When Crack Was King: A People's History of a Misunderstood Era by Donovan X. Ramsey (2023, One World Press, 427 pp., $30 HB)
Black journalist Donovan X. Ramsey grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in the crack-dominated 1980s and 1990s, where he learned "crackhead" as an insult before he even knew what it meant. One reason he didn't know what it meant was because no one in the community talked openly about the drug crisis ripping through Columbus and other cities across the country after crack took off in the early '80s.
Later, that silence struck him as weird. "It was like growing up in a steel town where nobody talked about steel," he writes in When Crack Was King. After establishing himself as a freelance journalist whose credits include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and Ebony, Ramsey set out to chronicle the crack epidemic of his youth. Five years and hundreds of interviews later, this book is the result.
One place where Ramsey makes an invaluable contribution is in setting the stage for the arrival of crack. He writes about the victories and promise of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and how, as the country began exporting manufacturing jobs abroad in the 1970s and '80s, the Black vision of achieving the American dream turned to grief and despair. It wasn't just declining economic prospects, though; it was a determined political counterattack led by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan that, based on Nixon's 1968 Southern strategy, demonized the Black community, unleashing our decades-long experiment with mass incarceration and filling prisons with Black bodies.
Grief and despair may have weakened Black defenses against crack and made it all to easy to slip into the drug's intense embrace -- and crack addiction ruined the lives of countless people -- but it was the flipside of grief and despair that make the crack trade so attractive to so many. With the civil rights revolution of the 1960s came aspirations toward Black upward mobility, as evidenced by popular culture programming such as Fresh Prince of Belair, The Jeffersons, and the Cosby Show, and in Black neighborhoods across the country where good jobs were vanishing, involvement in the crack trade offered not only upward mobility and its outward signs -- expensive cars, gold chains, high-dollar sneakers, and the like -- but for many in the industry, the more basic goal of finding enough money to put food on the table. If grief and despair drove use, envy and foreclosed opportunity drove the corner rock-slingers and those who rose above them into the trade.
As Ramsey narrates the history of crack, When Crack Was King provides a useful corrective to the hysterical coverage the drug got amidst the epidemic. He demolishes the notions of "crack babies" and "super predators," and exposes "crack heads" as real human beings with problems, not zombie harbingers of the apocalypse. And he dissects the draconian drugs laws passed amid the moral panic around the death of basketball star Len Bias -- laws that led to tens of thousands of Black men and women disappearing behind bars for years or decades. If crack decimated inner city neighborhoods, so did the war on crack.
(As for crack destroying the inner city, comedian Chris Rock had something to say about that: "Crack is everywhere, crack everywhere… you know what they say? 'Crack is destroying the black community.' 'Crack is destroying the ghetto.' Yeah, like the ghetto was so nice before crack! They say that shit like everybody had at least a mansion, a yacht and a swimming pool… then crack came by and dried it all up!)
One of the more unique and enrichening features of When Crack Was King is Ramsey's use of the stories of four survivors of the crack era to paint a deeper portrait of the drug's impact. We meet Lennie Woodley, a girl from a broken family in South Central Los Angeles, where factory jobs had fled, leaving "gangbangers, hustlers, and pimps" to fill the vacuum. Fleeing sexual abuse by an uncle, she took to the streets as a young teen, falling into a life of prostitution salved by crack addiction. It is not a pretty story, but it brings home some ugly realities.
We also meet Elgin Swift, a white kid from poor, multi-racial Yonkers, New York, whose dad was a crack addict and who slung rocks on the side to make enough money for food, bus fare, and other household essentials. He came through the crack era wounded but sound and, having parlayed his crack-selling skills toward more socially acceptable ends, now runs a chain of automotive dealerships.
And then there's Shawn McCray from the projects in Newark, whose basketball prowess got him into college and who barely escaped a prison sentence for selling crack when a judge showed him mercy. He stayed on the edges of the life, though, until dozens of his friends in the city's notorious Zoo Crew crack-selling machine were wrapped up and marched off to prison in a massive bust. After that, McCray walked away, turning his attention to youth athletics. He is now a major figure in Newark youth athletic programs.
Crack didn't destroy Elgin Swift or Shawn McCray, but the drug and society's response to it -- repression -- deeply impacted their lives.
And then there's Kurt Schmoke. Ramsey profiles the man who became the first Black mayor of Baltimore and who in 1988, in the midst of the crack wars, became the first major politician to call for drug decriminalization. That hasn't happened yet (except in Oregon), but Ramsey holds him up not only as a profile in courage but in pragmatism. Schmoke may not have achieved decrim, but he delivered the first major blow to the drug war paradigm by speaking out. (And he managed to get city-sponsored needle exchanges going in 1994)
A heady mix of urban ethnography, social history, and political and cultural critique, When Crack Was King is a worthy addition to the literature of the drug.