest, the 14th Street Corridor and other vibrant business areas against the wishes of some elected officials. But when it was done, my worst opponents thanked me for my vision.”

However, Barry was not pleased with the wave of gentrification creeping into Black neighborhoods.

“Drive through Capitol Hill. It’s completely gentrified,” he said. “Look at Shaw, Petworth, Bloomingdale and Cresswood. These neighborhoods are turning over fast. The most displaced are seniors and Black renters who can’t afford to live in these high rent areas which slowed down the original development for affordable housing. The Black middle class is being pushed out. We are trying to find ways to slow it down. If not, the city will be completely gentrified. This was not my vision.”

Barry said he has watched with dismay as several of his colleagues’ careers have ended in scandals. In 2012, Barry himself was sanctioned and fined by the council for disclosing that he accepted a gift from two city contractors to help the poor.

“I had mixed emotions,” he said. “I didn’t like the fact that only Black officials were being targeted. I was glad that my integrity was intact. Some of the things they were charged with I’ve never done. Sure, I was knocked down by them. But you reap what you sow.”

“At some point, I plan to retire,” he said. “I want to have a wholesome life, to travel, go fishing and take it easy.”

Taking it easy might be hard for the next few months as Barry plans media appearances to promote his new book of memoirs, which tells his story from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the executive offices of one of the most powerful cities in the world. The book, co-authored by Omar Tyree, will be on the shelves June 18.

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