James Baldwin died in 1987, just years before hip hop came of age, rose to pop culture prominence, and grew to define a generation. I often wonder what he would have thought of the phenomenon had Baldwin lived ten, even five years longer. We know how important he found blues and jazz, two black musics that, in their purist forms, expressed the plight of black people in America. Baldwin was one of millions of people who identified with the music, both as an eternal force and as a sign of the times. Hip hop would pick up the mantle, beginning in the late eighties, as the musical form that would express, depict, and portray blackness in America.
In trademark braggadocio, the form would probably claim to do it better than blues and jazz ever did, because hip hop, explicit in its examples, got straight to the point. It also had the power of the camera on its side, which filmed and broadcast its exploits to an entire nation (and, soon after, an entire globe), making it quite possibly the most pervasive, unrelenting, and sustaining form of music since rock ‘n’ roll.
In 1976 (coincidentally the year many scholars log as the year hip hop was born) Baldwin published The Devil Finds Work, a book-length essay examining film depictions of race relations, from Hollywood’s golden age in the thirties through the post-Civil Rights era of the sixties.
One of the earliest films Baldwin remembers seeing on the screen was the 1936 adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, a book that the young Baldwin had already read compulsively and, as a result, questioned Dickens’ depiction of revolution, which Baldwin understood as ‘the only hope of the American working class… I could understand (or, rather, accept) all this, as it were, negatively. I could not see where I fit in this formulation, and I did not see where blacks fit.” He continues: ‘The civilized have created the wretched, quite coldly and deliberately, and do not intend to change the status quo; are responsible for their slaughter and enslavement.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, reminiscent of Baldwin’s effective combination of righteous anger and persuasive eloquence, takes the form of a letter to his teenage son, breaking down the author’s multifaceted experience of growing up black in America, and what it will mean for his son to do the same.
We live in a ‘goal-oriented’ era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, takeaways, grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory. In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live—specifically, how do I live free in this black body?
Coates covers many topics, from institutional racism to racial violence, while explaining how the two are most often inextricably linked. Coates calls the term black-on-black crime or black-on-black violence (often interchangeable, though ‘violence’ has been used more often, so I will use it going forth) ‘jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the man who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.’ Here, Baldwin’s civilised oppressor enjoys a convenient invisibility, one that differs greatly from the invisibility of the oppressed, because the former possesses the ability to free oneself of blame and altogether disown responsibility.
In another book-length cultural critique titled 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About, Joshua Clover points out that the term black-on-black violence was never used before 1980, only to skyrocket in various American media outlets by 1985.
The reductive term is thick with cultural conservatism. It is not, in other words, a phrase native to the African-American community, but one imposed from without. Over the course of the decade, the language of black-on-black violence led to further reductions, collapsing alleged criminals and ‘Black youth’ as a generalized category of suspicion and hysteria… The Black youth became a living figure for the possibility of violence: ‘Bodies this way were made texts. They displayed identities collapsed into revealing exclamations, looks, strolls, and movements.’
Coates warns his son: ‘You must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.’ The worst actions of other black bodies have, in the mind of the oppressor, historically justified the continuation of institutional racism.
Black-on-black violence is a central focus of the 1991 film Boyz n the Hood, and it is interesting to examine it both in Baldwin’s context and in the context of the concept as a myth stuck in perpetuation. The film, one of the first ‘hood dramas’ to pave the way for similar films like 1992’s Juice and 1993’s Menace II Society, could be regarded as the first representative of hip hop’s film branch. In fact, all three films feature rappers in significant roles (Ice Cube in Boyz, Tupac Shakur in Juice, and MC Eiht in Menace) as well as a predominantly hip hop-oriented soundtrack. In order to show that hip hop defined the generation coming of age in the nineties, these filmmakers (all debuting directors, which is to say, young at the time and also children of hip hop, perhaps not much older than their characters) had to show that hip hop was everywhere, whether it was blasting from their radios, draped onto their shoulders in fashion, or inflected in the way they spoke.
