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Sitting Here in Limbaugh

Television

How to do Rush Limbaugh? It’s a serious politicomedic question, a challenge for anyone of the liberal/left persuasion who stammers in the face of right-wing-but-funny. You dread sounding shrill, so you develop a grudging respect, maybe even a winking approval for the talk show host who has the nation’s right ear. You begin casting him in a whimsical light to avoid casting yourself as someone who can’t take a joke.

Better you laugh with success than it laugh at you. Limbaugh is the nation’s No. 1 radio talk show host, with 530 stations and some 13 million listeners tuning in for his daily three-hour program. His three-month-old TV show, in which he cavorts guestless 30 min­utes a night, is syndicated in 203 markets and many weeks is the No. 3 late-night talk show, topped only by Nightline and Leno. His book, The Way Things Ought To Be, has been the No. 1 hardback bestseller for 14 weeks.

Success begets tolerance. Even reluctant libs look at Limbaugh in a new light — Shirley MacLaine, as he tells it, communed deeply with him at a star-studded Manhattan party. News stories, which invari­ably dub him a “rock and roll Republican,” tend to chuckle over the bombastic, entertainment-val­ue Rush, repeating his patented lines about “environmentalist wackos,” “feminazis,” and the boast that he has “talent on loan from God” — while they ignore the more heated moments, like his defense of Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice’s declaration that America is “a Christian nation.” Literal to a fault (when he wants to be), Rush explains that Fordice is right, because “86 percent of Americans claim to be Christian.” Liberals who act like they’re threatened with a concentration camp “need a psychiatrist.”

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Still, Rush is not a screaming hatemonger like Bob Grant or Morton Downey Jr. He’s got charm, humor (though personally I’ve yet to laugh out loud), and ideology — a combo as bedeviling to “the dominant media” as Ross Perot’s magic. (The author of the nation’s No. 1 paperback nonfiction book during the election, Ross was Rush’s one true rival and a daily target of his ridicule.) Of course, the media eventually struck back at Perot, a fate Lim­baugh evades by not running for office, though he is often asked to.

All of which may well make him, as he’s also fond of repeat­ing, “The most dangerous man in America.” That says it all: He mocks liberals who believe a fun­ny conservative is dangerous, and yet this roly-poly marshmallow, who once shied away from televi­sion because of his girth, wants the world to know he stings.

“How to do Rush?” parallels the nagging ’80s question of how to do Ronald Reagan. And that parallel bounces off another: Rea­gan’s former media consultant, Roger Ailes, is Rush’s TV execu­tive producer. With another for­mer Ailes client, George Bush, out, the Republicans scrambling, and Pat Buchanan a Party pooper, it’s reasonable to conclude: Rush Limbaugh is the country’s foremost conservative.

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If Rush has reached that prickly pinnacle, it’s because he’s deter­mined to prove that conservatives just want to have fun. Limbaugh’s real mission is to show that liber­als are a bunch of p.c. killjoys, that their web of political do’s and don’t’s restrains the natural expansiveness of man. (Which is an indi­rect way for Republicans to say, “I am not sexually repressed!”)

And so every day, millions tune into Rush to get permission to have fun. Every now and then, Rush bursts forth and bellows that he’s “having more fun than a hu­man being should be allowed to have” (a locution that contains the conservative seeds of fun’s re­pression). Recently Joan from Bir­mingham called the TV show. She’s one of Rush’s biggest fans, she assured him, but she has to say it, she just got tired of his Clinton-bashing. Rush’s response was characteristic: First he re­treated — lied, waffled, you might say — claiming that he doesn’t bash. Then he attacked: “My guy lost and I’m having a good time,” he said soon as Joan got off the phone (always polite, he stabs callers only behind their backs). “Joan’s guy won and she’s miser­able.” The point, as always, is to show that liberals are constitu­tionally crybabies.

In this, Rush is at least consis­tent. The day after the election, despite much radio caller moan­ing, he declared he wasn’t going to get depressed or blame the me­dia — that would be no better than the Democrats blaming Willie Horton for ’88. He exhorted his audience to get on with their lives, to prosper despite the economic disaster Clinton will surely bring, and “not look at whoever’s in the White House as your Daddy.”

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Perhaps his cheer is forced. It’s possible that Limbaugh is merely a creature of the Reagan-Bush era, and maybe, please please please, he’ll just fade away. If the next few years improve the economic lot of his fans — people whose in­stinct is less for Rush’s ideological conservativism than for Perot’s fed-up populism — Rush might find himself with less to say and begin feeding more and more off his media stardom, devouring his own tail. Already a promo-for-a-­promo feel courses through the broadcasts: His TV show refers to and plugs his radio show, his ra­dio plugs his TV, and both plug his newsletter (“printed on non­recycled paper”) and his book­ — shelves of which serve as back­drop on the show’s set. To top it off, he regularly reads excerpts of both rave and attack reviews (and I can’t write this without imagin­ing him reading the most flat-foot­ed parts on the air to prove me wrong wrong wrong and no fun!).

But that’s wishful thinking. Limbaugh will thrive. Sure, the shows have lost some angry oomph since the election, but then, hasn’t life? With subjects like gays in the military and Marge Schott, he’ll have plenty to play with. In fact, he’ll be a re­freshingly fearless critic of Clinton’s inevitable hypocrisies.

After the wistful question of whether his show will survive, the other query you hear most in New York — where Rush works and lives (on the Upper West Side!) but where people seem barely aware of the national legend (his TV ratings here are among the lowest, despite the recent switch from Channel 9 at 12:30 a.m. to Channel 5 at 11 a.m.) — is: He doesn’t really believe half the stuff he says, does he? Way more than half. As Limbaugh told USA To­day, his views are “honestly held and sincerely offered. But the ar­rogance is pure, 100 percent shtick — an attempt at humor.”

The big brag is his key attempt at humor. “This show is not about what you think,” he tells his audi­ence. “This show is about what I think.” The big brag simulta­neously inflates his importance and, by its obviousness, preempts audience resentment. The brag’s his free-market ideology in action, a blow-up toy version of letting the individual, not the govern­ment, do it.

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Whether or not he becomes King of the Right Wing, the daily debates over just where does Mr. Limbaugh stand play right into his self-referential media politics. Is he far right-wing? callers ask. Does he like Pat Robertson? (His disassociation from the reverend is most delicate.) In Rush’s lexi­con, he’s from “the Bennett/Kemp/Limbaugh wing of the Re­publican Party.” He also defends Pat Buchanan’s “religious war” and is antiabortion, but he’s not a prude. Soft-core blasphemy is a frequent motif: To announce his book’s reemergence at the top of the lists last month, he said, “For three weeks Madonna sat atop me [audience laughs] on The New York Times hardcover [on “hard” he squinches his face like he can’t stand the overstimulation] nonfic­tion bestseller list. But now I sit atop Madonna [oohs and boos], and she is going down.”

Other good things ab-out Rush, quickly:

• He makes ideas understandable in plain English, without talking down to the audience. In fact, un­like Reagan or Bush, Limbaugh exalts the intellect and is vaguely pro-brains: “With half my brains tied behind my back to make it even,” he says daily.

• When you agree with him — go Rush! He was ruthless on Perot, doing one of his “Updates” — ­song parodies on topical sub­jects — to the tune of “Secret Agent Man.”

• Liberal p.c. needs to be pierced.

A few sickening things about Rush:

• One of his spoof Updates is about the homeless. Only under pressure did he drop an AIDS Up­date set to “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” (Is there a Lee Atwa­ter-deathbed apology in the mak­ing here?)

• He avoids direct discussion about race, couching any talk about, say, Jesse Jackson or Spike Lee in their liberal politics. Theo­retically, that’s fair. But in actual­ity, his almost all-white audience easily fills in the cracks, which he gleefully widens: Delighted that the Colorado boycott forced May­or David Dinkins to choose be­tween two politically correct forces — gays or Denver’s black mayor, Wellington Webb, who asked him not to support the boy­cott — Limbaugh went on and on about how Dinkins and Webb were “black bros,” repeating “bro” eight times, apparently be­cause it was just so darn funny. His understanding of racism is, at best, pre-adolescent: Iman, “a black woman,” is “beauti­ful … that means I’m not racist.”

•  Almost everything he says on women is suspect. He just doesn’t know women, feminist or other­wise. He’s obviously afraid of them, as he admitted in Vanity Fair, because he felt unattractive and never had a date in high school. But the twice-divorced Rush can’t see his own projection: Women become the ugly desper­ate ones, as proven in one of his “35 undeniable truths about life”: “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easi­er access to the mainstream.” And while he railed against Gloria Steinem for calling Al D’Amato a Nazi, he’s continued to call femi­nists “feminazis.” Why, Rush is just heilarious!

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Such rabidness smoothed by a likable personality would seem to make him a TV natural. But there’s something off about the show. Maybe it’s because Rush plays himself sweeter and safer on TV, afraid his more free-wheeling radio rant will lose him his chance for TV glory.

TV glory seems important to Limbaugh and Ailes — they’ve been “using the medium” to the hilt. Viewers send in video Rush paeans; Rush regularly shows TV clips of his favorite enemies in the act of a liberal gaffe. But without guests and with only an occasional caller, the props are just a diver­sion — there’s an emptiness at the heart of the show. Oddly it’s an emptiness echoed, not countered, by the presence of a live audience.

Their laughter sounds canned. Maybe it’s because they’re trying to have more fun than a human being should be allowed to have; maybe it’s because, laughing only on Rush’s cues, their laughter is canned. Lookswise, they could pass as The Rushford Lives: 98 per cent of the men wear suits and ties.

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Ultimately, it’s Rush’s relation­ship to his audience that defines him as either dangerous man or mere media darling. The most telling Rush phrase I’ve left till last: “Dittos.” Years back, callers were wasting valuable radio time praising him before they got on to their questions. He suggested they just say “dittos” and everyone would get the point. So people be­came “dittoheads” and greet him with “megadittos” from Omaha or Dallas. The special phrases that pass between Rush and audience have become a kind of nationwide baby talk, a gurgly lingo that only the in-love understand.

Though Rush urges his audi­ence to think for themselves, like a good individualistic-minded conservative should, most every­thing in his spiel tells them to think like him. “You don’t have to think. I’ll do the thinking for you.” He’s being ironic, very­ — but many in his audience don’t get the irony and just get upset. In his own way, he wants to warn them away from followerhood­ — but he’d be a nobody without it.

The shows crackle with the con­tradiction. Never does the audi­ence challenge him more than when they think he’s deviated from the track he’s warned them to stay on. Postelection, he appar­ently said something nice on the radio about Clinton (I missed what it was, but heard the hemor­rhaging). As caller after caller be­rated him, Rush categorically de­nied that he had said the nice thing. Thus the faithful rose to their most noble, calling him, in so many words, a liar. One wom­an, after validating herself as a megadittohead, took him on, arti­culately and fearlessly, and dared him to replay the tape. OK, I thought, finally someone smart, strong, someone who “gets the joke” challenging him on his own ground. Will he finally be punc­tured, for real?

Rush charmed her, and she forgot her dare. ■

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Categories
FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Africentric Cinema of Julie Dash

Of Homegirl Goddesses and Geechee Women 

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has been described as the first translation of the sensibility found in contemporary Black women’s literature to the screen. Logocentrists and literary scholars beware: Dash’s achievement is not simply a matter of grafting the thematic concerns of Hurston, Morrison, Walker, and Naylor to the screen. The filmmaking magic and craft of Dash and her cinema­tographer, Arthur Jafa, shows through most brilliantly in the film’s comprehensive Afrocentric visual aesthetic and richness of period detail. Daughters evokes the spirituality and emotional depths of those writer’s mytho­poeic prose styles. It is a film of visionary power conceived with a passion for pure research.

Ostensibly about a Gullah fam­ily whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ances­tral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the 20th century, Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenish­ment of roots. Zeroing in on the family’s women, it captures the shifting faces of dignity, denial, yearning, and elegance that give shape and meaning to Black fe­male subjectivity. Daughters is an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in terms of both world cinema and African aesthet­ics. In this it extends ten thou­sand-fold the canon of Black film to have emerged from the UCLA-based Black filmmakers Dash joined in the late ’70s — Charles Burnell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clarke, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woddberry, Zeinabu Davis. Pending a distribution deal this summer, the film should be in a theater near you this fall, making it the first feature-length film di­rected by an African-American woman to gain a national theatri­cal release. Anybody in need of more encouragement than this to give Julie Dash her props is just wasting my breath. — Greg Tate

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Greg Tate: Did you feel you were engaged in a heroic, historic act while you were making the movie?

Julie Dash: Absolutely. Everyone involved in Daughters was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up after the Middle Pas­sage and before being sent to the ports of Charleston. Since we were working with available light, we’d go out and wait every morning for the sunrise. When the sun would rise everyone in the crew would stop unless we were actually shooting. Often people would weep. Then there were things like the sandstorm that hit us all of a sudden on a clear day in the mid­dle of a heavy dramatic scene. It was like [whistles Twilight Zone theme]. We slopped shooting and ran for cover in the woods behind the beach. One of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, “You stirring too much stuff up girl.”

Tate: What do you use as a guide­post for translating African mysti­cism and spiritual experiences to the screen? How do you know you’re on the right track?

Dash: You don’t. Every morning I’d get up and say, please ances­tors help me. All the rituals are based on extensive research. But sometimes you have to trust your gut to do or not do something. For instance, we found an ancient African graveyard, and the first thought was, this is great, these are slave graves, the old souls are buried here, we can construct our Ki-Kongo graveyard on top of this. We’ll be on sacred ground. We got our props there and our production designer Kerry Mar­shall looked at me, and said, “This is not right.” And I said, “You’re right, let’s go find ground where people aren’t buried.”

Tate: Why a story about the Gul­lah at the turn of the century?

Dash: The Sea Islands are sacred ground. All our ancestors came through these islands. I wanted to do a story set at the turn of the century about the first generation of free Blacks, and a story about a pivotal moment in the lives of the women of the family. Also, be­cause my father’s family came from that area, I’ve heard Gee­chee and Gullah dialect, and eat­en the food all my life. I don’t remember much from my visits during the summer when I was a kid, but I was influenced by the Geechees I knew on 165th and Amsterdam Ave. There was a bar called The Office and mostly Gul­lah and Geechee would go there. Whenever we wanted to call my father, we’d call The Office. My mother will die to hear me say that. For me hearing heavy Gullah dialect is not strange. My grand­mother speaks that way.

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Tate: You made a decision to not do the film in a thick dialect with subtitles.

Dash: My original intention was to have thick Gullah language with subtitles and then segue into Gullah dialect. Some people seem to have problems with it, but to tell the truth, I had problems with Miller’s Crossing. It made me re­alize that I’ve done that all my life, pushed through on accents until I understood them. Why is it with Daughters of the Dust that people almost seem offended by it? When they bring it up, I tell them, “Release on it, you’ll under­stand it in a minute.” You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We have no other choice.

Tate: Does the whole question of whether you’re pushing an audi­ence too hard ever come into it for you? When do you release on that?

Dash: I think it’s on a project-by­-project basis. On Daughters it was about breaking through, doing something different. I mean, all the main characters are grounded in West African cosmology. The narrative is not driven by the Greek gods but Oshun, Oya­-Yansa, Yemoja, Eshu-Elegba. Then there’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening. We have a mas­ter talking drummer playing mes­sages very subtly throughout the film, saying in Yoruba, “Remem­ber me, remember my name, take me with you, take me where you go.” I know people can’t under­stand it, but I want it working on people’s subconscious. All the mu­sic by John Barnes was composed in certain astrological keys. We had Santeria high priestesses came in and sang secret songs to Oshun. There’s so much working in this film that has never been done be­fore. All the principal actors had worked in films by other Black independent directors. We worked with fine artists like Da­vid Hammons, Tyrone Mitchell, Kerry Marshall, Michael Kelly Williams, Martha Jackson-Jarvis. All these people coming together make it an exciting grand experiment.

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Tate: In terms of Black female ico­nography and beauty, Daughters is a breakthrough.

Dash: We brought in Pamela Fer­rell of Cornrows Incorporated from D.C. This woman is a mas­ter cornrower and hairstylist who studied in Africa. We have hair­styles representing people from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. We didn’t take any­thing lightly. I remember many years ago I was doing an intern­ship on Roots when I was al the AFI, and of course all the hair-dressers were white. Being my young naïve self I asked them what gave them the idea for giving these slave women pressed hair. One said to me, “Oh yes, we re­searched this, and they were try­ing to emulate their masters.” I thought, wait a minute. Would the people in Dachau, if they could, try to dress, or even act, like their German captors? It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that you’ve never seen that hairstyle in any drawings or photographs from the period.

Tate: The film is praise-song to the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. But, I heard, that after the screening a few weeks back, one black woman critic reduced Daughters to being a film that was “about hair.”

Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a Black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by all these oth­er images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a “real woman.” There’s a lot of drama around Black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. I could try and be a filmmaker who was myopic about it, like this really isn’t an issue, but it would be untrue. The other thing is, in all other types of films, you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one no­tices. You have Black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden, you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen on the screen before, and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.

Tate: Body language is more im­portant than dialogue in Daugh­ters, and a lot of other Black wom­en’s films, as a way of communicating.

Dash: Body language was impor­tant in West Africa. Women standing arms akimbo, hands on hips — was first seen in this country through slave women doing that. The young child straddling the mother’s hip is another exam­ple. Averting the eyes, turning your face away from someone you respect, like a grandparent, is a West African sign of respect that still persists in the Black commu­nity. Those motor habits persist.

