Years Ago a Friend of Mine…
I can recall growing up in Memphis in the eighties. There were drug families, not gangs or a number of cliques who professed colors and territories that they didn’t own as their own. There was a moment when the Vice Lords and Gangsta Disciples pitch forked and starred their way into town, but those didn’t really take root in Memphis as much as they did in places like Chicago, Detroit and other Midwestern cities. I saw the film “Colors” and although we attempted to mimic the words and actions that were thrown at us from L.A. those things didn’t become Velcro attachments to our conscience. We had drug families.
To relay the names of the Families is not the issue. Why did we have drug ‘families’ and individual hustlers selling crack and weed on South and North Memphis streets?
The obvious answer would be, the country was in a recession. Reagan was in the process of creating his Star Wars project, and unemployment was high. Artistically though, Hollywood had rediscovered the gangster.
The most celebrated image in mainstream America is that of the Italian mobster. This is evidenced in a show like the “Sopranos” and numerous Hollywood movies starring ‘A’ list talent such as DeNiro and Pacino. We have a fascination with the thug that began with Cagney, and movies like “Little Ceasar”. This continues with films such as “Casino” and “Goodfellas” which continue to be held in high esteem by the Academy. America has taken this image and molded it into a profitable medium. In the seventies and throughout the eighties a number of these gangsta flicks became cult classics to tons of disillusioned Black males. This created an affinity in the Black community towards the ideals of, live fast and hard, die faster. In an economy where Blacks struggled to become employed these movies became a form of escapism.
However, this image of the Hollywood gangsta does not create fear in mainstream America. Although the crimes committed in these films are just as brutal, or more brutal than any horror film, the image of the macho, business suit killer is not the image America associates with its idea of crime. Hence, American Psycho is developed into a film but Americans are not afraid of White men in expensive suits who kill over someone having a better business card. It is the African-American Hip-Hop child, headphones, baggy jeans, jersey with hat or bandana, who receives the brunt of the media’s scrutiny. What does this have to do with me growing up in Memphis in the eighties and not seeing ‘gangs’, but drug families?
Well, as a child of the Hip-Hop era I know the perception of this culture has been poorly depicted. Unfortunately the major corruption of the Hip-Hop aesthetic has been at the hands of Black entertainers manipulating the masses in the name of capitalism.
I could say that the Black teenager emulates that which is held in high esteem. However, that would be an obvious lie. Because it is not only the youth who carry the demeanor of the misguided rap hero, there are adults who follow suit. I have sat and listened to many Black men speak of conquest in the same manner as Too Short in his song “Freaky Tales”. The grandiose, overblown, stories of sexual accomplishments in rap, probably true, probably not, have always existed in Black music. Hip-Hop/Rap though has taken a more misogynistic role in establishing bragging rights. Not to appear righteous, I myself engaged in the pimp/player attitude conveyed in these songs, but many of my stories were made up to fit in with my ‘boys’. This is all off the subject.
Black people have always wanted what White America has: White picket fence, white skin, straight hair, 2.5 kids, luxury vehicle in the driveway and the means to go any place without being an outcast. In the Black community how does one come into these things? How does a person gain access to a corporate job, pension, and benefits? Education and patience is the key of course, allow me to go off course again.
We, my mother, sister and I, lived in apartments until I left Memphis and joined the military. Every apartment we lived in had one bedroom until, (which my sister and I shared a room and my mother slept on the couch), I reached the sixth grade and my mother was moved from a temporary job into a permanent position. The neighborhoods I lived in were considered the worst in the city, yet I was unaware of these things when I was growing up. Sirens were so routine that even now I still can’t recall hearing them in a very clear way. I guess I blocked those things out as a child and continued playing 1,2,3 Red Light, Hide and Seek, Catch a Girl Get a Girl, whatever game we played until the street lights came on. I never realized the danger of my neighborhoods until I drove back through them as a man with a family and the desperation in the eyes of those sitting on those same porches I sat on as a child, looked through my windshield. As I said, we lived in one bedroom apartments, this was all we could afford, just like most Black single parent households and two parent households. My mother told my wife a story about one apartment we stayed in where the bottom of the door was so high, rats used to try to crawl under it. They would get stuck and the rats would freeze to death.
I feel that I am rambling here. Why is it that we had drug families is the issue. In an effort to attain things, without having to wait until you were 50 years old or too old to enjoy them, we sold drugs. Crack and any number of random drugs were dropped into the neighborhood, and we sold these things as quickly as possible, became lookouts, and stole cars to drive different paraphernalia across towns and states. We did any and everything to get that money. The way everyone saw it, and I include myself in this because in an absurd way I reinforced this lifestyle, if we didn’t get the dough somebody else was eager to ease the suffering of family and friends.
So, why not gangs in Memphis in the eighties? (This has changed since). The media creates the hero. Who didn’t sit around to see what was in Al Capone’s vault? The images flashed across the screen in households in the eighties were that of the gangster. Even the coolest cops on TV dressed like the gangsters. I remember the NBC Friday night lineup: Miami Vice and Crime Story. The two biggest shows on TV presented guns and drugs as the backdrop to America. The fact that people died while attempting to deal drugs or commit crimes, was presented heroically: theme music, slow-motion shots and no blood. It didn’t hurt to get shot and I’ll be damned if the person didn’t show up in the next episode as a different person. What I’m stating is that for Blacks who could not get jobs which would allow them to gain the trappings of the wealthy Whites seen on TV, and in society, drugs seemed a viable option because the laws were not as firm initially. And for the drug family, the younger brother and sister as transporter and dealer offered a built – in ‘get out of jail free’ card. Juveniles did not get prosecuted as harshly, the adults reaped all of the benefits and the child suffered all of the consequences.
The boom of crack in the eighties and the expansion of the prison system created a phenomenon ten times as serious as Jim Crow was. There has been a reintroduction to slavery in America that will only end in the destruction of this nation. As David Matlin details in VernooyKill Creek, “African-Americans are condemned at a rate more than seven times that of whites…One out of three young Black men are now under criminal justice supervision…Conviction for drug offenses accounts for 46 percent of the increase in sentencing since 1980.”
With the Black drug family set-up the way it was the outcome when those drug families fell consisted of hundreds of thousands of teenage boys, being removed from society. Young Black men who should have been playing high school football, studying physics in school clubs or running for student body positions, instead were used to push drugs in the community. During the crucial teenage years, these kids were taught to hustle. They were taught that a man is only a man when he has a fat knot of dead presidents in his pocket. The value system became skewed.