Ep. 276 How We Keep Each Other Alive with Donovan X. Ramsey – Transcript

Journalist Donovan X. Ramsey joins us to talk about his illuminating narrative nonfiction book When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era. Donovan explains exactly what crack is, and describes how he found his subjects for the book. We also talk about the disparities in crack sentencing and media coverage, the role rap music played in the crack epidemic, and how the era ended.

The Stacks Book Club selection for July is Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.We will discuss the book on July 26th with Joel Christian Gill.


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Photo: Antonia M. Johnson

Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we welcome Donovan X. Ramsey to the show. Donovan is a journalist and author and he’s here today to discuss his debut book When Crack Was King, A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era. It’s a poignant and thoroughly researched expose on the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. It’s told through stories of for affected individuals have to say this book was one of my most anticipated books of the year. I read it and it lives up to my own personal hype. So there you go, folks. Donovan, and I talk today about politics and media during the crack era, the way that Donovan crafted this book and what he hopes to accomplish by sharing these stories. Remember, our book club selection for July is Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’ll discuss the graphic novel with Joel Christian Gill on July 26. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. And if you want more of the stacks, you can join the stacks pack. It’s just $5 a month and if you join you have access to our monthly virtual book club hangs the stacks pack discord, and the stacks bonus episodes, you have the backlist ones and the ones that are coming out next, and this month, we’re going to be discussing the HBO series watchmen to go along with our book club episode on the book Watchmen. So yes, you’re going to want to join the six pack to hear all of that juiciness to head to patreon.com/the stats to join. Shout out to our newest members of the stacks pack, Kristin Hazel, Erica Simmons and Kate Palmer. Thank you all so much. And thank you to the entire stacks pack. Alright, now it’s time for my conversation with Donovan X. Ramsey.

Alright, everybody, I am so excited. If you have been following me on Instagram, if you have been listening to this podcast, you have heard me talk about this book. It is one of my most anticipated books of the year. And guess what? It did not disappoint. Thank God. I am joined today by the author of When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era. Donovan X Ramsey, welcome to The Stacks.

Donovan X. Ramsey 2:13
Hey Traci, thank you for having me.

Traci Thomas 2:16
I’m just so excited to have you. I am so grateful this book exists. So let me just start there. Thank you for doing this for us for the culture for the world.

Donovan X. Ramsey 2:26
Wow. No, thank you for saying that. Um, um, the thing, you know, I, I wrote the book that I set out to write. So it’s like, nice to see it exists in the world. And you know, people get to experience it.

Traci Thomas 2:38
I love that. Okay, in about 30 seconds or so just tell people what the books about.

Donovan X. Ramsey 2:43
Okay, so the book is I call it People’s History of the crack epidemic, it is both a chronicling of the rise and falling of crack, but also the lives of four people who were touched intimately by the epidemic. And it’s a book that it took me about five years to write, I went out all over the country to the cities that were the hardest hit and interviewed hundreds of people. And I pulled together this story that really illustrates both the vulnerabilities that exist in our society that led to the crack epidemic, but also the ways that we survived it.

Traci Thomas 3:21
Where did you get the idea for the book?

Donovan X. Ramsey 3:23
So I got the idea for this book, because I, you know, I’m really a child of the crack era, I was born in 1987, I grew up in the 90s. And in a neighborhood that was hard hit by crack, and, um, you know, my, like, earliest memories, you know, are of the, you know, guys hanging out on the corners, and my mom telling me to look away into my, my business, my earliest memories are of, you know, my first bike being stolen by an addict. I, like, you know, lost the air in my tire. And I was too scared to go home and tell my mom and this guy was like, hey, I can fix that for you. So, you know, I gave him my bike, and stood there for hours, and he never came back. So for me, you know, I grew up in that environment, but I was really sheltered from the environment by my mother, thank God. And that just left me with tons of questions about what exactly was happening and why it was happening to my community. And as I got older there, you know, weren’t any books, I was surprised and actually tried to answer that question. So that’s the book that I set out to write.

Traci Thomas 4:30
And then once you set out to write the book, how did you figure out how it would work would work formally and for people who don’t know sort of I should tell you how it’s set up basically, Donovan is sort of writing for different stories of for different people who experienced the crack epidemic in different places in the country. And then also weaving in the history and sort of the politics of the time. The book is The books are not the same, but what I kind of compare it to is The Warmth of Other Suns where it’s like You have these people who are journeying with us through this time period. But also Donovan is making sure that we have like the important information that may be current or Leni, like wouldn’t, wouldn’t tell us like they’re not gonna be like so this is what Nixon was up to. So it’s sort of a combination of like this. It’s definitely narrative nonfiction. It’s a combination of like personal stories, and then also like the bigger picture. So how did you figure out that that’s how you wanted to do it?

Donovan X. Ramsey 5:25
You know, you got it exactly right. I still Isabelle worker since flow exactly that. And I read the other signs. And I thought, well, this is why you write a book, that this is why you take this form something of this length, to give context to something that people think they understand. So, you know, I saw what she did with, you know, those three characters who kind of illustrated different perspectives. And I thought, well, how can I do this for a story as big as the crack epidemic? And I truly tried not to like, you know, at one point, I wanted to do the book entirely about Washington, DC, as the nation’s capital. And but then I realized crack hit neighborhoods in different cities at different times, it declined at different times, that it was sort of expressed in different ways, right? So like on the west coast in LA, you get Bloods and Crips and gang culture. And you know, on the east coast, you get like Jamaican, posses, and like Dominican dealers, and, you know, the story in DC is so political. So it seemed to me that, you know, in order to write something definitive, I had to kind of spread out and kind of make it kaleidoscopic, you know, was is was was the goal.

