Even in worst ' 'hoods,' bad kids aren't majority

WILEY A. HALL

June 17, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Trueheart was a guy on my block who got into a fight every time we went to a party. He'd start swinging, the rest of us would pull him off, and in the end, all of us would get thrown out.

"Come on, man, Trueheart," one of us would complain. "We're trying to have a good time. Why you got to be like this?"

Trueheart would grin. "Man, the dude stepped on my shoe."

This was Trueheart's thing, his identity, his claim to fame: He was the guy who got into a fight at every party he went to. If someone messed with him, count on Trueheart never to back down. If nobody messed with him, count on Trueheart to pick a fight.

This went on for a while: We would go to parties. Trueheart would get into fights. We'd get thrown out. We'd laugh about it afterward. Eventually we got tired of it, though.

"Hey, there's a party tonight! You going?"

"Not if Trueheart goes with us."

And so, Trueheart went from being a living legend to a nuisance to an outcast. I ran into Trueheart a couple of months ago. He had been in prison for selling drugs. He was working at a gas station.

I'm telling you all this as a sequel to Tuesday's column in which I criticized the movie "Menace II Society." I argued that the film paints an incomplete picture of life in the " 'hood," by focusing almost exclusively on the criminal element. There is no moral context in "Menace," no sense of prevailing positive values in those neighborhoods, no attempt to show what "normal" people are trying to do with their lives.

The movie itself is a menace because it strengthens the stereotypes that associate young black men with mindless, brutal crime.

But the debate continues. Fans of "Menace" contend that it accurately portrays the mind-set of a particular element in the black community, and provides insights into the rage and despair that lead young black men to want to strike back with violence.

Supporters of the movie accuse me of "being out of touch" with what is happening in the inner city. They say that I, like many "middle class blacks," am in a denial mode about the truth exposed by the movie.

Well, they may be right about my being out of touch. I don't deal drugs. I don't stick up convenience stores. But I wasn't quarreling with the authenticity of the movie's portrayal of gangsters. I took issue with the way it portrayed the " 'hood."

Black neighborhoods in Baltimore today do not seem very much different from Riggs Park, a working-class black neighborhood in Washington, where I grew up in the 1960s.

Today, such places have more drugs, more handguns and more violence than they used to. But even now, as in the 1960s, the "bad kids" -- the gangsters -- are not the majority. And, most important, the gangsters are not held in high regard by the normal adults, and by the good kids.

Trueheart refused to grow up. He was a jerk, and so the rest of us stopped hanging out with him.

Then there was Dewey.

Dewey was a skinny, pimply-faced kid who stuttered. He couldn't play basketball, he couldn't dance, he was a poor student in school. And so, kids being heartless, Dewey was the target of everyone's jokes -- until he started carrying a gun. A kid with a gun in 1969 was a fearsome thing indeed, and Dewey commanded instant fear, which he no doubt interpreted as respect. Eventually, Dewey shot someone and went to prison.

I suspect many of today's gangsters are like Trueheart and Dewey-- either pathetically immature or just plain pathetic. I suspect their descent into crime has more to do with their weaknesses than their bitterness and rage.

My quarrel with a lot of the current portraits of inner city gangsters is that such films, recordings and videos buy into the gangsters' view of themselves, as fearless and fearsome revolutionaries whose violence is a natural reaction to the injustices of society.

I find it hard to believe that things have changed so much in the " 'hood." I question the maturity of the artists who accept a gangster's perspective at face value.

Do you know what I call the real-life gangsters? I call them the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Killers. I am thinking of Dewey and Trueheart when I do so.

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