"Tired of having the same hairdo as every other ghetto bitch?" didn't sound like an article you'd read in the newspaper. It sounded like something you'd hear on a rap tape. But none of us had ever read anything like it--so raw, so smart, written by a black public high school student for an audience of his peers.
It was an ad for a bogus hair salon called Shaquanta's. "Tired of your man spending too much time shooting craps with his niggas and not with you? Our professionals have built the technology to transform your hair into the perfect area for craps, including a back wall and even a place to store the dice. For 50 additional dollars we will add secret compartments so that five-o can't rush any of your games and take your nigga away."
Everyone felt the article was degrading, especially the black females present. The author and I tried to say that the world was degrading with or without this article. If we printed it in our newspaper, maybe some people who listen to rap tapes will take off their headphones for a minute and start reading, an activity that could lead to more reading, maybe even writing, and less getting degraded by the world.
We fought about the article for two meetings straight. In the end, it came down to this: We knew of no other publication on the face of the earth that would print it.
There were 90,000 publications listed in the Standard Periodical Directory last year--and many more were unlisted. Is it too much to ask that there be at least one (a) written mainly by and for young people from the ghetto, (b) not insulting to their intelligence, (c) not boring, and (d) widely distributed?
We knew of no such publication. One of the goals of our paper, Subway and Elevated, was to come closer than anyone else. Utne Reader and the Baffler were too white and too whitely distributed. Emerge was too mature. Iceberg Slim wasn't mature enough. KRS-ONE and Sister Souljah, ingenious orators, wrote mediocre books. Hip-hop magazines and YSB came closest, but they were too starstruck and shallow. Luis Rodriguez wrote Always Running, a great book for inner-city youth, but the newspaper he edited, People's Tribune, didn't target them. Even the Internet, which has a place for everything, doesn't have a good Web site for inner-city youth.
When Russell Jacoby wrote The Last Intellectuals, a book mourning the decline of "public intellectuals" in America, who was the "broadly educated public" he had in mind? Did it include minorities, the young, or those who didn't attend elite colleges? Did it include people you'd see on the bus, at Harold Washington College, or at the library? Did it include people you'd see on State Street or any of the other truly public places in America? No offense to Jacoby, but his "broadly educated public" wasn't the public at all. They're the antipublic. Scared of and sheltered from public life, most educated Americans have become silent partners of the auto companies, tollways, and developers that have engineered public decline. This year alone, federal funding for public transit was cut by 43 percent with bipartisan support. Where was the "broadly educated public"? Driving their cars, reminiscing about how great the city used to be before they abandoned it. Chicago has lost three quarters of a million people since 1950.
The goal of Subway and Elevated was to create a literature for what was left of the public. We wanted to tell sides of stories that hadn't been told before because they were either above or below the radar of acceptable journalism. The "subway" side was for untold problems and dirt. "Elevated" was to show bright spots, strategies, and solutions.
THE ELEVATED SIDE
The ultimate goal of Subway and Elevated was to revive public places in America--and to call attention to their necessity--by placing works of beauty and value there that were impossible to obtain in stores. "The medium is the message," said Marshall McLuhan. We taped our paper to subway trains and stations.
Four of us were arrested. That put a dent in our message. We needed a new message: a book! No one could arrest us for a book, we thought. Plus we could make money to pay for the paper, the lawyer, and maybe a community center or two. According to Books in Print, more than 142,000 books were published in the U.S. last year. Guess how many were for young people from the ghetto?
I wasn't from the ghetto, but some of my friends were. I'd been interviewing hip-hop artists and passing out articles at Chi-Rock meetings every Sunday in Jackson Park. There had already been 20 books on hip-hop, but they were all written by outsiders: "Gee, hip-hop really is an art form. These kids have a subculture and everything!" None of the books were by hip-hoppers. None of them spoke to our concerns.
Publishing people saw the word hip-hop in my cover letter and said no. Music books don't sell. We don't know who your audience is--young people? Young males? Young black males? Maybe if you slip in some romance and market it to females you have a chance. But millions of people buy literate rap albums, I said. One literary agent suggested I make a CD.
I'd already started writing five other books: hitchhiking and freight-hopping in the 90s; lies white people tell ourselves; youth politics and journalism; graffiti; cities versus suburbs. Instead of writing five long boring books for five different audiences, why not write one short book forcing them together?