Traci Thomas 6:41
Yeah. And then how did you source your people? You have, you know, a politician, you have people who were selling crack people who were doing crack, like, how did you decide? Or I guess, what was the process to finding them? Where did you go in saying, like, I want to find someone like this, did you go in saying, I know, I want Kurt Schmoke? Like, how did you figure out and like, were there people that maybe you thought you were going to use, then you were like, Oh, this doesn’t work anymore. Like this story is too repetitive to someone else’s, or something else like that?

Donovan X. Ramsey 7:15
You know, it was it was really, really hard. Tracy it was. So like, the task was I needed to find people who, whose lives and experiences sort of demonstrated different perspectives of the crackup. Right. So, you know, like, I knew that I needed to have a former attic, I knew that I needed to have a dealer, I really wanted to have an elected official to kind of, like, illustrate that like policy perspective. And I knew that I wanted to have someone who was related to an addict or dealer, because that’s the experience of so many black Americans is that you may have not been personally involved in the drug trade. But I think many of us love somebody or loved somebody that was involved. So that perspective needed to be there. And, um, so it was, you know, that that was the mandate. And I traveled to the 10 Hardest hit cities. And I just, you know, went into barber shops, I went into hair salons, I went to community centers, and I, you know, asked people questions and just talked about what I was doing. And there was this outpouring of stories and of experience. And I put out some open calls on Twitter and Instagram. And again, there was an outpouring, I realized that people were that these stories were on the tip of their tongues, that they, you know, we’re seeing sort of the conversations come back up, but they didn’t feel like they had a chance to have their say. So I ultimately settled on the fort sort of characters that I have Lynnie Woodley, a former user out of South Central LA elegent Swift, whose father was an addict for many years out of New York, Kurt Schmoke, who’s the former mayor of Baltimore, and Sean McCray, who was a dealer out of Newark, New Jersey, I settled on them because one they were willing to talk to me. Right to, they had stories that felt like they were representative of the kind of folks that they were standing in for. And they just, I mean, you know, when you read the book, you’ll see like-

I just fell in love with them.

They felt like people that I knew, and, you know, they kind of just had that spark that we just vibe like that. So that’s why they ended up in the book.

Traci Thomas 9:36
Ok, so let me ask you this then about about the subjects that you ended up picking. I think one of the things that’s tricky about a book like this is that you end up if you’re talking to people who survived something like this with sort of like a rosier outlook on the whole situation, because if you were interviewing someone at the time, you know, like, maybe they die, maybe they ended up in prison, but in this case, is 40 years after the fact like, we know from the beginning that they’re at least in a place where they’re comfortable like talking to you, and they have at least their life together to a point where they survived this far. And I’m wondering, like how that affected sort of your storytelling or your approach as an author trying to paint like A People’s History knowing that for so many people, it, it ended very, very badly.

Donovan X. Ramsey 10:24
Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great question. You know, it was a difficult a difficult decision to make to sort of make the book entirely about these four people who survived it. But, you know, ultimately, I decided that the history that exist that was told by mainstream media already had so much so much debt devastation, and that my book, I want it to not necessarily correct that right, but to supplement it with these other stories of survival, and also knowing that for for each of them, even within their lives, and their stories, there are so many people who didn’t survive, right. So you know, Sean McCray, for example, you know, was able to avoid, you know, any major jail time for the, you know, the fact that he was selling drugs for over a decade or so. But most of his friends got locked up. And a really good friend of his, you know, Mad Dog was was was killed when he was a very young man. And, you know, Shawn, is still living with and dealing with the fallout of that, of the destruction of his community, the Hayes homes projects. So you know, even his story of survival, gives you windows into the devastation.

Traci Thomas 11:44
Right. Okay, one more question about this. And then I have many others, but how, like, this is pretty formal question. But how do you decide who gets to talk? When, like, how do you decide, okay, because like, in the beginning of the book, we hear a lot from leaning, and then we don’t hear from her for a while. And I have my own assumptions about why that happens that way. But how are you as the author thinking about like, okay, in the early 1980s, like, we really want to hear from Sean and like, Sean, sort of our narrator throughout the whole thing. And Elgin, sort of, you know, comes up a little more later on, like, what are the logistics of you figuring out who gets to say, What, When, yeah,

Donovan X. Ramsey 12:24
it was a really hard book to write in terms of mostly around the structure, right. So like, I had done tons of reporting before and tons of writing before, so that stuff came a little more easily to me. But putting together a book of this length, it’s over 400 pages, and weaving together, first, just the rise and fall of crack. But then the lives of these four individuals in different cities who never meet was really like a really big and like ambitious task. Ultimately, what I had to do was to lay out all of their stories just chronologically, and to really figure out knowing that the meta history had to be sort of the spine of the book, in that their stories should branch out from the meta history. So leading with whose story connected most at that time to what was happening in the larger story of crack. And, you know, there are periods where, you know, because Elgin is the youngest, he doesn’t appear for a while, but everybody else’s life, sort of our or at least their story on that timeline begins in his takes a little bit longer. And then Lynnae literally, because, you know, because she was actively using everyday for a long period, they are huge swaths of time that she just doesn’t remember. Yeah, you know, that also, because so much of what she experienced was traumatizing. And she was completely outside of her body for it. She just doesn’t remember. So, you know, in a way, I hope that it’s effective, because it represents the way that people like linie actually show up in the lives of people who know them, right, is that she was there. And then she disappeared. And then there are these little glimpses, right of knowing that she’s still alive, and that she’s still going through. And then she comes back a survivor, but, you know, that’s the reality of it. And that was really hard for me to accept. And she and I, you know, we did a lot of interviewing a lot of talking, and, you know, really tried my best to get memories out of her than ultimately, you know, there were interviews that I did with people, you know, in her life that I thought could maybe fill in some of those holes. But then I realized no, you know, that like, I think it actually is significant for the reader to like, miss her during those chapters.

