In 1998, 16,914 people were murdered in the United States, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports Crime in the United States 1998 report. That's one person killed every 31 minutes for that year, a frightening thought, but there were 12,475,634 offenses reported that year (not including arsons), meaning those 16,914 homicides account for 0.1 percent of the crime committed in the country that year. Of those homicides, 6,619 victims were African-American; of those, 5,365 were African-American men. If homicide victims account for a tenth of a percent of all the murder victims that year, the 5,365 African-American men is a fraction of a fraction, smaller than small.
Morgan State University professor of English MK Asante knew one of those young black men killed in 1998. Roughly halfway through Buck (Spiegel & Grau), Asante's fiercely intelligent memoir, he describes a scene that's far too familiar for too many people in Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans-any city where the majority of murder victims are statistically infinitesimal in the so-called big picture yet monumentally felt in the personal. Asante and another friend drive through Philadelphia-actually, make that Killadelphia, Pistolvania-following the murder of a friend. They're smoking up and navigating the only place they know.
Smoke curls through the whip as we drive through the city, buzzing by faces. I study each one. The cops don't have a suspect, so everyone we drive past, pull up next to, or see on the street is a possible suspect. The cops are suspect for not having any suspects. They never have any suspects when we die. Tupac gets shot, dies, no suspects. Biggie gets shot, dies, no suspects. Big L gets shot, dies, no suspects. Amir gets shot, dies, no suspects. My soul weeps for Amir, for all the Amirs in this city.
Buck is and isn't the typical urban story of growing up in 1990s America as seen in Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood, Juice, New Jersey Drive, or New Jack City, because Asante is and isn't the typical urban storyteller. He's the son of Temple University's African-American studies professor and prolific author Molefi Kete Asante, who popularized Afrocentricity in the 1980s with his slim but cogently argued book Afrocentrism: The Theory of Social Change, and dancer/choreographer Kariamu Welsh. Asante's debut poetry collection, Like Water Running off My Back, won the Academy of American Poets Jean Corrie Prize in 2002; his second book of poetry, Beautiful But Ugly Too, came out when he was a 23-year-old graduate screenwriting student at UCLA School of Theater Film and Television. He later wrote and produced the 2005 documentary 500 Years Later, an exploration of the global fallout of slavery and colonialism in Africa and the people who still wrestle with it today. In other words, Asante isn't just a talented writer, he's wickedly smart on top. And with Buck he uses his life to tackle and upend the conventional "hood" narrative.
The memoir spans Asante's adolescence, from when he's 12-year-old who goes by Malo and idolizes his 16-year-old brother Uzi, through his graduation from the alternative Crefeld School in Northwest Philly. En route, his life crashes into challenges familiar to the urban storyline: His brother gets busted (again) and shipped off to live with an uncle in Arizona, where he sleeps with an underage white girl and receives a hefty prison sentence; his father leaves him and his mother, forcing them to move into an apartment complex where they open a stove to heat the place when the electricity gets turned off; he joins a local crew and starts dealing drugs; he loses a close friend. Throughout, Asante sprinkles his text with lyric quotes from hip-hop songs of the era, giving the book the kind of soundtrack-Nas, Mobb Deep, Tupac, Biggie, etc. -that wouldn't be out of place in a movie from the era.
All the while, however, Asante understands that the typical plot points listed above are just that: events burnished into tropes by the entertainment we've been fed. In his 2008 book It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation, a political economy of hip-hop as vital as Jeff Chang's hip-hop history Can't Stop Won't Stop, Asante writes that the ghetto " . . . as most experience it through mass media, doesn't exist either. It, too, is reel. Wrenched out of its sociopolitical and racial justice context, it is transformed into an urban playground. It allows people to listen to 'ghetto music,' without examining the issues that allow such a place to exist."
Buck wants to examine those issues as best it can, as witnessed through a teenager's eye and being recalled by a man just entering his third decade. At 31 years old now, Asante is barely a decade removed from his rough-and-tumble years, but he's self-aware enough to understand that he didn't have all the answers back then and that what he's learned since can only provide intellectual context to the emotions he felt. The result is a brisk, reflective, and touching journey, more wide-eyed Jack Kerouac than hardcore survivor's tale, and Buck is more interested in confronting grief and fear than it is in documenting the consumerism that drug-dealing uses to fill the hole left in the present because the young men in the game can't imagine a future.
And Asante understands that, even in his memoir, his life isn't all about him. Woven into the text are excerpts from his mother's diary from the time, the coherent thoughts of a depressed woman medicated and worn down by life to a raw nerve. The excerpts allow Asante to offer a view of himself through somebody else's eyes, but they're also a reminder that the buck-wilding that young men get up to in a city ripples out through their family even when dudes think they're doing it on the sly.
Like a few Spike Lee movies, Buck ends in a flourish of uplift that doesn't so much feel unearned as it does intentionally inspirational: the alternative high school, an English teacher who challenges him to fill up a blank page, an open-mic poetry night, and the young man with a troubled background discovering his voice through art in front of an audience. It's an inevitable coda, as Buck is the story of a writer's becoming, but it feels anticlimactic after the intense, vivid descriptions which bring his memories to cinematic life. There's Rock Steady, a neighborhood local who "sits on a crate all day with a broken radio, rocking his head back and forth to a beat no one else can hear." At a local park, he and friends watch a local skaterat named Stevie "riding, cruising, ollieing over trash cans clean, kick-flipping into ledges, grinding, spinning, catching wreck, arms dangling like empty shirtsleeves, landing sick trick after sick trick like it ain't shit." And when he's handed a .22-caliber Beretta after surviving the initiation beatdown to join a crew, "[f]ear melts in the palm of my hand." Asante the talented writer is on Technicolor display from the first page on, and he's most engaging when he's thinking through issues in his confidently vulnerable voice. The Hollywood ending may show how things went down, but how Asante chose to flip the usual script in Buck is what makes it such a potent read.
MK Asante reads at the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library Sept. 16.