Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book Review: Allen Jones and Mark Naison’s The Rat That Got Away

“A Public View of a Bronx Life”
Allen Jones and Mark Naison’s The Rat That Got Away

“…I stopped by the East Side Center to let PJ know how I was doing, and during the conversation he said to me. ‘I know you don’t tell those white folks where you are from.’”

“Of course, he was wrong about that, but his comment reinforced something I already knew instinctively: how important it is to be proud of where I come from. A lot of black people who cut ties with their past to be accepted in the white world end up belonging nowhere. Though I was no historian, I was becoming a pretty good student of history, and I concluded that without a sense of your past, you can lose yourself. Once I became conscious of this fact, I decided to claim everything I did, for better or for worse, and keep in touch with my street side, even when I was hanging with the rich and famous.

“My conversation with PJ…helped me understand who I was.”

Allen Jones
The Rat That Got Away

Allen Jones’ story is the type of inspirational, “coming of age” account that inner-city teachers, youth workers, and scholars clamor for. From growing up poor in the South Bronx’s Paterson housing projects, Jones finds economic and social success in Europe. A well-known New York City schoolboy street basketball standout, in adulthood he transitions into an accomplished German banker. And after several years as a local drug dealer, and participating in the emerging gangster culture of the late 1960’s, Allen shifts his attention back to the moral foundations that were central to his childhood: family and church. The events of Allen Jones’ life point to redemptive possibilities that can be achieved in spite of early life mistakes and obstacles. In this way, knowing who he is, can help today’s young people know who they can be.

But the totality of Jones’ years is more than a collection of life lessons which end result is an interesting memoir and a cautionary tale. The Rat That Got Away provides a narrative with a richer historical lens, and a deeper social meaning than pure “factoids” can provide. Emanating from the Bronx African American History Project's oral history research, Naison and Jones provide an account which is historically true but also intensely personal. The elements that make his memoir so powerful are the poignancy of his experiences and the complexity of his journey. What we learn about the South Bronx and its residents is powerful.

Allen Jones’ life in the projects dramatically alters the standard perception of public housing. The projects have become synonymous with the concept of urban decay, and its residents with the underclass—with both placing the blame on the people in public housing for the literal and figurative deterioration of its space into “ghettos.” The South Bronx, who according to Jill Jonnes’ South Bronx, Rising has the highest concentration of public housing in the United States of America, becomes emblematic of this plight.

The Rat That Got Away
successfully resists and complicates that stereotype. Jones’ tells readers of a time when Patterson Projects was a site where families believed they could thrive. The Patterson Community Center, local churches, public schools, and the Police Athletic League ran an assortment of programs that sent kids like Jones “home exhausted” and without “the energy to get into trouble.” A group of mentors and professionals all ran these centers and programs. Most importantly, Jones tells us how these people and institutions were of and for the community; all located either inside or in close proximity to the housing projects, and ran by local residents.

The memoir’s valuable contribution is its insight on how neighborhoods and communities change. Jones life trajectory brings readers through the complicated and tumultuous decade of the 1960’s. Chapters like “The Summer of Unrest: 1964” and “The Streets are Alive: Summer of ‘65” allude to a well-documented time of strife and turmoil the country endured, and Jones’ story tells us how the hardships of the Vietnam War and proliferation of heroin use and sale are among the most devastating hits New York City’s Black and Latino communities take. The 70’s were no different, if not more extreme, as Jones narrates the tragic toll “Bitch Queen Heroin” takes on places like Patterson; and about people being “unable to resist the forces that were tearing apart black neighborhoods in the 70’s.” Most sharp is his observation on the matter: “America was killing us, but we were also killing each other.” Allen’s stories of selling and using drugs attest to this.

But it is here where the book’s strength emanates: the social commentary and personal reflection that accompanies the timeline. Allen Jones provides a memoir which speaks to the particular world-view, political consciousness, and life outlook of a Black man who lived through one of America’s most significant periods. After traveling through several European countries as a professional basketball player, Jones sees the place race occupies in other social environments. Upon his return, he juxtaposes his U.S. life with his Europe experiences, and with brutal honesty shares his thoughts:

“The home I was returning to had treated me, along with all my black brothers and sisters, both living and dead, like slaves, outlaws, second-class citizens, and worse. I knew that part of the reason for this was the history of our country. America had been founded by brutal, self-serving men who were concerned only about gaining wealth and didn’t care how they did it. They killed the Indians for their land and enslaved Africans to help them build their empire, and…I was seeing the long-term effects of what they did…Indians were not even seen in most American cities, and the vast majority of black people, when they were working at all, were doing the lowest-paying jobs. Racism was a way of life in America.”