I gathered $4,400, enough for 3,000 copies (I called every printer in the phone book to find one cheap enough). We also bought 15,000 posters and glue to do every major artery in Chicago.
The editing process was the message. Most books have one editor. I begged 50 people to edit me, including a 13-year-old girl flunking eighth grade ("Cross out the boring parts," I told her). And it had to pass the subway test: I read it aloud on subway platforms and demanded critiques from passing commuters--then I really crossed out the boring parts.
Posters for the book, Bomb the Suburbs, started appearing around Chicago in the summer of 1994. Frightened tourists took it literally. Kids assumed it was a rap group. Working people guessed it was a movie. Yuppies were under the impression it was avant-garde theater. A thousand people came to the book release party, "the largest integrated sociopolitical event I have witnessed in Chicago," according to activist Kingsley Clarke, writing in Race Traitor. People I barely knew slanged the book at high schools and junior colleges. It was the best-selling book almost everywhere it was available: Literary Explosions, 57th Street Books, Booksellers Row, Tower, Afrocentric Pride, the A-Zone, UIC, and DePaul, as well as mom-and-pop music and clothing stores. Most buyers were young people age 14 to 25, it was reported later. Most were male. Most were black. "It's the only book [kids] come in here looking for on their own," Gail Hilliard, manager of the Kroch's and Brentano's on 53rd Street, told the Sun-Times.
To sell 1,000 copies is considered success for a self-published book. Within three months we sold 3,000 copies with no distributor, no ISBN, and no listing in Books in Print. By December, we printed a 10,000-copy second edition with a major new conclusion: "Bomb the Suburbs isn't just a book. It's also a plan. The plan is to do on a bigger scale everything we talk about in the book. For starters, we need a Bomb the Suburbs Building for the B-boy Homeless, a studio, computer lab, library, party space, kitchen, printing press, and abandoned lots for gardens. Then we can publish and distribute other original books and albums at cheap prices; bring stability and creative alternatives to the city; serve as a national headquarters for the advancement of young people and the destruction of ghettos and suburbs; and keep a couple dozen of our friends from falling off the edge. If you like the book, let us know how you want to become part of the Plan."
I didn't wait for benefactors (they never came anyway). Three of my more stable friends agreed to go in with me on renting a space. We looked for someplace big and cheap on the south or west sides, but nothing was listed in the papers, not even the Defender. We settled for a giant basement called the "Vision Village." I wanted to rename it "The Suburbs" because it was in Wicker Park. People were constantly coming over, sometimes with bags of food, sometimes with nothing. Friends donated couches, a linoleum dance floor, and books for a small library. We had exchange students visiting from Brazil and Japan and a chamber of commerce for young entrepreneurs.
I was in charge of the writers' workshops. All narcissistic young writers fantasize that they're part of a generation like the Beats or a scene like the Harlem Renaissance, using the media and entertainment biz to engineer their popularity. In my (our?) version of a literary movement, the group would be based not on what we wrote, but on where we wrote--not in cafes, bookstores, or sites on the World Wide Web, but in public places. About 40 people came to our first reading at State and Van Buren. Passersby stopped to listen. "What the hell are they doing?" One of the writers painted three-foot cardboard fish and hung them in nearby trees.
Our second reading, at 95th and State, was not as successful. Five of us were arrested on a string of goofy charges invented by one of the officers who heard that Bomb the Suburbs was a manual instructing kids to go out and do graffiti. When we went to court, she tried to tell the judge that the five of us were "dancing and prancing," shoving books at elderly people who complained (anonymously of course).
I was looking for a partner to take over some of the responsibilities for the group. A friend I bailed out the previous year beat his case, and I had $1,000 coming to me from Cook County. I said, damn, if I can risk $1,000 bailing someone out of jail on gun charges, why can't I risk $1,000 for something I believe in?
Somewhere in Chicago--I reasoned oh-so-humbly--there was a writer more original, more broad thinking, more ambitious, younger than me, and from the ghetto. If not, then there were five writers: one original, one broad thinking, one ambitious, one young, one from the ghetto, and they could collaborate, mushing themselves together into a Great Ghetto Writing and Publishing Messiah who would capitalize on the success of Bomb the Suburbs and create an inner-city kid publishing renaissance out of Chicago.