Traci Thomas 14:55
I mean, I definitely had that experience. I was like, Where did she go? Where is she like, why are we You’re not hearing from her. And it wasn’t until she came back that I was like, Oh, I think it’s because she wasn’t able to, to fully share that part of her life because she doesn’t remember it, or the memories are unclear and all jumbled together because of the drug use. Yeah. Okay, this is a very rudimentary question. But you do such a good job of explaining this in the book. What is crack?

Donovan X. Ramsey 15:27
Yeah. Um, okay, so I will give you like the big grand metaphysical answer that yes, you know, crack is a substance that came into American life in the early 1980s. That completely upended urban communities. And it became the reason for a intensified war on drugs that we’re still recovering from. And it launched a lot of myths and really a culture war against black and Latino Americans in this country. Crack is also the same exact substance chemically as powder cocaine. It has. It was its original name was Freebase. And that’s a chemical term for taking a compound like powder cocaine, and freeing its base from the other elements, which makes it smokeable. So it’s the same substance as powder cocaine, it has the same high as powder cocaine, which is euphoria and stimulation. Except, like, like anything you smoke, it goes to the brain directly. So it’s a very quick high, it’s very intense, and it’s short lived. And because of that, you saw a different pattern of use for crack users, which means that you are binging crack, as opposed to, you know, what other folks do with powder cocaine, which is, you know, have some and then you’re just hi for a while, and you have a little bit more later. I would like it for anybody that that might be not like clear enough or to like an edible, like an edible, right, like a sort of wheat brownie, for example, versus smoking a joint a person that, you know, consumes a wheat brownie might think, Huh, I’m not high. No, that we brandy had no effect on me, then maybe 30 minutes an hour later, you’re high for three hours. Whereas you know, somebody that’s maybe smoking a joint, you’re going to get immediately high, and you’re going to have to keep smoking a joint to stay high. I’m saying you know that like, that’s just the way that like, you know, chemicals work in our bodies. So, got it. Yeah.

Traci Thomas 17:43
But so Freebase and crack are the same thing.

Donovan X. Ramsey 17:46
freebasing crack are the exact same thing in terms of the the substance that’s produced that there was a different process for making it. Freebase was made with more volatile chemicals, things like ether. And that made it really difficult to make. So you know, the stories of people in the late 70s, early 80s, you know, blowing themselves up trying to Freebase that’s because they were using bobbum chemicals. A little story that I’ll share, though, is that, in my research, I was told by several different sources that they learned how to make Freebase from a handful of Bay Area college students, white students at Berkeley, who were cocaine enthusiast, that were experimenting with it, you know, in the way people experiment with drugs, that they, you know, took powder cocaine under this chemical process. And they created Freebase. And it became so popular in the bay that, you know, I was able to track down a book published in the late 70s, called the pleasures of cocaine, that was sold in independent bookstores and what they call a hedge shop. So any place that you could buy like a bomb, basically. And that was one of the ways that it became really popular and spread throughout the Bay, and then to LA, right, that the that the knowledge follows the typical routes, right of like relationship and connection. So from the bay to LA, to Seattle to Portland, from LA to New York, right. And then from New York, you know, up and down the East Coast, then ultimately, then into middle America. But that’s sort of like one of the interesting stories about the origins of crack is that, you know, it seems as though it was Bay Area hippies, that that created it.

Traci Thomas 19:36
Well, as a Bay Area native, I am so proud of our like, I just I guess like, I knew I knew that crack and cocaine were the same substance, right? Like, I feel like if you read The New Jim Crow, that’s really hammered home in the like difference in sentencing. But one of the things that comes up towards the end of the book is about Obama’s Fair Sentencing. Like where he reduces it you used to be 101 disparity of crack to cocaine 100. Sorry, opposite of cocaine to crack where you would get? No, I was right the first time crack, okay, you get 100 years for something that someone who did cocaine would get one or whatever. But in Obama’s Fair Sentencing, it’s still an 18 to one disparity. So is that fair? Is there a reason why it’s 18? To one? Like, is there anything about crack that is inherently more dangerous or more? Anything like, because wouldn’t Fair Sentencing be one to one?

Donovan X. Ramsey 20:39
Yeah, you would think that there’s nothing missing something here like is there? Well, you know, one of the things that’s really interesting is that just that law that came about in, I believe it was 88, that it was a reaction to the death of Len bias. Lim bias was a first round NBA draft pick out of the University of Maryland that got drafted to the Celtics, and the night of the draft, he overdosed on cocaine, not on crack, it turned out, right that he was not smoking crack, but he had consumed large amounts of cocaine and he died. And politicians in DC seized on it, to create these laws that, you know, ultimately criminalized cocaine possession more than it did any other drug. And yes, you’re right, it was a 100 to one sentencing disparity. So you got, you know, 100 times the amount of time that you would get for powder, cocaine, or crack, that was just arbitrary, right, but they one up to each other to that they were, you know, it should be 10 to one, it should be 20 to one, and they settled on 100 to one under Do you know, it’s like, you know, why not just, you know, kind of spitballing. And then, during the Obama administration, all of his sort of criminal justice reform efforts, they knew that they wanted to do something around crack. This was Obama’s DOJ, under Eric Holder, but it goes to show, you know, despite the fact that we’ve come so far, and somewhat in some regards, in our attitudes about the criminal justice system, that we haven’t come far enough, right, that we can accept that they are the same drug, and that we that in that they should get the same amount of time for possession. Um, and it’s something that I would like to see out of, you know, me, me publishing this book, hopefully, we can start a conversation about eliminating that disparity entirely.

Traci Thomas 22:38
Right? And like, you know, decriminalizing drugs or whatever, the current Schmoke line. Yeah, that’s like the real goal, right?

