David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Greg Donaldson Interview: Nothing’s Black and White in Brownsville

Originally published January 7, 1994 in the Baltimore City Paper as “R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Nothing’s Black and White in Brownsville.”

Greg DonaldsonWhen 18-year-old Sharron Corley arrived back in the troubled New York ghetto of Brownsville after four months in Riker’s Island prison, his trials had hardly begun. He needed to reclaim his belongings from the house of his ex-girlfriend Chantal, who recently bore (and lost) his first child. He needed to find out his standing at high school, which he abandoned without notice after a sentence for armed theft. But most importantly, he had to reestablish his “props,” or proper respect, in the neighborhood by showing up the punk who’d been beating his sister, Shawanda.

The scene was typical Brownsville: another squabble for honor, another scuffle over who could act the toughest and still maintain his foothold at the top of the mountain. Shawanda’s boyfriend made veiled threats to fetch his “oowop,” or Uzi, to deal with Sharron. But Sharron, amateur singer/actor and member of the LoLifes gang, knew the game better, and he called the punk’s bluff. “Dude be doin’ mad foul deeds,” he declared. “I ain’t jumpin’ in no jetstream, ’cause he owns a oowop. See him get busy with it.”

Journalist and inner-city schoolteacher Greg Donaldson, who followed Sharron around for a year to research his new book The Ville, discovered that such scenes of Sylvester Stallonesque bravado are the norm, not the exception, in the predominantly black ghetto of Brownsville, New York. He spent over a year in a neighborhood where stepping on someone’s foot at a street corner warrants death, where there was a shooting at school the same day Mayor David Dinkins came to speak about violence, where “boosting” your first designer sweater from Macy’s is like hitting your first home run in Little League.

A Year in Brownsville

The Ville, a chronology of a year in Brownsville seen through the eyes of its inhabitants, is an attempt by Donaldson to deflate some of the stereotypes perpetuated about inner city life. In an era where dialogues on crime and illiteracy often highlight a racially insensitive “us vs. them” approach, Donaldson has descended into the midst of the ‘hood only to find that the kids on the streets of Brownsville are not all murderers and drug abusers. Teenagers like Sharron Corley are players in a large and complex drama about respect and survival, a drama with a solid foundation in the American Dream.

“It’s not that the kids don’t listen to us,” Donaldson says, “it’s that they do. Even these little drug dealers, they’re ambitious entrepreneurs, they’re trying to make something of themselves. And they’re doing it in a way that’s not legal, but so what? Everything they see around them isn’t legal, either. They know that a lot of the fortunes in this country are built on bootlegging and other kinds of things. They know that you don’t go to jail if you’ve got influence.”

If any middle-aged white guy could break through the cultural roadblock that separates the races and understand the toughness of the inner city, it’s Donaldson. With a tall, basketball-ready frame and a face that looks like it’s been chiselled rather than developed, Donaldson speaks with the streetwise inflection of a New York City cop. You would hardly suspect by looking at him that he’s a graduate of Brown University and a respected journalist who’s been published in the likes of the New York Times, New York Newsday, and the Village Voice.

Yet Donaldson talks tough about stereotypes, especially when it comes to the residents of the ghetto. “When writing a book like this, you’ve got a responsibility to the African-American community not to stigmatize them further,” he says. “They’ve suffered from all kinds of stereotyping and stigmatizing. On the other hand, it’s important to let people know just how bad things have gotten in these areas.”

Debunking the Myths of the Inner City

One of the characteristics that makes The Ville so dynamic a portrayal of low-income black life is its insistence on telling the story the way it is. While Donaldson makes no apologies for youths like The Ville‘s Born Son who turn to drug kingpinning, he also gives a sympathetic ear to the police who often rely on physical intimidation tactics in an effort to keep safe. He spent over a year profiling gang member Sharron Corley and housing cop Gary Lemite, tagging along with the former through school and gang life, and running with the latter on assignment, often shadowing him into the middle of gunfire. It’s a strategy that provides no-bullshit eyewitness journalism, without the syrupy glaze the major media put on inner city events.

