There are those times–we’ve all had them–when it seems that everything I read or hear or see is connected together and suddenly introduces into my consciousness a perspective or problem or issue that I hadn’t been fully aware of. This past week was one of those times, and the subject in question is the devastating effect that the forty-plus year “war on drugs” has had on black American men.
The information synergy began last Monday, Martin Luther King Jr Day, when I heard an interview of Michelle Alexander on NPR’s Fresh Air. Alexander is a legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (a book that is now on my reading list for this coming summer, and should be on yours, too). In the interview, Alexander detailed the ways that the “war on drugs” has undermined many of the gains of the civil rights movement, through mass incarceration of African-American males, often for minor drug crimes that are not even prosecuted when the perpetrator is white and middle-class. The result, Alexander argues, is a new form of “Jim Crow,” in which black men with felony records are relegated to second-class citizenship, legally deprived (because of the felony conviction) of their right to vote or to serve on juries, and of access to housing, employment, and public benefits. I think I already knew that black men are incarcerated at rates much higher than the rest of the population; what struck me in the interview was Alexander’s analysis of the ways in which the “war on drugs” has functioned, ideologically, to mask and justify a systematic assault on the black community, in her words: “part of a grand Republican Party strategy known as the “Southern strategy” of using racially coded ‘get-tough’ appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about and threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.”
The war on drugs has also fueled an explosive growth in the prison industry–a job provider in many low income white communities–and federal money has incentived law enforcement agencies to stop, frisk, and arrest as many people as possible. The relationship between the “war on drugs,” the astonishing rise in the number of people behind bars in the US (“we are the jailingest country on the planet, beyond Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China. Nobody jails the population like we do”), and the quality of life in lower-class urban communities is the subject of the 2011 documentary THE HOUSE I LIVE IN, which is playing at the Sundance film festival this weekend. The filmmaker, Eugene Jarecki, was interviewed on NPR this weekend (yes, yes, my NPR addiction may explain the synergy, but let’s not spoil the fun), and made the same connection as Alexander: that “something” was holding black people back, and that something seems to be the means by which the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted the black community. Despite the fact that drug use has been just as frequent among white and middle class youths, the black community has been where law enforcement has plucked the “low-hanging fruit” to boost its numbers, setting off a cycle of imprisonment and poverty. Alexander notes: “Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
What Alexander & Jarecki bring us to understand intellectually & conceptually, Daniel Beaty brings home emotionally. He doesn’t need to read The New Jim Crow; he’s lived it. His one-man show THROUGH THE NIGHT, playing at City Theatre through February 5, doesn’t directly make the argument that black male experience has been impacted by the war on drugs, but it viscerally and passionately depicts its consequences. Beaty depicts a community of people struggling to “make it through the night” (both metaphorically and literally). His characters include a 10-year-old chemistry genius and his idealistic father, a three hundred pound pastor and his closeted gay CEO son, a young high school graduate who has beaten the odds and is headed to college, an ex-drug addict and former convict named “Dre” who is trying to turn his life around, and another half dozen or so members of the projects where the story is set. The narrative is loose, consisting primarily of a series of monologues, spoken word poems, and songs that both establish character history and trace their interconnected experience during one long night. The real story here, told comically and poignantly, is of both the importance of the relationship between fathers and sons and the extent to which sons inherit the damage inflicted upon (or done by) their fathers–in the case of black men, Beatty makes clear, more often than not because of social and cultural circumstances beyond their control.
Beaty’s performance is powerful and compelling; his physical and vocal transformation from character to character is precise and spellbinding. Beatty doesn’t give us Anna Deveare-Smith-like commentary on his characters; he’s not interested in irony or distance, on the contrary, his aim is to bring us close and open our hearts to his characters’ stories, many of which seem drawn from his own autobiography. As a result, in places the piece is a bit more sentimental than it needs to be. But overall, these are stories that need to be brought closer to home, especially for those of us who’ve spent the last forty-odd years unaffected by the war on drugs and its effects, and Beaty does so with stunning virtuosity.