Donovan X. Ramsey 22:45
Oh, absolutely. I mean, you know, um, addiction is a public health issue. Right? Drug epidemics are public health issues that they, you know, are happening to groups of people at a time, because of factors that have to do with more than just a person’s willpower. And, you know, the criminal legal stuff is expensive, and it’s just never worked.

Traci Thomas 23:08
Yeah. Yeah. I feel like with, I mean, with Kurt Schmoke, who is the mayor of Baltimore, black mayor, first elected black mayor, young guy at the time, like sort of, you know, the way that you set it up in the book, and my understanding is that he’s sort of like this great black hope for this black city. And that he comes in, I mean, honestly, at the worst possible time, knowing what we know now for any black person to take over a city knowing that racism exists and the standard, the double standards and all those things he comes in, and he’s like, I’m gonna fix education. And then it’s like, Hey, guys, surprise, here’s coke. Good luck. And he pretty much right away is like, we should decriminalize this. And everyone is like, this nigga is trippin like this is what’s wrong with black people, right? We just told you there’s a drug epidemic and you said, Let them eat cake. And they rip him to shreds. They basically are just they call him every name under the book. They make him this horrible villain, whatever. his constituents stick with him. He does three terms. As the mayor of Baltimore, through the crack epidemic, he is there into the beginning stages, as the whole thing is ending. Everything is happening. He sticks by his lines. He puts together like commissions to try to figure out things, the needle exchange program that now is like kind of commonplace. He’s spearheads that. And I guess the question is I guess I guess more of a comment or I guess a question observation. We often talk about, that was just the time and everybody in 1845 own slaves, right, everybody in Nazi Germany, everybody in Germany was a Nazi. Like they were just following orders. And then we get stories of people like Kurt Schmoke, who, at the time, in the face of all of this other shit was like, No, this is treatment is great, decriminalizing would be helpful. Here are some options. And I guess the question in all of that is like, what can we learn from Kurt Schmoke? Aside from stick to your guns, like, what is the lesson in, in him and his service? And because it got bad in Baltimore?

Donovan X. Ramsey 25:56
Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great question. You know, um, Kurt, I really just love as a character, because he reminds me of like, so many of the really nerdy guys that I went to Morehouse with. And I should say that he was so much more than a nerd, right? Like Kurt Schmoke, integrates or helps integrate Baltimore City College, which is a high school in Baltimore, he was captain of the football team, his junior and senior year, took them to in one state championships, both of those years, he was senior class president, he, you know, then gets recruited to play football for jail. He stops a riot at Yale, and right.

Traci Thomas 26:42
Oh, right. That’s my favorite story. In the book for that one people.

Donovan X. Ramsey 26:47
You know, like, and then the faculty is so pleased with him that they, you know, unanimously nominate him for a Rhodes scholarship. He, you know, then goes to Oxford and to Harvard. And he wants nothing more than to go back to Baltimore and become mayor, given all of that, right. So this is super admirable guy. And, you know, he reminds me of myself, and that he thought that, you know, a good idea was a good idea that, you know, and that after having thought about it, and done the research, and his, you know, wife was a physician, that he thought that Baltimore given all of its health resources, and as public health resources can be a model city, or decriminalization, and especially with Baltimore, you know, which had, which was, you know, experiencing a crack epidemic, but it’s always had a huge problem with heroin and opioids, which people then you know, skyrocketing rates of HIV, AIDS infection because of the intravenous drug use. He thought we can’t afford to criminalize this we have to have a public health response. Right, you know, gives out needles and you know, helps people and like you said, he was called every name you know, in the book, including by people like Mary and Barry. Great said like you said, This nigga Sure, but why would we, you know, think that the thing to do would be to like, decriminalized drugs in

Traci Thomas 28:13
And Marion Barry was the black mayor of Washington, DC, who was also using crack.

Donovan X. Ramsey 28:17
Yes, he ultimately, you know, was put in, in, in in prison for her cocaine, possession, cotton, you know, on tape and a stinging smoking crack. And, you know, the lesson for me from Kurt Schmoke is that sometimes a good idea isn’t enough. Sometimes it isn’t enough to be smart and to make sense that that like a part of the work of, of creating good policy is like building consensus, and getting people knowledgeable and informed right about the things that you’re discussing, because fear is powerful, and shame is powerful. And, you know, people ultimately chose their fear over a good idea.

Traci Thomas 29:02
Right? Okay, let’s work our way up the political ladder. We go from city mayor, to President of the United States, we’ve got Nixon and we’ve got Reagan. We know from history from I can’t remember that guy’s name, but one of Nixon’s a few of Nixon’s people, they knew what the fuck they were doing there. You know, we know that they’re on tape talking about we can’t say this. We have to say this. Like, we can’t say nigger anymore. We have to say, you know, states rights. And we know that they knew what they were doing in criminalizing marijuana and cocaine, because I think it was marijuana and heroin at the time, because of counterculture hippies and because of urban centers, like they were purposefully attacking people who are anti war and then black people with this war on drugs. My question is about Ronald Reagan. How much Do we feel like Ronald Reagan knew that playbook? Versus he was given that playbook? Yeah.

Donovan X. Ramsey 30:09
I think that Ronald Reagan my, like, personal kind of assessment, is that right? Yeah.

Traci Thomas 30:13
I know that you don’t know. It’s just like something like, because I feel like we put it on Nixon really hard. And then I know that Reagan did fucked up shit. But how much of this was just like, here you go kid.

