Street Knowledge: Reconciliation With My Outlaw Past
By Max Hunter, The John Perkins Center Teaching Fellow
Last October, I received an email from Theron Stevenson of the Clowes Center for the Study of Conflict and Dialogue at the University Of Washington. Like the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University, the Clowes Center is keenly interested in reconciliation, leadership training, and community development.
Stevenson asked if I’d speak at the Clowes Center’s Veterans of Intercommunal Violence lecture series. He explained, “Someone mentioned that you also have a story about life in a gang followed by a shift towards a different sort of social engagement. So we just thought, Why not ask Max?”
Familiar with the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program, I knew a bit about the lecture series and the former lecturers. Previous speakers had been formidable ones: Yazir Henri, anti-apartheid combatant turned peace activist and scholar; Marco Antonio Garavito, Guatemalan guerrilla-turned-community-mental-health advocate; and Nirmala Rajasingam, Sri Lankan human rights activist and feminist. These lecturers had laid a challenging platform for future speakers.
Moreover, CHID faculty and students are formidable scholars. I had studied with both Jim Clowes and John Toews, so I had firsthand experience for their intellectual and social impact. Jim Clowes was a significant faculty member at the UW. Clowes and Toews had founded the program; a sort of an academic cult at the UW.
During my undergraduate years, I read Jim’s senior thesis on the Holy Spirit. Being a Pentecostal, I was impressed by the combination of his theological acuity and experiential knowledge. Beyond that, a brilliant scholar and an exemplary human being, Clowes has influenced a number of students, intellectuals, and activists.
I had studied with John Toews in the early 1990s. His scholarly work was recognized with a fellowship prize in 1984 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation — with one of the famed “genius grants.” Toews had recommended me for the lecture, and I would become the first graduate of the program to speak in the series. This invitation was an important one.
After meeting with the center’s new director, Maria Elena Garcia, I decided that I needed to take on this challenge. The talk would be “Gangster Epistemology: Urban Crime and the American Dream.”
The invitation was a timely one. Last fall, two decades after leaving “the game,” I began to write my autobiography with the UW’s Dr. Donna Kerr. This work prepared me to begin to tell a story that I had been unable to speak about publicly since I left the streets after my Christian conversion in 1989.
Kerr, as a scholar and a human being, is interested in how various forms of domination and nurture effect human formation. She explained:
As an educator (or parent), one stands in a morally precarious position; it is so very easy to do harm. In such asymmetrical relationships, nurturing (and not dominating or "colonizing") others is to me the most complex, most important, and very highest human achievement, no matter whether the others are young children or adults. Such is the stuff of helping to develop livable lives and democratic character under highly imperfect conditions.
She and others challenged me to go to the root of my ambivalence about traditional strategies among African-Americans for social mobility and racial uplift.
In the end, I had to revisit and write about early childhood experiences with the “politics of respectability,” racial uplift, black nationalism, and my eventual identification with outlaw culture. In the past, I had talked to close friends and the media about my experience in the streets, but I remained ambivalent about speaking in public for a couple of reasons. Telling a story about my selling cocaine and violence in my family and the black community could serve to create what SPU Professor of English Kim Segall calls “the crisis of witnessing.” This crisis emerges from both the fear of reproducing a stereotype and breaking a communal silence.
There was another important reason. My story is not a traditional conversion narrative. As wannabe-preppy undergraduate who was working in a detention center, I had grown up in a family and community that created the context for my gang affiliation. During my college years, a sense of social isolation led to my dropping out to deal cocaine.
During the roaring 1980s, an era of narcissism and corruption, I was at the epicenter of the most dramatic episode in the War on Drugs in which our nation has been involved. My story implicated politicians, law enforcement, professional athletes, and major figures in the underground economy. Early on, the story was a dangerous one to utter, as my brother and friends were involved in federal indictments. Later, my brother would become a fugitive, so federal marshals visited the family on a weekly basis. Even in preparing to share my story this time, a death threat emerged against family members — many of whom still have their heads in the lion’s jaws.