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Tate: In terms of world cinema, how do you see Daughters?

Dash: I think it’s a timeless piece, not something that’s trendy for right now. It’s a huge photograph that whoever sees it could take and put in their mind’s eye, and walk around to the end of their days and feel better about a whole lot of things. It’s like a balm. I think people will look at it 10, 20 years from now and discover new things and new emotions in it. You won’t be able to do that with a whole lot of other films.

Tate: You think there’s a popular audience out there for it?

Dash: I think the audience we get will suprise some people. It clearly frightens most white males and they are the ones who get to say what kind of audience is out there for a Daughters of the Dust. They don’t understand it for the most part and don’t want to say that they don’t, so they say it’s not good, or it’s not well crafted or the dramatic themes were spotty. Daughters should be promoted as a woman’s film, as an art film. It’s not a homeboy film, it’s not even a homegirl film. It’s interesting that most of the people doing the homeboy/homegirl films didn’t grow up in that section [of the city]. I grew up in the projects so I’m not doing those types of films.

Tate: Could you ever see yourself making a film about growing up in the projects?

Dash: Yes, I could, but it would be very different from what we have out there now. Those are coming-of-age films for males and I’m not gonna do that.

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Tate: How has Black women’s literature affected your work?

Dash: That’s the reason I’m doing it. I stopped making documenta­ries after discovering Toni Morri­son, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker in high school. I’d wondered, why can’t we see mov­ies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative mov­ies. I couldn’t believe it when I first read books like Toni Morri­son’s Sula and Toni Cade Bamba­ra’s Gorilla, My Love, I’d put the books down and say, I know these people. I’ll never forget reading about “the Deweys” in Sula, and thinking that the lady who took care of me would do this. Name all three of her kids Dewey, like it didn’t matter. Miz Edwards. As I think back on it, she had a pro­found effect on me, because she would comb my hair and burn it so no one could get hold of it. And talk about hiding your pictures so no one could put gopher dust on them and drive you crazy. All this kind of stuff became normal to me, not something you have to point out. So when I have stuff like that in my films, it’s not like, look, we’re about to pour on this ritual now. I see these things as a part of our everyday life. It’s our culture and tradition. ❖

Categories
From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chuck D: All Over the Map

THE DAY BEFORE PUBLIC ENEMY’S monthlong tour with Anthrax began, we drove out to the nondescript Hempstead office building that Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, and their crew have occupied since they were running Long Island’s first hiphop sound system back in 1982. S1W’s PE merchandisers, Media Assassin Harry Allen, and other employees contributed to the general hubbub. On the walls of the front office were samples of PE fashion: Spike Lee-style baseball shirts and hats, tour jackets, T-shirts, the whole nine. Chuck corralled us into a cramped conference room whose dominant feature was a map of the United States complete with zip codes. As he lectured us on the vagaries of hiphop as a national phenomenon, Chuck often rose from his chair and pointed to regions on the map to make himself clearer. The conversation began with Chuck in­terrogating Christgau about how he became a writer and ended with him apologizing to Tate for once branding him a Village Voice porch nigger. It lasted close to three hours, and for the most part Chuck didn’t duck our questions, although he did forestall them with his ver­bosity — as John Leland has said, Chuck may be louder than a bomb, but he’s a lot less succinct. Needless to say, what follows is an edited version

1. WHO HAS SPARE TIME?

CHRISTGAU: How much input did the old crew have into Apoca­lypse 91? Hank, Keith, Eric­—

CHUCK D: Hank is the master­mind of all.

CHRISTGAU: Was he on this re­cord now?

CHUCK D: Yeah, that was Hank.

TATE: Y’all work like Miles now, it’s just like, you come to the stu­dio, you do your part, and it’s al­ready there?

CHUCK D: No, it’s not like that. The Bomb Squad is still the Bomb Squad.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think here’s any musical evolution on the new record? Do you see it as being different musically as op­posed to lyrically?

CHUCK D: The difference lyrical­ly and difference musically is it’s more focused — it’s more hard. It’s sort of like Bum Rush the Show. Each album we do differently. I think I got real creative on the last one. Less creative on this one. You know, you venture off into different sounds and techniques and —

CHRISTGAU: The mix isn’t as dense, would you say?

CHUCK D: Of course. That was intentional. We hope to be trendsettters and not followers. The main difference on this is just tempo. We like to think of things as tempo first and not sound. Other people would probably say sonics before tempo. No. We’re in tune to tem­po — we was the first rap group to really tempo it up, on “Bring the Noise.” That was 109 beats per minute. These tempos basically give you a Midwest, middle-of-the-country feel, with a little bit of east-west hard edge.

CHRISTGAU: How do the BPMs range?

CHUCK D: A lot of them are in the 96 to 102 range, which people will say is slow for PE, but then again, these are people that — what’s danceable here [points at East Coast on map] don’t mean shit. I just come from Kansas City.

CHRISTGAU: So, the music is getting hard.

CHUCK D: On this album. I might just bug out on the next one. But when I bug out, it’s going to hit 85 to 90 per cent of the places. It might not hit here [points to New York] at all. But give me the rest, I’ll take it. Fear of a Black Planet was the most successful album we had — not because of all of the hype and hysteria. It was a world record. Because of the different feels and the different textures and the flow it had, I can do it — get the same feeling [more pointing] here, here, here, here, you know what I’m saying? Just in L.A., a kid is breaking down the rappers from different areas and he says, Public Enemy, man, ain’t even like y’all from New York, it’s like y’all from somefuckingwhere, like, you’re fucking everywhere. I say, well, we are from everywhere, and it reflects in our music, and it reflects in our lyrics, you know. I’m a person — I ride on Grey­hound through the middle. I ride Greyhound through Arkansas and Arizona. I’ll sit on Greyhound for hours just listening to my music, look out the window and write, you know. Yo, I just drove — went down to Disneyworld. I could drive like — see, there’s always a job in the business. Let’s say they say, Chuck, you out of the busi­ness, man, I’ll be a bus driver. I know the fucking roads, man.

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CHRISTGAU: What do you do with your spare time?

CHUCK D: Who has spare time?

CHRISTGAU: Everybody has some spare time, man.

CHUCK D: Well, my business and my thing I like to do is more fun than anybody else’s —

CHRISTGAU: I live the same way, but nevertheless, I got leisure, you’ve got —

CHUCK D: Well, sometimes I just like to go in my fucking basement and just fucking watch fucking TV or videotapes. I can’t really watch too many movies. I usually like watching sports. I watch sports, you know —

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to music much?

CHUCK D: I listen to Motown, I listen to a lot of tapes — usually when I’m on the road, when I’m on the airplane. When I’m home, I don’t really listen to music as much as I like to watch videos.

TATE: Music videos, or just —

CHUCK D: Music videos and sports. Music and sports. I can’t watch movies, really, except for black movies. I just seen Livin’ Large yesterday and you know, to the average person it might be like a three­-cent movie, but I had a good time watching it. You know, me and a couple of the brothers’ families went out. I said, yeah, that’s some kind of dope.

CHRISTGAU: You listen to any jazz or blues?

CHUCK D: I wasn’t a jazz fanatic. My pops, like, was a jazz person — all that abstract shit. I was like, nah.

CHRISTGAU: Not for you?

CHUCK D: Not for me at all. I like blues more than jazz. ‘Cause blues deals with lyrics — more feeling, you know what I’m saying? And it has so much ironic twist in it — it’s usually about the slightest shit that black people talk about, you know, day by day. And I do a lot of hanging in places like down South, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Atlanta.

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to any metal or white rock?

CHUCK D: Yeah, once in a while. I like watching the videos more than I like lis­tening to it.

TATE: When you hang out down South, do you hang out in music clubs, or do you just hang?

CHUCK D: Music clubs, Beale Street, the whole nine. I always liked the blues. But I’ve liked it more since I’ve been able to go to these places.

CHRISTGAU: It would be great to sample some of that shit. You hear very little in the way of blues samples.

CHUCK D: Well, you know, musically it moves me, but lyrically, man, I’ll be like saying, Goddamn. And that’s why I try to move a lot of rapping and rap music the same. At the end of the day, I don’t know what the fuck you write about, just make somebody just say, Damn, you know. That is a good point of view, you know what I’m saying? I mean, look at N.W.A — you might not agree with what the fuck they’re saying, but you at least know at the end of the song, like, yo, these motherfuckers meant this, that’s what they’re saying, you know?

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2. HARDCORE RESPONSIBILITY

TATE: People talk about positive and neg­ative images of rap, and then there’s a whole other line of thought that says the music is important no matter what it’s talking about ’cause it’s creating a forum for discussion.

CHUCK D: It’s important to be positive because you got to understand, the only time that the structure wants to put any­body black up there in the spotlight is if we are athletes or entertainers. If all the athletes and the musicians are going to get projected like that, we’ve got to say, damn, we’ve got a little bit more responsi­bility than the average white musician that comes along and just wants to talk about his dick. ‘Cause we’ve got to say, all right, yeah, this is a story to tell, but at the same time, this is probably going to be the result of it. I mean, I talk about a drive­-by, I might start drive-bys in St. Louis. That’s a tight line, and we’ve got to deal with it, ’cause we’re going to be listened, watched, and followed a lot closer than a lot of white kids.

CHRISTGAU: But you just said N.W.A at least had their own point of view­ —

CHUCK D: They’ve got their own point of view, that’s coming from an artistic point of view, but socially —

CHRISTGAU: You’ve got your doubts about that sort of representation?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause I see the fucking re­sults of it. And you got to have a structure in the society, in the school system, that’s able to say well, this is the right, and this is the wrong. We could say that families are supposed to do it, but we ain’t got family the way it’s supposed to be. So I mean, we’ve got to go to a school or structure that can teach us family.

CHRISTGAU: You got kids yourself?

CHUCK D: I got a daughter.

CHRISTGAU: How old is she?

CHUCK D: She’s going to be three next week. And you know, that shit is a moth­erfucking task. [Laughter.]

CHRISTGAU: I know. I got a daughter, Greg’s got a daughter.

CHUCK D: I’m saying, you know, people have to be taught how to do certain things. And then, let’s go back to the music, the positive and the negative. A guy’s going to talk negative shit because that’s what he sees. Rappers only talk what they know. I mean, sometimes you’ve got people going off into the fantasy world, like the Geto Boys when they talk about mind playing tricks on me, Chuckie and stuff like that, and make analogies saying, well, you can’t talk about me because, hey, all these fucking crazy movies coming out and nobody’s getting any heat for that. But we have a double-edged sword hang­ing over our head, a guillotine, that’s say­ing, well, we do this, we’re going to be followed — you know, people going to do this shit in reality. And I believe that.

‘Cause I mean, everywhere I go, I mean, I go to prisons and, you know, brothers — if they get no guidance from zero to 16, they’re going to follow something that can relate to them best. And if something can relate to them best that they really, really like, they’re going to follow it. They’re going to say, I got to kick this mother­fucker tonight. Boom, boom, boom. And later on, they’ll be like, damn, damn. Like that brother that got to go to the fucking joint now for killing that Jewish guy. And ain’t nobody fucking behind him now. He gotta go to the fucking joint. He gonna get fried. Somebody didn’t tell him to put his brain in gear. Now he’s gotta suffer the consequences. I feel sorry for him. Be­cause I’ve talked to a lot of brothers in jail, and usually brothers in jail are in for impulse. Boom!

That’s why I start talking about the 1 million bottle bags. Because I tell you a lot of shit be starting off because of distorted thinking like, damn, usually broth­ers that know each other, be like drinking. They be like, “What you say?” “I ain’t say shit, man.” “Your fucking mother.” And then somebody got a fucking nine or Uzi in the territory, and the shit escalate to even a higher pitch, couple of people in there going, “Yo, just, chill, chill, chill.” And sometimes you get, you know, “Fuck that, motherfucker.” And it all be starting because motherfuckers is fucked up.

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CHRISTGAU: Do you drink at all?

CHUCK D: I don’t drink. My crew don’t even touch meat. Me, I eat it, if my wife cooks it at the crib.

TATE: Did you talk with Ice Cube about the St. Ides thing?

CHUCK D: Yeah, I mean I briefed it on him. You know, he said, “Yo, man, just trying to get out of it.” Trying to stop it, but he’s contracted. I said, “Yo, Cube, hey, there ain’t nothing against you, I mean, it’s your thing, your guilt thing, but you should have had quality control.” The people at St. Ides said, “Well, we really respect you Chuck D, you know.” I told ’em I don’t respect y’all, fuck y’all. I see the results. I’m not just fucking read­ing stats. You’re in the black community, you can run, you can’t hide. There ain’t nowhere you can go and live and say, well, I’m going to be far away from it. Nowhere.

I’m seeing results whether it be Mem­phis, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, De­troit — it could be the smaller fucking cit­ies. I’ll take you right in the ‘Velt, Roosevelt — one square mile. Got 14 delis in there, and every single deli got Ice Cube’s poster. The people say, well, why do you give so much of a damn? Well, because I’ve got to live in this mother­fucker. And I’m grown. Once you’re over 18, fun and games got to be put to num­ber three. Responsibility and business got to be one and two and you can have fun and games and shit, but once you under­stand those number one and two things, you understand that fun and games are being played on your ass. I tell mother­fuckers in a minute, you can be hardcore and be positive. Thieves and pimps and murderers, man, motherfuckers got to pay a penalty. The problem is that some white boy coming in and trying to remedy the situation and we need to start doing it ourselves. The more grown people you have that understand they’re adults and take control of their community, the less bullshit you have coming in. And you used to have something like that until quote unquote so-called integration.

TATE: Desegregation.

CHUCK D: Yeah, right.

TATE: That’s what all the older folks used to talk about. If you were doing any kind of crime, you just knew not to do it in nobody’s face. If you were drinking, you didn’t drink in public, you didn’t fall down in the street.

CHUCK D: It was a time, right. It was hardcore. Hardcore will never die and need to come back. You can be positive in the hardcore. Hardcore got this connota­tion that other people put on it of saying that it’s negative and no, no — hardcore, it’s like you taking control. I tell brothers, you say you hard, but your life harder than you. How hard can you be? Your life kicking you in the ass. Fucking world is harder than any motherfucker.

This stuff should be coming to people when they’re three, four. Especially young black males, three, four, seven, eight. And it gotta come every day. That’s what the father does, is supposed to do. I mean, my pops had to work, but my pops was able to give it to me at the right time. And I think the key is in the black structure in society. We have to rebuild the black man, young black males got to be built to be men. And I think with that, then you will start seeing a clearer picture, you know. It’s — a lot more simple than it is complex.

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And I think that’s something that’s defi­nitely got to be taught through the school systems. I mean a lot of things have to be taught to us. Once again, I go back to slavery. Slavery has done a lot of fucking detriment, where it’s almost irreparable unless we’re going to fucking eight-hour-a­ day training sessions that satisfy our intel­lect but also satisfy our wants and needs, you know. I mean, mentally and physical­ly. School’s got to be school. And a school for black people, black kids, definitely it got to be different from white kids.

The remedies and how it can get done is all in the government’s hands. We talk about reparations, I’m not talking about, sending everybody a fucking $10,000 check. If you went outside and gave moth­erfuckers $10,000 each, those mother­fuckers wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I’m saying, you got to have a fucking training programming medium so people will be able to say, well, damn, now I’m being taught how to think.

TATE: That kind of begs the question of whether the government wouldn’t just as soon black people stay where they are.

CHUCK D: I don’t think the government wants to see that happen. First of all, they’re saying we’re only 10 per cent, so we have to submit to whatever goes down. But we’re a growing quote unquote 10 per cent. And in order for them to satisfy black people in the year 2000 they better come up with some shit. They already came up with a result of genocide that got us fucking each other up. I’m saying, we need to come out of that dead zone. We come out of that dead zone then we can talk about plan two, three, or four. It’s either got to be this way or it’s going to be fucked up, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I said, “Welcome to the Terror­dome.” I wrote that record at the end of ’89, to signify the Terrordome is the 1990s. It’s a make-it-or-break-it period for us. We do the right thing, we’ll be able to pull into the 21st century with some kind of program. We do the wrong thing, the 21st century is going to be gone, there’ll be no coming back.

CHRISTGAU: I buy that.

CHUCK D: Outta here. Over with.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that PE or rap in general is doing anything to stop this from happening from a practical point of view?

CHUCK D: I don’t know how much effect it has — I’m not here to judge effect or results. A lot of times, the weight that a lot of people put on Public Enemy is because they don’t see these other things. When I first did Public Enemy my role was bringing information, saying, well, bro, there’s a Karenga, there’s a Farrak­han, there’s people out there that have been studying in whatever field. There’s a Dr. Welsing. Check these people out. We need to get into it, ’cause these people have put in 40 or 50 years of unacknowl­edged time, for the benefit of where we should go.

But Public Enemy’s just one fucking thing. I’m only one motherfucking person. And I’m saying to each and every black person, you look in your family—it might not be your immediate family — you’re gonna find either murder, drugs, alcohol abuse, and disease, or jail, somebody get­ting jailed. I’m saying you can run but you can’t hide. Which means that everybody gotta be able to at least work forward or try to remedy the situation.

TATE: You’re really talking about person­al accountability. You’re not in this neces­sarily believing you’re going to change the world.

CHUCK D: No, no, of course not. There’s no one motherfucker that can change the world. I’m saying that my fucking job as an adult is just to make sure that my community is all right for me — or whoev­er, a child or adult— to live in.