This is an exemplar of The Rat That Got Away’s shining light: Jones' candor.

This frankness also unveils some of Jones’ shortcomings. When forced to recount his criminal endeavors into drug selling, robbery, and mugging, the author provides detailed reports of his exploits; and we the readers learn of a drug and crime culture very different from that which pervades every aspect of media today. Yet while being so giving of the details to his criminal activity (as should be expected in any memoir building itself as “honest”), Jones does not give us a full account of his personal decision-making process. He recounts how in his childhood peer pressure and the desire to be accepted by older “down brothers” pushed him to mischief and petty crimes. But those choices, and the serious ones that follow, are often clouded and subverted by claims of a “street code:”

“While I can’t defend my actions from that point, I can try to explain what was behind them. My way of thinking had become shaped completely by the street. I knew the rules I was living by and had gotten to the point where I didn’t question them. I knew that Gotham might seem like a high place, but it can become very small when you owe someone money on the streets. And I knew the maxim: ‘You pay or you die.’”

Does the way of the street engulf and envelope a person’s cognitive processes to the point where nothing outside exist? For those who have been completely immersed, bred, and nurtured in this lifestyle, perhaps. But for those, like Allen Jones, who’s frame of reference goes beyond this, and is steeped in parents, Christianity, and a family that taught him “good table manners and basic social graces,” the code of the street explanations are not enough. Much like Malcolm does in his autobiography, or Richard Wright’s depicts through Bigger in Native Son, the decision making process for Black men and their wrong choices have a greater context.

This is where we as scholars, social workers, community organizers, conscientious citizens, and all the sort need to incorporate The Rat That Got Away into our work. The parallels between what faced Allen Jones then and what faces young, poor people of color today are too strikingly similar. How do we cultivate young athletes beyond their physical activities, while also preparing them for their academic and social responsibilities? Can community institutions that train and employ its residents help keep a generation of young people on task and pointed towards success? How can we create organizations and maintain networks that provide assistance, mentorship, and guidance even when adolescents and teenagers stray down the wrong path? And are the prospects for success so dire for Blacks in our current urban landscape that leaving the community where you are from is the only option for success? This memoir gives plenty of fodder for us to delve into these profoundly important and pressing questions.

For these issues are not just important for those looking to “fix the South Bronx.” They are crucial for the creation of a more just, equitable society. Jones’ life gives testament to the redeeming power that determination, perseverance, and repentance can play in navigating through impoverished circumstances; and to the quite vital role that family, mentors, and community institutions play in shaping the lives of young Blacks. But his remarkable individual story is the impetus for questioning why such extraordinary feats are needed for not just success, but for survival; and not for just anybody, but for our society’s most racialized, stigmatized, and marginalized. The Rat That Got Away forces us to think about how to make this American society a more just place.

For about The Rat That Got Away

For about Mark Naison's work and the Bronx African American History Project visit:

and contact: naison@fordham.edu

Michael Partis

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

From a Project Point of View

The South Bronx, and Public Housing.

The nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor has brought both places to the public’s frame of reference over the past few weeks. That reference is also drenched in a confluence of negative stigmas, connotations, and stereotypes. This has allowed the South Bronx and the projects to proliferate in marginalization and isolation. Poverty and social neglect are realities that this American society refuses to acknowledge. Accountability for the condition of these places turns into a discourse on personal responsibility.

But the potential of a Supreme Court Justice rising from these circumstances both complicates and fits this narrative. It complicates how we think of public housing and its residents – it is not a Black Hole for potential, but rather it can cultivate the best and the brightest…just like the rest of the United States. And in this way it still fits the story we love to hear: an “American Dream” where anybody can make it; the cream rises to the top; and if she did it, then you can do it. While the New York Times chose to affirm this trope (see the May 29th article “Up and Out of NY’s Projects), the Washington Post opted to posit Sotomayor’s Bronxdale Housing Projects in a more sobering light. Rather than it being a beacon of opportunity, they confront the stark trouble and problems which Bronxdale’s residents endure today—some of recent, many for over a generation. As Biggie once poignantly told us, “Things done changed…”

As a former resident of Bronx public housing, a life-long resident of the South Bronx, and a researcher on contemporary life in Bronx public housing, this has been a conversation that has profoundly affected me; professionally and personally.
In response to the evolving and intensifying discussion of these issues in many circles, I wrote the following letter as a reflection of my time and my experiences, and as a testament to the shared experience and group ethos me and many of my peers were a part of.