In the process, Donaldson debunks many of the myths about urban blight that prevent society from finding effective solutions, such as:

  • Inner-city black kids are all hooked on drugs. Not so, claims Donaldson. “Only one in five drug addicts is black, and most of them are not young,” he states, citing an oft-quoted statistic from William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. “These kids, they’re ambitious, they’re alive, they’re healthy, they’re physically vibrant, their minds are active…. A lot of these families are pulled down by one person who’s lost it or become addicted to drugs. So instead of people fighting their way up and out of this neighborhood and bringing others with them, the opposite occurs. Good people get pulled down by people who are more in extremis.”
  • Low-income blacks resent and dislike white people. Donaldson found very little evidence of a distrust or hatred towards whites among the residents of Brownsville, largely due to the fact that whites just aren’t around. “Racism’s beside the point in an all-black neighborhood. It’s my opinion that the black community is not nearly as racist as the white community or even black middle-class communities. They can’t indulge that kind of thing. If they meet somebody, and that person is a good person, they have to take advantage of it.”
  • The cops are lazy, ineffectual, and corrupt. The housing officer co-protagonist of The Ville, Gary Lemite, spends more time in motion during the book than he does remain stationary. PSA 2, the community housing police station in Brownsville, is filled with energetic go-getters who are just as concerned with their “props” as the gang kids.”I never saw a cop take a penny, and I never heard of it,” Donaldson says of the Brownsville authorities. “So they aren’t corrupt. Racism is rampant, I have to say that. But they are hard-working and they have their good aspects. The bad aspect is the police officers have no vision whatsoever. It’s kind of like America in general. They refuse to understand.”
  • The police don’t have the firepower or the manpower to deal with the kids. As several police officers explain in The Ville, there are a proliferation of guns on the streets, but few of the gang members know how to use them properly. It’s not uncommon for youths to shoot themselves in the foot by accident, and rarely do they have the training to actually hit a moving target.As for manpower, Donaldson claims, “they have so many police officers in that two or three square mile area of Brownsville East New York, you almost can’t turn around without seeing some kind of police car. And there’s robberies and killings and murders going on every corner, as soon as they turn around.”

“You Can’t Always Be Everything You Want to Be”

So what do you do in places like Brownsville? What do you do with an entire generation of African-Americans that, far from denying the American Dream, live out its darkest impulses every day? What do you do with kids that have invested in the message of Reagan and Rambo, using semi-automatic weapons as collateral? How do you get a passel of kids and killers to start looking beyond their struggle for props?

First, says Donaldson, you have to reexamine the ideological batteries that power them.

“I think the United States has to start thinking about some of the things that we congratulate ourselves on so much — free enterprise, unbridled individualism, all these things,” Donaldson says. “They’re not working in terms of these areas like Brownsville, and these areas are affecting our entire society…. You’ve got to start talking about community. You can’t always be everything you want to be. You can’t know no bounds. Everybody can’t shoot for the top. The top is not for everyone.”

Donaldson bristles at the conservative backlash blowing through the country which claims that left-wing answers to poverty and crime have not worked. Donaldson claims that such “failures” as the education-instead-of-imprisonment philosophy have never really been tried in America.

The first step to turning the ghetto around is meaningful employment, says Donaldson, employment that’s not of the janitorial or gardening variety. “A white can get a job as a fireman or a policeman with a high school diploma and make $50,000 easy. Happens all the time. Why don’t the African-Americans in these areas have these jobs? They should have their fair percentage of them, but they don’t. Instead you’ll find the mythologizing of these kids’ inability to work…. It’s not lazy to stand in the doorway for eight, nine, ten hours a day selling drugs. Not to romanticize it, but it’s an incredibly difficult and dangerous and hard thing to do.”

Of course, without any economic opportunity, the motivation for performance in education drops dramatically. Inner city black youths end up running the treadmill of gangs, props, and reps to maintain a sense of dignity. “Would you go to school bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with your books when you’re walking the gauntlet between the LoLifes and the Young Guns and the other groups who are looking out for a victim?” the author asks. “No, you dress just like the rest of them. And after a while, you start acting like them, too, to protect yourself.” From there, it’s the Brownsville Shuffle: fear, unemployment, young death or imprisonment.

This vicious cycle has become so much a part of inner-city life that prison has lost its punitive value, according to Donaldson. Being packed off to Riker’s Island isn’t punishment, it’s just another part of life — a segment of the well-trod path that everyone must walk down. “In middle-class communities, you have an uncle or a cousin or a brother in the business, and you get a job — or you know somebody that went to a certain college, so you go there,” Donaldson explains. “In this community, you have an uncle or a cousin or a brother or a member of your crew or gang who’s in jail. So you have connections when you’re in jail. The way is eased for you only in that direction. So when you slide in that direction, it’s almost like it’s fated.”

Gun Control

Another key issue in the battle to recover the inner cities, says Donaldson, is gun control. Strict gun control — “the stricter the better,” he claims.

