Gore Vidal once said of his American countrymen that our nation could be referred to as “the United States of Amnesia.” In today’s climate of ever hastening news cycles, vested interests in the mass media: he’s more right than ever. Retrospective on the past through hindsight and research gives us more enlightenment on events of the past.
I have chosen to highlight New Jack City, a film from the early 1990s that is itself a fictionalized retrospective of the origins of therise of crack cocaine in urban America. This is important because it contains a narrative that the media, state and federal policy, and popular culture celebrate as orthodoxy: drug prohibition with its morally dubious warriors instructing those it dominates to root for its side.
Also in New Jack City, I find another, equally relevant, narrative about black enterprise on the wrong side of the law that projects forward to today where former distributors of marijuana remain in prison through the drug is legal in 30 states.
Halfway through the New Jack City, I began to sympathize for New Jack City’s Nino Brown. Draped in vogue finery; Brown is a struggling startup capitalist struggling to make lemons into lemonade in an impoverished, pre-gentrification early 1980sHarlem. Nino’s Harlem is overwhelmingly black, poor, deprived, and over-policed. This is a perfect opportunity specifically for black business to thrive because it is aggressively uncontroversial for presumably white-owned business and national chains to avoid investment in a poor, black community—usually citing it as a bad investment—but for black business, it is a chance to thrive. No competition. This is evidenced by there being a successful black-owned grocery store in every black community across the country during the authoritarian Jim Crow era.
A world apart in New York City from the dizzy heights of the white investor class on Wall Street than the mere 10 miles on Manhattan island. Nino hails from being a petty criminal to capitalizing on a much-hyped, new drug: crack cocaine. It had to have been the first drug hyped by a US president, live on TV by Reagan no less. Chemically identical to the powdered cocaine preferred by the white investor class on Wall Street crack cocaine by the mid-1980s (associated with the criminalization of black Americans) carried drug possession sentences 100 times greater than powder cocaine. Nino’s bet on the new drug crack cocaine would be correct—he would become rich but he would also suffer the wrath of Harlem’s agents of the police state.
Supported by a cast of cartoon-like two-dimensional henchmen-types ripped from gangster genre films from The Godfather to Scarface support him in his quest to innovate in the informal economy and reap large profits amid great pain with the best of American capitalists. Nino calls out Joseph Kennedy (father of President John F Kennedy) who in real life profited massively from illegal alcohol sales during the bloody reign of the Eighteenth Amendment than even more after the Twenty-First Amendment. Effectively working both sides of the law, illegal and legal. Not unlike today’s marijuana dealers could be legitimated into tax-paying businesses, where there is a path.
Where Nino finds success is he defines a model based on real life “Freeway” Ricky Ross who in interviews says he took inspiration from McDonald’s fast food model and adapted it to create quick walk-up access to crack cocaine. Nino in New Jack City goes further by providing a secure “dine-in” option deemed “The Enterprise,” like the Star Trek spaceship, to consume the product. Nino innovated with this supervised crack den option a full decade before the “safe injection” sites for drug addicts of Canada, Netherlands, and Portugal dramatically reduced the public burden of overdosing. “The Enterprise” has a meaning that can be accepted as dual because of the business enterprise of industrial production (modeled on McDonald’s patented Speedee production system) and distribution profits Nino greatly as it did real-life Freeway, Ricky Ross.
But the Feds and the states won’t let Nino have his innovation and profits. The Feds and the states outright prohibit narcotic drugs under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 (originally directed at criminalizing Chinese laborers in the Western states) hindering his illicit business where there were no opportunities before and there is no path to legitimization as with alcohol after the end of Prohibition. The failing policies keeping the economy in Harlem in a state of depression despite there being a clear desire for the said product and a need for regulation of the markets as evidenced by the violence between suppliers—the mob in both the film and in real life.
