One of the classic films in the genre known as “Blaxploitation” is “Super Fly” staring Ron O’Neal. The film details the conflicted life of a hustler, a pimp, and drug dealer in New York. The main character wore shoulder length hair, big fur coats, and drove a customized Rolls Royce with spinners. From a critical standpoint the film was of questionable artistic value but it quickly became a cult classic because of its glorification of Black street life and the challenge to “make it” in US society when one is an outcast. One of the powerful lines from the film for me comes when the protagonist agonizes over not being able to get out of the street life. His girlfriend implores him to “go legit” and he sighs, “I can’t even get a job at the Post Office.” His declaration underscores how far some people are from the mainstream and the unlikelihood of their ever succeeding in the alleged meritocracy.
The other powerful (and perhaps more lasting) impact of “Super Fly” was the sound track and album produced by music legend Curtis Mayfield. Songs like title track, “Super Fly,” “Pusherman,” and “Freddie’s Dead” pulsated through urban neighborhoods long after the film had run its course. Today, upon hearing the decision of Maryland’s District Attorney that Baltimore native Freddie Gray was a victim of homicide at the hands of police officers all I could think was, “Freddie’s dead…that’s what I said.”
My association of recent incidents with the Curtis Mayfield song is not merely the name similarity but rather the finality of what has happened and the point at which we have to come to terms with that finality. In a passage in the Bible, Jesus declares, “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14) to help his disciples understand his earlier pronouncement that Lazarus was asleep was a metaphor for the final sleep. However, unlike Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, Freddie Gray is dead…for real!
In the past week I have been unable to write very much about the uprising (and yes I said uprising rather than riot) in Baltimore. First and foremost, Baltimore is my adopted city. I came of age there as a college student. I loved its gritty, rough exterior and its soft, down home, almost southern interior. I was young and naïve enough to go to places like “North Avenue,” “Gay & Asquith,” and use a fake I.D. to frequent the “Lucky Number Club.” Second, I have been saddened by the portrayals of Baltimore, not just during the past week but, over the past decade in television shows like “Homicide” and “The Wire.” No matter how much we might enjoy such programs they told mainly of one segment of the Black community in the city. Indeed, if I were to select a more representative Baltimore show I’d choose, “Roc”—the story of a hard-working garbage man trying to make ends meet and hold his family together. His was the Baltimore I knew.
However, at the core of my sadness about Baltimore is my memory of being in the city on April 4, 1968, the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That event touched off days of rioting in Baltimore and in close to 100 cities across the nation. We had the unrest, the obligatory city-imposed curfews, and the ongoing questioning of “why Black people are tearing up their neighborhoods.” I am sad because little has been done in the almost 50 years since King was murdered. Statistically, things have gotten worst. When I was there East Baltimore was the trouble spot; West Baltimore was for Black “strivers.” Today both East and West Baltimore have been left to wither—abandoned homes, limited businesses (except convenience stores, pawn shops, check cashing places, and fast food joints). A ridiculously high proportion of the Black men in the city are unemployed because jobs like those previously offered by Maryland Glass Factory or the Bethlehem Steel Mill down in Dundalk (or Turner’s Station where Henrietta Lacks of medical malpractice fame lived) are closed. The city’s schools are abysmal at the same moment that its Inner Harbor area has been revitalized and gentrified. Its baseball and football franchises have state of the art facilities and Fell’s Point (off the Inner Harbor) is lined with high-end condos and townhouses.
The uprisings in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder are not the result of the murder they are the result of almost 5 decades of neglect since the last uprising. They are a logical outcome of a society’s total disregard for poor people—especially poor people of color. And, they will keep happening—Ferguson, MO, Oakland, CA, Baltimore, MD, and perhaps coming soon to a city near you! But, the marches, protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and yes, lawlessness will not change one difficult and heartbreaking fact…Freddie’s dead…that’s what I said!
Stay Black & Smart!