Archive for January, 2007

American Gangster Interview

January 15th, 2007

The BET (Black Entertainment Television) documentary series American Gangster ended with its final installment last week. The finale in the series was an expose of a criminal enterprise in my native home city of Detroit, Michigan. The experience for me of being interviewed for this documentary was bitter-sweet. It was not easy for me to see Detroit displayed from such a one-dimensional perspective of poverty and crime. Conversely, the expose revealed issues that I have been trying to bring to the forefront for a number of years.

Since the airing of the program I have received numerous phone calls, e-mails and comments. Some of the correspondence and communiqués were complimentary, others not so. One comment came from a graduate student who questioned whether or not my participation in such a documentary was helping to sensationalize the subject matter. This is a good question, and one for which I have (I believe) a good answer… absolutely not. My role in this program was as an interviewee. In addition to being an interviewee my participation in this program was as a researcher probing certain urban pathologies and connecting certain aspects of urban parallax. The undeniable truth is that there are numerous views of Detroit (and other urban communities throughout America), yet this underbelly account is rarely addressed.

I am grateful to BET for their decision to conduct a social investigation focusing on street culture and other related phenomena associated with what we know as the “Third City”. The revelations made in this work help to show a world and the lives of people not normally acknowledged by mainstream America. The truth is that the gangs, illicit enterprise system, the drugs, the violence, and the impact of a mutated subculture on neighborhoods, communities and families requires more than a limited series of television episodes but this is a start.

The larger society which comprises the greater culture does not seem to have ever truly embraced a sincere desire to insure any significant social programming or policy development to adequately address the problems that help establish “Third City” communities. The abandonment over the last thirty years of social programs and the death of the Great Society has left our country with what American Gangster is exposing as just the tip of the iceberg. American history is replete with stories of the poor, the disassociated and the disenfranchised that have little to lose and much to gain by embracing cultures of criminality. Many of the infamous criminals who achieved notoriety during depression era years have backgrounds bearing a striking similarity to the reported individuals in the American Gangster series.

Many questions arose from this documentary; it is hopefully the starting point for serious and sincere discussion. As I have indicated, I have received a host of comments and questions as result of my appearance on this program. One of the most poignant questions came from the mouth of a seven year old girl that I know who lives in the greater Detroit area. Excited at seeing someone she knew on television she was reportedly enthralled by the program. I am told that as she watched the show intently she became more curious and inquisitive, finally asking her mother, “Is this the Civil War?” Indeed, like the denial of a civil war in Iraq, America has denied the existence of a civil war in urban America. American Gangster has exposed major battles in the cities shown throughout the series.

Hopefully, Africana communities will now realize that the violence, the perpetuation of the drug trade, and the negligence and indifference to them demands answers from the larger culture; answers that demonstrate some value for the humanity of the people who live in urban cities, those communities that are home to the “Third City” phenomena.  American Gangster provides a mirror for urban America to observe that the “Third City” exists. No, Detroit, South Central Los Angeles, Harlem and other like cities are not the “Third City”; they are the environs where “Third City” communities thrive. The “Third City” is akin to a “Third World” country in that they are the product of neglect, abuse and misuse.
The Chambers Brothers phenomenon demonstrates what happens in a community when it is abandoned, isolated, neglected, forgotten and forsaken. The American Gangster series opens the door to serious questions, questions about such things as the flood of illegal drugs into urban cities, the proliferation of high powered assault weapons in poor communities. How did communities that were once working class bastions of hope mutate into centers of hopelessness, death and despair?

The underbelly of urban America shown in American Gangster has become a force, a force that is sweeping urban communities like a tidal wave of destruction. The reality that American Gangster has revealed stares at America. America until now has barely looked back at the visage it faces, can America continue to shyly look away and act as if issues of race, poverty, violence and crime are simply “ghetto” phenomena? Perhaps the reality of American Gangster is the “reality television” that every citizen needs to tune to… sensationalism? No, this is not sensationalism, it is an important reality that needs to be viewed, reviewed, discussed and ultimately addressed.