The Lure of Street Life, Revealed

The Washington Post updated its fascinating Being a Black Man series today with a profile of notorious D.C. hustler Anthony Marcellus James (aka A.J.) that delves into the complex, contradictory world of street life. This piece is my favorite of the series so far—it manages to make the motivations of drug pushers, users, and killers somewhat intelligible to people like me, who have always observed “the game” from afar with a combination of bewilderment and disgust. I found the following quote particularly enlightening:

A guy once told him something he still finds profound: The reason the guy smoked drugs, he said, was because he was afraid his life wouldn’t turn out well. “You go to Georgetown, and see white people all chipper,” James says. “And then you go to the neighborhood and our people are all mad. And the question you have to ask yourself is: Why?”

This made me think of S.T. Vaughn III, a middle-class friend of my brother’s who threw away all the advantages at his disposal for a life of petty crime. Could an intense fear of trying and failing have played some role in steering him toward a life that, paradoxically, guaranteed failure? If nothing else, S. T.’s example shows us that the ruinous influences that make hustling and theft more attractive penetrate deeper than mere economics. Some, including Blackademics interviewee bell hooks, see this as a failure of self-esteem, but A.J. revealed no doubt about his formidable skills as a hustler. The kids ensnared by this lifestyle apparently trust in their ability to excel in it, but that street-swagger somehow doesn’t transfer over to mainstream society. It seems they have plenty of self-esteem within the one domain they’ve been socialized to accept, but precious little for the one that offers a stronger foundation for long-term success.

Over the course of the interview, A.J.’s observations range from the disarmingly insightful to the startlingly hypocritical. Occasionally he pulls off both at the same time, as in his claim that “[t]hat’s a multibillion-dollar business, locking us up.” Which is undeniable, of course, but for him to complain about it is a little like a loyal Wal-Mart customer bashing the company for its questionable labor and business practices. Yes, and you’re helping them do it. Perhaps A.J. recognizes the irony, but if so, he doesn’t acknowledge it. That’s a major part of the problem—those involved in this dismal business spend far too little time thinking seriously about its long-term consequences and implications.

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Published on December 31, 2006 at 2:47 pm. 7 Comments.
Filed under black culture,poverty.