Why I reserve some sympathy for Nino as a capitalist on the wrong side of ideology that it at once preaches free enterprise and individualism but then the system fails to act to use government to tax and regulate enterprise and behaviors when needed. There’s awry parallel to today’s opium overdose crisis in the suburbs. The major pharmaceutical companies marketing and pushing otherwise illegal drugs to any homemaker who can find a doctor with a loose prescription pad is legal and the owners are not going to jail.
Nino isn’t lobbying and paying off the right regulators while Big Pharma gets government subsidies to push their product.
Were Nino a petrochemical processor (also being white probably wouldn’t hurt) he’d simply waltz into any law office on K Street in DC and lobby directly to the US Congress to legitimate whatever dangerous shit he might be up to. Right next to DuPont, Exxon, the Big Banks, the new weed lobby, and the established pharmaceutical corporations he too could be feeding the narcotic habits of dejected suburban America and paying taxes with the best of them.
But no! Nino Brown is on 125th Street capitalizing and pulling himself up by his girlfriend’s family’s (investor class) bootstraps despite the laws and Ice T posturing to take him down.
Many of those jailed for drug conspiracy regarding distribution hail from some of the most divested from and impoverished communities in urban America. Like Nino, they took lemons and attempted to make lemonade. From those left behind by employment and education opportunities they are radicalized and backed into the informal economy to provide for themselves and their families.
Misery likes company and that’s all that can be said of this pre-‘Law & Order’ Ice T wearing a fuzzy fedora hat that isn’t fooling anybody because he’s a narc along with his reluctant partner, a discount knockoff version of Robert Downey Jr. When watching this part of the film all I could think about was Hoover’s FBI salivating at destroying Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line.
The plot about Ice T, famous for being a player hater, as an undercover detective hell-bent on player hating on Nino Brown, the story arc of Ice T shooting Chris Rock as a courier named Pookie who later becomes a drug addict before being redeemed by Ice T as what those hardened by time in the ghetto could only call a snitch, and the bombshell that Nino Brown apparently killed the detective’s mother read as hasty and tacked-on. Ice T has disastrous shootouts and full-of-shit rivalry with fake Robert Downey Jr where they bond over hate for Nino Brown. Mario Van Peebles fills in as eye candy, toothless undercover operator, and still finds time to direct the movie.
The recklessness of the police in this film makes it hard to imagine objectively that we’re supposed to side with and root for the undercover cops who amass a body count as high as the mob. Ice-T’s detective character is about for par for writing gritty TV or film drama set in the ghetto which pretty much as a genre demands a reckless authority figure with little regard for black lives. Think about it that as you watch Ice T chase down Chris Rock as Pookie through the Bronx before shooting him in the leg on a playground crowded with schoolchildren. When Pookie is flipped to work for the detectives then dies he is celebrated as
martyr in the pursuit of justice instead of a recovering addict pushed to his limits by police hubris.
Nino was right. He wasn’t guilty, the system is a sham, and everyone involved is worse off.
Nino prevailed in court only in the service of drug Prohibition but also had to die to preserve the old man’s internalized oppression, the belief that Harlem would be better without a Nino Brown. When on the witness stand he exposed that higher powers traffic drugs into the country calling it big business. But imagine a Harlem without a War on Drugs and the over-policing that it encourages, that Nino Brown might’ve owned a chain of pot shops or competed directly with Bayer.
Nino Brown the capitalist anti-hero would leverage the system to change the system.
Nino Brown, the stylish thug caricature single-mindedly exploits illicit means for wealth creation, not unlike other capitalists, is shot by an old man who apparently is talented at getting guns past security.
Which you see in the film is up to you.
For The Culture
“I Still Know What You Did Last Summer: Pandemic, Pride, and HIV Afterlives”
Atlanta Black Pride began as a picnic.
Once upon a time in 1996, “a small group of African American lesbian and gay friends held a picnic over Labor Day weekend to celebrate their unique experience in Atlanta’s LGBT community. Each year, the group grew with others from the community and neighboring cities.” This swelling group would become the non-profit, volunteer-led 501(c)3 organization, In The Life Atlanta (ITLA). As a founding party to the International Federation of Black Prides, ITLA annually hosts upwards of 100,000 Black queer people in Atlanta, Georgia–comandeering almost every major club, the entire metro area, and, the city’s heartbeat, Piedmont park.
