In a 1980 interview, James Baldwin lamented the plight of Harlem: “Nothing is taken care of in Harlem. The City has no responsibility for the ghetto…. So houses are boarded up…bulldozers move in, move the niggers out.” Baldwin subscribed to the notion that hard drugs had been introduced cynically into inner-city neighborhoods decades earlier to speed up that displacement and as a means of social control: “I can’t prove it, so time will prove it. It is between the Mafia and the government. It is an open secret; anything will do to keep the niggers asleep.”
Such a view was not uncommon in the 1960s, when heroin use devastated black ghettos. An alleged conspiracy to induce lethargy among them was just one more facet, many African-Americans believed, of a covert race war that had unleashed an indiscriminate assault on the country’s black leadership. It didn’t matter if you were affiliated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Nation of Islam; if you were Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, or Martin Luther King Jr.: there was a bull’s-eye on your back. The next generation of black leaders, whose influence on disaffected youth and gang members stretched beyond the reach of their elders, was also assumed to be targeted; in the year after King’s assassination the young Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was killed when police stormed his Chicago apartment.
African-Americans had been anything but docile in the preceding decade. In the 2011 documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975, Abiodun Oyewole (a founding member in 1968 of the group known as the Last Poets) mused on the energy, excitement, and danger that emerged at the height of what became an intergenerational civil rights movement:
A litany of things…took place in ’68, like, that was the [metaphorical] moving [of] the stone from in front of the cave in ’68. I mean, it really was a special beginning and opening, and unfortunately any time you have a thing that’s opening, death accompanies those things.
By 1969 the rock had been hauled back in front of the cave. Previously, during sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and on freedom marches, young people had been embraced by the movement, had linked arms and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their elders; now, at least in the projects, they were being targeted by drug dealers to sell and consume heroin.
In low-income black neighborhoods there was distress and despair; 1969 may have been the year Neil Armstrong took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind, but there was little cause for optimism among African-Americans that they would be beneficiaries of the country’s grand ambitions and technological advances. Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Whitey on the Moon,” released just months later, gave an alternative perspective:
A rat done bit my sister Nell
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
In James McBride’s new novel, Deacon King Kong, a calamity unfolds on the streets of the impoverished Causeway Housing Projects in Brooklyn that speaks to the disparities highlighted by Scott-Heron as well as to the neglect, despondency, and scourge of heroin in African-American communities that Baldwin later articulated. The projects used to be safe, recalls a longtime resident, but “now the old folks is getting clubbed coming home from work every night, getting robbed outta their little payday money so these junkies can buy more…poison.” The influx of hard drugs has opened up an intergenerational chasm that threatens to swallow the hard-fought gains of the civil rights movement. The novel opens with one of the residents seemingly deciding to take matters into his own hands:
Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.
There was a serious problem with the deacon’s action, as anyone from the “Cause” could have told him: if you’re going to shoot a “poison-selling, murderous meathead with all the appeal of a cyclops,” make sure that you kill him. Clemens is only wounded; the bullet rips off an ear. He stares back at Sportcoat, his suddenly childlike face registering disbelief. It’s not every day that—surrounded by your crew and on your own turf, at the park bench near the project’s flagpole where your merchandise is dispensed—you nearly get “iced” by a laughable seventy-one-year-old drunk.
McBride’s novel evolves as a rich, polyphonic symphony. His cast of characters includes a tragic yet amusing Greek chorus of African-American and Latinx residents of the projects, representative of the 3,500 people crammed into its 256 tiny apartments; alongside them there’s an inept contract killer, a wise but weary policeman months away from retirement, an Italian-American mobster who lives with his mother, and Clemens and his unreliable foot soldiers, who scheme to replace him.
Central to Deacon King Kong is a conundrum: What could have motivated the wiry old man to attack Clemens? The rumor mill begins immediately. Surely it was on account of Sportcoat’s having rheumatic fever. Maybe someone put a spell on him. What about the mysterious ants that march through the projects? Perhaps the deacon was still grieving for his wife, Hettie, who’d drowned in the harbor and whose chastising spirit he still converses with. Over the course of the novel the reader is presented with competing rationales. But there’s a complication. Although Sportcoat holds the smoking gun and there are numerous eyewitnesses to the shooting, he does not remember it. His regular imbibing of King Kong—moonshine made by Rufus, a janitor at a nearby project—has become an impediment to his memory.