I brought the idea to the writers' group, and we decided to throw a festival, a summerlong workshop series that would climax with a contest. It was called "Bomb the Ghettos--Too Many Ghettos in Writing, Not Enough Writers in the Ghetto." We invited "rappers, journalists, comedians, graffiti writers, critics, cartoonists, poets, playwrights, griots, novelists, and shit-talkers," with no separation between categories. The best rappers and novelists are journalists, we reasoned. The best critics are comedians and playwrights and poets. Rap and graffiti aren't categories of writing, they're tools. The only worthwhile category of writing is great writing--the more tools you use the better.
"You could enter a series of ten lyrical video-graffiti-journalistic-PhD-screenplay-CD-novels. One extraordinary sentence on a folded-up napkin--or in 20-foot letters hanging off the Sears Tower!" read the contest guidelines. "The format is entirely up to you, but don't think you're going to win just by doing what you already do. You have to grow. You have to push yourself." Emphasis was placed on "how cleverly you get your words to people who wouldn't ordinarily read or listen to them. Teaming up is encouraged! (Photos, tapes, or press clippings of the work(s) are fine, but keep in mind, it's your words and how you hustle them that matters.)"
Within two weeks, various publishing people donated second, third, and fourth prizes totaling $800. Everyone was excited. We had a romantic movement. We blanketed downtown with giant green posters. We taped them on half the train cars on the two main subway lines, sent them to every neighborhood library and every high school English department, and talked it up on hip-hop radio and at poetry readings as well as in mainstream media outlets. There was also graffiti. I have no idea how it got there.
We expected at least 3,000 people to come and spark off a revolution in the world of publishing. But revolutions cost money, and I had virtually stopped selling books. By April, I had 9,000 copies of Bomb the Suburbs and no money. Artists were asking for royalties and the Chicago market was drying up. I needed to go on tour, but I still didn't know how to drive. In the spring of 1995, I began writing a press release, not only to publicize what I was doing, but to figure it out.
To sell the book in other cities, I would be hitchhiking and walking through neighborhoods most white Americans don't even like to drive through. I didn't have a sound-bite message. It was expressed not in the book, but through the book, by the structure and process of creating it.
"I want to make a bet with America," I began to write. "I'm betting my life that I can hitchhike across America and go to all the so-called bad neighborhoods, including the neighborhoods in your town you're the most afraid of. . . . If I get killed, I lose the bet. If I win the bet, you have to consider what I say. I believe that running away from the people we fear--what I call the suburban mentality--is the source of our deepest problems in America, from violence and drugs, to the economy, to the mediocrity of our public life."
I printed 5,000 "Bet With America" posters; my parents confiscated almost all of them. We're not worried about the ghettos, they said (lie), we're worried about some crazy like the Unabomber taking this as a dare. I decided to accept rides from all crazies and hang around all ghettos as late at night as possible.
If Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" was putting the nation's behind on the line for a cynical suburban future, I was going to put mine on the line for a hopeful urban one. Gingrich's book tour included 21 stops, so I was gonna do 27. I left in a hurry with $50 and a book bag. I won't bore you with my adventures on the road. (That's another book.) I'm going to bore you with the same thing that bored me: the drudgery of selling a book.
The whole summer was a blur of posters, glue, hitchhiking, walking through the projects, stupid interviews, running the business by pay phone, sleeping wherever I could, eating if I was lucky, washing up, and showing up at the next reading. It wasn't how most authors spend their summer tour.
If the reading hadn't been publicized, I'd walk around the neighborhood hustling the book, flirting to get people to come. Half a dozen drag queens showed up at my reading at the Eye of Horus in Pittsburgh. Someone else came because they thought "free reading" meant a free Tarot card reading.
I sold fewer books in bookstores than on the street. I loved to see people's faces the moment the title registered. Some of them laughed. Others turned away or did things with their eyebrows. The hipper the people looked--the more sunglasses, headphones, body piercings, and tattoos they adorned themselves with--the less curiosity they displayed. Nearly everyone who took an interest in Bomb the Suburbs wore unassuming clothes.
"I'm from the suburbs," was a common remark.
Do they read out there?
The most common question: "What's the book about?"
I got tired of answering it. I felt like: Please! What is your life about? It's about a lot of things. It's complicated. It's a book about white people. White people and bombing. Timothy McVeigh wrote it from his jail cell in Oklahoma. He changed his mind about the federal building.