Stepping back to look at the whole picture
In 2002, journalist Tan Vinh wrote about my transformation in a Seattle Times article, but he demonstrated some of the flaws associated with binary ways of viewing journeys such as mine. He turned my experience into a boot-strap success story. But this approach overlooked a crucial factor of my transition into and out of the streets: the role of incremental change.
Vinh’s article failed to capture the fact that I was always learning, whether in the streets or in the schoolhouse. Instead, he had described a downward spiral from birth into the depths of an urban nightmare and then a teleological trajectory toward Harvard, making my story into a narrative of urban renewal. He’d hoped I could reveal a precise moment of epiphany, a dramatic point of rupture between the old and new me. But there was no such moment. My transformation was cumulative — the product of many pivotal moments.
Vinh, like so many others, was a victim of binary thinking and oblivious to the many variables and contradictions that shape and define the trajectories of journeys like mine. But I would try again with “Gangster Epistemology.”
Following the two-hour lecture, one of the most consistent comments that I heard was “Your talk blew my mind.” On some level, sharing about how perpetrators of violence emerge out of situations of violence resonated with the audience. Listeners understood the cognitive dissonance created by the choice between pursing the American Dream and abandoning the dream of middle-class respectability or to pursue material comfort within an underground economy.
Fortunately, my grandmother raised me with the idea that my fate was linked to the fate of other black people. Thus, my personal advancement would mean racial progress, but at the same time, I had grown up in poverty without a roadmap to success. In the end, as a first-generation college student, my socioeconomic contexts lead to identification with outlaw culture.
By bearing witness to my story, I hoped to accomplish three things:
- Expose binary thinking about criminality and black males.
- Create reconciliation between two competing ideologies “the politics of respectability” and the “politics of identification” with criminals.
- Uncover the social and cultural foundations of my interest in education.
I made headway toward these goals. As a black man talking about my criminal past, I was forced to reiterate a stereotype. At the same time, however, now that I have four university degrees — two from Harvard — I contradicted the same stereotypes about black men.
Contradicting the stereotype
In my case, for instance, it’s often been assumed that at some point I became smart enough to realize the error of my ways, determined that violence wasn’t working, and decided to convert to nonviolent action. Both ways of reading my journey and that of other black men from “bestial black” to “redeemed, rational agent” have their downsides. Viewing black men as victims of biological and cultural determinism constructs us as unreasoning beasts, products of appetite, or victims of circumstances.
But viewing us as magically reformed, autonomous, agents speaks to misguided beliefs in individualism that fail to take into account the ways in which history, communities, environmental forces, and the state shaped the trajectory of our journeys. My story is one that showed the interaction between my commitment to the community, a burgeoning moral reasoning, and what I believe was God initiating a new phase in my cognitive, moral and spiritual development. Theologians might argue that my redemption involved reconciliation to God; a sovereign act based on unmerited favor. The other form of reconciliation in this story, however, was more abstract, metaphysical, and ideological. The former created an inner spiritual peace, the latter an intellectual sense of coherence.
I believe my story has implications for educational thought as well. In retrospect, I can see that an inevitable psychosocial maturation combined with my experience in the streets led to the development of what University of California at Berkeley professor, Na’ilah Nassir, terms an “identity of competence.” In short, on my own, I began to synthesize all the ideas I had learned about what it means to live as a healthy individual and valuable human being. A late bloomer of sorts, as I matured my mind began to develop an elasticity that allowed me to hold two competing worldviews in tension.
Finally, during the last phase of preparation, I began to rethink theological assumptions. I began to see that crime and hedonism had not put me out of the reach of God’s concern. In fact, my reading of Scripture suggested that Jesus’ identification with those in sex work and outlaw enterprises was nothing short of God’s politics of identification. Jesus, in fact, had indentified with outlaws by dying on Calvary between two criminals. In the end, I discovered that my own thinking allowed for identification with both the middle-class agenda for social mobility (education and respectability) and a radical egalitarian inclusion of criminally involved black males as members of our society.
Max Hunter joined the staff of the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University in 2008. While at Harvard University, he studied in the Graduate School of Arts and Science, the Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Medical School. He has an A.M., Ed.M., and the certificate in bioethics from Harvard Medical School.
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