Clemens had once been a neighborhood baseball legend, a youth in whom the Cause had invested its collective hope, but he has no fans now among the old-timers (church folk, retired city workers, flophouse bums, ex-convicts) who usually gather at the flagpole before his drug-slinging crew go to work. Sister Veronica Gee has been heard to say, “I’d put a baseball bat to that little wormhead if he was my son.” And Hot Sausage has promised, “I’m gonna warm his two little toasters one of these days.” But the day has never arrived, because “any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in [Clemens’s] direction ended up hurt or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.” Even so, Dominic Lafleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation, sums up everyone’s feelings when he declares, “I always knew old Sportcoat would do one great thing in life.”
But the mission is incomplete: Clemens lives and Sportcoat’s prospects look poor. The odds that he has just bought himself a ticket to the mortuary are so high that even Hot Sausage places a bet on his not surviving (why not make a bit of pocket money on a sure thing; it’s not personal, just business).
Sportcoat, ever the sport, doesn’t begrudge his friend his forward thinking; after all, he has no recollection of the shooting, and he keeps telling Hot Sausage, “I disremember it!” The old deacon is further confused by the odd discovery of a pistol in his coat pocket. He resists Hot Sausage’s irritating importuning that he’d best get out of Brooklyn for a while, if not for good, and offers the damn fool a swig of white lightning so he can clear his head.
Furthermore, Sportcoat is a survivor, known for his remarkable catalog of injuries. McBride outlines the assaults, both accidental and surgical, on his body in one of many dizzyingly inventive passages reminiscent of an improvised jazz riff or an endless Afrobeat track:
At eighteen, blood poisoning blew up his lymph nodes to the size of marbles…. At twenty, lupus had a throw and quit…. When he was twenty-nine, a mule kicked him and broke his right eye socket…. At thirty-one, a crosscut saw cut his thumb off.
Other injuries included a big toe that was accidentally cut off and a major blood vessel that was sliced with a hunting knife.
The deacon was what used to be called a “miracle of science” before medical miracles became so commonplace. Perhaps the Elephant (Tommy Elefante), the local Italian-American mobster, appraises Sportcoat most correctly when he describes him as a hardy alcoholic, one of those guys “who dies at twenty and is buried at eighty.” A few uneventful years passed before he moved from South Carolina to Brooklyn, arriving at the Cause Houses in 1949, “spitting blood, coughing gruesome black phlegm, and drinking homemade Everclear, later switching to Rufus’s beloved King Kong.”
Sportcoat undoubtedly has flaws, but for much of his life he has been dealt an unenviable hand. The novel, written with tenderness and gentle humor and the implication that even those guilty of despicable acts might yet deserve compassion, suggests that Sportcoat and especially Clemens and his cronies are a product of their environment. McBride is clearly drawing on personal experiences as he frames the moral dilemma of whether youths like Clemens can ever be saved from themselves. The youthful escapades recounted in his memoir, The Color of Water (1998), hint that he could easily have become like Clemens:
I virtually dropped out of high school after [my stepfather] died, failing every class. I spent the year going to movies on Forty-second Street in Times Square with my friends…. Me and my hanging-out boys were into the movies. Superfly, Shaft, and reefer, which we smoked in as much quantity as possible. I snatched purses. I shoplifted. I even robbed a petty drug dealer once.
When McBride’s family moved from the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn (built in 1939) to the “relative bliss of St. Albans, Queens,” not only the quality of his life but also his life chances improved. The youths in Deacon King Kong are not so lucky; they appear to have no way out. In delving into the forces shaping their limited opportunities and pathological behavior, McBride enters into a century-old debate, illuminated in 1904 by W.E.B. Du Bois in his essay “The Development of a People”: “If you degrade people the result is degradation, and you have no right to be surprised at it.”