Donovan X. Ramsey 30:26
Yeah, yeah, that that, um, that playbook. You know, as you point out, goes back to Nixon, at least, you know, Nixon’s Law and Order War on Drugs playbook, you know, he only got to kind of taste a little bit of it, because ultimately got, you know, impeached and then resigned from from office. But, you know, it was completely picked up by Reagan and his administration, because it was so close starting to become so effective underwriting, and Reagan, as you know, the great communicator was able to take it to links. And you know, that the I don’t think Nixon could have even imagined one on like, the policy level, right, like the the sort of laws that came out under Reagan, but Reagan’s real contribution to the war on drugs is this messaging that completely vilified and demonized anybody involved in drugs. And, you know, one of the things that I love to point out from my research and I found that I found to be really interesting is that, you know, the Reagan’s use their Hollywood connections, the fact that they’ve been in Hollywood, that they knew lots of people in media and advertising, to completely infiltrate television during the 80s and 90s. With anti drug messaging. So you know, you you get the very special episode of your favorite sitcom

Traci Thomas 31:56
Saved by the Bell, baby, Jesse popping pills.

Donovan X. Ramsey 32:00
I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m so scared. So, you know, or like, you know, Nancy Reagan is on Diff’rent Strokes, or there’s even an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. And we’re Carlton I think is on some type of light speed at like a high school dance that all of that messaging comes out of the Reagan White House. And they also set aside a tremendous amount of fun funding for PSAs. In agency the I’m kind of blanking on it right now, the Partnership for for a drug free America. Oh, course. So you know, this is your brain on drugs, and-

Traci Thomas 32:40
Oh my God.

Donovan X. Ramsey 32:41
You know, some people would would credit that for anti drug attitudes that sort of came later. But there was so much misinformation in those ads. And there was so much harm created through the misinformation and through the ways that drug addicts were were presented, that, you know, that like they were doing all of this additional harm, you know, because it was politically valuable.

Traci Thomas 33:10
Right. Okay, we’ll stay on the media, though. I do have another Reagan question. Maybe later. I do want to say, We’re the same age, I’m 86 or 87. And when I think back on my childhood, and I think about those campaigns, and also the way that AIDS was portrayed in the media, I, you know, I can’t blame anybody for my brain. But I do feel that a lot of my anxiety has come from the way that I was so scared to be in the world, like that by touching anyone or anything, or speaking to anyone, or like ever looking at a drug or anything that I would become, you know, a quote unquote, crackhead or that like, I like there’s something about the way that that those media campaigns that I’ve just started to think about more recently, it’s just like, I was so scared of sex. I was so scared of drugs. I was so scared of alcohol, that in a way that like feels maybe too far.

Donovan X. Ramsey 34:10

Traci Thomas 34:13
Right? Yeah, like a neuroses almost

Donovan X. Ramsey 34:15
absolutely that like we, you know, HIV AIDS crack predate us. Right? Right. We we never got to live in a world where those things didn’t exist, which is a part of why I wanted to write the book and why the book starts, you know, in the 1960s, because I really wanted to know, what our world was like before in order to just ground you know, my like sense of things, but also to understand just how much was lost in terms of our ability to connect to each other. And I think that, you know, like you I was afraid of sex. I was afraid of drugs, but also I was afraid of other people. Other people totally, totally, you know, and and sadly you know, as like a black A person that grew up in a black neighborhood, I was afraid of other black people in some ways. And I was also afraid of this idea that I would be confused as a crack baby, or that people would take me for a super predator. And it was this. You know, it was like, you know, it didn’t just keep me away from drugs, it also plays in my imagination about myself and about my neighbors. And, you know, all of that is still being undone. And unlearned, and, you know, and researching this book, and ultimately writing it, you know, helped me kind of unpack some of that, you know, internalized bias that I had in my own community.

Traci Thomas 35:46
Right. And yeah, and I think it does sort of like, it definitely has stuck with me. Like, there are times where, like, I will catch myself feeling away that I’m like, That is like the weirdest thought to pop into your head about, you know, like, it’s just, it was so formative for us. And like, by the time we have probably memories about that stuff, it was like such a well oiled machine, right. Like, because, like, in the beginning, there was, especially I mean, around aids, there was like confusion, and there was not like, but by the time we’re coming up and like not the 90s it’s like, oh, this is what AIDS is. And this isn’t like, be scared. And then I guess, you know, back to the book, the media, and crack had a very intimate and abusive relationship. The media was horrible. Can you just tell people about Jimmy’s world because I did not know about Jimmy’s world. And that made my stomach hurt. So we just fill people in about I think that’s like, also like quintessential crack and the media story like to kind of illustrate this abusive relationship.

Donovan X. Ramsey 37:00
So you know, Jimmy’s world, you know, I think of as kind of like this proto typical, you know, urban America drug story. And it was written by a woman named Janet Cook, who was a metro reporter for The Washington Post. And it was about a nine year old, actually heroin addict named Jimmy in Washington, DC. And the story was that Jimmy was he grew up basically in a heroin shooting gallery that his mom operated, that they gave him, him, him heroin to, like, calm down throughout the day, that he was the product of incest, a relationship between his grandfather and his mother, that, you know, really everything terrible

Traci Thomas 37:45
that his stepfather shot would shoot him up with drugs.

Donovan X. Ramsey 37:47
Right, right. Exactly. Right.

Traci Thomas 37:52
And that Washington really stuck with me. Can you tell?

