Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's in a Name?

One of those ****Spoiler alert**** entries.

I'm currently reading Barack Obama's first book, Dreams From My Father (I must say, it's way, way better than The Audacity of Hope which was halfway decent) and a passage struck me.

Much of the book is about Obama's struggles at defining himself, and indeed African American males defining themselves against the duality of being Black in America. Of course Obama had a slightly different experience considering his literally Black African-White American heritage. This particular section comes during his first visit to Kenya, while waiting in the airport to see his family after his father has passed away. Permit me to reproduce the passage in its entirety:

I Completed the form and Miss Omoro gave it the once-over before looking back at me. "You wouldn't be related to Dr. Obama by any chance?" she asked. "Well, yes- he was my father." Miss Omoro smiled sympathetically. "I'm very sorry about his passing. Your father was a close friend of my family's. He would often come to our house when I was a child." We began to talk about my visit... I found myself trying to prolong the conversation, encouraged less by Miss Omoro's beauty- she had mentioned a fiance- than by the fact that she'd recognized my name. That had never happened before, I realized; not in Hawaii, not in Indonesia, not in L.A. or New York or Chicago. For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people's memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, "Oh, you are so and so's son." No one in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand.
While this passage concerns The Wire very little, it made me think about the struggles of each character, defining themselves against their names and legacies. Let's look at a few of the characters/families as examples.

Of course there is Avon Barksdale. The Barksdale name signified power and prestige that came with the family's business. What else could Avon do but run one of Baltimore's largest drug organizations. Avon defined himself by carrying on what his name signified for his community.

Then there is Namond Brice, the son of Wee-Bey Brice, a Barksdale hit man. Namond tried to define himself with the name Wee-Bey had created on the streets. He worked for Barksdale's organization, then tried to run his own crew, but his heart was never with the corner. No matter how much he tried, and how much his mother yelled at him, Namond was not one a corner boys. He had to define himself despite his father's name in order to achieve success after being adopted by a former police commander.

Then there is the man without a name, Marlo Stanfield. Marlo runs a drug organization that rises meteorically due to its cold calculating approach.  Marlo even eclipses Barksdale by the end of season 3. Where Avon is interested in continuing the family business and Stringer is interested in profit and business, Marlo wants power and reputation. By gaining these, he will make his name in the community.

Nothing makes this priority more clear than when Omar attack's Stanfield's reputation on the street.  When word of this gets back to Marlo, we see his most passionate outburst of anger in the show.


At the end of season five, the police have enough evidence to convict his organization but some of it is illegally collected. As a result, Stanfield walks free and gets introduced to the very businessmen that Stringer wanted so much to be himself. Yet, this sort of reputation is not what drives Marlo who slips away from a cocktail party to attack two men on a corner. Though his adversaries are armed with a gun and a knife, Stanfield takes the corner. Stanfield is cut severely but he's happy that "his name" and reputation have lived on to echo in the streets.

Other characters and situations reflect this name/legacy/identity theme. "Cheese" Wagstaff (played by Method Man), Prop Joe's right hand man, is the absent father of Randy Wagstaff from Season Four. Both are very interested in business, but the family connection is mostly missing. Name and family dominates season two as well. Ziggy Sebotka never fills the role his father Frank wanted for him as head of the stevedores union. The Greek's are most concerned with keeping their name quiet.

Many of these situations demonstrate the human dilemma inherent in finding identity that go beyond Barack Obama's specific difficulty with race and culture. Marlo's singular drive to make a reputation based on power is not confined to west Baltimore. Avon's attempt to perpetuate the family business mirror Frank Sebotka's. Yet Obama points out the particular difficulty of finding identity for young African American males. A teacher he meets in Chicago says:
At least the girls have older women to talk to, the example of motherhood. But the boys have nothing. Half of them don't even know their fathers. There's nobody to guide them through the process of becoming a man... to explain to them the meaning of manhood. And that's a recipe for disaster.
Though Barack's actual difficulties didn't provide inspiration to Simon, these issues live in places that many of HBO's viewers don't. Simon shows how he has a finger on the pulse of American urban life by bringing this theme to the fore.

At the very least, this could be one more reason why Barack Obama's favorite TV show is The Wire.

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