Atlanta Black Pride is the largest pride event dedicated to Blackqueer people in the World.
Of course, everyone who attends is not affiliated with ITLA, nor is every event held in the name of Atlanta Black Pride on Labor Day weekend engineered with the consultation or even knowledge of ITLA. However, I find it imperative to properly situate what can be considered a kind of Blackqueer Hajj into the larger, historical context of the “Black (gay) Mecca”.
As I write this, cases of COVID-19 and resultant deaths are on a relative decline in Georgia. Yesterday, September 4, 63 people died; ten less than the number who died the day before on September 3. There were 2,066 cases discovered yesterday as well, which in comparison to the 2,675 found the day before seems like progress–seems.
Either unwittingly or out of sheer moral dereliction, Blackqueer people have, nonetheless, crowded the concrete corridors of downtown Atlanta in the name of “Pride”. Fulton County, in which Atlanta resides, has the most cases of any county in Georgia with 25,540 confirmed cases to date. Footage from inside clubs packed passed capacity proliferated Black twitter. Bodies move as if welded together; the building heaves as it holds them–constricted and ecstatic. Sweat and swisher-soaked shirts find their way up over heads, tucked into jeans or draped across clavicles, couches. Tongues untied touch, mouths unmasked meet. Exhales no longer waited; they breathe each other in, eliding every edict to distance. Under these conditions, death is imminent, intimate.
In 2018, WSB-TV reported that, according to Emory University’s Center of AIDS research, HIV infections had reached “epidemic” proportions for Blacks in Atlanta, with every 1 in 51 Black people at risk of diagnosis. 42% of new HIV diagnoses in the country in the same year were among adult and adolescent Black people. Black queer men–the demographic majority of Atlanta Black Pride, I must add–make up for 37% of new diagnoses among all queer men in the United States.
One of the very few things known about COVID-19 is that it disproportionately impacts the already immunocompromised–the Elderly, the infantile, the asthmatic, the seropositive. Hence, it would seem to behoove the Blackqueer attendants of Atlanta Black Pride–who by no means nor stretch of the imagination are solely responsible for the intracommunal increase of HIV diagnoses nor by majority, themselves, seropositive–to be vigilant, not simply about their own health but about the health of their larger community. Put differently, Atlanta Black Pride 2020 seems blissfully ignorant of, not merely this current historical moment but, moreso, itself; its attendees–against the backdrop of 5,000+ deaths, 263,000 cases and counting, impending eviction crises, mass unemployment, abolitionist unrest–begin to appear almost morally bereft.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention that most of the event fliers appeal to cisheteronormative cultural appetites with well-oiled and scantily clad, light skin men/mascs who titillate the impoverished desirability politics of its viewers. Consequently, thin, conventionally desirable, cisgendered, homonormative Black men get to feel most hailed and at home. This may possibly clarify why it looks to be the case that, for Atlanta Black Pride and her benefactors, the pandemic is not to be taken seriously; to whom/what do cisgay men ever feel accountable?
On the other hand: it is, however, simply empirically untenable, outright false to assert or even suggest that Black cisgay men are the only Blackqueer folks present for Pride. Anything else would be or border erasure. This, then, raises an even more harrowing question: for whom/what is the Blackqueer responsible? If cases rise in Atlanta post-Pride, even if only within Blackqueer commons, are Blackqueer people, even partially, responsible? Who is the onus on to defend Blackqueer life or stave off Blackqueer death and dying?
