‘When Crack Was King’: Author Donovan X. Ramsey Explores The Tragic Epidemic That Left Scars On the Black Community

In his new book, the journalist uses data and real-life stories to compose a portrait that explores a devastating legacy and provides stunning resolutions to an ongoing issue.

More than four decades have passed since crack cocaine first hit the streets of America, and many scholars, writers, politicians, physicians, and others are still trying to make sense of how this phenomenon did so much damage to so many people.

It’s a question that still hasn’t been answered because the impact of the drug is still resonating in many communities that are left scarred by the epidemic. Journalist Donovan X. Ramsey, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, is one of three generations who witnessed the crack scourge. Several years ago, Ramsey set out on a quest to find answers, which resulted in his latest book: When Crack Was King: A People’s Story of a Misunderstood Era (Penguin Random House).

In his journey, Ramsey crisscrossed the country, speaking to hundreds of people who were impacted by the drug in some way. While the book reviews the history of crack in America and empirical data to support his findings, he also provides perspective from four individuals (one of them being former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke) who experienced the epidemic in different ways.

Ramsey spoke with about the process of writing the book and what he learned while doing it. Why did you decide to write a book about such a painful chapter of history?

Donovan X. Ramsey: I grew up, as many children of the 80s did, in a neighborhood that was hard hit by the crack epidemic. Even though society kind of moved on, I still felt like  there wasn't a lot of understanding and healing around that period of time. There were still things that I didn't understand about why it happened or the scale of what happened. The more that I learned, the more that I realized that there should be an official history, so people like me could better understand the world that we're in.

Justice Department Adjusts Longstanding Drug Policy On Crack, Powder Cocaine To End Racial Disparities You tell the story not only through data but also through the actual storytelling of several people, each coming from their own perspective. What are you hoping readers will learn from this?

Donovan X. Ramsey:  I wanted to be able to share a sort of official history to understand the rise and fall of the epidemic. But you can't present a history like that without also explaining its impact on people. When it comes to major moments in Black history, what’s often missing is we hear about these big events, but then we hardly ever get to talk about how they actually impact people. So I didn't want to write a history that left people out. Those narratives of the four individuals, Kurt (Schmoke), Lennie (Woodley), Elgin (Swift), and Shawn (McCray), are just as important as the official history to me. Some of this book is very hard to read,  likely triggering bad memories for those who lived through the crack days. Were you apprehensive about this?

Donovan X. Ramsey: I was, especially in my research and my interviewing and reporting.  I was really careful not to trigger anybody, especially the participants who had gone through addiction. I didn't want to bring back some of those really painful memories. But I think that there's a reason why we avoid dealing with topics like this and why we avoid the kind of hard work of looking at our past and our histories directly in the eye. That's because it does bring up lots of painful feelings, but my belief is that those feelings are really always there and that it takes projects like this to be able to actually deal with them make sense of them and put them in their proper place. These folks didn't seem to have a problem telling you just about how tough—in some cases, how awful—their lives became because of crack. How did you convince them to tell their stories?

Donovan X. Ramsey: It was difficult. I interviewed hundreds of people throughout 2018. I traveled to the 10 hardest hit cities and interviewed people who experienced the crack epidemic from lots of different perspectives. Most of those people aren't in the book because they just weren't able to really go in depth about what they experienced. Sean, Elgin, Lennie, and Kurt are unique in that they were really ready to tell their stories. It did take some convincing, but I think that once we started talking about that period of time for them, they were able to understand that I was really interested in their truth. Everything kind of flowed from there.

Jemele Hill Says Her Mother Showed Her What Crack-Cocaine Looked Like At A Very Young Age What understanding do you want people to have once they learn more about the history of the crack epidemic?
Donovan X. Ramsey: Something that I was definitely curious about was who we were as a community before the crack epidemic. Black history is often taught as slavery, and then you skip straight to the Civil Rights Movement, and then it's done. But for me, this book was meant to bridge the gap between the moment that we're in today and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Once people have that understanding of some of the shortfalls of the Civil Rights  Movement, some of the fallout of the devastation of the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X, and the riots of the 1960s, then they can actually understand how those events impacted people. They're not things that just happened in a vacuum. There were consequences to Black folks losing our leaders and all the disappointment of the change that never came. My own neighborhood was a great place to grow up, but then one day somebody took that first hit and it was a domino effect. You expound on things like that in the book, but can people who didn’t experience the epidemic really understand what happened to people's lives at that moment?

Donovan X. Ramsey: I think that we could look at a substance like crack and say, 'Well, that was the silver bullet that brought everything down.’ I wanted the book to explain how crack was really just a stand-in for the social dynamics that were already happening. Major industrial cities were already experiencing some level of decline because of deindustrialization and the loss of what had been great jobs for people where they could buy a home and send their kids to college. The decline of that economy happened prior to the crack epidemic.

When we look at how working class Black neighborhoods become ghettos, a lot of people will say, ‘oh, well, that was because of crack.’ In fact, crack was a symptom of a much larger illness. Many of us, especially Gen Xers and Millennials, vividly remember crack but from the perspective of children. Do you think we’ve shaken it off?

Donovan X. Ramsey: As a nation, we still live with crack’s residue. Something as simple as the attitudes that people have about major cities is still a sort of crack-era attitude; [the opinion] that cities are these dangerous, violent places that you don't want to live in are ideas that politicians still espouse that just aren't true.

When it comes to attitudes, there's still a lot of fear and shame,especially in Black communities, around this period. People haven't taken the time to really think about what substance abuse and addiction are and to make amends with their relatives or community members who were basically exiled during this period. As a result, it continues to shape who we are as a people and how we deal with the problems that impact us. Do you think Black people have learned enough to prevent another phenomenon like the crack epidemic from happening again?

Donovan X. Ramsey: I hope that people read the book and have conversations about the content. And if they can't read the book, I hope that we can just really start to have real substantive conversations about substance abuse and our country’s drug policies.

Drug epidemics have always been a part of American history. My hope is that, sooner rather than later, we create a system to handle addiction. It would be a dream when you see somebody overdosing or having some sort of drug related episode. There could be somebody you could call to get some help besides the police. And we're still far from having a system like that.

Donovan X. Ramsey’s “When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era” is available where books are sold. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

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