"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Italian Street Creds

Ta-Nehesi Coates has written (New York Times 5.5.13) about the Code of the Streets that he learned in inner-city Baltimore – never being dissed, watching your back, and never being “found a punk”.  Respect and reputation was everything on the mean streets, “values that have been denigrated if you haven’t been punched in the face”.  Violence was everywhere, says Coates, and the Code of the Streets with its own defensive aggression and macho posturing, was the only way to survive. 

If ghetto Baltimore is anything like that of DC, it must have been very difficult growing up in neighborhoods where someone was always after your bling, your drugs, your designer jacket, or your woman.  It must have taken a lot of energy to stay whole in such neighborhoods, let alone get out as Coates did.  Not only do you have to fight guerilla warfare, decipher threat levels, calculate the need for men and materiel, and go through a training more rigorous than the Marine Corps to get the punk out of you, but you have to try to finish high school.

This all sounds pretty bad, and Coates is rightly very proud of his achievement.  He writes of a recent get-together with equally successful friends. “Collectively we were a doctor, a filmmaker, an executive vice president at a health care company and a writer”, he proudly writes, informing the reader in no uncertain terms that the ghetto can’t hold everyone and that cream rises to the top no matter how curdling the experience.  Yet, says Coates, it is hard to get rid of the Code of the Streets.  Even in their uptown clothes, he and his friends almost beat up an obnoxious drunk.  They didn’t, and Coates admits that having done so would have been suicide, throwing away all that good, hard bourgeois work to make it. Coates was pleased with himself that they let it pass.  It was good to know that the old macho juices were still flowing, Coates implies, but even more satisfying to know that the new white, middle class norms which he had so striven for were taking hold.

At the same time, one can’t help thinking that Coates does not want to turn his back on the Code of the Streets at all.  He nurtures the crouching panther inside him.  He cites the case of another successful black writer who was constantly interrupted by an unruly crowd during a book signing.  Despite polite requests, the rude offenders kept it up. “Don’t let the suit fool you”, said the author.  The panther had sprung, ripped its claws into its prey, and devoured it.  Coates is proud of his fellow author who really never gave up his street menace, just disguised it under Armani.

This is the problem. Coates simply can’t let go of the Code of the Streets.  Not only that, as this article screams, he is proud of it.  It is not only OK to keep your street creds, but important to do so as a black man in what he perceives is a persistently oppressive white society.  If they dusted up the drunk, he and his black friends would have been treated far more harshly, unfairly, and arbitrarily by the police than white men. Perhaps harboring this resentment and feeding the crouching panther is a good thing psychologically, but by doing so Coates has admitted that he is not far from the dark streets of Baltimore.

Everyone has seen The Sopranos, The Godfather, and Goodfellas; and these stories are not made up.  The Italian streets of New York, New Jersey, and Boston were far worse. There was indeed a code of the streets, and many of my relatives had to fight for every inch of territory, settle every squabble with a knife in the ribs, keep up the old Mafioso traditions of honor and omertà, and try to end up alive. 

Not all my relatives, however. Some families living in the old Italian ghettoes of big cities behaved like Jews – education, study, determination, and confidence were the guidelines for even the most illiterate immigrant family who saw what it took to realize the American dream.  Within a generation the ghetto was gone, the Sopranos a melodramatic soap opera of times gone by, and most Italian-Americans were on their way to full integration into society and feeling very comfortable in their suits. Neither my father, a doctor, nor his doctor and lawyer friends ever sat around thinking how good it would feel to whack Vinny Squillacote, the surgeon cutting into their business, or to boost some hydro-cortisone from the freighter down at the docks. 

By saying “Don’t let the suit fool you”, Coates’ author friend told his white audience “I am still black, ghetto, and dangerous”; and of course when the white people walked out of the bookstore, they shook they’re heads and whispered conspiratorially to each other, “See, they’ll never change”.  My father’s Italians always had their eyes forward, not behind.  

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