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3. TCB

TATE: When I saw you down at the con­ference in D.C., on one of the panels you said, Yeah, a lot of people think I spend a lot of time reading this, that, and the other thing. The one thing that I really study is the music business. How did you become so fanatical about the business?

CHUCK D: I approached Hank back when he was a monster DJ out here — I used to be a fan of theirs [Spectrum City, Hank’s sound system]. I just saw that one of the gigs I went to there wasn’t enough people there, and I came up to Hank out of nowhere and tried to explain that it was presented wrong. I thought, you know, in order to catch people’s attention, you know, fliers should be done in the same way most black people buy things. And later on, I was just toying around on the mike at Adelphi. They had never really allowed MCs, and I guess I was the one. Hank liked me because of the way I sound. So we became partners in ’79, and we would wait for people to hire us. But that begun to be a dead end road because you always dealt with somebody that wanted to just rip you off. So that’s when you say, Yo, man, we rocking the house, but somebody’s always leaving out the back door with the money. So I say, Yo, man, look, we going to do this. I keep the people busy and you keep that person at that door.

TATE: The both of your families are businesspeople?

CHUCK D: My father had his own busi­ness at 40 after he went through the same bullshit in the white corporation, and he was working in the corporation for 20-some-odd years and all of a sudden they had a fucking attitude of, you know, well, maybe he could go somewhere else.

TATE: What kind of a corporation was it?

CHUCK D: The fabric business — 979 Third Avenue, the D&D building. He worked in a couple of companies in the fabric business. Jack-of-all-trades. But his official title was really shipping and receiving manager, you know, warehouse manager. He knew all about the business.

CHRISTGAU: And then what’d he start to do at 40?

CHUCK D: He just dropped it and what he did, all his contacts and all his friends, he started a trucking company that dealt with undercutting the other trucking com­panies. It was rocky for about two years and then it coasted. Still was a battle, because it was a lone one-man thing, bat­tling the structure. But I learned a lot from my father. He just said, you know, if I’m making less, fuck it. Eventually, you know, what it gives you in peace of mind is more important. My moms couldn’t understand it, you know, but then later on she did. But that move taught me a lot. It just showed me that business is the only way to go. I don’t care if I’m making $10 on my own, it’s better than getting $100 from somewhere and you don’t know when, it’s coming from.

CHRISTGAU: What were you doing be­tween ’79 and ’84?

CHUCK D: ’79 and ’84 we was what you’d call the hiphop movement in Long Island, Queens.

CHRISTGAU: And you were making money off of hiphop?

CHUCK D: Yeah, we was making money. Paying bills. Wasn’t making profit, but we was paying bills. And what drove us is, like, yo, you’ve got to pay these bills. Lighting and rent and shit like that.

CHRISTGAU: So you weren’t making a profit. How were you eating?

CHUCK D: I was in college just like you.

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4. OUT OF ONE PEOPLE, MANY AFROCENTRISMS

TATE: One of the things that you read all the time about all the rappers that come from the suburbs — there’s this idea ’cause you’re in the suburbs, you don’t know any­thing about racism, discrimination.

CHUCK D: That’s bullshit. There’s apar­theid out here like a motherfucker. There’s a lot of black people out here but it’s in pockets. Roosevelt is one square mile but in Merrick it’s like no blacks there. You know, they ask for ID — how is that different from a pass?

TATE: I have a friend that grew up in Elmont. Right next to her neighborhood is this huge high school. And they rezoned her neighborhood out of that, so it’s still like a predominantly white high school.

CHUCK D: If you look into cities, cities are just places that say, come on up from down there so we can put y’all in one area, stack y’all on top of each other, we’ll make it easy for you to get you a job. And that’s why we’re catching so much hell in cities today. People are saying, what about the Crown Heights thing, the Brooklyn situation? I say, Brooklyn’s a fucked up place to be. The shit ain’t right for you. The place is getting packed and packed, more and more, they stacking people on top, and there’s no way to fuck­ing have a clear fucking type of thinking there, you know, when you’re all tight with everybody. And then when you’ve got two fucking communities just getting bigger and bigger, forcing into each other, shit’s going to break wild if everybody don’t get no explanations on how to take care of themselves. The city ain’t never been right for us, you know what I’m saying? I always look back, like in Africa, we were always nomadic people. You know, shit get crazy — go, move, you know what I’m saying? Get the fuck on out of town.

TATE: You were in a program that was run by the Panthers, right?

CHUCK D: It was two years, summer school. At their house. Panthers, Islamic brothers, just brothers in the neighborhood, students, you know. And it was the thing that turned me around, turned a lot of us around. It wasn’t like what it gave us then — we noticed it years later. You know, “Hey, remember African American Experience?” At this time in America around ’77 and ’78, motherfuckers was like laughing at dashikis, and we said, Damn, that shit was sort of fly back then. We’re not saying that we would wear them, but, you know, we had a respect for that, whereas a lot of kids in other areas was like, what? And it came up the roots that that supplementary education gave us. These guys and these sisters weren’t saying don’t go to school, which a lot of people were using as an excuse: Oh, man, school ain’t teaching me what I need to know. Yeah, but you got to know that because right now we have a lot of people in America, we have potential and talent for a lot of different things but we’re unskilled.

CHRISTGAU: So you’re in favor of an Afrocentric curriculum, obviously.

CHUCK D: It’s the only key to our surviv­al —

CHRISTGAU: Can you tell me what Afro­centric thinkers you especially relate to? Do you read a lot of this stuff?

CHUCK D: I read a lot of it. But you know, basically, it’s the same story interrelated.

CHRISTGAU: Wait — give me a couple of names. Asante, Williams.

CHUCK D: Ah, man, come on. Asante’s cool, you know, Karenga. I mean, every­body — I think a lot of brothers, I mean, going back to Marcus, got concrete plans. A lot of brothers had concrete plans for the time, but then again, we have to real­ize, times, they’ve really changed.

I think all the black philosophers have something in line. Like people talk about Stanley Crouch, how much of an asshole he is. I think, deep down, he wants to see something better for black people even though he might sound like an asshole. It’s just that a lot of brothers that fight for the struggle, they fight for the struggle so long that they get beat down by white supremacy and don’t realize it. So their views become so radical that every time you hear their mouth they sound like, “This nigger antiblack or what?”

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CHRISTGAU: Do you think the aspect of Afrocentric theory that’s about the great­ness of ancient black civilizations is as important as it’s made out to be? Or are you more interested in contemporary his­tory, all the aftereffects of the slave trade?

CHUCK D: Contemporary stuff. I think that’s important. But I’m really dealing with, you know, everything. And history is everything. White capitalism, white su­premacy, slave trade, movement of blacks, and black people catching hell all over. That takes studying. And a mother­fucker in the eighth grade should have that down. Those are the basics. You don’t understand that shit from fourth to eighth grade and it doesn’t get drilled into you and it doesn’t make you feel good. Learning should be feeling good like a motherfucker. Learning should be some­thing like, Damn, man, I’m learning a lot today.

You know, you walk into a fourth and fifth grade, in a black school — quote un­quote black school — today, I’m telling you, you’re finding chaos right now, ’cause rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it, and now kids is like, Yo, fuck this motherfuck, you know what I’m saying? School, I’m telling you, the educational system from here to here is at war, I’m telling you. In the ’90s, by 1995, it’s gone. I’ll tell you, I do speaking engagements, I went to fuck­ing Evansville. White high school. Eighty per cent white. And every one of the white kids is number one like this, What’s up man, uh, yo. [Laughs.] Yo, thanks a lot man, y’all teaching us a different perspec­tive, because I only can take so much of this Patrick Henry bullshit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, now that you’ve set up this expectation, and you’ve got this fucked up school system, do you think this school system is so fucked up that it’s just as well that they ain’t listening? Or don’t you think it might be a good idea for them to learn how to do their addition and read and write?

CHUCK D: It don’t take mothers long to take skills down. They spread it, they try to make it interesting, you know what I’m saying? Skills is skills. To get those basic skills down — they spread it so fucking far apart, 12 years, and you’re taking 12 years of skills. There’s some of them are unnec­essary skills, know what I’m saying? If you had kids saying, well, damn, I want to, like, put Nintendo computers together, it might be advantageous for you to — well, you better do good in calculus or trig or some shit like that.

So I don’t make some statement like, yeah, I hope to make some money to send my daughter to college. I hope to make some businesses that she can run. And that’s the fucking thing about capital­ism — we as black people keep looking for fucking jobs, we ain’t getting no jobs ’cause there’s a tight rope on white busi­ness, and they definitely ain’t giving a black face a fucking job because business is family.

CHRISTGAU: It’s Farrakhan’s orienta­tion to that kind of thing that you like best about his program.

CHUCK D: A lot of things I like best, you know what I’m saying? You can’t say it’s just that one thing, it’s a lot of things. But, yes, self-sufficiency is the best program.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think he’s actually achieved that?

CHUCK D: Farrakhan’s one man.

CHRISTGAU: I know that. I’m talking about the NOI [Nation of Islam]. Do you think the NOI is actually —

CHUCK D: NOI is full of individuals that treat it like an organization and many brothers in the NOI have small businesses. It’s not just some big fucking corpora­tion juggernaut. It’s not that. Basically, it’s an organization of united brothers and sisters around the country that say, Yo, now, we’re going to do for ourselves.

CHRISTGAU: Do you buy the notion that some sort of an African-centered religion might be very useful in making this hap­pen, in giving this sense of community? Not necessarily the NOI, but say the kind of thing Asante talks about.

CHUCK D: No. I just think that we could still have the various different philoso­phies and different viewpoints of life. Everybody ain’t made out of a cookie cutter. Everybody got different opinions — every­body got different tastes and different feelings on how they want to look at life. It’s only, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, you know what I’m saying? The wrong way is getting in somebody’s path and disrespecting nature, which is God’s plan — we only got one place we know we and other human beings can live. And the white structure and the Eu­ropean structure has proven contrary to both. It’s fucked up other human beings, and it’s fucked up the planet.

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5. CARLTON RIDENHOUR AS CHUCK D

CHRISTGAU: Visually, how do you pro­ject your own persona? Do you think about how you look?

CHUCK D: Do I look in the mirror and bust pimples?

CHRISTGAU: No, I’m just talking about how you present yourself visually, how you think about that.

CHUCK D: Well, out of strength. Back in the day, I was like the first to put on a black Raiders hat, because it was a black hat. One of the few black hats you could find. The Raiders had kind of silver and black, and I said, Well why not, kind of dope. They didn’t make Raiders hats, I would have been in trouble.

CHRISTGAU: So you do think about this. Now broaden it out a little bit. How was Chuck D different from Carlton Ridenhour?

CHUCK D: Because he is on the wall. Ain’t no different. Maybe it’s a little dif­ferent five years later, because I know that I’m older and I got more responsibility, but shit, it’s not that much different.

CHRISTGAU: You set yourself up as a teacher, right?

CHUCK D: I set myself up as not only a teacher, but an older brother. ‘Cause when I was working the hiphop, you know, people was saying, Why y’all fuck­ing with them kids? When me and Hank first got involved, we said, Yo, man, we into the music, we’re going to give our communities something, some kind of outlet — 15-, 16-, 17-year-old brothers. ‘Cause older brothers was what? Either being locked up, going off into the work­ing world, and saying, well, fuck it, I got my thing. Or, they were going in the fuck­ing army, especially the army. But what they would leave is a whole bunch of brothers, 16, 15, 14, 13, with no direction. And they wasn’t really listening to their parents. Once again, there’s a lot of single parents and then the parents that was there — there’s such a gap, you know what I’m saying? Brother come home, bring home his Run-D.M.C., and the father, he only into his fucking Anita, you know what I’m saying? And never the two would communicate.

Other people came and said, Damn, saying you’re older in rap is like taboo. I started making records when I was 26, know what I’m saying? So I just threw all that shit out the window. ‘Cause when I was growing up, I liked the Tempts. You didn’t look at them as being old mother­fucking men. O’Jays — bad as a mother­fucker. So I said, well, basically your older brother can communicate to younger brothers ’cause younger brothers want to get to where their older brothers are. I got a car, I ain’t got to go to school no more, and I’m working, I got a little bit of mon­ey with me. Somebody 14 saying, Hey, it ain’t bad, I can relate to some of that.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that your fans think you’re wiser, more knowledge­able than you actually are?

CHUCK D: I’m using age as a weapon. Me and Ice-T probably talk to more brothers than anyone. And Ice-T got a couple of years on me. I say, look man, I been through what you did and some. And they’re, “Bro, fuck it, man, you got this and you got that.” I say, “How you know? Still black in America. I know exactly where you heading to.”

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6. WHO TO SOCK IT TO

TATE: There was an article, long time ago, where you were quoted as saying, there’s no way a homosexual could be a black leader. And there’s also that whole charge that you’re homophobic —

CHUCK D: I’m not afraid of them. I’m just not one. I’m not on that side. I’m just not on their side.

TATE: Yeah, but what does that mean about how you feel about people who are on that side?

CHUCK D: That’s their thing. Do what they want to do. I can’t tell them who to sock it to. I mean, that’s their thing. Would I let a homosexual in my kitchen to eat dinner? Yeah, why not? Would I let him into my room while I’m sleeping­ —

CHRISTGAU: Well, but I’m sure no ho­mosexual is interested.

CHUCK D: How could I be afraid of a homosexual? Can’t be afraid of them.

TATE: A lot of people are afraid of them. Afraid of what they represent.

CHRISTGAU: Or they’re afraid of what might be inside themselves, too.

CHUCK D: I think they’re a little con­fused. That’s my personal viewpoint. Love got a distorted fucking viewpoint on it. Who gives anybody a badge to say what love is? Love — homosexuals can come from lack of love as well. From somebody not really knowing what true love is. Heterosexuality — a lot of people think it’s love is not love either, you know what I’m saying? Love can be a concern, it can even not be sexual.

CHRISTGAU: You’re not saying that ho­mosexuals who love other men don’t really love them?

CHUCK D: No. I’m not saying that at all. They can love them all they want. I won’t love them. Not in that way.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there could be a —

CHUCK D: A homosexual leader?

CHRISTGAU: Black leader? Bayard Rus­tin, for instance?

CHUCK D: Leader — why would sexuality have something to do with it?

CHRISTGAU: Don’t ask me.

CHUCK D: I don’t come out and say, Yo, man, I’m a heterosexual, so why does your sexuality have to do with anything? What business is it —

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that, Chuck. That’s the way I feel about it.

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CHUCK D: But no, this is what I’m say­ing. A lot of homosexuals, they call it out of the closet. They use it as a badge. That ain’t no badge, It’s like somebody going and saying, Yeah, well I fucked nine bitches three weeks ago.

CHRISTGAU: It’s a badge because it’s a source of oppression, that’s why.

CHUCK D: They use it as a badge, I’m telling you. What the fuck does your sexu­ality got to do with anything?

CHRISTGAU: It can have a lot to do with whether you’re free to live your life the way you want to live it.

TATE: It wouldn’t be an issue if people weren’t kicking people’s asses.

CHUCK D: No, no, no. Number one, I think — this is number one — it’s like this. If sexuality becomes an issue, then the fucking society, twisted as it is, it’s going to come out like it’s going to come out. I’m like saying, what’s the fucking whole point of pushing it — all right, yeah, I’m fucking these motherfuckers, but accept me anyway. I don’t give a fuck who you’re fucking.

CHRISTGAU: A lot of people do, Chuck.

CHUCK D: It’s a waste of time.

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that but it worries me when homosexuals or perceived homosexuals get beaten up by straights, for whatever reason.

CHUCK D: But why would anybody wear sexuality as a badge?

CHRISTGAU: Because they’re oppressed as a result of it.

CHUCK D: You think they’re oppressed ’cause of them wearing it as a badge.

CHRISTGAU: I think they’re oppressed ’cause they’re gay.  

TATE: It’s like, historically what happens is somebody says, That motherfucker’s a faggot, I’m going to kick his ass. It’s not like this person’s going around wearing a placard, but it’s because of the prejudice that exists towards this person’s sexuality. They get oppressed.

CHUCK D: My whole point is like no­body — you know, this is an average thing in the neighborhoods, like, homeboy was just with a girl, right? And usually in the neighborhoods, it’s like, motherfucker’s got to tell a story. Like, all right, that you getting that pussy. I don’t want to hear that. You know, I’m bored with you, let’s talk about something that’s constructive, but you getting that ass, you know what I’m saying? That’s the same thing, it’s like, that’s bullshit talk.

TATE: It’s like if you espouse black nationalist philosophy you’re going to get your ass kicked in this society. But nine times out of 10, if you believe in it, you’re going to put that shit out there, ’cause that’s what you believe.

CHUCK D: That ain’t got nothing to do with my sexuality. Somebody come over and say — suppose my point of view is like this — I’m Chuck D, I ain’t fucking no white bitches. What’s the point of that? I say, Yo, I don’t like white women, black women is what I like. You know what I’m saying? That’s not even a point. That’s not even the issue. A lot of things is be­hind the closet. A lot of things should remain behind the closet, you know what I’m saying? A lot of things should remain behind closed doors. True or false?

CHRISTGAU: Not necessarily, Chuck.

TATE: It’s like, your sex life is probably behind closed doors. But somebody sees you in the street and decides they’re going to kick your ass ’cause —

CHRISTGAU: Or if you’re told you can’t teach elementary school because you’re gay, which happens, that’s bullshit. And gay people have to protect themselves against that.