I got tired of answering questions. I got tired of always talking about my book and never having time to read other people's books.
"Hey, what's that book about?"
It's about seven dollars.
Or "six" or "five" or "four" or "here" depending on how broke they looked.
Seattle was the worst. One of the richest cities in the world and nobody has any money (why are they downtown shopping?). I poured the books onto the sidewalk, and people just stepped on them. The only person who bought a book was a black man in a wheelchair who insisted I take his last four dollars.
I wandered around North Philly, Roxbury, Anacostia, Compton, Oakland, the South Bronx, Brownsville, East Cleveland, and a lot of other ghettos whose dangers I'd heard advertised on rap records. The only crimes that happened to me were two white girls stealing my diary (one in suburban Pittsburgh and the other a junkie in San Francisco). The tour was easy, predictable. To liven it up, I convinced my mom to hitchhike with me to Cincinnati and Columbus. We stayed in fancy hotels and didn't bother going to "the most feared neighborhoods." No one called me on it. No one cared.
My friend Matt and I hitchhiked to Minneapolis. It probably didn't help that Matt is a "brotha," though I guess he's a "fine brotha" because we got more than the usual share of rides from women. One was a medical technician from China. She seemed at ease.
"Aren't you afraid to pick up strangers?" I asked her. "Don't you watch American TV?"
"You can't live like that," she said.
I thought of all the tough guys who wouldn't let us hop in the back of their pickup trucks.
We almost skipped Milwaukee--nowhere to read. Then at the last minute someone got us a cafe. When we arrived, I saw a cluster of young people standing outside. I went over and tried to sell them the book. They looked bewildered.
"Haven't you seen the paper? The Shepherd Express did a cover story on you. We all came here to see you. . . . And that's the mayor." They pointed behind me.
"Hi, I'm Mayor Norquist. This is my wife Susan. We want to buy a copy of your book."
I'd been quoted as saying, "If I were mayor, I could eliminate graffiti in 15 minutes." More than 150 people came. Everyone thought I was famous.
Three hours was the minimum length of a Bomb the Suburbs reading. Not because I'm a good talker; most people who go to hear an author talk really want to hear themselves. All I had to do was ask questions. Audiences loved this. In Minneapolis, we went eight hours. "White people therapy sessions," Matt called them.
Worried sick that I might run out of water in the desert, my parents convinced me to fly home from LA. They paid for the ticket. I felt spoiled. Newt had won--I ended up doing only 19 cities.
Bomb the Suburbs wasn't acknowledged by any major magazines or newspapers nor by any library or publishing trade journals. Back in Chicago, I almost got booted from the American Booksellers Association convention for hawking the book without a booth. Toward the end of the tour, a producer from Prime Time Live called and said he wanted to collaborate on a hitchhiking series. Here it was finally: my 15 minutes of fame. I meditated on how to use it for the common good. But he ended up canceling and decided to do his own show hitchhiking across the country. People called me: "Turn on Channel Seven. Turn on Channel Seven. This guy's doing your story." When I saw the way he did it, I felt lucky he left me out.
The first 13,000 copies of my book were almost gone by the end of my tour, but I still hadn't made any money. One of the themes of Bomb the Suburbs is the importance of having equal friendships with people unequal to you on the socioeconomic ladder. Forty-two illustrators and editors got their royalties before I broke even.
Some people I dealt with had a different message. Our biggest distributor filed for bankruptcy and fucked us for what would have been our first, $6,000 profit. Kroch's and Brentano's, our biggest Chicago account, melted down over the summer, liquidating our assets. Hundreds of books went unaccounted for at every step of the process.
I don't regret the chances I took with independent bookstores. Without them, small-press books like Bomb the Suburbs wouldn't exist. You need local sales to establish a record for distributors. Supporting independent bookstores became a matter of free speech. The New York Times reported that major publishers pay the larger chains to get their books displayed in the front of the store. I thought they put Bomb the Suburbs in the back as a matter of taste.