In that spirit I hope this letter is a catalyst for the public and for concerned citizens and residents to think deeply about poverty, isolation, and treatment in our society. And that is pushes us to social and political action that improves access, opportunity, and justice in every economic, material, and theoretical facet of our country.

In Struggle,
Michael Partis


“Looking historically at Bronx public housing is quite jarring for someone who grew up there during the 90's. For seven years, I lived in the Castle Hill Projects. Moreover, a large amount of my friends are part of my peer group and came of age in NYC public housing: many in the Bronx (Mitchell, St. Mary's, Paterson, Edenwald, Soundview, Webster, Forest), and many in Harlem too (Polo Grounds, Wagner, Washington, Johnson, Taft).

We spent summers together in parks; winters in building hallways & stairwells. We tried to scam food stamps for real cash (before they turned them into EBT cards); played in basketball tournaments, drank Tropical Fantasy soda, and got into trouble. It wasn't deviant behavior or a culture of poverty. For us, it was life.

But for those like me who came up in the PJ's after the "Crack Era," the hood was the valley, the shadow, the death, and the Promised Land. No, it wasn't New Jack City. But drug dealing was unequivocally, unquestionably, the number one employer in the neighborhood. It certainly was partly ethos—in so many ways me, the friends I grew up with, and the people we all ran with, WANTED to hustle. Sure it was an easy economic opportunity. Nobody was paying to you work in their supermarket or bodega (immigrant adults did those jobs); nobody gave you a few dollars to sweep up hair at the barber shop; and "working class" families were few and far between. We weren't even in the working-class boat. Many of us lived on welfare; ate off Food Stamps; and grew up on WIC (all of this was before they started "Work-fare"). No doubt, some folks had disposable income from decent city or state jobs. But the rest of us were poor; like in poverty; like keeping the oven on to stay warm during the winter; making hot dogs and Chief Boyardee for dinner; and eating those terrible name brand knock-off WIC cereals for breakfast.

But a lot of us hustled because, it looked fly. It was cultural—not just an aesthetic, but also social capital. It built your street cred; built your name. It opened up business opportunities: you could expand your hustle to other buildings, down the street, and (if you were ready for war) other neighborhoods. And the younger you started, the better you could get. The hungrier you are; the greater your hustler's ambition; and the sooner you started stacking, you could make money and "get out."

Some people call it crime. We called it a dream. For us, it was our promise land.

Of course not everyone looked to this way out. But I'll refrain from going into the success stories of those who don't go this route. Sure you can overcome the poverty, and inequality, and become a Supreme Court nominee or a college graduate. But it doesn't mean the game should be set up that way...or that everyone can win.

This isn't a Donald Goines book, or a Terri Woods publication. It's not a screenplay written by the Hughes Brothers, or on set on some project bench. It's a story lived by many, embodied in many, and familiar to too many.

Scary thing is that this is the experiential for not just project kids, this is the experience for many U.S. kids who grow up Black and in poverty. And it's not just a 90's thing or a 2000's thing. You still see it in the Bronx to this day. You go walk through Edenwald today; visit Watson Ave or Colgate Ave; check out Soundview; travel around Mount Eden tonight. Guns, drugs, and the lifestyle it inflicts on its participants and viewers is a frightening site.

Of course there is plenty of blame to go around (isn’t there always?). And everybody should hold some accountability. But someone has to take accountability for structural inequality; and the inequality in access, resources, and opportunity.

Who makes public policy with inefficient "solutions" to address long-existing social problems? I don't think anyone in 2175 Lacombe Avenue did; and I know no one in apartment 8I did for damn sure. And...maybe that's the problem right there.

But indeed this poignant viewpoint and insight is what led me to do a case-study of youth in Bronx public housing for my undergraduate Senior Thesis at Fordham University. It’s why I am continuing this research as an ethnography and dissertation in Graduate school. And why public housing, inequality, poverty, policy, and socio-economic structures are my research interest. Because maybe, if we can allow those experiencing this lived reality to bring their own stories to the center of our public conversations...then maybe America can see how ugly the persistence of racism and discrimination is. Or realize the ramifications of local level officials’ impotence, neglect, and unabashed self-interest (see the absolute MESS occurring in the New York State legislature currently). Or truly recognize the ineffectiveness market-based economic solutions have; and just how sinful and self-indulgent economic empowerment zones, corporate giving, and the entire reform platform have been.

