At The River I Stand, Watching The Wire: Black America in 2008 & Beyond

01.05.08 10 years ago 42 Comments


By Michael Partis

Blacks in America are on the cusp of what appears to be a major change in American society. Barack Obama’s Iowa win, in a state that is 95% White, made him the first Black candidate to win a presidential contest with a majority of white voters. And makes the possibility of a Black President the most realistic it has ever been. However, while Barack’s message of hope and togetherness seems to be transforming a nation, the often overlooked problems of racial, social, and economic injustice still remain. Nooses are hung, cops shoot the unarmed, bulldozers crush New Orleans residents homes, and an American Gangster receives more coverage than a Great Debater. It is this American complexity that HBO’s drama The Wire captures so brilliantly. But is our “Black CNN” doing the same? What role does it play in Black America’s future? Who’s talking, who’s listening, and most importantly… what do we, the fans, want? “Is it Oochie Wally or is it One Mic?” Is it Big Pimpin or that “ignorant shit that you like?” Is it “Hell on Earth” or “The Good Life?”


“I’m stankin rich/Imma die tryin to spend this shit”

50 Cent- I Get Money

Circa 1990’s- Released 2003

“My people be projects or jail/never Harvard or Yale … its hard to be iced up with Gucci/man poverty’s real”

Nas- Book of Rhymes

Black music, political movements, and culture have always been a mixture of old and new; past and present. Whether it is Hip-Hop music’s hybridity that includes Southern Blues, 1970’s Funk, and sampling; or the 1960’s Civil Rights and Black Power movements building its’ theories and tactics from other early 20th century Black thinkers and organizers; or a Black cultural life steeped in historic customs and traditions (if you ever ate a chitlin; if you ever played a hand game or jumped double-dutch; or ever traded “yo’ mama” jokes —MTV didn’t create it, it was called “the dozens,” “snappin,” or many other names long before— you know what I’m talking about ); the African-American community has always had a linkage between what was done yesterday, and what is to be done in the future. We have always drawn on our past to help create our future.

As we begin 2008, the future for Blacks in America is of great significance. For a people who still seek racial, economic, and social justice in America (and throughout the world), it is always an important time for Black people.

However, while places like New York City and Newark, NJ claim major decreases in homicide and crime, cities like Flint, MI, and Philadelphia, PA see violence and murder rates at such highs it makes Bill Cosby and Beanie Siegel join together and march in the streets. We still have to march to Jena, Louisiana to protect six teenagers from the injustice and racism created by the American criminal justice system and American society. We forget marching in the streets for Sean Bell only a year ago, as his alleged killers attempt to have the murder trial moved out of New York City. New Orleans residents stand in front of bulldozers in protest, while this country continues to neglect it’s responsibility to them. We celebrate an American Gangster more than we celebrate Great Debaters. We have economist worried the economy is on the verge of a serious downturn (read today’s NY Times front cover story). And ironically enough, as the possibility of America’s first Black President creeps ever so close to becoming a reality… why isn’t any Hip-Hop artist screaming “Vote or Die”???

This 2008 is symbolic for many reasons. It serves as the ten year anniversary of the infamous Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton scandal (wonder if anyone will bring it up to Hillary on the campaign trial?). It marks ten years in power for Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chavez, and ten years of his challenging American Empire. We mourn the tenth anniversary of Eldridge Cleaver’s death. Cleaver’s book (Soul On Ice) along with his extremist politics and action, pushed American society to the darkest depths of criminality, resistance, and revolution. And on March 4th, 2008, we will remember the forty year anniversary of the venerable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

2008’s historic march will begin with two events that will constantly be in mainstream American spotlight and Black daily life: Sen. Barack Obama’s Presidential run, and the last season of the HBO drama The Wire. Obama’s idealistic philosophy and The Wire’s gritty urban politics seem on the surface as complete opposites. But underneath they serve to show the complexity of Blacks in contemporary American society; and the difficulty of understanding where we are at, and where we are going.

Barack’s Iowa win, in a state that is 95% White, made him the first Black candidate to win a presidential contest with a majority of white voters. Not Shirley Chishom, not Jesse Jackson; no Black has ever done it before. Obama’s message of uniting the country across racial, economic, and political lines; his advocating for a new approach to politics; and his calling for America to truly live up to the “American Dream” is gaining stream and momentum in a unprecedented way. In his victory speech the Presidential hopeful said, “Our time for change has come;” a message that has roots from the glory of old Negro spirituals, to the cries of Sam Cooke in his song “A Change Gonna Come.” Barack has sold a belief in “hope” and “change,” and cultivated a togetherness between Blacks and Whites not seen so strongly in this country arguably since another dream-oriented leader, Dr. Martin Luther King.

Sunday will mark the beginning of the end: the first episode of The Wire’s last season. The show has recently gained a popular success that matches its initial critical acclaim. Over the last six years characters like Jimmy McNulty, Avon Barksdale, Marlo Stanfield, and Omar Little show how ethically-challenged police officers, ruthless drug lords, struggling port workers, disconnected families, self-interested elected officials, and adolescent youths all operate in the majority Black, urban city of Baltimore, Maryland. The show’s ability to blur the line between who’s the “good guys” and the “bad guys” allows us to see the complexity of American life dead on. A police officer cheats on his wife; a drug dealer gives $20,000 to a boxing gym dedicated to keep kids away from selling and using drugs. Everyone cheats, everyone steals, everyone kills, everyone takes money, and everyone is trying to survive. And all the while, every single action affects a mostly poor, majority Black population everyday. This conveys a role-play many Blacks (and for that matter Whites) in urban areas relate too, thus the show’s great popularity amongst that very same population.

So are we living Obama’s “dream” or The Wire’s reality? These are the questions Black America must face as we enter 2008. One important question is could “the Black CNN” give insight on these types of inquiries? The topic doesn’t seem to be on the agenda filled with “swallowing” and “popin’ bottles.” With important issues on the horizon the question must be asked, “Where does our music stand in it?” Is it ignoring it? Are we not getting it? Is it not profitable? Should it not engage in the conversation? Or… are we not asking for anything? As this Nation moves forward, and the well-being of Black and Brown people sitting in the balance, we have to ask ourselves what do we expect from this music that we love; this music that we support; this music that has made a lot of money (for us and off us). Is it just entertainment, or social commentary? Is it thinking music, or party music? Does the music have to be just one thing? Is it the “Good Life?” Is it “Hell on Earth?” And what do we expect Hip-Hop to say about it? 2008 is the time for an answer. Who’s going to ask the first question???

Michael Partis

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