I don’t remember who but I heard someone say how beneficial it was to read authors of one’s age, writers who grew up when you grew up. Those writers saw some of the things you saw, began framing the world during the same time you did, and knew the language, phrases, monuments, and events you did. I think of Jesmyn Ward’s work, especially Men We Reaped, and how it is the first book that says for me in her words what it meant to be born premature at six months (among too many other good reflections) and to be so mindful of those early days. I came across another book I’m ashamed I didn’t learn of until 3 years after its publication that brought that statement to mind, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation.
Natalie Y. Moore and Lance Williams co-wrote this social history of Black Chicago. Indeed it is as much as social history of Black Chicago as the city itself. One never talks about a part of our city without, at the same time, talking about the whole. In this book, Moore and Williams tell the story of Jeff Fort. They use Fort’s life as a teen who emerges into a leader of one of the country’s strongest, most prominent gangs to discuss everything from identity, neighborhood development, politics, racism, poverty, and the relationship between religion and communities.
First Presbyterian Church, Early Meeting Place for Blackstone Rangers
They trace Fort’s relationships and show how the charismatic but unlikely young man becomes a powerful, influential gang leader. I learned about Jeff Fort’s life, how he started one of the most famous gangs in my adolescence, and connected the dots between his influence and the lives of gangsters back then and today. Moore and Williams explain the various ways gangs have been talked about, employing pieces from the FBI, from pastors, and from law enforcement. The authors also point to the roles prosecutors and journalists played in building a particular perspective (almost mythology) around Fort, Eugene Hairston (his co-leader of the BPSN), and similar people in the gang.
If you don’t like reminders of violence–or being able to sit in such reminders–this isn’t the book for you. You won’t read a sugarcoated history of how good these gangsters were for the neighborhood. But you will be surprised if you think gangs were/are all bad.
You’ll see up close how mixed and complex this gang was in relationship to Chicago; in relation to the black community which it saw itself as part of; in relation to other gangs which were their original enemy; and in relation to the dubious mayor (the one spoken of very poorly in my experience on the south side), old man Richard J. Daley.
If you’re interested in exploring the world of Black Chicago, what it meant for Black people to live in the city, for instance, between the Great Migration and the Civil Rights era, and the history of gangs in the country and in Chicago particularly, this is a great, accessible, easy-to-read primer. But the book does more.
It acquaints you with some of the fundamental psychological reasons youth leaned toward gangs in the 80s and 90s, offering reminders of how youth are still youth with the same needs. The writers also give a glimpse of how different gangs are these days and how much distance they see between the earlier gangs which developed in similar social conditions even if in a different political, national, and domestic environment.
There are some things which haven’t changed since Jeff Fort and Eugene Hairston met as teens in the Woodlawn neighborhood. The federal government’s initiatives (i.e., wars) on poverty and drugs have hardly changed, though they have collected more cousins to join their ranks (Think of the current sentencing guidelines for drug possession of Blacks vs. Whites vis-a-vis the housing covenants of the 60s). There are now wars on more things and in more places. But the book opens up that earlier world when the wars started, if you will.
I am not satisfied with the book’s ending. In some ways the book ends abruptly. I think I wanted the authors to say more, to forecast more. I remember thinking the same thing about Michelle Alexander’s troubling and moving and remarkable, The New Jim Crow. For both books, in my still-naive hopefulness, I wanted the authors to paint a different picture, to suggest an alternative world (even historically), but of course, the writers were simply too good at telling their stories. They were so good and precise, so truthful, that they left me aching for change.
I wasn’t in a gang. So, in that way, The Almighty Black P Stone Nation doesn’t speak for me. But what the book does is narrate portions of a journey I did negotiate. It straddles the world of politics and religion and death and growing up, all of which were my life as a teen going from 103rd to 83rd, passing Julian on my way to Simeon to go to school, my Wednesdays and Saturdays going back and forth to rehearse and sing with the Soul Children.
It’s a book that helps me understand what it’s in my bones and what isn’t as I continue to find a home in Chicago. It gives a glimpse of why Chicago is my city, my home, the place where (many of) my family resides. I was not only born here. I shared some of the experiences Moore and Williams recall with such clear, simple truth.
I hope they turn they gaze to some of our city’s other notables. I can recommend a few subjects, but I think they already know who next can be subject to their collective intellect, care, wisdom, and words.