The city officials looked uneasy from the beginning. They came expecting a two-hour community meeting about a long-term strategic plan for the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, but inside the theater at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center they found around 75 angry people who wanted to know why Jacqueline Moscou, artistic director of Langston Hughes, was placed on administrative leave and has been the subject of an investigation by the city since mid-October. City officials and Langston Hughes employees say, for privacy reasons, that they cannot discuss the investigation.
"How many of you are here to talk about the strategic planning process?" asked Mickey Fearn, of the parks department, at the beginning of the meeting. Two people raised their hands. Fearn suggested the two leave and have their discussion in another room. One of them looked around and said, "No, this looks interesting. I'll stay."
The climax of the meeting was an announcement by Vonda Sargent, Moscou's attorney, that her African-American client is being investigated for charges of racism.
"She's been accused of being too pro-black," Sargent said. Then her microphone went dead.
The crowd started shouting.
"Let her speak! We need to hear this!" yelled Pastor Carl Livingston.
Sargent's microphone came back to life. "Langston Hughes is a culturally and racially specific building and the parks department can't support that kind of programming," Sargent continued. "Anytime we talk about black, it's bad; every time we have a room, we have to share it with everybody else. This is about trying to change the purpose of this building."
The entire two-hour meeting was a medley of anxiety and angry, unanswered questions. Pastors, actors, parents, and others spoke into microphones passed around the audience. Most people talked about how much they liked Langston Hughes and Moscou. Some said the center was being mismanaged, others suggested it break away from the parks department and become an independent nonprofit. Many worried it would lose its African-American focus: "If there is a charge that this institution is too black or Afrocentric, it's a challenge to its original mission," said Livingston.
"We don't go to the Wing Luke Museum to find classes on African dance," somebody else said. "We don't go to Daybreak Star to take classes on Swahili."
City officials and Langston Hughes employees denied the charge, but people at the meeting kept making it—"they're trying to throw every culture in here on us"—and asking what happened to Moscou.
"We cannot talk about that," Fearn said. "It is literally illegal for us to discuss personnel issues."
"This is subterfuge," an older man with white stubble and a cane said into the microphone. "There's a word I learned a long time ago in France. What was it? Oh—it was bullshit! You're dumping a load on us and we can't see out of it." People cheered.
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After the meeting, Sargent and her law partner Antoinette Davis said they had been at a fact-finding meeting where city officials closely questioned Moscou about race. "There were a bunch of questions surrounding 'racial comments,'" Sargent says. "'Have you ever made a racial comment?' That question was rephrased at least two-dozen times. There was an allegation that Jackie wanted an all-black building. She's being accused of being a racist just for reminding the institution of its mission."
Fearn, from the parks department, disagrees: "Nobody has ever suggested the focus of Langston Hughes should change." The storm about Langston Hughes, Fearn says, is a confluence of anxieties about the secrecy of the Moscou investigation and the changing face of the Central District.
"The community around Langston Hughes is no longer an entirely African-American one," he says. "And people are afraid that when the service population changes, the focus will change. And people perceive that the personnel issues with Ms. Moscou are an indication of how we feel about African-American performing arts. People see her as a canary in a cave. But there is no connection between these things."
The anxiety persists.
"People in the CD are tired of being pushed around by the city and not consulted," says Wilberforce Agyekum, an African immigrant and attorney. "I'm glad to see the community is standing up to the city for a change. If they don't reinstate her, there will be problems—legal action, organizing, and rallies."
"All this raises some interesting racial questions," a city employee who did not want to be identified told me a few days after the meeting. "Maybe Langston Hughes is such a cultural center that African-Americans haven't approached other community centers about African-American programming. People are saying 'Don't take the only thing we've got.' Well, why is it that they feel like it's the only thing they've got?"