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CHUCK D: This is what I’m saying. A motherfucker goes out, and he’s effemi­nate or whatever, and the mother going to beat him up, that’s a stupid motherfucker. But if that causes people to come out and say, Yeah, fuck it, I’m gay: I’m like say­ing, All right, OK.

TATE: But that’s usually why people do become militant — because somebody’s try­ing to destroy them because of their identity.

CHUCK D: But there’s still some things that — I don’t know — that’s just a personal point of view. I think more gays, you know — their business is their business. That’s my whole thing. Do the job. Why should the sexuality be a fucking post­card? This is who I like fucking, this who I’m in love with. If I came out and said, This is what I like fucking and this is my fucking agenda, I’m not really getting the job done.

CHRISTGAU: I just want to see if l can get a straight answer. Do you think that there’s prejudice against gay people in this society?

CHUCK D: Of course there’s prejudice, but at the same time I understand that a lot of it — I don’t want to say that it’s brought on themselves. I say a lot of it should remain behind closed doors.

CHRISTGAU: All right. Circle again.

CHUCK D: That’s my feeling. Because, if it comes out it really is —

CHRISTGAU: Do you think it’s right to contribute to that prejudice?

CHUCK D: No.

CHRISTGAU: When Flav says Cagney beat up a fag in the New York Post song­ —

CHUCK D: Flavor doesn’t like homos. And a lot of people say, Yo, man, fuck them. Look, you’re asking me, you’re talking to me —

CHRISTGAU: I mean, if we’re all human beings, and all the rest of that nice talk, so are homosexuals, and they ought to be treated like human beings.

CHUCK D: Well, treat them like human beings. I’m saying that’s cool. I mean, I ride a train with one, ride a bus with one. I’ll even do business with one. I do busi­ness with them all the time. I’ve been doing business since I was fucking 12 — in the D&D building — got nothing but ho­mosexuals in it. That was one of my first jobs. My father always said, those are the people, this is what they do. You do what you do, they do what they do and call it a day. My whole thing is — it doesn’t be­come an issue with me. It’s a waste of my fucking time. Talking about homosexual­ity is almost like talking about Jews, you know, it’s a waste of my fucking time. I don’t spend much of my day talking about either.

CHRISTGAU: Or thinking, I’m sure.

CHUCK D: Like, yo, their thing is their thing, you know what I’m saying? My whole thing is usually black people. And to anybody whoever might do whatever they want to do, it’s like, Yo, that’s your program, you know what I’m saying? And when people ask me questions about it, sometimes, it gets difficult, because I’m like, you know, I haven’t studied other people’s religions to tell them this and that. You know a lot of times when you talk about Jewish people, I would like to say, I don’t know. Here in America I look at things in black and white, I’m not breaking down nobody’s classification.

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7. HARD AND SOFT

CHRISTGAU: On the new record, there’s an anti-Quiet Storm song [“How To Kill A Radio Consultant”].

CHUCK D: I hate Quiet Storm. My wife loves that shit. I don’t understand it.

TATE: Boy-girl thing.

CHUCK D: All you fucking do is go to sleep to that shit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, no, there’s other things you can do. But that’s behind closed doors, Chuck. Many would say it’s good fucking music.

CHUCK D: I think a beat is better.

CHRISTGAU: But do you think romantic music is like escapist bullshit? Is that how you feel about it?

CHUCK D: To me personally, I think it was better r&b in the ’60s. It ain’t because I’m trying to sound like an old mother­fucker, but I just think that more heart and soul went into the concern over the lyrics and the lyrics led somewhere. The brothers back then and sisters back then sang a tune and the lyrics was kicking, and the music was felt. I mean, you know, today, I mean I love the fuck about of BBD [Bell Biv Devoe] and shit, ’cause it’s something I can relate to, I like Keith Sweat, and I like a lot of new guys. But I can’t go too much past them.

CHRISTGAU: Not even Luther?

CHUCK D: I respect Luther as a skilled artist. Whether he’s my skilled artist? I brought Power of Love to the crib, I have doubts I’ll be cracking it, though. Not my cup of tea.

CHRISTGAU: I know the feeling. But there’s a sense in which PE’s music is very much boys’ music.

CHUCK D: Right.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that those hard beats express everything that you want to be, spiritually? I like hard beats a lot. But I also want to be compassionate, sensitive, as well as angry. PE’s music­ — it’s so militantly unromantic.

CHUCK D: But it romanticizes certain things that we tend to ignore. I mean — I wrote a love song, “98” [“You’re Gonna Get Yours”]. That was my love song, man. It wasn’t that that 98 was all there — ­barely had four wheels. man. But that was my motherfucking shit, you know.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do a song like that about women, about love and women? ‘Cause you don’t do it at all.

CHUCK D: Why should I write that song? I’ll leave that up to Luther.

CHRISTGAU: Because if creating strong young black men is what your central thing is about, and you’re deep into the family, then it seems to be that there’s a place where hard beats stop, spiritually. It can get you so far.

CHUCK D: There’s a place where hard beats stop. And it stops at the end of my record. You want to listen to something that’s mellow, then you want to listen to somebody else. L.L. might give you that song; Bobby Brown might give it to you.

CHRISTGAU: And you hope somebody does.

CHUCK D: Somebody does, anyway. I tell you what I think, though, I just feel like cursing is kind of played. The Geto Boys took it as far as you could take it. When I went down South, the album that I could play that met the medium of everybody in the car — my sister-in-law, and my other sister-in-law, she’s 14, my daughter, my niece, they’re like three and four, my wife — so you know, I was surrounded by Apaches, I can’t be playing Boyz N the Hood soundtrack now. I got my tapes here — can’t play Robin Harris. You know who we ended up playing six times? L.L. Mama Said Knock You Out. It was hard enough for me, nice enough for the wife. It’s like the hardest pop record ever made. I had to give it to him. He made a fucking hard album without cursing.

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8. IT’S A BLACK THING, YOU GOT TO UNDERSTAND  

CHRISTGAU: You just toured with the Sisters of Mercy and you’re touring with Anthrax now too? Would you say you’re targeting the white audience, or it’s just what happened?

CHUCK D: It’s just what happened.

CHRISTGAU: You said that the 1990s were a crucial time for black people in this country. At your most optimistic, how would you envision race relations in this country shaking our, say, 25 years from now? At your most optimistic.

CHUCK D: That’s when it’ll start.

CHRISTGAU: What do you mean?

CHUCK D: It’s going to take 25 years of hard work amongst ourselves to even get to that point. For us having an under­standing of ourselves and our community, saying, well, we do well with you or without you. That’s the only time you respect somebody, when they say, I can do with you or without you. We got to get it going on. Usually, we’re just, Help me, can you help me, sympathize with me, ’cause we ain’t got it going on. I mean, be realistic. What we really need white people to do is just support us in our theories — just stay the fuck out of the way for a little while and if you’re going to do anything, just throw money and don’t ask for it back. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but, you know, you’ve got to understand. I’m in the middle of a tornado just as well as Greg. This is a mess that we didn’t start and we’re trying to find our way out of, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: Do you think white people can help at all in this? Do you think that nothing we have to say —

CHUCK D: Throw some money.

CHRISTGAU: No ideas.

CHUCK D: No ideas, money talks.

CHRISTGAU: So you’ve got no interest in reaching white people? It’s just incidental?

CHUCK D: My interest is reaching black people and whites who are good enough to listen and they want to fucking listen, fine.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do them any good that’ll end up doing you good?

CHUCK D: They’ll at least know our side and our perspective. Whether it’s the truth or not —

CHRISTGAU: It’s your perspective. And is that an important part of what you have to achieve here? ‘Cause after all, I mean — in your most optimistic projection, you see that it’ll take 25 years. And that’s assum­ing —

CHUCK D: Minimum.

CHRISTGAU: I understand. That seems realistic to me, at a minimum. But that’s assuming that the white people who still run this country and probably still will, certainly still will —

CHUCK D: Or their sons and daughters.

CHRISTGAU: Or their sons and daughters — will let you do it, won’t get in your way. And of course, they will get in your way, no question about that. The only question is how much.

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CHUCK D: They can only get in one per­son’s way. They can’t get into fucking millions of people’s way. I’m a realist. I’m saying, we don’t get our act together this decade, it’s over. I’m not going to wait for that 25: I’m not going to wait for race relations. What’s going to happen, it’s go­ing to be utter chaos 25 years from now. White people are going to be killed just like black people are getting killed. Sense­less. Without mercy. It’s going to be like — it’s going to run rampant. You’re going to see more white mass murderers, more motherfuckers that qualify to be in asylums on the streets. You’re just going to see more madness. You can’t pile mad­ness on top of madness, then it gets to a height where it gets totally crazy.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there’s any way in which the success or failure of this project depends on what happens economi­cally in this country? I mean is it more likely to happen if some economic exploitation stops that doesn’t just apply to black people, it applies to white people as well? Do you have an economic vision that exists alongside the racial vision?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist, so­ —

CHRISTGAU: You’re not a historian either.

CHUCK D: I’m not a historian and I’m not an expert on racial theory either. I think Dr. Welsing and the other people’ll tell you a lot better than myself about what my feelings … Of course it’s got to get better economically in order for this thing to come about. If it doesn’t get bet­ter economically, we have to figure out what we can do with what we got.

CHRISTGAU: Well, a certain portion of white racism comes out of economic resentment and fear.

CHUCK D: A great portion of it. But after everybody’s economically satisfied who knows what other racism —

CHRISTGAU: Damn right. No question.

CHUCK D: You’ll see shit coming out­ — motherfuckers want to be that way just ’cause, fuck it, I just want to be this way. You know, it’s like with a lawn, right? You can have crabgrass, right? Cutting it ain’t going to do a damn thing — going to just grow back. It’s got a fucking deep root, that motherfucker, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: And how do you do that?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist. I know I’ve given a lot of ideas but you gotta say but this whole interview has just been my ideas. I could be right, I could be wrong.

TATE: I know what you’re getting to in terms of — you’re moving towards the whole idea of some kind of alliance, I guess, between —

CHRISTGAU: Obviously it’s what I think. But I really wasn’t moving towards any­thing — I really wanted to know what he thought.

CHUCK D: Economically between blacks and whites the only alliance that will hap­pen will be black businesses and white businesses. That’s just like I do. I work with anybody, like the Mafia, man. Now, for — I’m not working for no one again. I tell companies right now, I’m in a busi­ness dispute with this particular company that I’m working, and I might say, no exclusivity on this end, I’m giving you exclusivity on this end — none. I know too much about slavery to be a slave again. I don’t care how much money you throw on the table. It’s just like — I’m not working for no one again.

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9. P.S.

CHRISTGAU: OK. Enough. As far as I’m concerned. Is there anything else you want to ask?

TATE: Nothing.

CHUCK D: [To Greg.] I want to just apol­ogize for that porch-nigger statement. I was mad. I can take criticism from any­body. But at that time, it was like I couldn’t see just getting criticized while I think I’m trying to do the right job, you know, in a white paper. I can get criti­cized all day long in the Sun, or Amster­dam News, or even on the block. I’m like, all right, I take my licks. But I felt like, damn, at least if I had talked face to face with homeboy, I could have explained it, being that he’s a brother.

CHRISTGAU: Think the Voice is after your ass? Do you still think that?

CHUCK D: No. I break it down to people, just like the Voice. RJ Smith — I don’t like that motherfucker. I just don’t like him. Why? ‘Cause I just feel I don’t like him.

CHRISTGAU: You think he shouldn’t have reported that stuff that Griff said?

CHUCK D: Yeah. But as far — RJ Smith, it’s not so much that, it’s just, damn, we got a chance to get this nigger’s —

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

CHUCK D: It’s a big story for me.

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

TATE: I mean, if he didn’t, listen, some­body else at the paper —

CHRISTGAU: I would’ve. Damn right I would’ve. What Griff said to David Mills was intolerable. Intolerable. And you gotta deal with it.

CHUCK D: I know, I deal with it. That was a situation where, you know, you have a nice guy running the ship, and expects everybody to do their fucking job correctly, no mistakes. And when the shit happens — you know, for different rea­sons, you’re like, damn, can’t a mother­fucker do a job right? And that was that. I’m not going to do that ever again. I’m cutting the motherfucker off and watching the blood drip if they make a mistake. Look man, I built this house for every­body, the least thing you do is live in it and don’t fucking burn it down because you on some old tip, because you ain’t feeling love for a minute. That’s one thing I learned from that shit. Lead the ship and rule with a fucking firm grip. I told Flavor, man — they offered Flavor a St. Ides commercial. I said, Flavor, man, you take that shit, I’ll cut you off publicly so fucking bad.

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CHRISTGAU: What’d Flav say?

CHUCK D: Flav still considered it. Said, ­Come on, you know me. I got a check and balance before any of that shit goes out.

TATE: Speaking of your responsibility, what about the Dee Barnes situation?

CHUCK D: That shit was foul. So I went out there not too long after that and I know Dre’s crew and all, ’cause they worked with us on tour, and I was like, How the fuck can y’all let this happen? They was like, Yo, Chuck, you know, he was drunk. I said, y’all fucking dumb. That shit was foul, man. But my whole thing is like, I won’t get another brother in print, I won’t attack black people in print — unless they come out in the media, or in the same print, and attack me.

CHRISTGAU: All right. There’s one other question. Along with the Dee Barnes thing, seems to me I gotta also ask about the New York Post song and the incident with Flav. Do you think —

CHUCK D: They printed his address. That’s why I was mad. I tried to sue the Post. Tried to sue them. My lawyer told —

­CHRISTGAU: Do you think that the inci­dent itself wasn’t worthy of reporting?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause you don’t know the incident.

CHRISTGAU: Was he brought to jail?

CHUCK D: She kicked his ass. Look, his girl kicked his ass, he smacked her back, right? She didn’t call the police, she called the news station. From Channel 12 out here in Long Island, the Post took it.

CHRISTGAU: That’s your version of what happened with Flav?

CHUCK D: Yo, I wasn’t there.

CHRISTGAU: Flav’s version of what hap­pened with Flav?

CHUCK D: That’s people’s version that was there. He’s not big enough. She was beating his ass, you know what I’m say­ing? I mean, my whole thing is like this­ — there’s bigger and better news to be put­ting on there. Many of us rappers’ posi­tions are being closely watched. And there’s people out there that realize that our words are meaning a lot, no matter who we might be. If I do the slightest thing — that’s why I say, all right, I’m grown and responsible. And adults make mistakes. But when you’re spotlighted — ­especially if you’re black — they’ll take that mistake and they’ll fucking run with it. Just like, you know, a brother was telling me, it was this major-league sports team. This brother was a future perennial all-star, you know. They pinned drugs on him — and he never even took drugs in his life. But they pinned drugs on him so he couldn’t renegotiate his salary. They pinned drugs on him and then he was eventually just run right on out of the league. So it was like, OK, we’re spotlighting you, but the smallest amount of salt in the game will fuck you up. You know? They’re just waiting for Chuck D­ —

CHRISTGAU: I don’t deny that.

CHUCK D: Chuck D arrested for rape with a white woman, Public Enemy’s over with. It’s over with. It’s gone. ❖

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Kid Kingpin: The Rise and Fall of a Drug Dealer

ST. JOHN’S IS A SQUALID residential building at 651 Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx, near a stretch known to law-enforcement officers as the Westchester Strip. Outside the building, four lookouts walk. Others perch on nearby fire escapes while two runners steer the streets. The thick metal door to a first-floor apartment, 1C, is framed with cement, sending a familiar message to the people who occupy the building: You-don’t-pause-here-unless-you-want-some.

Behind the hole in the door stands a pitcher, who hands out glassines. Red, yellow, and green bulbs flash him instructions from a homemade panel nailed to the floor. Upstairs, in another apartment, the dealer works. He places the tiny bags of heroin in the dumbwaiter and sends them downstairs. The pitcher has no way out of the first-floor apartment but up. Sheet metal, pipes, bars barricade all windows.

Listen closely as Boy George briefs the novice pitcher — he’s certain to explain, but he won’t speak loud and he’ll say it once:

If I look out the window and I could see a cop, I give it the yellow switch. You see it, and you slow down. If there is no movement in the upstairs apartment — no signals coming — you know something’s up and you bum rush. Bum rush. If I hit the red switch, pack everything up, get in the dumbwaiter, and go. Green’s green dude. The material come down and the money go up. That’s all you need to know, ready? Breakfast or lunch or dinner? Send a runner for a hero and one of those big, big Cokes.

At your service, right down to the food.

There can be no skimming of the product because there is no conversation because there are no phones. It is very organized. The lookouts signal to the dealer — a raised baseball hat, a touch to the face — and the dealer hits the appropriate switch, translating his instructions into color. The pitcher responds to light drop after drop, only knowing how much heroin to deliver; the steerer just knows how much he takes in, the exact amount to be offered up.

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At the end of the ’80s, while America concerned itself with the consequences of crack, and crack dealers continued in that hyper trade, Boy George was running five heroin locations in the South Bronx, including 139th and Brook, one of the oldest and more profitable heroin venues in the borough.

Whoever acts gets the prize — experience taught Boy George that. And the more severe the action, the better the prize. According to federal prosecutors Henry DePippo and Patrick Fitzgerald, by the time he turned 18 Boy George was a dealer of the major league. In late 1988, when he was 20 years old, Boy George was the primary source of heroin in the South Bronx, employing more than 50 workers and grossing about a quarter of a million dollars a week. The brand name of this teenager’s heroin was Obsession. The logo on its little bags was a red king’s crown.