“There’s no reason for anyone to need a handgun, except for police officers…. Handguns are almost never used in a successful personal defense. Statistics from gun control groups show that it’s very rare for someone to pull a gun and shoot anybody but himself or a loved one. There are many more accidents than there are successful defenses. A very large percentage of the guns these kids have are stolen from people who have them legally…. It’s a vicious circle, because one of the reasons people have guns in the first place is because they’re afraid of these kids.”

And yet, despite all this, Donaldson has felt the urge for protection, too. “It’s frightfully dangerous to be around [Brownsville] without one,” he says. “That’s why a lot of people have them. I came this close to getting one myself.” Donaldson holds two fingers a very short distance apart.

But Donaldson did survive, even in this toughest of neighborhoods, packing little more than adrenaline. He cites media misinformation for hyping up violence as a necessary measure in everyday life, and has some tough retorts for those who would label him a liberal whiner without any scientific data to back him up.

“What the media does is constantly show that violence is correct. They constantly portray very rare situations in real life where violent reaction would be appropriate, and they show them over and over again. And that justifies the keeping of weapons….

“As for proof? Anytime you want anyone to do something in this society, you advertise. You want somebody to buy something, you advertise. You want somebody to vote for you, you advertise. So clearly there’s a link between advertising and behavior, or portrayal and behavior. It’s self-evident. You show the handsomest, most attractive guy you can find with a huge gun, shooting people with a smile on his face in a cold-blooded manner. And then you’re surprised when you have adolescents, the most impressionable people in this society, carrying around huge guns and shooting people with smiles on their faces?”

Crime and Punishment in the Media

A scant 48 hours after this interview, crime and punishment had become the media topic of the hour. A national conference of mayors and police chiefs met with President Clinton to demand more stringent gun control and heightened police vigilance. A disgruntled black man opened fire on a subway train full of passengers. The Surgeon General announced that she was in favor of studying the legalization of drugs.

Sharron Corley has also recently gotten his big break: a starring role in a Spike Lee production called New Jersey Drive. The audition was a result of the youth’s picture on the front of the Village Voice, which published excerpts from The Ville.

“Sharron has this idea that you become an instant star. I was trying to tell him that it’s really about hard work and deferred gratification and all these things,” Donaldson chuckles. “But these recent occurrences in his life where he has an agent in New York and an agent in Hollywood, they’ve kind of disproved my theory. So it’s a little confusing to us both, and I don’t know how it’s actually going to work out.”

Yet Donaldson is wary of calling too much attention to Sharron’s sudden stardom when most of the young man’s friends are still facing death everyday in the ghetto. Donaldson remains firm in his assessment of the problems and unflinching in his proposed solutions. “The time for basing things on color codes and things is finished. We’re under too much duress for this in our society. We have to find the truth, and we have to act upon it.”

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  1. Leisa on November 28, 2008 at 3:38 pm  Chain link

    Great article, its very confusing how to approach inner city problems. Most people are looking and trying their hardest to get out while a few are dragging others down along with them. Therefore we get group into a pile of failures. What to do? Leave when you get a chance!! Great article Mr. Donaldson and also great class keep up the good work.

  2. Harlem Tanya on August 3, 2009 at 5:30 pm  Chain link

    I was trying to remember the name of this book and no one could help me out so i said ” wait a minute let me Google it”, this was the first thing to pop up. I really enjoyed the article. I remember reading this book when it first hit the stores. I was born and raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn, this book hit home. This was a great article, what i liked about it the most was that it pulled no punches, keep up the good work.

  3. Derrick on November 14, 2009 at 4:00 pm  Chain link

    So a white guy knocks on stranger’s doors in Brownsville and asks Blacks to tell their life story so he can write a book and get paid AND they invite home in AND help him out. WOW! I wonder if a Black or Spanish writer knocked on the same door would we be so willing to help OUR own?

  4. FRANCIS on February 4, 2010 at 1:10 pm  Chain link

    Derrick has a good point, but it’s not valid. Substance creates validity, and not only was Donaldson white(which helped), but he possessed the substance mentally as a rspected journalist, teacher and Brown University graduate. Truthfully, having an educated white man publicize a subject of this matter holds more weight than a minority because it’s stereotypically understood that a black or latino already has some background on this subject, which is not always the case. However, I believe a person of any race or sex could’ve have done what Donaldson did, as long as they had the substance. You can’t afford to be a fake in those types of situations.

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