Sociologists and historians such as Richard Rothstein have agreed. Rothstein asserts in The Color of Law (2017) that federal negligence toward African-Americans was compounded by the 1930s Public Works Administration’s residential policies, which “concentrated African Americans in low-income neighborhoods,” usually with poorer facilities than those offered to their white compatriots. In Cleveland, for example, the Lakeview Terrace Projects, in a desirable scenic location, were built exclusively for whites and “included a community center, playgrounds, and plentiful green space, and it was decorated with murals.” In the 1940s construction began on the Desire Projects in New Orleans. The development, for African-American residents, was built on drained swampland that had formerly served as a landfill, and made use of wood and brick veneer to reduce costs.
In subsequent decades, African-Americans only began to move into projects not previously designated for them when whites increasingly accepted generous government subsidies to move to the suburbs. Rothstein suggests that this policy was the continuation of an anti-Communist, pro-capitalist “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign begun during the Wilson administration that focused on white Americans. Later the Federal Housing Administration was created “to solve the inability of middle-class renters to purchase single-family homes for the first time.” But Rothstein makes clear that there were myriad other reasons contributing to white (and black middle-class) flight; another was the state and federal policy stipulating that only those with modest earnings, below a capped figure, would continue to be housed in the projects. Among those forced to leave their apartments were engineers who’d been responsible for maintaining buildings that soon slipped into disrepair. Those African-American tenants who were left behind did not have the political capital to demand that city councils provide adequate resources for their upkeep.
This is the situation of the Cause Houses and its sister project the Watch Houses in Deacon King Kong; both are in an advanced stage of decrepitude. Hot Sausage and Rufus, the janitors, are charged with managing their decline, with the hope that, though things are getting worse, they’ll do so more slowly. The difficulty of cranking up old generators that are forever breaking down, causing electrical outages and outrage, is emblematic of the projects’ fragile and febrile state. The basements (the site of the boiler rooms), though, are also a refuge for Sportcoat and the janitors from the grueling attrition of their failures, and a place where they can sample the latest distillation of King Kong without censure. All three are from the South; they had headed to New York as part of the Great Migration of black Americans from the South, escaping dirt-poor privations and sharecropping, fleeing, as a popular song from that time intimated, “boll weevil in the cotton/devil in the white man,” as well as avoiding unserved warrants. The trio’s camaraderie is reinforced by their sense of southern kith and kin and inventive verbal jousting (offering wisdom and remedies for breaking evil spells, for instance) by loquacious tongues loosened by the bottle of moonshine passed from hand to hand:
“Never turn your head to the side while a horse is passing…”
“Drop a dead mouse on a red flag.”
“Give your sweetheart an umbrella on a Thursday.”
“Blow on a mirror and walk it around a tree ten times…”
The promise of the American Dream has yet to be realized by these migrants. From the Cause Houses they can see the Statue of Liberty, which seems to mock them. Sister Gee snorts with derision at the
gigantic copper reminder that this city was a grinding factory that diced the poor man’s dreams worse than any cotton gin or sugar-cane field from the old country. And now heroin was here to make their children slaves again.
Rothstein would concur. He argues that many of the difficulties African-Americans faced in the run-down projects—limited access to social resources and integrated schools, criminalization of unemployed youth, racial profiling—were a function of the hardening of residential segregation and the imposition of a cordon sanitaire from which there was no escape. In 1967 the civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael was asked on returning to the US, via the UK, France, and Cuba, whether he feared imprisonment. Carmichael’s answer—“I was born in jail”—would have particularly resonated with black residents in the projects.
Deacon King Kong’s omniscient narrator skewers the City Council’s attitude toward a complex of buildings and residents it would prefer to forget. The Cause is a place riddled with “big, red country ants with huge backsides and tiny heads,” where “cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at age 102.” But the novel is also a paean to the endurance and vitality of people trapped in such circumstances, perhaps best typified by Soup Lopez, a gentle youth and recent convert to the Nation of Islam whose return to the projects after a spell in jail is celebrated: “What put him there, no one seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Everybody went to jail in the Cause eventually…. Soup got seven years.”
Soup’s welcome-home party is seized on by Earl, the hitman hired by Clemens’s paymaster to take revenge, as a chance to catch up with Sportcoat. But each time Earl closes in on his prey, something goes awry. Earlier, armed with a heavy pipe, he’d approached the unsuspecting Sportcoat, only to be knocked out by a baseball that a kid had thrown. Later, prowling in the blacked-out basement on the trail of the old deacon, Earl inadvertently groped a wire and was nearly electrocuted. Now, when the residents congregate at the street party and a whiskey bottle is thrown randomly into the air, we know well before Earl whose noggin it will land on.