Donovan X. Ramsey 37:54
Because it’s just wild, right. And like the Washington Post ran this on the front page of the paper in in the 1980s. And it was a huge story right there caused like a big national stir. And it turned out that the entire thing was fabricated. It was won the Pulitzer. Oh, yes. Right. So that’s a very important point to make that Janet cook won the Pulitzer Prize, and she’s a black woman, a black woman from Toledo, Ohio. You know, I’m also from Ohio. You know, she was a young reporter that she won the Pulitzer for. So a few things. One, it appeared on the cover of the paper, without any images completely with illustrations, supposedly, because, you know, she was protecting her source that, that her editor never really fully investigated. Right? Like, you know, as a journalist, at least your editor should know who in anonymous sources, her editor had never met Jimmy had never verified Jimmy’s existence, that the paper at the time was being edited by Bob Woodward. have, you know, the Watergate scandal fame, somebody that knows anonymous sourcing better than anybody, all of these people were so eager to tell this story, that they put aside all of their journalistic values and integrity, ran it on the front page of the paper, despite the outlet, the objection of other black reporters at the paper who said, no way this is real. And it doesn’t sound real doesn’t sound like our community. We don’t think Janet even has the balls to go into that neighborhood and actually find a Jimmy, and they sit and they chalked it up to professional jealousy. And then they nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and then everything came tumbling down. All because of another lie, which was that Janet had lied about being a graduate of Vassar. And they could not confirm that so then they looked into the Jimmy story. And you know, the truth came out. And it is still today, the only Pulitzer Prize to ever be given back was this Pulitzer by this black woman who really wanted to make a big splash. And she knew better than anybody that the way to do that was with this completely anti black pathological story about a nine year old drug addict in DC, and it is still today, I think one of the most fascinating scam stories.

Traci Thomas 40:31
I mean, I would read an entire book on it.

Donovan X. Ramsey 40:35
You know, you know, I am working on something.

Traci Thomas 40:40
Here first, people.

Donovan X. Ramsey 40:43
You know, but it is a really fascinating story. You know, and like to your earlier point than that, even though this huge thing happens with Jimmy’s world that should have really shook up the entire journalism industry, that the industry still went on to perpetuate lots of myths and lies about black people in drugs, including the crack baby minute. Race, you know, was this idea that cocaine exposure in utero would have these irreversible damaging effects on the development of children. And that’s how you got the crack baby idea. Now, I should note, right that it’s important to say, substance abuse or use while pregnant is bad, right, that it can do things like separate your uterus from the uterine wall. And then ultimately, a lot of women gave birth to premature babies that had tons of issues. But what the scientists were finding when they were looking at these so called crack babies with things x is actually associated with premature birth. Right?

Traci Thomas 41:48
There’s like there’s no difference between a preemie and a baby who was exposed to crack who was also a preemie

Donovan X. Ramsey 41:54
right, in that this entire kind of generation of young people went on to actually be healthy in most cases, but they lived under this cloud of you will always be irredeemably broken. That was the belief that a Washington Post columnist wrote that death would have been better for these children than to have been born exposed to cocaine. And that’s a I mean, a lot a wild thing to say it, it was commonplace,

Traci Thomas 42:27
So I think what’s interesting about the jimmies world story is like you’re getting not. So you would think a story like that would stop a lot of this and the track and its tracks. But then of course, there’s capitalism. And there’s these newspapers that want to sell copies. And so then it’s like, Okay, this one was alive. But let’s go out and find a real Jimmy, let’s go out and find another salacious story. I mean, I didn’t know this, but you say in the book that the television show 48 hours is a spin off of like, of crack reporting, where it’s like, they were doing like 48 hours on like a crackdown, and then it just became the show 48 hours, like, crazy origin story for a show that’s like, so ubiquitous in American culture, it was just like, let’s fucking find people and hang out with them for 48 hours and watch them do drugs and just fucking film it and just jack off to it, because we’re so happy to see people dying.

Donovan X. Ramsey 43:15
That is exactly it, that we were caught, like the nation was caught in this moral panic, where, you know, this was entertainment. And people were, you know, kind of getting their fix of, you know, true crime from what was happening in urban America. And yeah, the show was originally called 48 hours on Crack Street. And they just went around to watch people do drugs and talk to them about drug use. And then they did, it was such a big hit that a year later, they did return to Crack Street, of course. And then that launched, you know, a show now, which is like one of like, the longest running newsmagazine programs, 48 hours, you know, a ton of movies, there’s like, there’s a movie called crack house that was, you know, put up that was put in theaters in the 1980s, starring the football player, Jim Brown, about a drug dealer and pimp that, you know, operates a crack house, and it was it was a form of entertainment, actually, and I still think that, you know, in like, the sort of American imagination, that these stories about crack and crack use are a form of entertainment that you know, so two people laugh at the at the crackhead character figure, people are excited and, you know, energised by the idea of drug kingpins. And that, you know, one of the reasons why I wrote this book is because I think that there’s so much context and meaning from the real stories, and if people knew them that they wouldn’t, that the fake stories wouldn’t have so much entertainment value.

Traci Thomas 44:50
Yeah, oh, yeah, totally. And in the book, you know, we so the book starts at the beginning, it kind of goes through chronologically and we kind of get to the end of the crack epidemic, right. And like, there are still people who do crack there are still people, you know, like that is not it’s not over the effects are still being felt. But you kind of point out that most of the people who are still doing crack are people who were doing crack back then there’s not a lot of like new crack users. But a lot of the media we were just talking about is white media, mainstream media and some of the stuff that helped bring down crack or like, um, crack was community organizing civic organizations, but also hip hop music. And I think that’s really interesting, because hip hop music, of course, gets this rap and like, hip hop artists, like you’re glorifying drug use, and, you know, Jay Z still drugs, and he’s trying to make it sexy, and like all this stuff, but you give so many examples about how hip hop artists, rap artists were actually like, really pivotal in doing that. And I’m wondering, like, Is that also true of other like black media at the time? Was Black Media getting it? Right?

