Editor’s note: During Black History Month, the focus is usually on historical figures who loomed larger than life, paving the way for the progress we experience today. But black history isn’t just about telling stories of our past. History is being made every day and has been made throughout our lives; it’s not just in books. It walks among us. So this month The Root is asking a group of writers to tell us about the personal and pivotal events from their own lifetimes in a series we call My Black History. Writer Stephen A.Crockett Jr. is 38 years old.
Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”
It is 1979. I’m 3 years old. Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” is released. I do not remember the song at this age, but I do not remember my life without this song. Everyone in my house knows this song. It’s an unwritten rite of passage. It’s an entryway into a world of cool, and knowing the lyrics gives you access. I can still see the album with the rainbow squiggles that spell out “Sugar Hill.” It’s embedded in the consciousness of a time when life felt easier and hip-hop wasn’t so brash and misogynistic. Just jokes about how fly you thought you were, how all the ladies loved you and how sometimes the food at a friend’s house (“and the chicken tastes like wood”) isn’t exactly what you expected it to be.
I’m in my parents’ room in the big, green house on Bryant Street Northwest. I have no idea why I’m in here, but the small black TV near my folks’ bed is on. I hear the news. The black man on channel 9 says that Len Bias is dead.
Overdose. Cocaine. The streets will call it fishscale.
This is 1986. I am 10. The world is upside down.
Drugs before this moment were the zombie people in my neighborhood. The woman who talks to the trees, or the barking man with no shirt who pushes a shopping cart down North Capitol Street.
Drugs are not 6 feet 8 inches tall, 210 pounds. Drugs are not Len Bias. Drugs are not my hero, the University of Maryland power forward just drafted by the Boston Celtics.
It’s explained to me then and doesn’t make sense.
Makes even less sense now.
The Incarceration and Release of Allen Iverson
It’s 1993; I’m a junior in high school. The word is coming up I-95 about a kid from Hampton, Va. He’s a junior in high school. Amazing on the football field, unguardable on the basketball court. His name is Allen Iverson.
Short story is this: Two rival schools at a bowling alley. Racial slurs get thrown; punches and chairs soon follow. A full-on brawl breaks out. Four young black men are arrested. Iverson is one of them. He is charged with “maiming by mob.” The trial is a sham: conflicting testimony, no eyewitness, video evidence shows Iverson away from the incident. But in the heightened racial tension of Virginia, Iverson is convicted and sentenced to 20 years. Story should end here. Except, Douglas Wilder is governor and coach John Thompson is still king. Iverson is granted clemency; he goes to Georgetown and then the NBA. Such a nuanced tale of racism, black legislative power, black street power (no one is more street than Big John Thompson; just ask drug kingpin Rayful Edmond) and what can happen when given a second chance.
Marion Barry’s Summer Youth Leadership Program
Marion Barry’s life didn’t end or begin with smoking crack; it was a moment, not a legacy. A few months before Marion Barry’s death, I would get to interview him. He had a book coming out and he was doing the rounds. For many people born and raised in Washington, D.C., Barry is a savior, and I am one of them. He was the first black public official I would ever see freely on the streets and in schools, and he saved my life.
In 1991 I was 15 years old, broke and barely focusing in school. My clothes were teetering on the edge of embarrassment, and the walk from the subway to my house was where the dealers sold dope. I was clowned mercilessly for my old sneakers. Who knows what I was thinking then, but I knew I wasn’t going to be teased much longer. That summer, my best friend’s mom told me to get in Barry’s Summer Youth Employment program.
She took us to the building and signed us up. It gave me a place to go over the summer, it gave me purpose, it gave me a job and, more important, it gave me money. My gear changed, my life changed, and before he died I was able to thank him for this. He laughed because he said he had heard it all the time about a kid whose life was changed by his program, but he didn’t think one would be interviewing him.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is associate editor of news at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.