Cultural historian Saidiya Hartman, in her trailblazing monograph Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America, looks at the Black codes and Freedmans’ Bureau handbooks to illuminate how postbellum America incorporated recently emancipated slaves through liberal ideologies of consent, responsibility, and culpability. The “ex-”Slave demonstrated their appreciation for emancipation through self-mastery, discipline, and hard work. After 400+ years of free labor, idleness and lethargy in the Black was shamed and eschewed as “the body no longer harnessed by chains or governed by the whip was instead tethered by the weight of conscience, duty, and obligation,” writes Hartman. In a constant performance of ethical sophistication and proper conduct, Black bodies were ushered into a more modern regime of servitude in which they would perpetually genuflect to the behavioral dictates of the State and its White majority in always already foreclosed attempts at making good on the promises of manumission: national incorporation, sociopsychic recognition, juridical protection, and legal equality. To be irresponsible–meaning both without anything to be responsible for (property for instance) or to be accessed as negligent vis-a-vis what one is supposed to be responsible with (personhood and other persons)–was to be unfit for freedom.
Under these on-going conditions, the Blackqueer remains precluded from recognizably responsible behavior at least insofar as Blackqueerness yet marks the racially abject and sexually deviant imposition on and threat to the very notion of the public and every concept of the proper, good, and socially acceptable on which it relies. Stuart Hall’s Policing the Crisis, Michael Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics, and Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments come into chorus beautifully on this point. Blackqueer responsibility is a misnomer because Blackqueer propriety is impossible. As Hartman further advised in 1997, the Blackqueer is the constitutive outside of citizen-subjectivity, or the Blackqueer is only a political subject to the extent to which it is criminally culpable. The Blackqueer capacity for responsibility, within a legico-juridical order to which it has no place or legitimate claim, is always a precondition for Blackqueer criminality.
The Blackqueer is ontologically ir/responsible: at once, made to be responsible for their own bio-political damnation and irresponsible with their ever-pending redemption. “Sin is Negro as virtue is white,” writes Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. “All those white men in a group, guns in their hands, cannot be wrong. I am guilty. I do not know of what, but I know that I am no good.”
What might it mean to understand Blackqueerness as the refusal of the politics of the proper? What if the politic of Blackqueerness is to dispossess itself of the proper, which is to say the appropriate and the “responsible”, which is to say place and/in state? Can we look at the refusal to be withheld from each other as that dispossessory politic? Maybe getting together is the only or originary politic of the dispossessed; those dispossessed, first, of the very possibility to get together. If what poet-philosopher Fred Moten reminds us is true, if “we get together to fight,” can we see within all the fighting, the “fighting to maintain our capacity to get together”? Must we be responsible for the conditions that coproduce our constriction and our ecstasy? Whither might Blackqueer rage and release be permitted? What would it look like to shift the penologic of responsibility back on the “authors of devastation,” whose “innocence,” Baldwin tells us “constitutes the crime.”
Before the U.S. government decided to rescue Wall Street from COVID-induced collapse, it refused to democratize access to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis while defunding the Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Blackqueer people, particularly in Atlanta, have long occupied a state of [non-]emergency, with nothing to show for it besides a well-lit stadium and a Mayor with Bottoms for a last name. Therefore, when we ask Blackqueer people to be “responsible” for their contribution to the pandemic, be held accountable for COVID’s role in community, we must first ask how “responsibility” itself is a request for a comportment that consents to the current medico-juridical paradigm that engineers Blackqueer death–both, premature and belated. Blackqueer riskiness, ethical irresponsibility, was not why HIV/AIDS became an epidemic and, in the same way, it will not be why COVID-19 never loosens its grip. A government that capitalizes off of catastrophe; that chooses profits over people; who–right before entering a $1.95 Billion deal with Pharmaceutical company Pfizer and biotechnology company BioNTech, a $2.1 billion deal with French pharmaceutical company Sanofi and British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline–allowed the ban on evictions to expire, permitted schools to reopen, began disseminating “back to work” plans, and “phasing-out” travel restrictions: the U.S. government will always, in every instance, be responsible for the rise of coronavirus and its asymmetrical presence in Blackqueer and poor communities.