Donovan X. Ramsey 45:56
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, I, I got a new respect for hip hop, in black media from reporting this book. Because, you know, I grown up kind of hearing the refrain that hip hop was is, you know, kind of a mirror to like, you know, what’s happening in the streets. And I always thought, maybe that’s a bit of a cop out, because, you know, any music, like any musical form can be like a mixed bag. But then when I actually looked at the record, what I saw was that there were hip hop artists that were rapping about the dangers of crack, and drug use and drug dealing, as early as 1982. And mainstream media didn’t start focusing on crack until about 1987. So if you were a young kid growing up in the 80s, you were getting anti crack messaging, first from hip hop, before you’re ever getting it from Nancy Reagan or anybody else. And then you know, and this isn’t just marginal, right? Like conscious rappers, you’re talking about NWA with songs like dope, man, MC Shan with Jane stop this crazy thing. Public Enemy Night of the Living bass heads, you know, comparing crack users to zombies, which is the extreme right, but it’s still anti crack messaging. Um, and then you also see it in like the filmmaking, which I would sort of call Hip Hop filmmaking at the time, you have Spike Lee with movies like Jungle Fever, right? You have crack addict characters in movies like Minister society. I mean, like the list goes on and on and on, of anti crack messaging that was coming from black artists. A really interesting thing that I like to point out is that you have, according to research done by the Department of Justice, that the crack epidemic really peaks around 1990. It plateaus for a while, and they completely takes a nosedive around 1992, and it hasn’t, you know, recovered, rates of heart drug use among Black and Latinos has, you know, haven’t recovered since then. 1992. Right, the year that it completely plummets, happens to be the year that Dr. Dre dropped the chronic. And what you see too, is that that same year, marijuana use among young people’s skyrockets. So, you know, my theory is that when it came time to experiment with drugs, that a new cohort of young people decided I don’t want to touch this stuff that has been so devastating in my community. Right. But my favorite rapper on this really one of the greatest albums of all time, is sort of extolling the wonders, right of marijuana. And you see marijuana use take off. That, to me is fascinating, right? How like, that kind of like intervention, so to speak, right can like completely change the, the sort of direction of a community. And it is important to point out that communities of color did not get any help for the crack epidemic, besides criminalization, so when it came to actually ending the cycle of addiction, that part, that was something that we did ourselves by making different choices, by creating programs in our communities to keep people alive and to help people get clean. It was, you know, grandmother’s taking in grandchildren, while their kids were out in the streets. It was churches doing, you know, gun buybacks. It was young people saying, I’m actually good on that when I do something else. And, you know, no, we didn’t have you know, huge programs that completely changed things overnight. But we kept each other a lot. And that for me is like that’s what community is community is not You know, big programs community is how we keep each other alive. And, and that is like the ultimate message of the book is that the kinds of investments that we made our into each other, should should have been in should be bolstered by greater society by the government, that when we look at something like the ongoing opioid epidemic, we shouldn’t be trying to recreate the will we should look at who’s doing the work in communities right now? And how can we support them? If his grandparents taken in grandchildren? How can we, you know, give them some some assistance to make that easier instead of breaking up families? You know, if it’s community organizations that are, you know, busting up, you know, places where folks are doing drugs? How do we support and protect them and doing that work? Instead of just saying, let’s send in the police and lock everybody up, because that doesn’t fix it. All that does is create room and then New New Dealers and new users move in.

Traci Thomas 51:00
Right? Right. This is like such a hard shift. But I have to ask you this ask everybody. What’s the word you could never spell correctly on the first try?

Donovan X. Ramsey 51:09

Traci Thomas 51:13
So the restaurant Club is a very famous, well known club here in the stacks. It includes people like Angelina Jolie, Quinton, Tarantino, Jason Reynolds. And now you know, the restaurant club. There’s other people and I can never Okay, those are the big three but welcome to the restaurant club.

Donovan X. Ramsey 51:30
Oh my gosh, Tracy, no wonder it is I struggle so bad with like the French language. I mean, like, I can’t pronounce anything for inch barrel. And I can’t spell anything with French origin. So I’m actually surprised about Angelina Jolie’s he, she has to get her just to dig back into her roots. So she can bring some breaks back.

Traci Thomas 51:51
Yeah. Okay. And how do you like to write how many hours a day how often music or no? At the house out of the house? Snacks, beverages rituals? How about it.

Donovan X. Ramsey 52:01
I like to write in the middle of the day with complete silence for no more than three hours. And I write best if I write on a blank page. So when I was reading lines, well, no. I mean, when I was writing, when crack was King, I could not open up the Word document, and then continue where I left off, I think, because my inclination is to read at least like the last three pages, and then I ended up just editing. I had to open up new Word documents in order to get it done. Or I had to open up an email and send it to myself as a way of generating that urgency.

Traci Thomas 52:40
I love that snacks or beverages.

Donovan X. Ramsey 52:43
Oh, every beverage under the sun. I mean, give me five beverages at a time give me a coffee. Give me a seltzer give me just like a still water.

Traci Thomas 52:54
I need some kind of soda.

Donovan X. Ramsey 52:55
I’m a Diet Coke person.

Traci Thomas 52:58
Me too. Famous pod includes myself and Samantha Irby famously.

Donovan X. Ramsey 53:03
You know what? So like, this is like the dream lunch right? Chicken Caesar salad or maybe a shrimp Caesar salad. Okay, okay, love a Caesar. Very hot french fries.

Traci Thomas 53:14
Okay, we’re trying, we know we’re going to totally my vibe.

Donovan X. Ramsey 53:18
And then a Diet Coke with a lot of ice.

Traci Thomas 53:21
Okay, fountain Diet Coke is my personal favorite. Okay, like going to 711 and getting a fountain Diet Coke with the like straw. Yeah, the best. Yeah. I love this. Okay, we’re like so out of time. But I have a few questions I have to ask you. One is what is not in the book that you wish could have been?

Donovan X. Ramsey 53:43
What’s not in the book? I mean, it’s a big book. Let me say like, there’s a lot of stuff in the book.

Traci Thomas 53:51
You can say nothing. Also, you feel like everything that you want it to be in the book made it into the book.