Although he was an accomplished businessman — manipulating forms of threat and people’s fears — Boy George remained a child. Personality was his certain gift — ­impudent, streetwise, disarming, as cautious as he was searching, Boy George was charming. And mean. He always was a tough boy, but he earned his way to living large — expensive toys and outrageous risks and an entourage of eager, less well-­equipped kids. Government documents describe the estate he bought in Puerto Rico, with $140,000 in cash, and the stable of cars he kept in America —BMWs, Porsches, and Mercedes Benzes. He customized his favorites with $12,000 Ostrich-skin interi­ors, 630-watt stereos, 10-track CD players, televisions with VCRs, cellular phones. Several were worthy of James Bond, whom George revered: rear license plates that slid into side compartments and exposed blind­ing beams of light, secret compartments for guns. One Mercedes 190E released gobs of oil from its tail, another, large nail-like tacks.

Boy George’s business, which he called Tuxedo Enterprises, positioned him at a height from which he could only fall hard. “I have to be in a place where I can manip­ulate the market,” he explains from the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he spent much of last year in segregation (for threatening to kill former employees’ families and for the discovery of a hit list — ­in his handwriting — that included the two prosecutors and the federal judge involved in his case). “That’s my goal,” he says, “that’s what I am — a manipulator. And when it says manipulator in the dictionary, it says, ‘see American.'” And so, on this October day in 1990, halfway through the three-month trial that will end in his being sentenced to life in prison with no option for parole, Boy George continues with his dreams at the age of 23.

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When he is not preparing for his trial, Boy George studies shorthand in order to keep his note taking of the court proceed­ings up to speed. When he’s not doing that, he reads the Bible: “I can take arguments out of there,” he says. Otherwise, he relaxes with Yachting magazine. He redesigns his favorites — the 200-footers, the luxury yachts. He adds Jacuzzis to their decks, he customizes. “I get a scrap paper,” he says, grinning, “and I draw.”

Now, in the dank visiting room, a mouse scurrying on the floor beside him, he shad­owboxes. He speaks proudly about training with Hector Roca of Brooklyn’s Gleason’s Gym before his May 1989 arrest. Boy George still says he will someday beat Ty­son. Now, in his baggy orange suit, he sits solid in the chair, scrubbed face, new leath­er hightops, steady eyes. “You can’t read about it in books, and you can’t look at it in the movies,” he says, explaining his ambi­tion. “I was born with something inside of me that says, ‘George, that’s a pretty girl. Go and get her. George, that’s a pretty suit — go and get that suit. George, this is something out here, it’s for you.'” He enunciates the words spoken to him by his inner voice. “We don’t know exactly how long you’ll have it, or how wide a span it’ll get, but you could get it and all you gotta do is just put your mind to it. Don’t think of nothing else. And ask about it, think about it, think with it, act like if you were it and change the shoes around like it was you. And then you’ll see.”

He starts to box in slow motion, his words like incantation now: “Ahhhh, he wants to come at me this way, but what if I go that way?” He ducks, shadow jabbing. “‘C’mon and do it this way,’ he says, well, let’s go that way.” Boy George dodges. “And when you get a feel that you’re almost that thing, you reach out and grab it and it’s yours. You have to have a lot of sleep­less nights, but Lord behold, it’ll paint a picture.”

Back up to the summer of 1985, when George Rivera has just become Boy George. He is 17 years old, sleeping on Bronx park benches. He brushes his teeth and rinses his light-brown face in the drib­ble of fire hydrants. He has always been meticulous about his appearance, and with­in this control lies one of two emerging maxims: The first is that power grows in proportion to what you make other people see. The second is that people’s most firmly rooted perceptions are based in fear. What is visible of his life just now would inspire fear in many people: derelict blocks of ghetto, a summer morning, urban heat, a Puer­to Rican boy standing on a porch that reeks of piss and funk, two black dealers right beside him — watchful, quiet, still.

Washington and 166th is easily one of the South Bronx’s most dangerous loca­tions. Rusted stoves jut out of broken win­dows; scrap yards interrupt lot after lot of garbage rot. George arches his thin chest off the wall. Already it is an ancient gesture, but it has a residue of boyish pride (he’s just been promoted from lookout). He lopes toward a slowing car and moves his head side to side as if underwater — left-right-left-­back-left, then down smooth to the shoul­der. George takes the money. He heads into the dingy hallway and a minute later comes back out, then he’s done. He steps back up on the porch and another dealer’s already out to the next car; the third dealer moves across the street where junkies lurch toward him on foot.

In this square neighborhood the only oth­er businesses, besides narcotics, are run by tired men in crumbling caves: stray mat­tress shops (where soiled mattresses are hocked, then reupholstered) and auto-parts shops (the same, but with cars). The sounds are a mix of infants, gunshots, the reverber­ating shouts of “Radar!” (the day’s code word for undercovers), and singing. The last comes sounding out from the storefront churches, the voices of grandmothers and still-young-enough children.

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Move up one year to the spring of 1986; nothing on 166th and Washington has changed. Except the teenager standing on the porch. Now Boy George pulls up in his new white Mercedes Benz. He wears clean Levi’s, a pressed Izod, a sweater, beside him sits a pretty girl. He is a manager now. The Torres brothers allow him to collect their money — count it, pack it, do payroll, drop it — and to supply their dealers with Blue Thunder, the brand of which Boy George is partially in charge. He hires em­ployees, some triple his age. “If I can trust you, I can kill you,” he will say.

And he’ll also say that he hires individ­uals, not hoodlums, not freaks, not bums. These uncles and ex-cab drivers and teen­age sons of ex-cab drivers open the spots by 9:00 a.m. and run them through to the next morning. If the dealers or runners or lookouts or steerers need weapons, need assistance, if they need to talk to someone at any time, they beep Boy George. He shows up instantly. If he beeps them, cod­ing in his “666,” they call him back immediately. Workers are not to leave their spots to go to City Island to eat or to the movies or to White Castle, or to fuck no fucking girls, or go standing, blase, blase, blase with their crew. If the spots aren’t fed and they don’t got no reason why, if there is any problem, he will confront them once. And if a customer or dealer has a complaint as to the quality of Blue Thunder, Boy George delivers: If-this-isn’t-good-you-give-it-back=­to-me-and-I-get-it-back-and-I-give-you­-something-fresh. Done. “I don’t like to not have the answers. I don’t like the I-don’t­-knows. Excuses are for assholes. Everybody has one. Just set me up right, don’t trick me.”

Luis Guzman (his name has been changed), a South Bronx legend, gave George his street name around this time. “It was a joke. It stuck,” Boy George says. “It’s nice, it’s different. It’s not like calling somebody Chino, or calling them Red or Lefty, or Fingers. When you say Boy George you’re talking about the singer or you’re talking about me.” That it was Luis Guzman who provided him with a new identity must have meant a lot to George. Years earlier, when Luis was pitch­ing heroin in an empty lot George was afraid to walk by him on his way to elementary school. To have been christened by Guzman, Boy George thought in his childish willfulness, was an omen and a good one.

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The Obsession organization — Boy George ran other brands named Candy Land, De­lirious, and Sledgehammer — leased a pool of 10 luxury cars from OJ’s car service in Queens. The drivers, all men, could be paid up to $100 an hour to remain on call. It was at OJ’s that Boy George met Ward John­son, an older Jamaican hustler better known as Six-O. Six-O became Boy George’s first lieutenant, and when the Ob­session operation fell, Six-O would become the prosecution’s primary cooperating wit­ness. Six-O’s testimony fleshed out the in­ternal workings of Tuxedo Enterprises and freed his own son from the consequences of his involvement. Six-O himself pleaded guilty to a grab bag of charges — conspiracy to distribute heroin; using and carrying fire­arms in relation to narcotics; possession of 10.46 kilograms of heroin; evading taxes on $491,550 in income in 1988 — but he is yet to be sentenced and recently testified in another Obsession trial.

Tuxedo Enterprises originated with Boy George cutting and bagging heroin at the kitchen table of his Bronx apanment with Six-O, a kid named Weasel, and their girl­friends. Weasel was from the neighbor­hood. Weasel rarely lifted his head or his eyes but he was malleable and seemed eager to please. The product sold well and George rented another apartment as a mill. He revived the Obsession brand name by mak­ing it his own; its original managers, conveniently, were dead.

Boy George would buy units of heroin (usually about 700 grams) from his Chinese suppliers — whom he privately referred to as “Fried Rice” — and pass them along to Six-O, who would store them and distribute them to the cutting mills. At the various mills — South Bronx walkup and project apartments and some hotel rooms in Manhattan and New Jersey — the “food” was cut (diluted) and packaged in prestamped dime bags for retail sale.

As much as its distributors and custom­ers savor its purity and smell, heroin is not a product anyone keeps around. When ev­erything runs exactly as it should, it takes less than 72 hours for the drug to make its way from the distributor to a customer’s nostrils or veins. Since time can be lost setting up mills and orchestrating distribu­tion strategy, all workers must remain on call — hence the beeper.

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Boy George’s mill workers were girl­friends of his male associates and their friends (who often became girlfriends them­selves), and it was their job to cut the heroin with mannite, weigh it, and bag it in the prestamped glassines, each with its red­crown logo. They would then tape the glass­ines and package them in bundles in counts of 10. Five bundles, wrapped in newspaper, made a brick. One former mill worker, now serving 11 years with no parole for conspir­acy, said they sometimes snorted coke to stay awake through the long shifts. Older women, often the mothers or grandmothers of workers, could stamp the bags with the Obsession logo from their own project apartments, while they baby-sat the children.

According to coun records, lieutenants, like Weasel and another Obsession worker named Ralph Hernandez, delivered the bricks — packed in shopping bags, knap­sacks, or suitcases — to the managers of the locations, which were known as stores: 122nd Street and Second Avenue; the block-long building on 139th Street and Brook; 153rd-156th Streets and Courtlandt, which was a playground in a public housing project; 651 Southern Boulevard (St. John’s), also near a school; and 166th Street and Washington, the 10 square feet of cor­ner where Boy George got his start.

When all the glassines were gone, the location manager would beep Weasel or Ralphie and they would take a driver from OJ’s to pick up the money and bring it to Six-O, who recorded the transactions and did the payroll. Six-O kept very good records. Location managers generally made 10 to 20 per cent of the profit (depending upon the location), and were responsible for pay­ing the lookouts, steerers, pitchers, and runners out of their share. Weasel and Ralphie, who also became a cooperating witness, earned $2500 a week; Six-O made $12,000. Women filled the lower ranks of the opera­tion; for 12-, 15-, sometimes 20-hour shifts, they usually received $100. Boy George made roughly $45,000 a week.

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In April 1988, on the first anniversary of his empire’s founding, Boy George set up a deal with a man named Tony, a jobber. Tony introduced Boy George to Sinbad, to whom Boy George handed over $600,000 in cash. Sinbad stepped into a duplex and left through a rear exit with the money. Boy George had not cased the meeting point himself, but the problem was his. For sever­al hours, Tony was beaten by George and others, then taken to the Henry Hudson Parkway, near 86th Street, where Boy George shot him four times at close range. According to court papers, George then re­tained Juan Diaz, a/k/a Cong, to track Sin­bad down, while he paid off his Asian source with $600,000 of his own. George’s quick response to the slipup reinforced his relationship with the Asian connection and strengthened his reputation on the streets.

By the end of May, Sinbad was dead and Cong earned a full-time place as a son of bouncer. Court papers state that for $1000 a week he kept discipline within the Obses­sion operation. Hear Boy George brief him:

Don’t fall for the tricks about, Oh, I’II see you tomorrow blase blase blase, when you are dealing with someone who owes me money. You say, Listen homie, I want to eat today. So I’m not going to wait to tomorrow to eat. I want to ear right now. I want to eat today, I’m hungry. Pay up dude. That’s it.

At George’s behest Cong killed a man named Todd Crawford in the parking lot of the King Lobster Restaurant that June. In November, Boy George arranged to have Cong meet Yvette Padilla in Ferry Point Park. Yvette had been accused of stealing a gold and diamond-scripted Obsession belt buckle from Ice, the supervisor of George’s Sledgehammer brand, whose real name is Walter David Cook. According to prosecu­tors, Cong shot Yvette; then, say Obsession employees, he dumped her body off the Triborough Bridge. Cong received a few vials of crack, a $5000 cash bonus, and an invitation to the Christmas party.

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On Christmas Eve, 1988, the Riveranda stood waiting for Boy George at World Yacht’s 23rd Street dock. When he arrived at 7 p.m., everyone was clapping, and then they all boarded the ship. According to the captain’s report, “At 10:00 p.m. we left dock for a 2-hour cruise that was quite memorable.” Cruising out into the New York harbor, 150 teenagers in black tie.

“My brother threw some good partis,” says George’s younger brother, Indio, “but this one was kicking. In other words, it was live.” Big Daddy Kane accepted $12,000 in cash for his 15-minute rap. Safire pocketed $3000 without even performing (she re­fused to sing for the originally agreed-upon $7500 because she didn’t have a private dressing room). The menu included steak tartare, skewered lamb, bocconcini, prime rib, $12,000 worth of champagne. There were raffle prizes, “winners to be an­nounced by the host”: first prize a loaded Mitsubishi; second, $20,000 in cash. Home entertainment centers, a Macy’s gift certifi­cate, a trip to Disneyland, a “nite on the town.” According to the captain’s report, nobody bothered to claim the $100 and $200 prizes. Everyone who had done any­thing was there. Six-O received a gold Ro­lex and $50,000 in cash; Ice was given a brand-new Model 750 BMW. George also gave diamond-inscribed gold Obsession belt buckles, appraised at $7500 each, to four of his other top men. There were fights and there was flirting. One guest challenged a drunken dealer — perched midway on the tip of the ship’s bow — to swim ashore (he didn’t). Another guest was stripped down to his underwear and left on the deck after a group beating — he’d allegedly attempted to steal a young woman’s diamond pendant.

The seating arrangement was carefully planned, by location. There were lots of pictures taken — guys leaning forward, toasting, bloodshot eyes, abundant tables; groups of girls in off-the-shoulder taffeta swirls. It was a prom, open bar, no chaper­ones. Boy George paid for the tuxedo rent­als, for everything. His bill from World Yacht alone ran to more than $30, 000 and he paid for it all in cash; the guests didn’t pay a thing.

All paid dearly for the pictures later, though, when federal prosecutors pinned enlarged reproductions of them on the courtroom bulletin boards for the Judge and jury to see. Giddy hard-earned glory boast­ing on the water. Image after image of fear­lessness, of tired eyes, of youth. And like a little boy, Boy George had a Christmas wish: A half hour before the ship docked, he asked if he could visit the captain, and up he went. It was a rare moment of parity, where life reflected and respected Boy George’s vision of his rightful self.

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Boy George’s first childhood memory is of taking a bath in the kitchen sink and getting burned with hot water. His next is of look­ing out his apartment window and seeing a cat get hit by a car in front of his Tremont Avenue tenement. He remembers crying for the dead cat. He didn’t have friends. “We were always moving around,” he says. “I loved pets. I tried to keep dogs, but they were always getting hit too.”

Indio learned a lot from George. How to carry yourself, how to be careful: “He would always say to me, ‘Choose what you want in life. You got to be serious when you do things. You have to stop being a little faggot boy.’ He showed me how to read. ‘Look, you don’t know the words? Break it down.'” Indio’s earnest face carries the family legacy of bruised affection. “My mother is a heartbroken person. My own heart gets broken quick. But when it comes to heartbreaking matter, George knows how to deal with it professionally. He was the bravest in the family. He was the one who had the balls.”

George’s father left when George was six months old and the boy would visit him whenever he could; sometimes there were yearlong gaps. “I think he’s very bright,” says George Rivera Sr., 46, a suspicious, handsome man who now owns a car service in Queens. “He used to turn things. In my mind I said, ‘This kid, he has something coming.'”

George’s relationship with his mother, Monserrate, 39, had always been tense. In court papers, George claims she beat him and Indio, regularly and badly, a charge Indio confirms; George remembers her us­ing an extension cord. The brothers also say that she was overly possessive of them, es­pecially when it came to girls. George ran away when he was 10; his life was his busi­ness. His mother eventually received a PINS (Parent with a Child in Need of Su­pervision) order from the court when George was 12. Soon after, he was sent to the Pleasantville Diagnostic Center, where he spent three months, then to St. Cabri­ni’s, a group home in New Rochelle, where he was the youngest boy.

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The eight Cabrini kids all lived together in a one-family, brick-front corner home with four bedrooms, a lawn, fruit trees, skunks and racoons. The house was in the transitional part of town, where the work­ing class spilled into the upper-middle and then onto the rich. The Cabrini kids attend­ed the local junior high and high schools. They felt the normal pressure to assimilate, but, since all of them were poor, most of them withdrew from the New Rochelle kids instead.

George was the only Puerto Rican on the New Rochelle High football team. To play, he had to quit his nighttime job stocking shelves at a nearby Shopwell. He got invit­ed to the rich kids’ parties, the girls’ houses on “the hill.” According to Al Bowman, his counselor at the home, George dragged his Cabrini friends along.

After one party, George and two friends made away with the host family’s silver­ware and he convinced his crew to take their talent to the surrounding sprawling homes. The police caught up with George at the local pawnshop. According to Bow­man, George took the rap for his crew and was sentenced to 13 months at Valhalla, a juvenile detention center upstate.