Considering our lack of distribution and publicity outside of Chicago--and considering my terrible business sense--the book did surprisingly well. St. Mark's Bookstore in New York and the Midnight Special in LA each sold more than 150 copies. A manager at Cleveland's Bookstore on West 25th told me it's their best-selling book ever, except for maybe The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It stayed on the Tower Top 40 for three months and was Tower's number one international best-seller for a week. Five college courses (in five different departments!) added it to their curriculum. I got more than 500 letters. In These Times editor Salim Muwakkil picked it as one of his top five books of the year. Utne Reader named me an "Utne Visionary." Carl Upchurch, organizer of the National Gang Summit, called Bomb the Suburbs "the best $7 you'll ever spend," and out of the blue an 18-year-old named Kristin Brown sent me $40 to "keep writing."
But Bomb the Suburbs was a book that no one would publish. I began to wonder: How many more posters must I plaster up, how many more asses must I pucker up to, and who exactly do I have to sleep with before I can be considered a publishable author?
And what about writers who don't have $4,400, aren't egomaniacs, and write better than me? Most will never make it.
I guess you could call me a hypocrite because this story was almost published without a subway test. Originally, I was commissioned to write it by an editor at the Village Voice's literary supplement. It was the editor's idea. I carefully asked him what he was and wasn't looking for, and he said he trusted me. Write it any way I want. I trusted him and didn't bother requesting a contract. He's a former graffiti writer--to me that's family. I faxed in my story (I titled it "Publishing Industry Motherfuckers"--I write to my audience) and called the editor to follow up. And called. And called regularly for two months, politely, keeping fire away from bridges. He never called me back.
So I decided to send it to the Reader. But when I went back to the article, it didn't feel right anymore. It seemed self-serving, a boast-session-cum-resume spitting in the face of the publishing industry while simultaneously demanding my share of the crumbs. It wasn't written for people I knew, or people who would view me as anything other than cute. It said nothing of the mistakes I made, nothing about the way Bomb the Suburbs blew up in my face, or what was wrong with the book. I took it down to the Jackson and Washington subway stations, tested it a couple times, and handed out free chocolate kisses to anyone who listened.
But like a passenger on a southbound Howard el train just past Armitage, you've only seen the elevated side so far. To appreciate heaven you have to understand hell.
THE SUBWAY SIDE
To see where I went wrong with Bomb the Suburbs, you have to ask me why I started writing in the first place. It wasn't for the noblest of reasons.
I started writing for the same reason I started to do graffiti. I was an awkward 11-year-old, trying to fit in, never quite succeeding. I would hide in the school library during lunch hour so nobody would see I had no one to eat lunch with-- I didn't have any friends. I would come home frustrated. My graffiti, articles, and leaflets were classified ads to the world. I wanted people to like me. Advertisements for Myself might as well have been the title of everything I ever wrote.
I made almost every one of my friends through writing. The more people began to like my writing, the more I began to like myself. If I wrote a whole book, imagine how many personal problems it would solve!
But a substitute is a substitute. I couldn't get around that. The more I tried to sneak past my needs, the more they caught up with me. I remember looking for role models, someone to show me a better way. As much as I tried to get things right, a lot of life's basic lessons eluded me. I felt certain people could see this about me, but were scared or too polite to pull my card.
That's why the people I trust most are the people who criticize me. My favorite review of Bomb the Suburbs was never published. It was rejected by the Lumpen Times, so the author, David Meyers, took it upon himself to distribute stapled copies around Wicker Park. Here are four of his comments:
(1) "Why perpetuate stereotypes of women as objects of trade? It's hard to imagine a white guy from a "good home' (what is a good home? What are the qualities, the colors, of a good home?) picking up black women at "all-black dances' as any different than these suburban freaks picking up black women on the North Avenue bridge. It looks like violation, like most white guy activity."
(2) "Why call one of those dopey white suburban guys you met somewhere a "wimp'? This kind of macho-fuck word stokes the repressive conformity machine."
(3) "Like so many residents of the Hype Park apartheid-cloister, Upski mis-represents certain areas of the culture I come from--urban, white, less classed. Not all white-skinned people fled to the malls, the suburbs, the Hype Park fortresses, 20 or 30 or 40 years back. . . . Some of us and our parents fucking stayed in the fucking neighborhoods our moms and dads grew up in--where as kids they were shuttled from house to house (none with Walnut paneled dens for dad's professional work) because of a shortage of rent dollars."