So there goes a personal narrative on life in public housing by someone who lived it. From a Black man who was influenced by sports, drugs, and violence, but now is a Ph.D. student. And who hopes to allow others from related backgrounds, with similar stories, and a shared lived experience to speak about their lives in the Bronx projects for themselves.

Michael Partis
Castle Hill Projects 1992-1999.
The Hood 1986-Present.
Fordham University-Rose Hill B.A. 2008
CUNY Graduate Center Ph.D 2014”

If anybody would like to read my Senior Thesis on young people in the South Bronx's Mitchel Projects, or interested in and/or does research on public housing in the United States, please feel free to contact with me at michaelpartis@gmail.com.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A King and The Illest: Remembering Dr. King and The Notorious B.I.G.

Dr. Martin Luther King - I Have A Dream Speech

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Notorious B.I.G. are two of the biggest cultural figures in American history. Dr. King is renowned for his political, theological, and civic work. Biggie Smalls is celebrated for his exceptional musical ability as a rapper. And both men were vital in two of the 20th century’s greatest social, political, and cultural phenomenons: the Civil Rights Movement, and Hip-Hop.

Yet, we do not think of these men simultaneously. In fact, many might say it is blasphemous to even mention them in the same breath. But as we commemorate Dr. King’s birthday and holiday, and anticipate the release of Notorious (the first major studio film about the life of Biggie), we are afforded a unique opportunity: the chance to bridge generations by carefully looking at two icons. Looking at each man's life allows us to revisit our relationship to them; and to critically think about their virtues and their flaws. Most important though is this question: can we find mutuality and commonality with B.I.G. and King?

Without doubt, the differences between King and Biggie are stark and vast. (Continue below)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New York Hip-Hop STAND UP!

Audio of me with Miz D on Juice Radio talking about the State of Hip-Hop. Can New York still represent in the Rap game? Can Hip-Hop still remain viable as an artform? What's the good, the bad, and the ugly?

Check it out:

Juice Radio feating Miz D-Can NY Hip-Hop make a Comeback?

And here's a clip of the interview posted on You Tube:

Shouts out to Miz D and the Juice Radio Crew

And P.S. NY Rap still GETTIN IT! And the Bronx STILL makin it. Check out these MC's

Ray $ da Schola

S.T. & BeyAy Entertainment


Patty Dukes

Monday, January 19, 2009

Celebrating Life After Death-Biggie Smalls' Lesson on Joy and Pain


For the past few days I have seen a lot of negativity about Notorious, the new movie about the life of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Most of the criticism seems to stem from anger over the film's "glorification" of the street hustler ambition Biggie personifies. Others complain that the film fails to deliver the gravitas of Wallace's life; instead of a complicated, probing, thorough compilation, we get a glossy, "made-for-industry" story which archetypes the stereotypical "Black male" narrative.

You know like "Kick a few bars, so I can buy a few cars"

Or "I stay Coogi down to the socks/rings and watch filled with rocks."

I know ugly hurts the eyes, and ignorance hurts the soul. And without question, Hip-Hop can occasionally hurt us in excruciating ways.

But maybe, it is time we remember that life is "Joy and Pain." And sometimes, it doesn't hurt to embrace the joy...

A classic episode of the 1970's Black sitcom "Good Times" gives us an important lesson in Joy and Pain.

When James Evans (actor James Amos' role as patriarch of a poor Black Chicago family) dies, Michael, J.J. and Thelma wonder why their mother Florida (played by the venerable Esther Rolle) is not "grieving" over their father's death. In a brilliantly resonating, exceptionally poignant moment (the type of moment all to sorely missing from the series' latter days,) Rolle explains how we shouldn't think of death strictly as grim, devastating, and sad. Rather, Florida explains to her children that death can be seen as a time not to lament or bemoan...but as a time to celebrate--to celebrate one's life and to cherish what a person gave us. We give praise to life by remembering it. Death is the fulfillment of our journey. And we should celebrate it.

The greatness of the Evans family's TV moment is that Florida tells us that this is a tradition of the African culture. Celebrating death as the fulfillment of life is an African Diasporic tradition.

I think we need to recapture that sentiment, and remember it as we reflect on Biggie's life and watch his new movie.

All too often our community fails to maintain the fine balance that is critique and analysis; positive and negative; rhyme and reason. Either we find ourselves in uncritical, fallacious bliss; blind, unconditional denial; dogged, burdening negativity; or apathetic, resolved resign. Emotions are certainly a juggling act, and not a easy feat by no means. But we should always remind ourselves of time and place.

