A Public Service Announcement From “American Gangster”




Rodney used to wear the dirtiest yellow “puffy” coat I had ever seen.  His teeth were about the same complexion as the coat but he still smiled a lot.  And his pale skin was always kind of ruddy looking like it needed as good a scrubbing as his coat and teeth.

Rodney was about a year or two older than me and was one of the “street” kids–the ones that hang out all night on that street that the old folks wag their heads about and the newscasters sound exasperated about when they report any rape, murder, or car accident that happened there.  Like, “here we go again.”

Rodney sold crack and his mom was addicted to it.  I wonder how that went down in the household…

When he started dating my big sister’s middle class hoochie-wannabe friend, her family decided to accept the raggedy dreadlocked boy.  She claimed to love him.  They knew he didn’t have much of a home and moved him into theirs.  As my sister tells the story, he was most impressed that he would have a bed.   “Man,” she says he grinned, “I ain’t never had my own bed before.”

The last time I saw Rodney, years after he had moved further into the streets and away from my sister’s friend, he had tattooed “love” and “hate” across his left and right knuckles respectively.  He wore a fresh white tee shirt trying to be a little loose against a still lanky frame.  And his smile. His lips were stained by smoke lending a menacing air to it, but his eyes still had a little of their gleam.

He was fresh out of jail.  Drug charges.  And on his way back.  If the authorities could find him.  He was on the run.

Since I’ve been watching that B.E.T. series “American Gangster” I find myself thinking of Rodney.  (If I admit I’m shamefaced about the endeavor will you forgive me)?  I met him through my sister Debbie when they were in Upward Bound, a college preparatory program for underserved kids.  There were more Rodneys there.  Some I even kissed.

We were kids who only seemed concerned about the point at which our lives intersected.  In Math II with Mr. Amir, on the field trip to see Cats in New York City, during “dorm talk” and evening recreation time at the pool or bowling alley.  And when we went home on the weekends: on the phone line or if my big sister felt like sneaking and driving us to it: the street of ill repute my parents had warned us to stay away from.

These were our friends.

And when I watch “American Gangster,” lest I seem holier than thou, I admit that our friends were none too savory in many cases just like the characters chronicled on the series.

I was an Upward Bound alum, counselor, and a junior in college when I saw Rodney again walking through the campus library–looking for some young girls to ravage no doubt–and asking about my twin on whom I’ll always believe he had a bit of a crush.  And he had a gun.  I knew it.  He told me.  I knew he was on the run.  He told me.  I knew  he’d had a dingy yellow coat and teeth; a crack addict for a mother, and no bed to sleep on at night, too.

The p.s.a. at the end of the American Ganster tagline: “real consequences” doesn’t jive with the “real consequences” I’ve seen in real life and the ones they show on t.v.  Rodney is a real consequence of what crack does to a community.  He was a 16 year old boy when I met him.  Not an angry drug dealer toting a gun but a kid trying to make dinner because his mama was spending what she earned prostituting on what these “real gangsters” were selling.

These real gangsters boast of the money they made, sending their own children to live in suburbs far from the havoc they were causing among the working day folks who had to hope Rodney and ‘nem’s “customers” weren’t gonna steal their Air Jordans, hit ’em over the head (or worse) and rob them for the money to line these real gangsters’ pockets.  Working folks like my momma and daddy who worked legally for 30 and 40 years and still can’t afford to drive the cars they glide around the television screen in, showing us where they traded their poisons.

And then they say, “No kids, don’t do what I did.  You have plenty more opportunities than I had…”  What about the kids whose opportunities they stole?  Like all those Rodneys I knew.  And I came from small town Americana so I can only imagine the number of Rodneys in the big city.   Oh they offer apologies.  But the real consequences  the tagline boasts are nowhere to be found.  Unless you stare into the big ass pinky rings long enough to be caught up in the matrix that believes that the couple of years these real gangsters spent in jail are enough to compensate for the mass maimings, mayhem, and murders for which they are responsible.