(4) "Upski falters in narrowing his thoughts to shimmering Monet surfaces that lack the depth of his observations. His distaste for white "political' activity reveals a dearth of knowledge about white-skinned life outside elite academicland. . . . I don't see tremendous change coming out of such low-level activity as spending money at local businesses. Imported whites have spent thousands of dollars at El Chino in Westtown, but the gentry just keep rolling in. Upski suggests that a useful role for white folks "is to support blacks' success in our institutions' in a struggle for a piece of the American pie. . . . Shit! C'mon, this is cartoon (U. of C.) Milton Friedman economics. Economics I could get from listening to the Jeffersons theme song. How is anybody gonna thrive in someone else's institutions? . . .
"The thing isn't to get people, those frightened little sheep of white elitist mythology, to organize themselves, as if that hasn't always occurred to people everywhere. . . . White culture is so condescending. The thing is to get power off of people's backs, off their throats, out of their houses."
I didn't agree with everything Meyers wrote, but he came closer than anyone to offering a penetrating and coherent analysis of my book. Still, he didn't go far enough. The deepest problem with Bomb the Suburbs is what you see when you turn my critiques of others back on me.
One of the book's big themes is the importance of choosing your target. You can't just knock down whatever two-bit tyrant stumbles onto your path. You have to trace power to its source. Most of Bomb the Suburbs is spent attacking the wrong targets.
Look who my villains are: gangster rappers; rap journalists; petty white liberals; graffiti writers; record company executives; the CTA; mean police; suburbanites; drivers who won't pick me up hitchhiking; and editors who won't publish my book.
Look who my villains aren't: corporate robber barons; the prison system; military profiteers; real estate developers, zoning boards, and ass-kissing architects; drug-running CIA democracy destroyers; agribusiness and industrial polluters; rainforest axers; natural resource suckers; global media kingpins and their accomplices in the academy, philanthropy, law, and government; and the people who hire the editors who won't publish my book.
I let the big-time villains slide! I let them slide because they didn't seem interesting at the time. I didn't even know who they were. To find out would have required research, and I couldn't do anything about them anyway. The only villains I could do something about were the small-fry villains who happened to crawl onto my plate. I poured ketchup on them and stabbed them with my fork.
Strangers would correct me on the street. "The issue isn't cities versus suburbs," said a guy I was trying to sell the book to on an el platform. He said that 59 of Chicago's older suburbs were experiencing the same problems as the city--flight of capital, loss of population, eroding tax base, rising street crime--while the newer suburbs were getting subsidized to expand indefinitely into the countryside. "You have to realize who your potential allies are and frame the issue to your advantage," he said. "Cities by themselves politically can only lose."
It turned out the guy was Bob Heuer, a journalist who's been reporting on real estate and regional issues for six years. Finally he got so upset by what he was learning as a reporter that he became an activist, trying to help bring people together who don't yet realize they're getting screwed. One day I went with him and some activists from Lawndale out to the headquarters of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority to protest a proposed tollway that would eventually go to Peotone. "The tollways are the linchpin of disinvestment from the city and inner-ring suburbs," Heuer said. The toll authority was in a huge glass building, and its board was made up entirely of white men. No minorities, no women. I realized that these people probably have more power over Chicago's future than Mayor Daley, and no one even knows who they are. Shouldn't I have known this before I wrote the book?
Writing for me is a process of catching myself in subtler and subtler lies. People often describe Bomb the Suburbs as "brutally honest." I'm glad it isn't. If you're too honest, you can hurt people, especially people who are close to you. That's part of why people prefer fiction--by switching facts, you're allowed to be more emotionally true. But I feel like it's a cop-out to give my readers that escape hatch.
Still, Bomb the Suburbs has more than its share of lies. Some of the lies came from the business of publishing the book. I said I supported black businesses, but I turned down offers from black and Latino printers in Chicago, choosing instead a huge white-owned firm in Florida that won't use recycled paper.
Then there were outright lies. Every time a conversation is recorded in the book, I write what I wanted to say, not what I actually said. Five or six vignettes in Bomb the Suburbs bend the truth like this. When people meet me, they say, "You seem different from how you were in the book." Such a disappointment. When I talk, I don't get to do ten rewrites! What you're reading here is not in my true voice. It took dozens of editors to bang my thoughts into this form.
There were also plenty of mistakes. I thought I was clever for coining the phrase "double consciousness" until someone pointed out that it was actually coined a century ago by W.E.B. DuBois and that I had twisted the meaning. There may be more, I'm not really sure. The more I play with truth, the harder it is to remember what happened.