Furthermore, if to be Blackqueer is to lose the right to one’s own body or the right to own one’s body; if Blackqueer bodies are always “public texts”, as Karla Holloway might suggest, then we must take into our analysis how Blackqueerness has been written into the general political body, the hegemonic commonsense, the collective unconscious as, in itself, a biological threat, as negrophobogenic as Fanon later puts it, as sheer pathogen. This discursive-material conceptualization–Blackqueer systematic vulnerability to disease/death conterminous with disease/death as the universal sign of Blackqueerness—rebuffs performative concealment or “proper posture”. There is nothing the Blackqueer person can do to not be a figure of epidemiological scandal. The Blackqueer is the ghost of every pandemic. The Blackqueer occupies the political role of bioterrorist, in advance. Borrowing a Hartmanian locution: this is what it means to live as the afterlife of HIV.
Still there is the very real risk of acquiring (and dying by) COVID. The lives of Blackqueer folks, disproportionately immunocompromised and/as disabled, hang in the balance. Their vulnerability to death seems eclipsed–as it is already more generally–by an intracommunal propensity to play with precarity. There is no question that a dearth in political attention to the Blackqueer disabled structures Blackqueer responses (or lack thereof) to the pandemic. Yet, I want to suggest that play can also be a Blackqueer disabled response. I want to suggest that Blackqueer disabled folks attended Atlanta Black Pride, against their best self-interest and though it might not be an ethics to universalize, it is not a politic to minimize. Amidst the ongoing War on AIDS, Blackqueer lifeworlds–crowded nightclubs, dilapidated bathhouses, un/protected penetrations—become articulations of summers refusing to be stolen, bodies refusing to behave, backs going unbent. Blackqueer folks–disabled and otherwise–engage in risk irreducible to the apolitical or asinine. There is a politics present in Blackqueer folks’ refusal of the ways precarity precludes play. If we think about the war on AIDS as war on the Blackqueer disabled/immunocompromised, how might Blackqueer disability always entail the negotiations of play and precarity; how might those negotiations proliferate to unforeseen, counterintuitive and counterproductive ends? A politics of Blackqueer commons might also look like where touch persisted, when pleasure insisted under the pressure of pandemic and antiBlack public, especially as the difference loses all distinction, especially since “we have nothing to lose but our chains.”
For The Culture
Twitter Reacts to BlackLoveDoc’s Shortage of Dark Skinned Women in Promotional Video
#BlackLoveDoc returns to OWN on September 5th, and they’re being dragged through the Twitterverse because of their promotional video, which dark-skinned women are largely unaccounted for.
If you’re unfamiliar with what #BlackLoveDoc is, it’s a docuseries where a collection of black couples—queer and hetero—have discussions about love on camera.
The promotional video sparked a debate about colorism. One Twitter user replied, “When I say that ‘Black love’ is nothing more than a lie this is what I mean. The women had to pass a paper bag test to even get the so-called ‘Black love.’ This is why I’m [a] firm believer in Black women opening their options and dating the right person for them regardless of race.”
Whoever runs #BlackLoveDoc’s Twitter account, probably Gayle King, replied: “Hey Ella! We agree. This is why we show Black men and women of all shades in loving relationships – we even show them in relationships with someone who isn’t Black Flushed face And some folks are mad. It sucks. But we [still] show US being loved. Because that’s what matters.”
Bad response to being called out for colorism. Surely a billionaire like Oprah can afford better social media editors and public relations training for her staff.
Enjoy these tweets of #BlackLoveDoc’s promo getting dragged:
For The Culture
Cori Bush Snatches The Missouri Primary From 19-year Incumbent William Lacy Clay
A little positive political news is coming our way. Cori Bush, who’s running for Congress in Missouri has snatched the primary vote from Lacy Clay, who has held the seat for 19 years. For the past 50 years, the Clay family has held the seat. Today, Cori ends that streak.
Of importance is that Cori is not only a Black woman, but one of the better-known organizers for Black Lives Matter. The Congressional Black Caucus was very vocal about their disapproval of her “radical” stances, but it seems their clucking has meant absolutely nothing to the final result. She punctuated her victory with a simple tweet:
Boom! Haha. Ya girl has sass. I’ll remind you all that she was one of those protesting for our lives at Ferguson and has lead her public life with a raised fist ever since.
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