Of course, whether it be hip hop music or hip hop in film, one of the most complicated aspects of the phenomenon lies in depiction and representation, both in how mainstream media (comprised largely of outsiders to the hood) depict and represent hip hop as well as how hip hop chooses to depict and represent themselves. Complicating the complications even more is that these filmmakers were carrying out their presentations in the arena of fiction, and Hollywood fiction at that. With this idea of black-on-black violence as a construct that had slowly been accepted by outsiders as a truth to contextualise and ultimately dismiss the actual truth of the ghetto, films like Boyz n the Hood attempted to do something similar, only in reverse. It remains hip hop’s form of living: that is, to demand attention, or to, in a word, represent.
Boyz n the Hood, which follows the lives of three black teenage boys and their different paths toward manhood in South Central Los Angeles, was a critical success, praised by a body of professionals that were predominantly white. Here again the hip hop generation managed to flip the switch. Baldwin oftentimes found the moviegoing experience uneasy, especially as a boy, looking up at a film screen and seeing a life that did not depict his own. Boyz n the Hood was for the most part lauded for its authenticity and realism by a group of people who watched fictional versions of life that did not depict theirs.
The irony is that these projections of fiction helped the young Baldwin arrive at some very significant truths: ‘Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection. I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take.”
In sharp contrast, vengeance either landed the inner city black kid in jail or dead on the streets. In Boyz, when Ricky gets murdered by hotheaded gang bangers, his brother Doughboy (played by Ice Cube) is, as they say in the movies, hellbent on revenge. Doughboy, Trey, and another close friend of Ricky’s jump in the car to seek retribution. For Doughboy there is no other action to take other than to kill his brother’s murderer; for Trey, his ambivalence between righteousness and retaliation eventually leads him to ask Doughboy to let him out of the car. The fact that Trey simply gets out, rather than attempt to talk Doughboy out of the revenge plot, speaks volumes. Doughboy appears determined but resigned, rather than blinded by anger, say, which again illustrates a course of action otherwise deemed irreversible. His resignation is akin to the stoicism one might exhibit in the electric chair; for Doughboy, some part of him seems to know that seeking vengeance will invite vengeance onto him, and that he has no other choice in the matter. Furthermore, no one will call him a hero, and he knows that too.
Baldwin again: ‘Revenge is a human dream. There is no way of conveying to the corpse the reasons you have made him one—you have the corpse, and you are, thereafter, at the mercy of a fact which missed the truth, which means that the corpse has you. On the other hand, the corpse doesn’t want his murderer, either, and one is under the iron obligation not to allow oneself to be turned into one.’
Baldwin was describing another revenge film, 1959’s I Shall Spit on Your Graves, but he could have easily been describing Doughboy’s predicament. By taking the life of the man who killed his brother, he is in turn giving up his life to that corpse. In fact, the look on Doughboy’s face as he stands over it seems to convey that very feeling, where singular words like guilt or regret fail to do justice. It is only after his vengeance is carried out that Doughboy’s self-conscious fatalism explicitly shows through. (The fact that the man Doughboy killed wasn’t actually the one who pulled the trigger is another facet of discussion, although he was behind the wheel during the drive-by.)
In the film’s final scene, Doughboy joins Trey on the porch the morning after Doughboy commits murder. He tells Trey that he hadn’t been up this early in the morning in a long time. The circumstance is significant: he is up early like the rest of the world, but he is still drinking from a 40, and he had been scouring the news for mention of his brother’s death. Ice Cube delivers the movie’s most famous line: ‘Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood,’ which could serve as the film’s thesis. If that weren’t enough, the last image of Doughboy says everything the previous line doesn’t, and it does so with silence.
Doughboy hugs Trey and walks back toward his mom’s house across the street. Trey watches him pour the rest of his 40 onto the lawn. (I read somewhere, though I cannot remember where, a brilliant dual-observation of this action: Doughboy could either be pouring it out for his dead brother, or he could be pouring it out simply because it had gone stale, or warm, or for whatever reason he no longer wanted it. It is this space between meaningful and mundane that holds the particular power of this moment.) Doughboy never makes it to his mother’s house. His image fades out and he disappears. Epilogue text cuts through the film’s reality that reads, ‘The next day Doughboy saw his brother buried,’ followed by ‘Two weeks later he was murdered.’
The fact that we don’t see Doughboy’s death further illustrates the point he made earlier. Furthermore, in the film world, we would’ve witnessed the scene, but if the movie’s aim was to represent the real-life invisibility of the hood, then it did the job. How many other deaths were we not seeing?