Wherever Rodney is he probably feels like Jay-Z who seems to be enjoying reliving his hustling days by recording the unofficial soundtrack to the new film focusing on one of the gangsters, Frank Lucas.  But let’s face it, those days are only really pretty in technicolor, sub-woofing big screened glorifications.

Close up, that lifestyle is as dingy as Rodney’s teeth and coat, cold as the floor he called a bed.

Ask the momma who testified against Frank Lucas describing the night she found her son o.d.’ed in her bathroom from a hit of his “blue magic.”

And the lifestyle’s as much of a shuck and jive show as any.

It is not a coincidence that it was at the expense of the most vulnerable people that these gangsters were (poor, minority, and undereducated) that they made their profit.  And frankly, I don’t believe it is a coincidence that flo’-showing makes this “career” seem a more feasible possibility to the Rodneys out there than, say, catching the same rides we gave him and others to the local mall to hang out and to Marsteller’s Dairy for snacks to the McDonald’s in that mall or stock room of Marsteller’s to work.

Despite American Gangster’s p.s.a., the truth is that real consequences are not a few years in jail and probation for becoming an informant.  Real consequences are the new generation of Rodneys who will continue to miss the real consequences touted in the technicolor, sub-woofing flashiness of “American Gangster.”  That they will believe, instead, the “gangster” lifestyle is a feasible possibility more rewarding than any legal one.  It’s paying off for Frank Lucas, after all.

2 thoughts on “A Public Service Announcement From “American Gangster”

  1. COMMENTARY: Drug Dealer Frank Lucas, Denzel and Dad

    My Father as a kid delivered groceries to the first drug kingpin “Bumpy” Johnson, who at the time, lived in the corner building on 120th street and 5th Avenue, across the street from Mount Morris Park. He use to tell me these colorful stories with admiration, about this man. Bumpy was an employee and conduit for the mafia, helping to orchestrate the distribution of heroin into Harlem and surrounding communities in the 1940’s, an epidemic that would later spread and engulf the entire country for generations to come.

    The street gangs of the 40’s would become some of the first addicts, their members would ultimately form the first ruthless drug-gangs of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Families were destroyed individual lives ruined, violence and crime across the board increased at staggering rates. In spite the gains from the Civil Rights Movement, as a community we never fully recovered from the initial impact of the flooding of drugs into our communities.

    Frank Lucas, portrayed by academy Award winner Denzel Washington in “American Gangster”, was the driver for Bumpy Johnson until his death by heart attack in 1968. By the time Mr. Lucas took power- the Harlem community had been decimated by this epidemic and the second generation of addicts already overwhelmed the streets. Like the Hip Hop culture violent movies have a tremendous impact on our children. Our young-people are continually bombarded with negative messages that unfortunately help shape and mold their character, Al Pacino’s as Scareface is still a popular image on T-Shirts.

    The moral of the story is not that the bad guy gets it in the end. Too many hopeless kids who are engaged in criminal activity, view the demise of these individuals in a fatalistic and morbidly glamorous way. Enlighten by our past history and current events we have to be careful not to glorify criminals. Mr. Lucas has the right to have his story told but as parents, mentors, big brothers and sisters, we must always monitor the messages and more important the response to the message portrayed in media.

    Dad’s discussions about Bumpy, were a small part of the rich history of the community that he shared with me. He gave me, as I did my son, Claude Brown’s definitive book on life in Harlem, “Manchild in the Promise Land”, when I was a teenager. He also talked about Malcolm X and Dr. King, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Together we watched, Gil Noble’s informative program “Like It Is”. My love of history and current events came from my dads talks about the Bumpy Johnson’s as well as the Dr. King’s of this world. He taught me to discern the messages that would bombarded me in my life-time. He knew then that no matter what, there would always be plenty of people like Bumpy Johnson and Frank Lucas around to share theirs.



  2. Thank you, Jesus!!! You summed this up exquisitely!!!! I accidently saw an episode of this trash tonight and thought to myself, WTF???
    You are a wonderful writer and you gave me a little of my own soul and sanity back tonight, after watching a show on “Chazz Williams” and thinking, is this what our youth believe in?? And why is that MF out of jail anyway.


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