Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A photo of five young black boys holds the story of drugs, racial segregation, and despair in South Dallas.
The cover art for the new Nas album Nasir, released today, is a throwback to the image he used for his classic 1994 debut album Illmatic, featuring his own boyhood portrait transposed against a backdrop of the infamous Queensbridge housing projects he grew up in.
Throughout his long career, Nas has invested himself in training a justice-minded lens on the various ills of society: For the Nasir cover, he uses a photo that shows five black youth standing small in front of a brick wall, some facing it while some face the camera, all with their hands raised high. Two of the kids are holding guns—maybe toy, maybe not—while one is holding up a robot. Not one of them looks older than ten years, but they all seem to have learned the position that police officers regularly and historically have commanded black people to assume: up against the wall. In the top right corner hangs a “NO TRESPASSING” sign that also reads “no drinking, loitering, or standing on these premises.”
The photo was taken by photographer Mary Ellen Mark for a news feature in the November 1988 issue of Texas Monthly magazine. The article, “The War Zone,” is a field report from a neighborhood in Dallas where the crack drug trade had taken hold. It was the kind of story that became standard among magazine and alt-weekly journalists in the 1980s, styled after Barry Michael Cooper’s seminal 1986 SPIN magazine feature on the birth of a crack-cocaine nation, in New York City. Less than two years later, the crack epidemic had metastasized well beyond the Big Apple, devouring cities in places as distant as Texas. Journalist Jim Atkinson ventured into the fog of this new drug war zone in Dallas to explain how it got this far for his Texas Monthly piece.
However, like most news stories of the crack era, few fair explanations were offered. The “war zone” Atkinson wrote about is one of the “South Dallas” districts of the city that was historically segregated for black and poor families. The story details how the communities have fallen into hopelessness and disrepair, and ponders—as one police officer says in the piece—whether “poverty creates drugs” or “it’s the drugs that create poverty.” The people addicted to crack are referred to as “candy faces,” and there’s a meaty police-constructed narrative about how Jamaican and Cuban drug dealers came in and besieged the neighborhood by turning its residents into crack pushers, users, or abusers, when not killing them off.
“But the siege wasn't complete until the Dallas economy busted, sending the neighborhood even more deeply into despair,” reads the story—this one sentence serving as the only try at providing any semblance of a socio-economic context for why this civic tragedy was unfolding. Today, journalists examine and interrogate the “opioid crisis” rampaging through white suburbs and Appalachia, going to great lengths to humanize the faces of the victims, to explicate the economic malaise that drove them to heroin and pills, and to indict the structural market forces dictated by the pharmaceutical industry that made it all possible.
Reading the 1988 “War Zone” article, one might only take away that crack just kinda happened to this part of town and the people were defenseless against the plague. You would never know that African Americans were trapped in “South Dallas” for decades because they weren’t allowed to live anywhere else. Those who did get a little money and try to move to another neighborhood were house-bombed, car-bombed, and fire-bombed back into the southern traps of the city, where poverty and racial despair were contained. There is an entire policy war happening right now within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development around affirmatively furthering fair housing—de-clustering subsidized housing so that it’s not packed in historically segregated zones— that began with a lawsuit filed from Dallas.
The photos taken by Mary Ellen Mark for “War Zone” tell a different story than the words on the page. The black youth in most of her images are not “candy-faced” and “zombie-eyed,” as Atkinson wrote. Rather, their faces beam with pride while wearing birthday cone hats, while donning stylish bootleg-name brand shirts, and while embracing loved ones. These images capture dignity as defined by the subjects and in their own elements, much like the work of contemporary photographer Deana Lawson. Nas’ use of Mark’s image acts as a homage to that much more authentic lens on the inner-city landscape.