Thursday, April 10, 2008

Baltimore is a Country

This week I've had a canuck sleeping on my couch (the link goes to couch, which I highly recommend). We got to talking about the condition of African Americans in cities and I referred her to Sudhir Venkatesh's Gangleader for a Day. This blog has also featured some of Sudhir's other discussions with "real thugs" on The Wire. Needless to say, she inhaled the book. So I made her watch an episode of the show as well. This brings up another point. If you only have one episode to bring out the show, which do you choose? A highly stylized, but brilliant episode liek Season 3 episode 9? Or do you want to get the themes of the show across ala the pilot? Maybe the utter heartbreak of the show via a later episode in season 4?

Well, none of those ideas went through my mind and I randomly chose a season 3 disc. Episode six, Moral Midgetry. Which is an incredible episode in its own right. Avon and Stringer's internal conflict with who they are and who they want to be becomes external and physical. Something Avon said to String really resonated this time around. And I'm paraphrasing here: "you aren't hard enough to live in this country and maybe... maybe you aren't smart enough to live in theirs."

This resonated primarily because I just read Nikhil Pal Singh's Black is a Country. Singh argues that the "Long Civil Rights Movement" failed in part because white America did not come to terms with black America's double consciousness, that America's identity, that civilization is universal , was never extended to African Americans.

Stringer's struggle to "rise" underlies much of the first three seasons. From the use of Roberts Rules of Order to the ultimate symbol of Black mobility, a college education, Stringer "wants to run" (the opening episode quote was "Walk, Crawl, Run-Clay Davis") and wants to be a part of the mainstream America that makes millions cleanly. When Avon comes home, his new apartment ("in his name") becomes the Pivot around which String and Avon's worlds turn.

To give another example, the conversation String and Avon have in the Apartment before Stringer is killed, echoes these same themes. Stringer and Avon look out on the city and think back to their childhood together. Avon remembers them shoplifting from a mall, his own version of sticking it to the man. Stringer looks out on the city and wishes he had purchased property in the recently gentrified neighborhood. Avon responds- "you always were into that black power shit." So we come to understand that Avon wants to rise within the black community. Keep the Barksdale name and reputation strong. Stringer wants the money and power of mainstream America. He wants to be "above the bullshit" of the streets. To rise out of the projects. He is willing to do anything to get there, even to order the killing of D'Angelo and openly disobey Avon. As we come to understand, Stringer gets shot because he went back on his word to Brother Mouzone and didn't obey the "Sunday Morning Peace" with Omar (among other transgressions). But at its core his ideology renounced the Streets. Avon must give him up to keep his reputation "with New York."

So Stringer's "fatal flaw" is his desire to rise or greed if we analyze this in the Greek Tragedy sense. Yet if we look at Season Three from another view, he dies because he is "squeezed between two sides." His failure to succeed in legit America and his failure to keep his street reputation. To put it another way, the political and drug institutions crush him.

The Avon/String dichotomy in Season 3 vividly illuminates their disparate values. Part of the shows purpose, imo, is to provide a window into this world which is ignored by the mainstream America (clearly this is not a specifically white/black issue, though it basically is). When Stringer starts to become most visible to white America is when he becomes obscure to Baltimore. Though these values are not from different planets, maybe they are different countries. The Country of Baltimore?

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