What the Cabrini Director of Group Homes, William Jones, remembers best — ­after 28 years of throwaway city children, it is striking that he remembers George at all — is George’s loyalty. “A lot of the Span­ish kids hang out with the black kids in the homes, but when they get around the white kids, they act like they don’t know them at all. George never forgot that his friends were his friends.”

George says that Cabrini made him into a man. “At home,” he says, “you can’t spread out the way you could around dilfer­ent people. When you’re home with your Moms and stulf it’s you and your Mom and your brother, that’s it. I had a chance to spread out, wide, wide-angle, like a wide­-angle lens. I got hip to everything that I would need to get hip to and I started analyzing and analyzing.”

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Another mentor of George’s was a man named Holland Randolph, who is now a supervisor at the Episcopal Mission in Manhattan. Randolph had just gotten the job at Cabrini’s, and on his first Sunday night of duty George showed him the ropes. While Boy George was still a resident he offered to lend the drug counselor $2000, but Randolph says he never got the loan. “He was going to loan me money at some point in some regard, but I lost contact,” says the counselor. Randolph distinctly re­members one of George’s return visits: It was Randolph’s birthday and George took him out to eat in New Rochelle. They drove to the restaurant in a brand-new Mercedes. “He really pulled out the car­pet,” says Randolph, “so to speak. He was a flashy guy. He had class — unfortunately, the wrong kind of class. He knew how to present himself to talk to people of a higher stature and knew when people were playing a con game on him.”

George kept in touch with Al Bowman, too. “He never called asking for money, and those were rough times,” says Bow­man. “But he was floundering. It was in the things he asked for. It would be this way: Can you get me a gun? Things like that. He was into petty stuff. Then finally he hooked into something, and from there … Well. You watch someone you care for get caught up in a whirlwind and all you can do is say, Take care, man. Insulate yourself.”

Boy George did his best: He employed childhood friends, friends of friends, fam­ily, recruited Cabrini alums. His workers’ own safety grew in proportion to the per­ception of his retaliatory powers, and he earned a vicious reputation and gave Ob­session fine PR: Lieutenants and managers received gold belt buckles with their names scripted in diamonds; top dealers received red-and-white leather baseball Jackets wnh “CCCP” written on the back. The orna­ments protected his workers and ranked them, publicly, in the order of their impor­tance to the organization and in their prox­imity to him. A wise incentive program­ — and an investigator’s dream.

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At the beginning of 1989, Boy George purchased more real estate in Puerto Rico and, with the help of a financial consultant, looked into the possibility of opening a fast-food mall with a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut and a Church’s Fried Chicken. He also began to transform the Puerto Rico estate into a permanent home. Wiretaps placed by the New York Drug Enforcement Task Force (NYDETF ) offer detailed dis­cussions about the renovations, which were overseen by Blanca Marti, his girlfriend, who stayed at the estate with their sons, Giovanni Lord and Chris Rivera. Work­men installed electronic security gates and paved a basketball court. George had “Ob­session” inscribed in tile on the bottom of his swimming pool, alongside the initials “B.G.” The inscription may have been done in a moment of indulgence, or it may have been a young boy’s success signal, reaching up to the Puerto Rico gods. San­ford Katz, a veteran public defender who represented one of George’s street manag­ers, thinks differently: “If you want to advertise I AM A DRUG DEALER” he says, “then bring a Porsche into the South Bronx. You’ll have every investigator and snitch paying attention.” (Boy George did and they were.) “But to have the logo of his brand of heroin, which can be found all over the Bronx, on the bottom of his swim­ming pool? That was very Abbie Hoffmanesque. He was saying ‘Fuck you’ to the world.”

The expensive objects George flaunted surely said at least that to the poor streets that produced him. As did the dead com­petitors and colleagues planted as warnings each step along way.

From the crying Puerto Rican kid in the tenement window, Boy George, only 21, had drastically upped his threshold for pain. According to government evidence, in 1986, while he was still working for the Torres brothers, George shot one competi­tive associate and injected another with heroin. Like most top-level dealers, the man did not use drugs. In 1987, after shar­ing an extravagant shrimp scampi dinner, he shot his dining companion and dumped his body off a bridge. The victim had disre­spected Boy George to a friend, whose sis­ter — unbeknownst to the victim — Boy George was dating. From then on, whenev­er a colleague or competitor needed that kind of taking care of, it was referred to as “eating shrimp” or “being taken out for shrimp.” Eventually, the phrase became an in-house Obsession joke. That same sum­mer, 166th and Washington became a wanted spot. George organized an ambush to clean out the competition and, at the end of the shooting, an uninvolved bystander was dead. A September 4, 1990, letter filed by the prosecution briefly notes another murder, this one of an unnamed man, an incidental three-sentence episode in a long list of violent acts that never made it to the jury. The encounter best reveals the blind spot where George’s boyhood and ego crossed.

That day, Boy George had a routine meeting with a higher-up and pulled his new Mercedes Benz off the FDR to wait. A drunk driver bumped into his car and didn’t stop, so Boy George followed him and forced him off the road. He then stabbed the man a number of times, leaving him for dead in the front seat of his car. It didn’t make any difference to George if the driver was dead or not — he’d done what he did.

This blindness — most obviously to the worth of a human life — marked the inter­section of boyhood and ego that would re­sult in the loss of Boy George’s freedom for the rest of his life. That he lacked a finely tuned sense of the larger balance — that peo­ple existed beyond their utility and ability to service him, that people, in effect, have a right to their own time — is a failing com­mon among men, but one to which children might be temporarily entitled.

The grace period of a liberal arts educa­tion might have modulated his need, just as an outstanding mentor may have tempered his arrogance, but it’s not likely. His view of the world, like a child’s, remained two­-dimensional. The most significant dichoto­my — Before the money and After — was the most encompassing and intense. Before the money, life was the only thing. After, it could be carelessly flaunted or thrown away. Before, he trusted nobody, because he thought anyone could hurt him. After, he thought he was so powerful that nobody could. And while Boy George worked his way through the chaos of his increasingly complex future, with guns and the other dangerous tools of his trade, the past snuck up from behind, an accumulation of two years of behaving like an extremely arrogant and savvy and talented unsophisticat­ed kingpin kid.

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Back in August 1987, Boy George had met Luis Guzman outside the Baychester Diner. Luis had a connect. Proud of finally being considered the older dealer’s real peer, Boy George went to the meeting himself. He was especially impressed with Luis by then because he fully appreciated the accom­plishments of the life. Street years are like dog years and Luis dodged raps better than anyone.

At Luis’s encouragement, Boy George sold two ounces of rock heroin to an unfa­miliar man. He also bragged that his busi­ness grossed $250,000 a week, discussed his estate renovations, bemoaned the difficulty of shipping cars to Puerto Rico, flashed his diamond Rolex, and accepted $12,000 in cash.

Days alter his meeting with Luis, Mount Vernon detectives knocked on the door of the apartment George kept for Blanca and her mother at 156th street. The police were looking for George on an outstanding bench warrant for gun possession. George allegedly fled out a fourth-floor window, and Blanca’s brother wouldn’t talk. On their way out, the policemen noted a 1987 Mercedes on the impoverished street and started asking questions.

Spooked, Boy George arranged for Six-O to move the hot car. Just to be careful, he also told him to fold the cutting mill on East 213th Street and to set up shop at the midtown Marriott Marquis Hotel. As an afterthought, George told his mother to stop by 213th Street for a final double check.

The Mount Vernon detectives had tracked the Mercedes, New York plates PZY-148, to Six-O’s family home on Prospect Street in Yonkers (Six-O kept several other apartments with other girlfriends at a weekly cost of $1000 each). Six-O spoke to the detectives: He said that he had received a call from George on August 30 to pick up the car on 520 East 156th Street and that he worked for George.

The cops moved on to 213th Street and, believing George was inside the apartment and possibly armed, made a forcible entry. Six-O had made a sloppy departure: Inside, in plain view, the cops found quinine, razor blades, white powder covering a table, glassine envelopes, and scales. A search un­covered shotgun shells, .38 caliber shells, 9mm shells, rifle shells, a rifle with a scope, three shotguns, a tranquilizer gun, a bullet-proof vest, three bags containing large amounts of cash and drugs, and other boxes of ammunition. According to the detec­tives’ report, George’s mother, Monserrate, then arrived “in a hysterical manner, in­quiring as to what happened to her son.” She said she’d last seen him on August 21. Then, distraught, terrified, or perhaps even vengeful, Monserrate began to talk: Blanca Marti made her son into a dealer. Blanca took out a student loan and set George up with the money. Her own Mother’s Day gift from her son — $5000 in cash — he took back to buy more drugs and it was Blanca’s fault. George had $125,000 stashed at Blan­ca’s house, too, and he always carried a gun since he got heavy into drugs. The Mount Vernon detectives alerted the 47th Precinct, and the Drug Task Force sent their people in.

Meanwhile, the midtown Marriott be­came a dorm. Six-O arrived with boxes of glassines, scales, and a silencer, as the shifts of mill workers were beeped in. “It sounds fucked up,” says one convicted mill worker, “but if George wasn’t around, it was a lot of fun sometimes. It was like you’d all be sitling there, like a family.” Hunched over card tables, their surgical masks on, in for the underpaid shift. The jokes begin, hands move together, separate, and seal.

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Around this time, Boy George launched a new brand name, Delirious. It was the same cut as Obsession, but its blue logo — a crazed-looking man with a bulbous nose — ­spooked junkies. Within two months of the test market, Boy George shut down the line. He instructed the mill foremen to return production to Obsession full-time, believing that — for a change — it was best to play it safe.

The same week, Boy George met Luis and the undercover again. This time for lunch at Willie’s Bar and Steak House, near the intersection of Westchester Avenue and Beach Street. George unloaded 600 leftover bags of Delirious and took $5000 home. He’d promised to supply a grinder — the undercover told George he’d had a hard time grinding down the rock — but Six-O warned George that the guy might be a cop, so George didn’t return the connect’s calls to his beeper.

The arrests and seizures continued for months — still unconnected. On September 20, 1988, 100 glassines of Obsession were confiscated from the second-floor apart­ment at the St. John’s location, along with $4400 in cash. Two months, the NYDETF arrested a St. John’s dealer, who was carry­ing 400 glassines of Obsession. A steerer, Anthony Briggs, also led an undercover to a 10-glassine sale on January 5, 1989. Five days later, the same undercover bought 40 glassines from Briggs’s brother at the same spot. While surveillance of the location in­creased, Boy George was discovering box­ing. He became so enamored of the sport that he hired Hector Roca of Brooklyn’s Gleason’s Gym to train him. Not counting traveling time, the workouts lasted a good four hours a day.

The Briggs brothers benefited from George’s lack of attention and were pro­moted to manage St. John’s. They were arrested on February 8, just as they were passing $10,000 in cash between them in a brown paper bag. The NYDETF agents made their move into St. John’s that same day: The first-floor apartment yielded a loaded .22 caliber, a .357 revolver, a .38 caliber, and a .357 magnum inside a safe. During a search of the Briggs’s East 165th Street apartment — St. John’s stash house — ­the agents discovered $50,000 in cash and 5600 glassines.

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The mill had by then been moved to 740 East 243rd Street. The Task Force knew it: the investigators could also identify whom they believed to be the key players of the operation. On April 6, 1989, Boy George ran a yellow light and was stopped by two policemen. They wrote him up and confis­cated his box — a common practice, accord­ing to South Bronx kids — then let him go. Six-O later testified that Boy George often lost his beeper, that he’d get angry and drop it sometimes, too. But this time the care­lessness eventually mattered: In a Bronx precinct office, Boy George’s beeper, flash­ing phone number after phone number of his incoming business calls.

On the two-year anniversary of Obses­sion’s founding, at the same time a federal judge was granting investigators permission to place a 30-day wiretap on Boy George’s Morris Avenue home phone, he moved to remedy the slipups, pull in the reins, and increase control. “I gotta write my shit down somewhere secret and shit, I gotta code it up,” he said to a friend, on April 5, 1989, the day before he was stopped for running the light, and less than a month before his arrest. Other phone conversa­tions, which were eventually admitted into evidence, use pig latin as his teenage orga­nization’s attempt at communication in code. In the following, during a period when shipments of heroin were delayed, George discussed the possibility of opening crack locations with Ice:

W. DAVID COOK: I got plenty aper-pay though.
GEORGE RIVERA: Oh, I got plenty, but still I just don’t wanna fuck around and one day starve and shit, that’s not the thing about the aper-pay it’s just that, you know what I worry about the most man, the, the orey­stays.
COOK: Yeah.
RIVERA: That’s all I worry about cause them niggers there man if I catch them niggers making aper-pay somewhere else, ah man, we’re going to have a crucifixion out here.
COOK: Well!
RIVERA: That’s all I worry about is them dickheads.
COOK: I know what you mean, what if they elly-say aggies-bay in the otty-spay?
RIVERA: Yep, you know what I’m a do, too, I’m a open up ackie-jays man.
COOK: Ackie-jays for what?
RIVERA: Just for fucking emergency pur­poses, brother, you crazy? Right now, it would’ve been cleaning up, you dig what I’m saying … Oh, you know Calvin is gonna get hit with something.

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This would become the most incriminating telephone conversation — the jury reading “crucifixion” as evidence of Boy George’s ruthlessness. But Boy George believes that it was Luis, his childhood hero and, accord­ing to George and his defense lawyers, a confidential government informant, who did him irreparable damage. Six-O, whom one former girlfriend and mill worker claims Boy George treated as a father, did at least as much.

On April 30, police officially established surveillance of the 243rd Street mill. Late that morning, Weasel and Ralphie left the building, each carrying a white plastic bag, jumped in an OJ car, and rode off. Soon after, the driver was arrested — 13 bricks of heroin(10,400 Obsession glassines) in tow. That afternoon, Weasel and Ralphie were arrested as they left the mill with another white plastic bag — 800 Obsession glassines to add to the climbing total. Early in the morning of May 1, at 2:35 a.m., investigators entered the building. Eleven mill work­ers were apprehended, with, among other things, blocks of mannite, eight boxes of empty glassines stamped with the Obsession, Sledgehammer, and Delirious brand names, five grinding machines, and strain­ers. There were boxes of sealing tape and three triple-beam scales. A ledger held attendance and payment records, complete with notes on workers who arrived ‘late.” And the police found the standard protections: face masks, two .38s, a 20-gauge pump shotgun, an automatic shotgun, and a 9mm MP9 automatic rifle, better known as a Streetsweeper, all loaded and ready to go.

Federal agents had been listening to Boy George’s phone calls throughout the night. Earlier that evening, in a conversation with Ice, Boy George talked about “breaking out,” of “doing the Jimmy-James [Brown].”

At 11:06 p.m., as key people were being hauled in, Six-O called George and told him he couldn’t find some of their workers: “I came through Washington and … them niggers is gone. Dennis [a manager], I called his house. See a lot of these people I can’t get a hold to, man.” At 8:36 the next morning, hours after the mill had been cleaned out, Six-O woke George with an­other call. “I gotta see you right away,” Six-­O said. “Bad, bad news.”

He made arrangements to meet George under some nearby streetlights and advised him, “When you come out bring some money with you to break out.”

“Yeah,” Boy George says on the wiretap, and sighs. A half hour later he was under arrest. As he left his apartment building to meet Six-O, he found close to 40 federal agents waiting.

According to Boy George, the feds drove him through Central Park on their way to central booking. As he looked out the win­dow of the white Lincoln Mark IV, one of the agents pointed to a seedling. “See that plant?” the cop asked. “It’s gonna be a tree when you get out.”

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Thirty-three Obsession workers had been arrested in the sweep. Of those, 24 pleaded guilty. In September 1990, Boy George went on trial on 14 counts — among them, conspiring to run a continuing criminal en­terprise, also known as the kingpin charge, drug possession and distribution, as well as ownership of a page-long list of guns. He was found guilty of only two: auempted tax evasion and conspiracy to distribute her­oin.

He told his mother and girlfriends not to come to the sentencing if they were going to cry: he did not want anyone associated with him to give the prosecution that satisfac­tion. He deliberated over what to wear and expected a crowd. When the date arrived, in the spring of 199,m the judge told George that he was one of the most violent people ever to set foot in her courtroom and that she had not — in the long days of the pro­ceedings — seen any sign of regret or re­morse. Boy George shook his head ruefully and smiled. Other than his family and a Newsday reporter, nobody showed for him.

In the wake of the most recent South Bronx heroin busts — the same locations, another 30 workers, hawking the same brand of drug — stray Obsession trials con­tinue. Boy George works on his appeal: one Obsession worker, who allegedly continued the drug operation under George’s direc­tion from jail (using the brand name Raw), recently pleaded guilty to lesser charges: Ice was recently convicted on 14 of 15 counts: and Cong, the alleged hitman, is up in Jan­uary. On the streets and in the same loca­tions, the trade continues without pause.

A month ago, things remained the same 35 at 139th Street and Brook Avenue in the South Bronx. Eight fist-size holes, waist-level, punch through the corner building’s cement front wall. Imagine a moat sur­rounding the block-long building — that’s where the steerers roam. They pivot and backhand fistfuls of cash into the holes. Arms stick out and pass glassines of heroin in return. At the rear of the building is a playground, an asset to the business, providing fine visibility and a labor pool.

