In early summer, 1991, your unworthy servant sat in a crowded classroom, in the 1300 block of H Street, Northwest, Washington.
Everyone undertaking to obtain a District-of-Columbia taxicab driver’s license had to sit through such a class.
Twenty Pakistanis and a handful of Ugandans surrounded me. A black American, a native Washingtonian like myself, was sharing with us his insights from decades of experience as a Washington cabbie.
“You want to talk up your fare a little, to see if they want to chat or not. No politics. Too controversial. Could lead to an argument, then you lose your tip.
“What’s the best subject to bring up? The least controversial?”
An eager Pakistani raised his hand, “The weather?”
“No. That’s too controversial, too. Some like it when it’s hot. Others prefer the winter. No. The one thing you can always bring up, to see if they want to start a conversation is… the Redskins.”
The word Redskins stirs some of my earliest memories. The sound of my father saying the word rests in the part of my mind where I first learned the distinctive intonations of his voice.
The sound of of him saying words like “Mark,” “bedtime,” “dinner,” “ice cream,” “your little brother,” “mom,” and “Redskins”–all those sounds linger in the dreamy realm of my mind, with all the earliest sensory impressions. My father said those words over and over and over again, while I was learning how to use my ears.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, Washington, D.C., was a city of black and white. Mostly black, some white. We had the Redskins in common.
We all loved both Joe Theismann and Art Monk; we all rooted equally for Doug Williams and Mark Moseley. In case you don’t know: white, black, black, and white, respectively, those players.
We had race problems in our city, serious ones. But the Redskins allayed them, soothed them. We had political problems, big time. The Redskins eclipsed them.
(Not to be overly rosy about this: My parents had marital problems, and the Redskins certainly exacerbated those. They weren’t alone in that, among Washington couples.)
In those days, the Redskins managed to win games with some regularity. They went to Superbowls, and even won them.
So this is not an exaggeration: In Washington, D.C., in the 1970’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, the word Redskins was the #1 touchstone for bringing people together in casual communication. Number one. The word Redskins had unrivaled preeminence as the common coin of our little realm, when it came to friendly exchanges and relationship building.
And now we must say goodbye to that precious old heirloom. Why bother pointing out facts like: In its original nineteenth-century usage, Redskin did not have a pejorative connotation. To demean a native American, you used the word Injun. Redskin referred to an enemy, to be sure. But a formidable, brave, and crafty enemy.
Or: To this day, the majority of native Americans polled on this question take no offense at the name.
No point bringing any of that up. I’m not arguing here. The argument, apparently, is over.
This is a eulogy. For one of the oldest, dearest friends my family has had, and many families like ours. A eulogy for a friend that the whole city had, back in far-happier Redskins days. Under the previous owner.
Those of us who remember those days: we have kept hoping for their return. Even through the painful two decades we have recently suffered. We hoped for good Redskins seasons, someday. And we held onto that hope for good reason.
To have known the sweet familiarity of the word Redskins then, exchanged by people of different races, from back seat to front seat, in a 1990 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, serving comfortably as a DC cab; to have known the word as the touchstone of friendliness it was: that has meant never giving up hope that the Redskins could get good again. That the Redskins could cheer us up again. Bring us together again.
It hurts an awful lot to have to give up that hope now. Goodbye, Redskins. Farewell, old friend. We aging Washingtonians will never meet your like again.