(The Root) — Two generations of Americans might recall, as vividly as yesterday, the waking radio chatter and day-breaking TV news reports of March 9, 1997, the morning the Notorious B.I.G. was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
Surely Brooklyn, N.Y., remembers.
Sixteen years after his death, Christopher Wallace occupies a larger-than-life prominence in the American pop psyche, in hop-hop and in the very identity of Brooklyn. A graffiti of memory. A rapper who was at once a storyteller with a mythology all his own. Recorded before his untimely demise, the Notorious B.I.G.'s two studio LPs — Ready to Die (1994) and Life After Death (1997) — are a mythology of Brooklyn, a culmination of fame and an unparalleled crimescape of the Rudy Giuliani era.
Hoping to cement Biggie's cultural importance, Brooklyn native LeRoy McCarthy launched a Change.org petition in August to honor the fallen Wallace by christening the intersection of St. James Place and Fulton Street — at the foot of Biggie's childhood stoop in Clinton Hill — as Christopher Wallace Way. But a few Brooklyn Community Board No. 2 members have challenged that initiative, saying that a reformed crack dealer and hardcore rap artist is an unsuitable role model for the kids of Clinton Hill. From some cursory Googling, committee member Lucy Koteen found this information:
[Christopher Wallace] started selling drugs at 12, he was a school dropout at 17, he was arrested for drugs and weapons charge, he was arrested for parole violations, he was arrested in North Carolina for crack cocaine, in 1996 he was again arrested for assault, he had a violent death and physically the man is not exactly a role model for youth.
I don't see how this guy was a role model and frankly it offends me.
I wonder, then, short of perfection, what constitutes a proper role model? What's respectability made of, exactly?
America is no stranger to commemoration of heroes and geniuses who notoriously faltered. Just last week, the nation celebrated the founding venture of a man, Christopher Columbus, who pillaged foreign soil, violently subdued its native tribes and made concubines of its women and children. But rather than hoisting Columbus as a chauvinist avatar of American destiny, NPR's Lakshmi Gandhi noted that Columbus Day was the fruit of a late-19th century campaign by Italian Americans — a severely marginalized minority at the time — to secure respectable incorporate into American identity.
Because Italian Americans were struggling against religious and ethnic discrimination in the United States, many in the community saw celebrating the life and accomplishments of Columbus as a way for Italian Americans to be accepted by the mainstream. As historian Christopher J. Kauffman once wrote, "Italian Americans grounded legitimacy in a pluralistic society by focusing on the Genoese explorer as a central figure in their sense of peoplehood."
Such is often the goal of campaigns for commemorative namings of public spaces. Yet however benign or well-intentioned, these commemorations are often contentious — as fought and fraught and fretted as history itself. Anthropologist Maoz Azaryahu, specifically concerned with memorialization of political figures, has written of "the power of commemorative street names." A 1995 study (pdf) by Azaryahu held that the power of urban-grid tributes "stems from their ability to implicate the national narrative of the past … in numerous narratives of the city."
With the names of our avenues, plazas and towns, we laud our founders, generals, diplomats, philanthropists, activists and artists. Columbus is regarded, for better and worse, as our founding pioneer. Biggie Smalls isn't a national hero, perhaps, but in local lore, he's undoubtedly one of Brooklyn's finest. In fact, in some corners of the borough — and in some corners of America — "the only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace." A kid who, indeed, "grew up a screw-up." A man who, indeed, escaped the hustler's dilemma and, for a while, lived to tell.
For the uninitiated members of Brooklyn Community Board No. 2, no Wikipedia entry will, or could, make account of the inspirational weight of Biggie's music to his enduring fans and neighbors. Just as no surfeit of MLK Boulevards will, by itself, vanguard the legacy and strides of the civil rights movement. But as a generation still defining itself, we can plant our respects in concrete and point to the signs. Teach the music as history, history as pride, pride as inspiration.
I spoke with the petitioner leading the campaign for Christopher Wallace Way, LeRoy McCarthy, with whom Biggie's art and legacy clearly resonates a great deal. And according to McCarthy, he's hardly the only person to pay his respects. "The thousands of handwritten supporters in the neighborhood, plus over 3,000 online supporters, appreciate how BIG MC'ed and represented BK to the fullest," he said. "A Christopher Wallace Way would show that a son or daughter of Brooklyn is capable of great accomplishments, even if they come from modest beginnings."
That's a role model if there ever was one. Ready to Die is hardly a sanitized account of a human life, but then, if Christopher Wallace hadn't sold dope, and hadn't prevailed over that life of crime and regrets, what would the Notorious B.I.G. mean to us, really? That an artist was snatched too soon, too violently from these streets — snatched from grace and creative heights — is all the more reason to stake Biggie's legacy, the good and the bad, to one immortal corner of a borough that he repped, indeed, to the fullest, and to the very end.
The American narrative is laced with adversity of all sorts. On our most neglected boulevards, adversity does often read like a rap sheet. Fury and funk: what Biggie spit best. Of course there's shame in the man's past — that's the crux of his importance. It's precisely what we cherish of Biggie's music. It's why Big Poppa sang the blues.
Justin Charity is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.