"There's no use writing anything that's been written before unless you can beat it," Ernest Hemingway said. This leaves you with only three options: (1) become a great writer like Hemingway; (2) stick to minor themes no one else bothers with; or (3) don't read. In Bomb the Suburbs, I mostly stuck to 2 and 3.
That's why Bomb the Suburbs is an inner-city book that omits poverty, drugs, gangs, and violence. A book about race relations that ignores systemic racism or anyone who isn't black or white. A book about hip-hop that barely mentions music or dance, fashion or style. A book about people that for the most part omits family, love, sex, work, politics, and religion. A book for young people with no cars, video games, TV, movies, sports, or school. An intellectual work lacking a foundation in history. Social criticism that doesn't deal with class, gender, sexual preference, or corporate hegemony. A supposedly bold book that timidly avoids most of life's big issues. A book about few of the things it appears to be about--neither hot topics of the day nor great themes of human life.
The original meaning of "bomb the suburbs" was to tell graffiti writers to stop fucking up the city. Once I had to explain myself to people outside of hip-hop, I didn't know what to say. I hadn't done enough research to criticize the suburbs, and the last thing I wanted to tell them was some hip-hop shit they could dismiss as a cute youth trend. So Bomb the Suburbs was reinvented as an all-encompassing metaphor for breaking down cliques in American life.
The idea of "mental suburbs" was a great theme because it applied to everyone. Yet, the material in the book hadn't caught up with my rhetoric. It still spoke only to my five or six original audiences. I had a big mouth, but it was toothless. For the majority of Americans, Bomb the Suburbs sounded like another annoying suburb--or ghetto more likely--that had nothing to do with them.
My defense was that at least the book was reaching young people who didn't otherwise read. As time went on this became less and less the case. I hadn't gone to the trouble of getting any black distributors, and outside of Chicago the audiences were smaller, older, and 80 percent white.
One day last spring, my roommate and I were talking about freight-hopping and where we wanted to hop that summer. I said, "You know that story in the book about how we hopped that freight to New York?"
He said, "Story? What story? That was in the book?"
This is my roommate. We've known each other for ten years. He's a brilliant rapper. He loves words. He's exactly the kind of person Bomb the Suburbs was written for. The book had been out for six months. Our apartment was littered with it. He'd been selling the book at work. If my own roommate wasn't reading the book, how many others were? I'd spent two years on the book so far. I began to ask myself what I was really trying to do, and whether books were the best way to do it.
After a few exciting months, the Vision Village was becoming a minor disaster: an institution to unite and nurture people to do all the wonderful things we must first do ourselves. The telephone rang day and night when it wasn't disconnected. People weren't coming there to "unite" with people unlike themselves, and they weren't reading the books in our library. People were coming there to see friends, to do supposedly creative things they already knew how to do, and to highlight the experience by smoking a blunt. By the end it had become a shantytown in a dungeon, dark and dirty with dog mess and refugees of every reason camping out in the common room. One of them called it a "hip-hop halfway house."
Fifteen-year-old Isaiah Dalton, one of the regulars, was beaten into a coma in a west-side neighborhood he'd started hanging out in after the situation at the Village began to deteriorate. If I'd found a benefactor or had a better business plan, I could've paid Isaiah to run the place, and maybe he wouldn't have spent the summer in a coma. Not that it's my fault. It's just that the average person in an average lifetime has the opportunity to save or cut short many lives. Once I factored in my links as a consumer to sweatshops, rain forests, and military dictatorships, I realized that I was ruining a lot more than I was saving.
Before I moved to the Vision Village, my goal had been to become a walking vision village. I spent my free time going to other people's neighborhoods, reading other people's books, and listening to other people. Now everyone was coming to my house, reading my book, working on my projects, and listening to me. My success and notoriety as a writer had the paradoxical effect of reducing my effectiveness as an organizer.
As a child of the mass media, I never questioned my addiction to fame. I just wanted more of it. Jail takes away your freedom. Fame flatters you into giving it up. The more you do what you're supposed to do when you're a semirecognized person, like answering the phone and opening your mail, the less time you devote to learning what made you worth listening to in the first place. Instead of continuing to develop my ignorant ass, I had tried to institutionalize and codify what I already knew.