To have realized dreams as fierce as Boy George’s required a hunger that was large. The coursing traffic before the 139th Street location today proves that his strategy of attaining his was accurate: a cocoa Nissan, its white girl in waiting, her boyfriend hav­ing jumped out for the cop: one thin man pert in the driver’s seat of a dented Monte Carlo: countless sorry-eyed old-timers and some college kids, car after idling car in rows three-deep. And so Boy George was a kingpin — among junkies, hustlers, chil­dren — feeding other people’s fears. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Thomas v. Hill: Days of Our Lives

TV and the Thomas Hearings

The first, unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the gulf war — was distinguished by the ab­sence of what Orrin Hatch, during the sec­ond unparalleled TV event of 1991 — the Thomas confirmation hearings — kept refer­ring to as “raw data.” As spectacle, the gulf war was completely controlled. Mediated by the administration, information was de­livered by newspeople who abdicated their autonomy to become flacks and floor man­agers. The narrative was as simplistic as Top Gun, the images as diagrammatic as a corporate stockholders’ report. Among the reasons that the Hill/Thomas confrontation “played” so well is that it provided a chaot­ic, violent immediacy absent from the war coverage. Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cam­eras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.

It might be overkill to claim that the Hill/Thomas confrontation is the return of the repressed, but it certainly provided some libidinal compensation. Put it this way: How many of you would have watched another four-day TV marathon if you felt that once again it was being spoon­fed from the top?

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Different as the two debacles were, they had one striking element in common. Like game shows, talk shows, and sitcoms, they involved a dynamic even more basic to TV than the exploitation of violence and sex — ­that of humiliation. For Saddam Hussein, the price of remaining in power was to be publicly thrashed by George Bush and com­pany. For Clarence Thomas, the price for his ascension to the Supreme Court was not a “high-tech lynching,” but something more like a symbolic castration.

To listen, as a friend remarked, to Hatch leading Thomas through a point-by-point denial of Anita Hill’s testimony — “No sen­ator, I never …” talked dirty, read pornog­raphy, mentioned pubic hairs in Coke — ­was to hear the echo of “Yes, Massa, I’m a good boy. I keep my dick in my pocket.” It was the excruciating sound of a black man forced to deny his sexual identity in front of millions.

Indeed, the image of Thomas facing his 14 white male judges, rocking in his chair as if he were going to run amok any minute, suggests an answer to the oft-repeated ques­tion of why Hill — who remained to the last a reluctant witness — had not come forward sooner. As a black woman she would not have wanted to call that image into being, regardless of his aggression against her. An­other explanation is that she suspected she’d be treated as abusively as we saw her­being treated on the TV screen.

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As a spectacle, the hearings were as hallu­cinatory as Alice’s Adventures in Wonder­land. The psychological terrors of sex and race were compounded by the fact that three kinds of events — a fact-finding hear­ing, a sexual harassment trial, and a TV show — were superimposed. The rules were up for grabs: Specter could decide to play the Queen of Hearts, shouting perjury, per­jury, rather than “off with her head,” and no one knew how to stop it. That the Re­publicans prevailed amidst this craziness was the result of two principle factors. First, Hill had both institutionalized misog­yny and institutionalized racism operating against her while Thomas suffered from only the latter. Second, in his dramatic closing speech, Chair Joe Biden ironically awarded Thomas the “benefit of the doubt” slogan that eventually got him over. Then again, Hatch, Simpson, and the behind-the­-scenes White House knew a few things about TV that the Democrats didn’t: turn everything into a story, and tell it between 8 and 11 p.m.

It’s more than luck that Thomas had the advantage of appearing in prime time. And when his Friday evening grandstanding­ — claiming he hadn’t bothered to watch Hill’s testimony, exploiting race to divert atten­tion from sexual harassment — got the equivalent of a “gee-whiz” from the Dems, the Repubs knew their script had been, as they say in L.A., green-lighted. (It was Sen­ator Byrd in the prevote Senate debates, rather than anyone on the committee, who finally argued that Thomas’s refusal to watch Hill’s testimony betrayed a certain lack of ”judicial temperament.” Not to mention megalomania, considering Thom­as also moaned that he had been “wracking his brains” to think of what he could have said to her. I guess if it wasn’t in his head, it didn’t count.)

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Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-­wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her sup­port for Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.

“Character is plot.” Perhaps the Dems had never heard this fundamental rule of screen writing. If they had, they would have realized that their script had more potential than the Republicans’. Thomas had a clear-­cut motive for lying: He was an ambitious man who wanted to get on the Supreme Court. But no one on the committee had the guts to say that flat out.

The Republicans were also aware that, on TV, it matters not what you say but how many times you say it — the law of sound­bites and commercials. The mystery of why she followed him from the Department of Education to EEOC was solved by Hill sim­ply saying she thought the harassing behav­ior had stopped after the initial episode. No matter. “Why did she follow him?” was repeated again and again. (I gave up count­ing after 47.) Hatch did his Is-it-believable-­that-anyone-asking-a-woman-for-a-date­-would-talk-to-her-about-Long-Dong-Silver? routine almost as often. No one challenged it as a misleading question. He wouldn’t have talked dirty to her in order to get a date. He would have talked dirty to her after she refused him, as a way of proving that, even if she wouldn’t go to bed with him, he still had the power to fuck her over.

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Despite the adept use of TV by the Re­pubs, there was something they didn’t an­ticipate and couldn’t co-opt — a runaway script. The eruption of women’s anger that surprised the establishment, derailing gov­ernment “process” and network TV sched­uling, was fueled by what happened at the hearing and by the outcome of the vote. Hill, as the catalyst for that anger, deserves our gratitude and admiration.

Women — not all women, but significant numbers of them — are furious, not only at the way Hill was abused, but also at the failure of the men on the tribunal to grasp that the personal is political. Thomas’s al­leged invasion of Hill’s psyche — with words alone — is as political an action as the inva­sion of Iraq. The description of such an abuse of power isn’t dirt; it’s sexual politics. That’s what the men didn’t get.

The danger now is that the anger will be repressed, transformed once again into the kind of depression that’s characterized the women’s movement for over 10 years. Quicker than you can say “wham barn, thank you, ma’am,” the networks took up Thomas’s call for “healing.”

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The night following the Senate vote, Ted Koppel hosted an expanded Nightline, an open forum on “A Process Run Amok.” Among those speaking from the audience was Nina Totenberg, who broke Hill’s story on NPR. Senator Simpson, who like many committee members mixed up the identi­ties of Hill and Thomas, switching names and confusing titles with increasing fre­quency as the days wore on, here managed to call Nina, “Anita.” Thomas and Hill, by obstructing white male business as usual, had been fused into a single, irritating Oth­er. Now Anita and Nina were united in Simpson’s mind as the new “bluestock­ings” — women who use their education to destroy men.

After an hour of challenges by black women, white women, and black men to a process that excludes them, Koppel handed the mike to two Reaganauts who suggested that in the future all this trouble could be avoided if the White House consulted with a few senators before announcing his nomi­nations. Faced with such tunnel vision, women mustn’t lose sight of how much was accomplished in a short time. Not only was support for Thomas reduced but the Senate was forced to deal openly with something it never intended to get into.

The day of the vote, women crowded the steps of the Capitol chanting, “We’ll re­member in November,” a dispassionate statement of fact. For senators who voted for Thomas it probably sounded unnecessar­ily vengeful. I myself prefer something with more bite. Vagina dentata, gentlemen? ❖

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From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Thomas v. Hill: Of Human Bondage

Female Trouble

The Hill/Thomas hearings were a blast of clarity for the women’s movement — all those male Democrats cozying up to Clarence Thomas, seducing Anita Hill into testifying and then, repelled by any association with a women’s cause, abandoning her. Another sorry revelation: a major­ity of women told pollsters they doubted Hill. We need those women to elect feminists to public office, to storm Washington before Roe v. Wade is overturned. We’ve got to acknowledge what attracts them to the status quo.

Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.

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Even during the first round of hearings, he was a bull, refusing to discuss his legal positions, guilt-tripping the white Senate with depictions of the racial discrimination he’d made a career of dismissing but then evoked as the cross he had to bear. After Hill’s claims were made public, Thomas breathed fire and charged. The righteousness, the self-pity, the insistence that he was the target of a conspira­cy! This man toughed his way through by crying foul, readily strong-arming. He raised himself at the expense of women, imagining a pack of feminists sicking him, lump­ing the women’s movement with establishment racism.

And the majority of women said he was telling the truth. 

The majority of women also want the right to choose abortion. Women believe they’re supposed to control what happens inside their bodies — this much the women’s movement has achieved. But women still aren’t sure they have a right to the world. Hill said that sexual harassment happens, that it hurt her, and that Thomas derived plea­sure from humiliating her. She described ordinary sexism, the way society operates. To believe Hill requires taking sexism seriously, and a lot of women don’t.

There are homophobic gays. There are blacks who under­mine black civil rights. Thomas and Hill did that at the EEOC, discrediting affirmative action, eroding protection from bias. Nonetheless, the vast majority of gays and blacks admit they’re dealt injustice, and they resent it. But many women — let’s say, conservatively, a third of them — ­deny the existence of sexism. A large number of women are organized against the interests of women. No other disad­vantaged group contains a sizable segment militating to limit its own freedom and opportunities.

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The women’s movement proffers dignity, selfhood, and independence. It encourages women to admit the truth of their experience. Not everyone, however, wants these op­portunities, and, even if they do, other longings may be more intense. Traditional roles offer women stability, safe­ty, a feeling of being needed and approved. The rub is the price: fewer rights than men and a willingness to be seen as less entitled to those advantages. But who has not at some time paid too much for a hunger?

If you have ever pleaded for love and acceptance — had to plead because you were being denied, overlooked — then you know what it feels like to trade off your dignity for a burning desire. You tell yourself a story: It’s really not so bad, this begging. It really doesn’t cost me that much, and anyway, who cares, I must have love and acceptance or I won’t be able to endure life. At the same time, a secret voice bleats: It’s no good, acceptance on terms that squeeze you into a shape that’s false. It’s better to do without acceptance, if that’s the only way you can get it. Then you tell that voice to shut up.

That’s what Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill have done throughout their careers. Thomas knew he could play cat and mouse with Hill, because her opportunism was so like his own. She would stick with him no matter what, just as he had cleaved to archconservatives, no matter how much he had to downplay the injuries of racism. When Hill was being harassed by Thomas, she told herself that sexism wasn’t all that hurtful. She was so used to making expedi­ent gestures that, only a few months before testifying against Thomas, she claimed she was pleased he’d been nominated to the Supreme Court. Unless Thomas and Hill soft-pedaled the seriousness of racism and sexism, they would have had to make war on the people they counted on to shelter and esteem them.

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It’s not for nothing that Hill and Thomas, two emotional conservatives, are also political conservatives. Political conservatism enforces the social systems that quiet anxi­eties about change. It’s impossible to know that indepen­dence is more appetizing than security until you’ve tasted independence. People who have made radical changes in their lives — left an abusive spouse, broken a drug depen­dency, committed themselves to AIDS activism — invari­ably say that they acted when their condition became intolerable. They discovered that passivity didn’t guarantee security and that the changes that had once seemed so risky were less dangerous than staying put.

But security isn’t the only factor attracting women to the status quo. Sexism is fueled by a deep dislike of women that both women and men feel. Mothers — mostly the pri­mary parent — are all-powerful to both sexes during early life; in reaction, retaliation, women are devalued in the culture. The dislike of women isn’t just intense but eroti­cized. Women as well as men enjoy the degradation of women — sexism gives women a chance not only to be victims, but also fellow tormentors of other women, stand­ing shoulder-to-shoulder with males. People’s feelings about the degradation of men are more confused, a greater sense of transgression infusing enjoyment. The degraded position is equated with being female, females being the ones who lack social power. Thus when a male is beaten, overpowered, he’s seen as losing his man­hood, called a pussy, a cunt.

Most people were embarrassed when they thought Thomas was be­ing humiliated, because he was per­ceived as a symbol of manhood. At the same time people liked seeing Hill described as a liar, a fantasist, a fanatic. Talk about pornography! To many, the hearings were yummy s&m, including the cat fight of four women defending the boss and lashing Hill for being ambitious and willful.

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Anyone who doubts that some women relish female pain need only recall the gloating of J. C. Alvarez as she evoked a lovelorn, jealous Hill. Part of the reason so few Dem­ocratic senators came to Hill’s de­fense was that they enjoyed watch­ing her get it. Hill was a perfect target because she wasn’t entirely powerless; people could victimize her without feeling guilty. She had tried to get up in the world and had succeeded, profiting from her rela­tionship to Thomas. She deserved to be smacked down for playing the game and then complaining — being a bad sport. More irritating to her detractors: she declared that hurting women was wrong.

Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment. Still, the workplace is undeniably erotic, an atmosphere charged by shared plans and projects, by daily contact. It’s not harassment if both people say yes.

The Bush gang kept insisting that Thomas was decent and therefore couldn’t like pornography or enjoy degrading women. But no one explained why indulging in a polymor­phous fantasy life would make someone indecent. No one mentioned that people can behave decently most of the time and still, on occasion, binge on aggression. That’s what much of the country did when watching senators and witnesses go after Hill.

In order for people to believe that Thomas abused Hill and that his actions were harmful, they have to admit that sexism is wrong and be willing to give it up. But people will be reluctant to do this as long as they think they have to forfeit some part of their erotic life. The idea runs deep that feminism is the end of sex. It’s one reason feminists are accused of hating sex. Another reason is that some feminists — Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin foremost among them — are puritanical, waging campaigns against pornography and eroticism. These people work against their own long-term interests, because the more sexual attitudes are openly exposed, the better chance there is to address them.

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Taking control and surrendering it, cross-dressing as a vacation from identity — all the kinky pursuits Thomas allegedly enjoyed — are basic in the human beast. We’re creatures of drives, appetites, aggressions, desires to escape into fantasy. Ending sexism in society doesn’t mean people can’t play roles in bed, in their heads. That’s where the role playing belongs. If people felt less shame about indulging these impulses in sex, maybe they wouldn’t be as pressured to act them out everywhere else. ❖

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Thomas v. Hill: After the Storm

Don’t Mourn, Organize

By now, the Clarence Thomas affair has taken on the quality of a cat scratching for a place to bury its turds. The purring noises from the White House hid a determination to keep such matters under wraps. “I was thinking of my little grandchildren hearing some of the graphic sex allegations,” George Bush burbled late last week. How much safer to deal with such “messy situa­tions” behind closed doors. “I think some­times when you get to subjects that are sensitive, it is well to delegate to your elect­ed officials” — those same honorable men who covered up Anita Hill’s charges until a timely leak and a phalanx of women from the “lower” house forced the Senate to act.

Kicking up the kitty litter, Bush confided that he’d been “glued” to the set, but also observed that what he saw “was deeply offensive to American families.” In one breath, he acknowledged “the legitimate problem of sexual harassment,”  and in the next, disparaged “women activist feminist groups … I don’t think they speak for all women in this country.”

Here was the backlash in full force, and the Republican strategy of attack-and-deny laid bare. Its aims go well beyond the im­mediate issue, and as Thomas was sworn in, Poppy’s claws came out. Sexual secrecy was only one of his demands. While the president squatted above the fray, his min­ions called for a purge — not just of liberals, described by Thomas as “the old order,” but of feminists, especially in media.

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Among the targets were Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, who had helped break the sex-harassment story, and Mau­reen Dowd of The New York Times, whose commentary brought a feminist perspective to the world’s most powerful men’s club. That must have frightened Poppy and his peers even more than Anita Hill’s charges: Here was a network of women journalists speaking truth to entrenched male power. The right lost no time in demanding their heads.

“I perceive a total perceptual split be­tween the chattering classes … and normal humans,” wrote Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for Reagan and Bush. On the Times‘s op-ed page, Noonan raised the fa­miliar specter of Republican populism — in which hard-working, family-oriented Amer­icans are pitted against a perverse and de­tached liberal elite. Warming to the task, Noonan compared a “Maybellined” wit­ness for Judge Thomas with a friend of Hill’s “who spoke with a sincere, unma­keuped face,” Noonan was echoing a pow­erful — if subliminal — tactic in the assault on feminism: dyke-baiting.

During the hearing, Senator Alan Simp­son muttered darkly of Professor Hill’s “proclivities.” Now a rumor is circulating that the Democrats had agreed not to intro­duce evidence of Thomas’s pornomania if the Republicans would sit on evidence that Hill is a lesbian. (If such evidence actually existed, this would have been one of the few deals that worked to the Democrats’ favor, since most people — including some liberals — are prepared to believe that lesbians hate men, but not that men who love porn hate women.)

Inevitably, the Thomas hearings became fodder for the roiling p.c. debate. Anyone who doubts that this word has become a cudgel for feminist-bashers should examine the Wall Street Journal’s editorial of Octo­ber 17, attacking “the state of political cor­rectness in the nation’s newsrooms.” The Times stands indicted for “total capitula­tion” by turning “its front page over to editorials by Maureen Dowd.” Elsewhere on the same editorial page, the Journal‘s Washington bureau chief challenges Nina Totenberg’s claim that she left the now-­defunct National Observer because of sexu­al harassment. (The real reason was plagia­rism, her former editor opines.) Both the Observer and the Journal are owned by Dow Jones, which may be why the editorial railed against “the catechism … that no charge of sexual harassment can ever be overblown or even plain wrong.” But male bonding, even more than any corporate tie, underlay the editorial’s defense of Juan Williams, a Washington Post writer who had slammed Thomas’s accusers, though he stands accused of sexual harassment bv sev­eral female colleagues. Quoth the Journal: “Free Juan Williams.”