McBride handles the slapstick with a deft touch. In less able hands the tonal shift at these moments might jar, but the change in register is subtle, and the cartoonish characterization of the hitman is offset by a continued sense of menace. Eventually Earl’s employer determines that his cover is blown and that he’ll no longer be able to rely on the element of surprise. With little expectation that it’ll be fourth time lucky, he demotes Earl and commissions a more efficient female contract killer with a better hit rate. Surely she’ll at least be able to do greater damage to Sportcoat than to herself; she does, but the indomitable Sportcoat survives.
In matters besides criminal intent, McBride allows the reader to be ahead of the characters. This is especially the case in a subplot involving a lost treasure that Tommy Elefante’s late father had stashed somewhere. Discovering the tiny ancient statue will transform his son’s life, enabling the Elephant to quit the crime business. He only realizes the answer to the mystery through a chance encounter with Sportcoat, who reveals inadvertently that the treasure was hidden in plain sight all along. There are also clues threaded throughout the book of the likelihood of a romance between Sister Gee and the elderly Irish-American sergeant Kevin “Potts” Mullen. The heart of the soon-to-be-retired policeman leaps in her presence. When she laughs, “Potts felt as if he were watching a dark, silent mountain suddenly blink to life, illuminated by a hundred lights from a small, quaint village.” The writing slows until it appears almost to come to a stop, as if out of respect for Potts’s transgressive thought when, seeing Sister Gee rub her neck, he finds himself “pondering the notion of placing his fingers there.”
Sister Gee might well have stepped from the pages of McBride’s memoir. He writes assuredly and with great affection about the Baptist Church, a world he first described in The Color of Water, where church sisters were happy to surrender to Jesus and “get the spirit,” bursting out of their seats and into the aisles, “shuddering violently, purse flying one way, hat going another, while some poor old sober-looking deacon tried grimly to hold onto them to keep them from hurting themselves, only to be shaken off like a fly.”
In Deacon King Kong, the strength of the church and the commitment of its leadership are bulwarks against the disruption of the drug dealers and their growing stranglehold on the Cause Houses. The church elders still hold aloft the banner of love of community and sacrifice for the betterment of body and soul; Five Ends Baptist Church is the embodiment of that belief. But figures such as Sister Gee are not just prophets of the hereafter but prophets of the here-today; she vows never to cede authority to Clemens and his crew, whose unbridled instincts are to plumb human frailty with the lure of heroin, fueling the escapist reveries of the project’s residents. The flagpole is an outpost, albeit a tenuous one, of the elders’ civilizing mission for the Cause Houses. “There is no place else,” says Sister Gee. “We surrender the flagpole, that’s it. We’re prisoners in our own homes then.”
The elders may lambast Clemens for his lack of shame, but the drug dealer retains some vestige of respect, if not honor. It’s not just enlightened self-interest that informs his readiness to share the space around the flagpole; Clemens’s instructions to his traffickers—only to reoccupy the benches and begin trading once the elders have completed their morning ritual of raising the flag and reciting “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, having exhausted topics for gossip, drifted away from the plaza—is also born of his unspoken admiration for the church sisters’ feistiness and the memory that Five Ends Baptist Church was once his home.
Though Sportcoat is the emotional focus of the novel, he emerges as a foil for the conflicted Clemens, his nagging conscience. It was the deacon who taught Clemens at Sunday school and who first spotted his sporting prowess; he then went on to coach him, to the point that everyone agreed he’d have been the best baseball player ever to emerge from the projects. Excellence at baseball was his bridge out, but he betrayed his promise and those who believed in him. And perhaps this explains why Sportcoat turned his gun on his former protégé: sometimes to preserve the dream you have to kill it.
But all is not lost. There is a chance for redemption, Sportcoat pleads with Clemens as he recovers from his wounds in the hospital. And if the wretched drug dealer can find salvation, then there’s hope, too, for the residents of the Cause. Clemens can be recast as a returning prodigal son, and Sportcoat as the sacrificial Repairer of the Breach.