Undoubtedly, the life of the Notorious B.I.G. is troubled. His womanizing actions; his illegal activities; his role in capitalism's hi-jacking of Hip-Hop culture; his indulgent expressions of violence and vulgarity; this is no question disturbing and problematic. We need to look at these problems closely to grow and improve; and to gain a fuller understanding of how these issues come about, and what to do about their presence. Yes, looking at Biggie's life gives us a opportunity for all of this.

But it also gives us the opportunity to...celebrate.

Christopher Wallace was one of the most talented musicians of the 20th century. His extraordinary verbal fluidity, his lyrical prowess in rhyme, and his remarkable ability to convey imagery, metaphor, imagination, and experience into narrative form--these skills make him not only one of America's greatest story-tellers, but one of the African Diasporic communities most gifted individuals.

And there is nothing wrong with accepting that.

"Hypnotize," "Mo Money, Mo Problems," and "One More Chance," is music that can make you dance. Songs like "Juicy," or "Missing U," can make you introspective. And joints like "Kick in the Door," or "Get Money" can get you hyped.

Is there anything wrong with that?

The burden of being politically orientated, progressively leaning, and socially conscious can be exhaustive. It can definitely keep you working all day, and up all night (or more likely, working day and night). But sometimes we need to be reminded that life is more than that. Joy exists in struggle. Birth is precious; victory can be attained; happiness has a place...if we make room for it.

For a moment, for a time, we should allow ourselves to feel good.

Beyond Biggie though, we need to embrace the moments of joy we capture in this world. Hip-Hop may have many problems, but if it teaches us one thing...it is to celebrate.

As we embark on a several day journey where we will honor Dr. King, remember Biggie, and inaugurate the first Black president, let us seize the moment. We can worry about what is lacking, or what can go wrong, or what is already a problem, afterwards.

For a moment, let us not be afraid to... be happy.

We need to create spaces where we can reflect on our short-comings and problems. We need time to critique ourselves and each others in an attempt to be better.

But let us never forget to celebrate life... even after death.

P.S. We'll Always Love Big Poppa....

Michael Partis

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Answer's Last Question-Can He Become a Legend?

Originally Posted at The TSA Report.com

Allen Iverson is a generational icon. Iverson embodies the Black athlete who was birthed from the Hip-Hop culture. He personifies the Hip-Hop aesthetic: brash, relentless, and fearless. His free-wheeling, improvisational, lightening-fast game introduced the next phase of basketball - a phase that actualized a playground sensibility, and embraced the oppositional, self-defining world-view of the new athlete. The cornrows, the cross-over dribbles, the multiple tattoos, taking on Michael Jordan at the top of the key; these were the features and qualities that endeared Iverson to basketball fans throughout America’s urban landscape, and made him intriguing to the post Bird-Magic-Jordan NBA community. Iverson was NBA basketball…the remix.

But that was the 90’s.

As we close the first decade of the 21st century, Allen Iverson’s thirteen year NBA career and cultural status stand at a crossroads. No longer is A.I. the youthful “rebel without a cause” adored by all. In many ways his cultural resonance has been surpassed by the Lebrons, Carmelos, and Dwyanes of the perpetual “next generation.” The “ghetto fabulous” appearance and “take-no-prisoners” disposition that defined a cohort of players like Chris Webber, Latrell Sprewell, and Iverson, has given way to an economically driven sense of market-awareness and commercial appeal evident by the league’s new superstars. Symbolically, Chris Weber’s “Fab Five” has become D-Wade’s “Fave 5.” A.I.’s Reebok has become Lebron’s Nike.

The story that remains though is Iverson’s career on the court. Statistics certify his status as one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. The memories of fans and the highlight reels will certainly affirm him as pound-for-pound one of toughest players ever to step on the hardwood. But his one-man show in Philadelphia, and two-star attraction in Denver, did not achieve the accomplishment that distinguishes an NBA career: a championship ring. In fact, they barely produced playoff victories - note Denver’s 1-8 playoff record during the Iverson years.

And so, the legacy of Allen Iverson rests not on his cultural relevance, but on his basketball career. As he now stands in Detroit, he has become part of a Pistons group also trying to define itself in basketball history. Their one NBA championship is blemished with six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals without advancing to the NBA Finals. As this Pistons team searches to solidify their place among the greatest, so does Iverson. Can A.I. transcend them, and his career, to all-time stature?

“The Answer” remains to be seen.