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The right is determined to drive a wedge between “normal” women and feminism, between liberals and liberation, between sexual politics and realpolitik. The issue of sexual harassment is tailor-made for this agenda, because it plays to profound anxi­ety about changing gender relations. This shift is by no means limited to erotic eti­quette, but reforming these rites of arousal fore es men and women to confront primal insecurity and rage. Thus the confusion in the eyes of Democratic senators as they faced Clarence Thomas, as if a hooded brow could hide their empathy and the double-bind it placed them in.

Though the Democrats were widely ac­cused of wimpiness, the more enraging pos­sibility is that they were actively ambiva­lent about Anita Hill’s charges, just as the Democratic party is patently wary of femi­nism. The Republicans are just as anxious but far less held back, and the image of Alan Simpson thrashing, Orrin Hatch glar­ing, and Arlen Specter threatening, were a frieze of male panic and its reaction-forma­tion, rage.

But if feminists regard the Thomas hear­ings as a failure, the right truly will have won. In reality, this was an annunciation of a new, gender-based politics, with the po­tential to challenge the traditional configu­ration of left and right, which is based on a much older model of class. Feminism doesn’t fit into American politics as cur­rently practiced: at its most fundamental, it transcends class, defies racial and regional interests, and enters into virtually every public institution, as well as the most inti­mate interactions. No one can escape sexu­al politics — yet no one knows precisely what they are.

This suggests why the old order — not Thomas’s version but male-dominated con­servativism — was able to strike back so ef­fectively. Anita Hill’s testimony threatened not just relations between dudes and babes; it shook the very basis of American politics, and demanded that the system incorporate issues of gender along with those of race and class. No wonder the European press saw the hearings as “a great American psy­chodrama” (Le Monde), “humiliating for a great democracy” (Il Giornale of Milan): no other Western society is as willing as the United States to alter the sexual order.

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A truly bi-gender system world bring American politics closer to human nature. And the Thomas hearings were a gauge of just how much feminism has changed the alignment-scheme, redefining words like progressive and conservative. It’s clear from the struggle for reproductive rights, the at­tack on political correctness, and the re­sponse to sexual harassment, that the time has come to affix a new label to anti-femi­nist liberals: call them social conservatives.

This evidence of a new politics is one reason I’m convinced the Thomas hearings are a watershed for the women’s movement. Another is the emergence of a genu­ine hero: Anita Hill. Her refusal to play the victim, and her ability to withstand trial­-by-fulmination, epitomizes the dissemina­tion of feminism. Women across the coun­try, in a variety of occupational settings, now share a common sensibility. Although that perspective is most evident in the pro­fessions (as the strong support for Thomas among working-class women suggests), if feminism is true to the experience of all women, it will eventually overcome the barriers of caste.

It remains to be seen whether social con­servatives will nip the concept of sexual harassment in the bud. Polls show that most people think erotic innuendo should not be regulated by law. But the same ma­jority agrees that there is such a thing as sexual harassment, and that it ought not to be tolerated. This contradiction has yet to be resolved in laws. Meanwhile, the Thomas hearings produced a flood of complaints from women, inaugurating a great debate on the subject and its relationship to power. All of which presents a profound opportu­nity for feminists to organize women around yet another dirty secret, and in the process foster social change.

To shift the status quo — especially when it is grounded in the libido — is a monu­mental struggle. And the secret appeal of right-wing reasoning, with its conflation of freedom and male power, decency and re­pression, “common sense” and sexual or­thodoxy, can never be underestimated. But there is solace to be found in the social struggles of the past. The labor movement is in no great shakes today, but there was a time when the very idea of organizing workers was regarded as a violation of “natural law.” The propaganda was fierce, the backlash was formidable, and there was significant resistance among workers them­selves. At the darkest moment, a labor lead­er was framed for murder and sentenced to execution. He, too, was named Hill, and his last words pass easily from Joe’s mouth to Anita’s: “Don’t mourn. Organize!” ❖

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ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Media NYC ARCHIVES

A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell

A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell: A Story of Labor, Lies, Losses, and Libel Suits 
December 31, 1991

  1. Publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell becomes an instant celebrity in the U.S. by agreeing, in early March, to take over the Dally News. The paper’s unions, weary after a 139-day strike, hail Maxwell as a friend of labor. No one listens as a British union leader warns that Maxwell’s habit is “to make the workforce pay for his greed and ambition, while presenting himself as a white knight.”

  1. In early April, The New Republic runs a negative profile of Maxwell; he sues in Britain, despite the fact that TNR has only 136 U.K. subscribers. Maxwell sets the News on the comeback trail through promotions such as “Lucky Bucks.” Playing the role of civic leader, Maxwell makes grandiose pledges to various local institutions. The formula seems to work, as the News makes rapid gains.

  1. Quietly, Maxwell sells Pergamon Press and takes 49 per cent of Mirror Group Newspapers public in a frantic attempt to raise cash. On July 16 and 17, the London Independent does a two-part series, reporting that Maxwell’s debt, at $2.14 billion, is 150 per cent of his assets. Furious at the disclosures, Maxwell sues the paper for libel — despite the fact that he is a part owner.

  1. In mid September, The Wall Street Journal reports on the dubious nature of Maxwell’s empire. He calls the reporter “a creep.” Days later, Maxwell pledges $10 million to Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University. On September 25, Maxwell sponsors a race-relations forum. The News runs five photos of its boss in one day. Pleased, Maxwell pledges $750,000 to promote racial peace.

  1. On October 20, Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option is released, claiming that Maxwell and the Daily Mirror‘s foreign editor, Nicholas Davies, worked for the Mossad. Both men deny the charge and, on the 23rd, Maxwell flies yet another libel suit. Davies was later fired. In the early morning of November 5, Maxwell mysteriously disappears off his 180-foot yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.

  1. The British press goes ballistic over the Maxwell story, suggesting that the nude body found in the sea is not his. Later, Maxwell’s widow files a libel suit against The Guardian, for suggesting that she might have been part of a plot to fake Maxwell’s death. Sons Kevin and Ian seize the reins of the troubled empire, and are met warmly by News staffers — much as their father had been.

  1. After a month of media speculation about Maxwell’s disappearance, the Daily News files for bankruptcy on December 5. Its local deli refuses to accept News credit cards and creditors demand cash up front. Britain’s Serious Fraud office turns up massive improprieties, including the looting of pension funds and artificially propping up the price of Maxwell Communications stock.

  1. Kevin Maxwell is implicated in the pension fund scandal In Britain, and his passport and personal assets are seized by the British government. Kevin is put on a $2700-per ­week allowance, Ian puts his London house up for sale. Maxwell’s own papers call their former owner “a thief and liar.” As he walks through the newsroom with Sam Donaldson, Kevin Maxwell is pelted by a reporter.

  1. In mid December, authorities begin to investigate the pensions at the Daily News. Staffers bet on a horse named Pension Fraud. Press accounts claim Max asked a young female employee to call him “Mr. Maxwell” in bed and had a thing for midget Filipino prostitutes. Bankruptcy papers indicate that he did not make his charitable contributions, stiffing even Mother Teresa.

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From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BLACK LIKE WHO? Arguing With the Homeboys

Since Spike Lee has consistently promoted himself as the down voice of black life — the homeboy who, with his other homeboys, speaks to and for black community — it should come as no surprise that black folks feel free to talk back to Spike. We speak about him in ways that suggest familiarity, closeness, the right to butt into his business. In traditional black community, elders would stop you when they thought you were out of line and set you straight. They would call you over, find a quiet space, and let you know what they thought you were doing wrong: this was not the stuff of con­troversy. In the world of racial integration where one’s shit gets “checked” publicly, in the newspapers even, with everybody watching, such critique becomes not only controversial, it plays right into racist as­sumptions that there can only be one pow­erful black (usually male) voice at any given time and that a struggle (preferably one that creates entertaining spectacle for racist onlookers) must take place to see who will retain the title of “head negro in charge.”

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The recent conflict between Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka has all the qualities of darky spectacle. When Lee boasts that “there are thirty million blacks in this country” and that “more of them are on my side than his,” he trivializes the importance of progressive cultural criticism that dares to speak on issues related to black experi­ence, reducing socially relevant conflict to a battle between two black male egos. Had Baraka and crew simply privately voiced concern about the way Spike might portray Malcolm’s life on the screen, it would not have become the stuff of controversy. It would not have raised in the public’s imagination fears of black fascist censorship, of a Rushdie-like affair with Lee as the potential victim of image or life-threatening attacks. When this conflict gets talked about as though it were merely a war between phal­locentric black males for public voice — for authority over black experience — the more serious issues having to do with the place of cultural criticism in black life, ongoing de­bates about issues of identity and authen­ticity (will the real black person please stand up?), as well as the role of artistic production in progressive black liberation struggle, are obscured and all but ignored. These are the happening issues that black folks do not talk about enough or with the level of critical seriousness and sophistica­tion that would enhance and enrich our understanding of black life and simultaneously strengthen our collective struggle. Both Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka would probably agree that collectively black folks are not FREE; that most of us have not decolonized our minds, are caught in the grips of paralyzing internalized racism; and that as a people we lack the kind of ongoing radical analysis of our economic plight that would lead us to understand fully the im­pact of capitalism on black life (contrary to what Spike and others would have us be­lieve, black capitalism and black self-deter­mination are not one and the same).

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Given that black folks make art and mar­ket it within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, none of us can ignore the reality that any black person who wants to create a product with mass crossover appeal must do some serious soul-searching. It’s all too easy to sell out, to be co-opted, seduced into a conservative artistic practice that allows one to pretend that somehow it’s all right to produce reactionary, right-wing representations of black life that neither threaten nor challenge the status quo — if one is well-paid. Black folks, and all other critical thinkers who are concerned about the fate of black people, who want to see an end to racist domination, are justifiably concerned about the impact of race and representation. In this culture, what group of people could know better than black folks the danger of the IMAGE? And it is politically astute for us to raise questions about the way black life is represented (and that includes the biography of Malcolm X). But if we want such critique to act as constructive intervention, then it cannot be shallow or rooted in superficial personal conflict.

The most frustrating aspect of this Spike/Baraka affair is that as spectacle it does not serve as a catalyst for the making of new critical locations, spaces for open, honest communication. On the positive tip, at best it reminds those among us who would commodify blackness so as to render us objects to be consumed by a ravenous racist public (many of them people of color suffering from internalized racism) that we have not all lost our minds to greed and the lust for fame, that it is still crucial that black people critically examine the nature of the images we project so as not to be guilty of perpetuating the very domination we oppose. The issues raised by the conflict between Spike and Baraka remind us that there is a need for critical vigilance, that artistic production is always, always political.

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It is important that Baraka and crew urge black people to take a critical approach to cultural production, but the field of contes­tation they project is much too narrow and leans toward censorship. The point should not be to “check” or censor Spike or public­ly threaten him, but to urge black folks to be critical viewers committed to a libera­tory politics that would check our tenden­cies to passively consume images. A dynamic space for critical exchange should exist in which meaningful black artistic production could emerge and be critiqued. Many black folks, ruthlessly obsessed with the desire to further racial uplift by pro­moting “positive images,” refuse to ac­knowledge that we need a diversity of per­spectives, and seek to suppress the voices of dissent. Spike should know this since he has shown little interest in critical voices that he does not control, that do not un­equivocally affirm his projects.

Censorship is happening on all levels of the black culture scene. It threatens to keep black artistic expression and cultural cri­tique confined to narrow, suffocating spaces, where they serve as vehicles for the recycling of old images and thought or mindless propaganda. We need to get a grip! During the controversy over Satanic Verses any voice that supported Third World readers’ critical interrogation of the ways people of color are represented in a white supremacist context was automatical­ly seen as betraying the cause of artistic freedom, threatening democratic principles. Yet many folks (myself included) felt we could unequivocally oppose violent intimi­dation even as we could simultaneously ac­knowledge the political necessity of op­pressed and/or marginalized groups asserting in resistance that all forms of ar­tistic expression seeking to perpetuate and maintain imperialism, colonialism, racism, and sexism must be contested. Contestation and censorship are not the same.

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The work of Spike Lee and of all of us who create black art should be critically interrogated. There should be a space to discuss work — in progress as well as com­pleted. As the field of contestation widens for black artists and audiences, as we insist on a critical openness that expands our visions, that invites ongoing transformation of consciousness, we will not need to worry about who produces what kind of image, for the structures will be in place to chal­lenge, critically interrogate, and, if neces­sary, subvert. ■

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From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

BLACK LIKE WHO? Beyond Assimilation

These days, if you read The New York Times, you may have already formed the correct impression that Afrocentricity is largely a question of history and pedagogy. What contributions, if any, have African cultures and civilizations made to the West? (See Manin Bernal’s Black Athena and Cheikh Anta Diop’s Civilization or Barbarism.) What contributions, if any, have Afro-Americans made to U.S. culture? (See any book by Henry Louis Gates Jr.) How will such contributions be recognized and acknowledged by curricular reform? How will such matters be predigested and served up as a list of tasty facts for public school instruction and SAT exams? Nathan Glazer, a member of the Sobol Committee to review the social studies syl­labi in New York’s elementary and high schools, tells us in The New Republic that driving such reforms are the performance problems black children are experiencing in school. Afrocentric and multicultural edu­cational reforms are designed to redress the high dropout rate and the low SAT scores and reading levels of black children.

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On the other hand, Glazer says, Afrocen­trism and multiculturalism, by emphasizing “difference” and minority perspectives on national history, don’t acknowledge that the immigrant experience has largely been one of assimilation. Most Americans couldn’t care less where their ancestors came from. Moreover, he says, there is little evidence that recent Asian and Mexican immigrants want to do things any different­ly. That Afro-Americans and some Latinos want to emphasize “difference” reflects the fact that their attempts to assimilate have been frustrated.

I am not so sure about this word assimi­lation. I suspect that the tendency for eth­nic and postethnic populations around the U.S. to formulate endlessly minute hybrids and variations on The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit should be called something else that better reflects the fluidity and an­archy of the process. (Just think of the difference between folks in Buffalo, New York, and Amarillo, Texas, or Chimayo and Miami.) But I am sure of this: the resistance blacks and nonwhite Latinos have experienced to their upward mobility is called racism and thus far Afrocentrism and multiculturalism seem an inadequate response to it.

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I am opposed to viewing “facts” as the major building blocks of education. Seven­ty-five per cent of the time what goes on in school, when it is going well, is socializa­tion. The integrated Lutheran elementary school I attended had more marks for man­ners and courtesy than it had for math or science. And with good reason. I was learn­ing how to fit in. School was reinforcing the message I got from my family: bathe, wear clean clothes, speak when you’re spoken to. and everything will be okay. This all-impor­tant process continues right through col­lege. Consider, for example, those loath­some fraternities and sororities on every campus.

But the rest of the time, what makes pedagogy worthwhile is now the experience of education is structured, how the student learns to interrogate “fact,” to challenge facticity. What we saw recently in the streets of Moscow and two years ago in Tiananmen Square — a population standing together to resist official “lies” and to fight for “democracy” and “freedom” — this, too, is taught in school. So the very notion of an Afrocentric educational formula in which a list of appropriate “facts” would be disseminated strikes me as almost completely beside the point.

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The problem that Afrocentrists and mul­ticulturalists are facing is a breakdown in the socialization process, what Glazer calls “assimilation.” My older Jewish colleagues at City College are fond of describing how they were successfully “assimilated” or so­cialized by arrogant, perhaps even anti-Se­mitic WASP teachers at Columbia Univer­sity and elsewhere who knew nothing of their heritage or their struggles in Russia or Poland. But what they forget, again and again, is that they were white, or at least — ­as James Baldwin might say — about to be­come “white.” Being white meant they didn’t have to combat racism as they swal­lowed the Eurocentric brew at the tea party of American education.

By “racism” I mean the idea that other races, especially black descendants of Afri­ca, are inferior to the “white” race. The idea of black inferiority has a particular history in U.S. and European development, and often an interesting relationship to oth­er kinds of bias, such as misogyny and anti­-Semitism. This history, unfortunately, is rarely taught by either Afrocentrists or Eurocentrists and this has always been and continues to be my problem with both programs.

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Since the category of “race,” itself, is both racist and mythological, and a symp­tom of what Frederic Jameson calls “the political unconscious” in that “we,” as a culture and a civilization, find it almost impossible to describe it ethically or em­pirically, the mistake that both Eurocen­trists and Afrocentrists make is to almost completely discount it. In fact, I think “race” is an embarrassment to everybody. But by ignoring it, we all, unconsciously, conspire to make it tick.

My “white” colleagues had the option to be good little boys and girls, politely imbibe Eurocentrism and unite with their WASP teachers under the banner of whiteness. People who are not only not white but are black are rarely faced with that option. This doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of excep­tions, like Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. What it means is that there are only exceptions, or “tokens.” (In agony, I include myself in this group.) And the bulk of people of color, by which I mean those who are too black to become “white,” will remain the unsocialized, unassimilated horde who don’t do well in school because before you can do well in school you have to be accepted, and who don’t do well in American society because before you can do well in American society, you have to be accepted. (See the Crown Heights riots.)

Of course, money helps. But there isn’t much of that around, is there? As for the conspiracy theories and “fact” formulas of the Leonard Jeffrieses, need I tell you what grade he gets in courtesy?

Next: “Arguing with the Homeboys” by bell hooks