A thousand people had come to the book-release party, so I expected 3,000 for Bomb the Ghettos. Less than 500 people showed up, and by the end of the summer only 20 entries had been submitted to the contest. Most of the writers I knew, even people who'd been at the festival, didn't submit anything, even though I reminded them to. I ended up giving out twice as much as I'd promised in prize money--I wish I could have given out more.
There won't be a Bomb the Ghettos contest this year. I'm too young (and not quite rich enough) to be throwing contests instead of reading and learning myself. I don't like the idea of contests, something I didn't realize until I threw one (I thought I just didn't like other people's contests--mine was gonna be different). The contest put me in the position of playing God and the contestants in the position of trying to win by some other fool's standards.
I knew I was doing things wrong. My friend Amanda kept saying we had to make the writers' meetings less centered on me. I agreed. I tried pulling people aside and encouraging them to take over. I tried delegating responsibility. I tried not showing up to meetings. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. As long as we were pursuing my dreams--as much as I felt they were our dreams--it was impossible for meetings to center on anyone other than me. The writers' workshops died the week I left on tour.
I desperately wanted to be part of a team. I never knew whether to say "I" or "we," "my" or "our." Since I never searched hard for mentors, I always got myself into situations where I was the mentor.
One after another, the "bombs" were blowing up in my face. Most of my friendships were in disrepair. The hypocrisy of my public and private lives became unbearable and "bomb the suburbs" took on a sour meaning in our house. My roommates barely even said good-bye when I left for the Bet With America. They were relieved I was gone.
Now you've heard the elevated side and the subway side of the story. When the State Street subway emerges on the south side at 16th Street, it continues on to 95th at ground level. I've been a subway person and an elevated person. Now I want to be a grounded person. Call it "triple consciousness." Not until you've glimpsed heaven and hell can you appreciate being on earth.
THE GROUNDED SIDE
It's taken me six months to write this article. When I got to this point, I envisioned a whole third section about being "grounded." This part was gonna take us all the way to the end of the line. The problem is, I'm not grounded, and writing about it won't help me get grounded. If writing for me is a process of catching myself in subtler and subtler lies, it's also a process of inventing them. It may help you face difficult truths, but it can also help you avoid them.
My favorite line in Bomb the Suburbs is when Super LP Raven says, "The real thing for me was to be a student, a learner, rather than an overrated teacher."
Last year at this time, I knew what I wanted to be in life: a writer, a teacher, a publisher, an artist, a community organizer, an entrepreneur, a politician, and famous. The greatest lesson Bomb the Suburbs taught me is that I don't want to be any of these.
I went jogging with my dad the other day. He's a professor at the University of Chicago. I asked him how many mentors he's had in life. He counted eight or nine.
"That's all?" I asked. "Do you ever feel narrow?"
"I've had a lot of mentors compared to most people."
My dad says most professors he knows have had only four or five. Some even got away with one or two. But I find myself wondering what kind of person my father would be if instead of 8 or 9 mentors he'd studied with 80 or 90, not just at universities but from all walks of life. I wonder what's the minimum number of mentors a person needs to even become aware of their potential. Most people my age say they don't have any role models. I figure I need at least 300. The lower the quality of the role models, the more of them you need. Maybe if they're really good, I could get away with 50.
Kurt Vonnegut wishes he could "provide all Americans with artificial extended families of a thousand members or more . . . and I hope they will become international. . . . Only when we have overcome loneliness can we begin to share wealth and work more fairly."
Does that sound like a foolish dream? Good. So was my book. The only thing that's going to prevent things from getting worse is ordinary people fighting for our foolish dreams. And trying again smarter when it blows up in our faces.
By the time this article comes out, I'll be gone from Chicago. I'm going to travel around to see what other people are doing.
Everything I was trying to do, other people are doing better. There are now quite a few publications for inner-city youth: Voices of Cabrini, Caught in the Middle, Journal of Ordinary Thought, For the South Side, Red Line, Literary Explosion--and The Agenda, which was around before we were anyway. Grassroots organizations like the Southwest Youth Collaborative, Street-Level Youth Media, Youth Struggling for Survival, Ill State Assassins, Euphonics, and the Rogers Park Youth Congress are constantly coming up with fresh alternatives to gang-banging and video games. More rap groups than I can name are putting out their own albums and selling them by the thousands. The youngest wave of rappers, writers, DJs, and dancers are throwing all-city meetings in the park. There's even some kids taping up homemade publications on the train lines.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.