Donovan X. Ramsey 53:56
What? You know what in this and I’m not just saying this to like to pander. I wish that I could have included more women in the book. Namely, there’s some very interesting stories of women dealers is a woman named Velma out of Philly, who was an actual Queen pit. And I think that, you know, that there were women dealers that women, you know, weren’t just the addicts that there were women leaders and like community folks that had incredible interventions. It’s just that, you know, a lot of those women were just reluctant to talk to me, because those periods of time were so scary in many ways. And I think that, you know, I really lucked out that I was able to connect with Lenny, who, you know, not only was so open, but who trusted me to handle her story with like a level of sensitivity.

Traci Thomas 54:52
For people who love this book, what else would you recommend to them that’s in conversation with what you’ve created.

Donovan X. Ramsey 54:59
I think people should read The Warmth of Other Suns. Yeah, because I sort of see least I hope that when crack was King picks up where The Warmth of Other Suns kind of leaves off, I think people should read the Condemnation of Blackness by colonial brown Muhammad, which is really sort of an academic book about the ways that black identity became associated with like a criminal identity. I think that people should read The New Jim Crow, because Michelle Alexander kind of really gets into like the, the policy kind of implications of the crack epidemic. And then finally, I want to say that people should read a book called as street rising, which is by a former Washington Post journalist named Ruben Castaneda, who covered crime in DC during the 80s. And also during that period, became addicted to crack.

Traci Thomas 55:56
I’m gonna throw in a book because I accidentally read your book back to back with this book, not knowing that they were connected. But you know, Alta Adams the restaurant, yes, absolutely. And you know, Keith Corbin, though, one of the owners, he’s the black guy who owns the restaurant, okay, he was a great street cred. He was cooking crack for years, he’s our age as well, she, and he eventually goes to prison for like an armed robbery or something. Obviously, his story has a happy ending, because he’s now the owner of all the atoms. But as I literally finished your book and started his book right after, and it was wild, because he was talking about the same shit. And he’s like explaining how he was cooking the drugs and like how much baking soda and how he used water because it made it heavier like all of this. And also talking about being a young person and like going to these old heads, like, because he’s, you know, it just it’s like such a perfect fit for what you did, like a really personal experience. And I was, like, kept turning to my husband and being like, This is so fucking weird, because these books are books, siblings, I want to ask you this, this is not a question that I normally ask people. But I know this about you, because you’ve posted on social media, and it’s also in the afterword of your book, this book took a huge toll on you physically, mentally, like your health, you had to like, you know, you had to have health things which you can share or not. So given all of that going into, we’re talking a few days before your book comes out. What is it feeling like for you now, knowing this book is going into the world? Like, is it? Is it exciting? Is it Are you nervous? Does it feel like, I don’t know, just what is that like for you?

Donovan X. Ramsey 57:37
This book has taught me so much. You know, as you said, it took a lot from me, or period, I started the book in about 2018. And I spent years with, with this subject matter, which can be really, really heavy, and, you know, kind of just like absorbing these stories, it raise my anxiety through the roof. And you always been an anxious person. And my work has always been a source of anxiety, but it was both the work and the and the stories. And, you know, it got to be 2020. And I was still working on the book and the world was falling apart. And I would sit down to write and I would break out in hives from head to toe. And then then I started losing weight, I could barely eat and I lost about 40 pounds, then I got heart palpitations and had to wear a heart monitor. And what I realized is that, as I was trying to make sense of everything that I was learning, my body was like metabolizing, the trauma. And something that I had to do was I had to take breaks, I had to care for myself, I had to create practices that were restorative and healing. And, you know, as like hard and scary as that period was, I realized that this is actually a part of the work that anybody that survived this era should have access to. Right like, like people need to heal in ways that we don’t even know that people are carrying it around. And for me it was just kind of squashed together and like a really short period of time. It was like convinced when other folks are walking around with this tiredness with this weariness with this anxiousness. So you know, I decided to write about it. One for anybody that’s going to write a book, to know that like, it is hard, it is taxing, and then also for people who might connect to the story to say, Hey, you’re probably carrying around some of this too. And you should check that out before it takes a toll on you. And you know, I’m out on it. You know, on the other side, I’m wishing that I hadn’t gained some of the weight back. You know, but also like, you know that that being a symbol of the of the extent to which like I’m getting well, and I feel really good. And I’m, like excited for people to read it and to have conversations about it. And it feels like, like a relief.

Traci Thomas 1:00:14
Oh, god. Okay, last question. If you could have one person dead or alive read when crack was King, who would you want it to be?

Donovan X. Ramsey 1:00:21
Who I would want my Uncle Walter to read when crack was key. My Uncle Walter was somebody that dealt with addiction for most of his life. And, you know, he died way too early, I think because of the impact that addiction just had on his body. And I don’t know if he ever felt seen and understood, or even if he understood why those things were happening to him. And I would love for him to read the book. And then for us to talk about it.

Traci Thomas 1:01:03
All right, everybody you can get when crack was King, A People’s History of a misunderstood era by Donovan X. Ramsey is out in the world. Now as you’re listening to it. I has my huge stamp of approval. I love the book, Donovan. This was such a great conversation. Thank you so much for being here.

Donovan X. Ramsey 1:01:21
Thank you, Traci, and I can’t wait for us to get that lunch.

Traci Thomas 1:01:24
Oh, my God, I can’t wait immediately, and everybody else we will see you in the stacks.

All right. Well, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Donovan X Ramsey for joining the show. I’d also like to thank Andrea Pereira for helping to make this conversation possible. Don’t forget the stacks book club pick for July is watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons and we will be discussing that book on July 26th with Joel Christian Gill. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/thestacks and join us next time. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating or review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at the stackspod on Instagram and TikTok and now threads and at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and you can check out our website the stackspodcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.

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