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The Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs

The Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs

Josephine Metcalf
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs
    Book Description:

    The publication of Sanyika Shakur'sMonster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member in 1993 generated a huge amount of excitement in literary circles--New York Timesbook critic Michiko Kakutani deemed it a "shocking and galvanic book"--and set off a new publishing trend of gang memoirs in the 1990s. The memoirs showcased tales of violent confrontation and territorial belonging but also offered many of the first journalistic and autobiographical accounts of the much-mythologized gang subculture.

    InThe Culture and Politics of Contemporary Street Gang Memoirs, Josephine Metcalf focuses on three of these memoirs--Shakur'sMonster; Luis J. Rodriguez'sAlways Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.; and Stanley "Tookie" Williams'sBlue Rage, Black Redemption--as key representatives of the gang autobiography. Metcalf examines the conflict among violence, thrilling sensationalism, and the authorial desire to instruct and warn competing within these works. The narrative arcs of the memoirs themselves rest on the process of conversion from brutal, young gang bangers to nonviolent, enlightened citizens.

    Metcalf analyzes the emergence, production, marketing, and reception of gang memoirs. Through interviews with Rodriguez, Shakur, and Barbara Cottman Becnel (Williams's editor), Metcalf reveals both the writing and publishing processes. This book analyzes key narrative conventions, specifically how diction, dialogue, and narrative arcs shape the works. The book also explores how the memoirs are consumed. This interdisciplinary study--fusing literary criticism, sociology, ethnography, reader-response study, and editorial theory--brings scholarly attention to a popular, much-discussed, but understudied modern expression.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-282-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. BOOKS MAKING A KILLING An Introduction
    (pp. 3-18)

    The publication ofMonster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Memberby Sanyika Shakur in the summer of 1993 generated a huge amount of excitement in literary circles.¹ Michiko Kakutani, who has a fierce reputation as a book reviewer for theNew York Times, deemed it a “startling and galvanic book,” highlighting Shakur’s “ear for street language that’s as perfectly pitched as Richard Price’s, a feeling for character and status potentially as rich as Tom Wolfe’s.”² With the publication ofMonster, a new trend of gang memoirs emerged in the United States. Their content centered on contemporary street gang life...

  5. Chapter One FROM RAGE TO RAP AND PRISON TO PRINT Social, Cultural, and Commercial Contexts of Emergence
    (pp. 19-42)

    One of the objectives of this book is to position gang memoirs within prevailing gangsta culture. To do so requires an exploratory chapter into how LA gang experiences and cultural practices came to be narrativized and sold in popular form. This chapter will highlight the complex processes at work in the production of contemporary black and Latino popular culture, particularly in written form. This chronology will commence in the early twentieth century with the history of Mexican American gangs and end with the emergence of the literary production trend under analysis. I will highlight the origins of the African American...

  6. Chapter Two HOMEBOYS BETWEEN HARD COVERS Scholarly Approaches to the Study of Gang Memoirs
    (pp. 43-66)

    This book will examine the emergence of these memoirs as a popular cultural phenomenon and a commercial production trend while also considering their complex textual politics in terms of both theme and form.¹ Furthermore, I intend to explore how gang memoirs are constructed in the media and interpreted by audiences. In an attempt to understand the many aspects of these under-studied memoirs, this book takes an interdisciplinary approach. The theoretical frameworks which have informed my research can be divided into three (sometimes overlapping) areas: scholarly debates in the field of autobiography theory (form, narration, identity); debates in the field of...

  7. Chapter Three KILLER BOOKS The Representations and Politics of Violence in Gang Memoirs
    (pp. 67-96)

    Violent behavior is an integral characteristic of contemporary street gangs, as has been regularly illustrated across different forms of gangsta popular culture. Graphic and shocking acts of violence are routine in, and expected of, both gangsta rap and ghetto action films. Cultural scholars have explored at length the representations of violence that permeate such popular texts, the public demand for those aggressive images, and the controversy generated.¹ Gangsta rhymes, for example, have been condemned for cop-killing lyrics (“Fuck Tha Police!”) delivered by those who were proud to call themselves “bad niggas.”² The image of Caine dying in the street following...

  8. Chapter Four BROTHERS WHO COULD KILL WITH WORDS Language, Literacy, and the Quest for Education in Gang Memoirs
    (pp. 97-122)

    Gangsta rap and ghetto films both savor graphic and aggressive imagery. Film scholar Jonathan Munby describes the ghetto action movie cycle as “uncompromisingly violent,” contending that these films “struggled to provide a positive message about the fate of America’s black urban communities.”¹ Violence is certainly an integral and typical characteristic of gangsta popular culture, and one aim of this book is to consider whether contemporary street gang memoirs fit readily into that gangsta ethos. But in contrast with the gangsta penchant for contentious subjects such as extreme violence, the memoirs diverge from their musical and filmic counterparts by engaging with...

  9. Chapter Five MURDERER, MONSTER, NOVELIST, OR NOBEL NOMINEE? Press Reception and Media Constructions of Gang Memoirs
    (pp. 123-148)

    Having addressed the contexts of the memoirs, reasons for their emergence, and their textual features, this research now seeks to understand how these popular narratives have been interpreted by commentators. How and why did the media impose discourses on the memoirs? As reception studies scholar Janet Staiger explains in her research on the press reception of films, these theoretical frameworks can be helpful in determining the cultural meanings of a specific text.¹ In 1991 Staiger conducted a study of the media reception of the filmSilence of the Lambs. She considered how reception studies “illuminates the cultural meanings of texts...

  10. Chapter Six QUICK READS FOR RELUCTANT READERS Consuming Gang Memoirs
    (pp. 149-178)

    Though “exclusive” reading practices of journalists and reviewers are vital when considering the production of meaning of these memoirs, of equal significance are “everyday” readers. As chapter 1 detailed, the readership of these texts is very broad. The readers I will primarily focus on in this chapter are low-income, LA-based, at-risk youth. In some ways they are typical of the wider readership, for young people certainly comprise one of the key markets of these books. Simultaneously, the specific social situation of these readers renders them an exceptional rather than representative group of readers. These marginalized youths are far from the...

  11. CONCLUSIONS Still Running
    (pp. 179-188)

    The relationship between violence and pedagogy is the central theme under scrutiny in this study of gang memoirs. The books incorporate aggressive imagery and are commercially profitable partly because of the gangsta propensity for violence. But these memoirs have demonstrated that gangsta violence is not their only appeal. The books are equally, if not more, concerned with themes of conversion. While the violent component centers on short-term gratuitous pleasure, the conversion is a pedagogical aspect that relates to discipline, forbearance, and long-term goals. The fundamental power of these memoirs lies in their compelling combination of violenceandconversion. These two...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 189-222)
    (pp. 223-236)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 237-246)
  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)