Monster, Dreams, and Cultural Studies: Exploring Gang Memoir and Political Autobiography
Metcalf, Josephine, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
In 1995, Barack Obama published Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. The memoir details his multicultural upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, his college education on the West and East coasts of the United States, and his work as an innercity community organizer in Chicago prior to attending law school. The influential New York Times book critic, Michiko Kakutani, has since deemed Obama's story "the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president" ("From Books"). Two years earlier in 1993, the literary world had been excitedly discussing Sanyika Shakur's Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member. Kakutani contended Monster "attests not only to Mr. Shakur's journalistic eye for observation, but also to his novelistic skills as a story-teller.... This is a startling and galvanic book" ("Illuminating"). Written from inside prison, Monster is an account of gangbanging with one of the infamous AfricanAmerican "Crips" gangs in South Central Los Angeles (LA) during the 1980s. The memoir tells the story of how Shakur (born Kody Scott) earned the nickname "Monster" for his brutal behavior before undergoing a political and personal transformation. Monster is noteworthy for its emphasis on both the frisson of violent gang exploits and the sober, salutary reflection of politicized and educated hindsight.
Born in 1961, only two years earlier than Shakur, Obama grew up in the same America as the gangbanger. In 1983, as Shakur was fully immersed in the "Eight-Trays" Crips set, Obama was becoming a community worker, disgusted with the White House "where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds" and convinced that change needed to be effected at grassroots level (133). As Shakur was becoming familiar with the jails and prisons of LA and California, Obama was volunteering to help black youths on the streets of Altgeld Gardens and other housing projects in the Windy City. Unlike Shakur's more lumpen worldview, Obama's liberal, yet structural critique toward healthcare, education, immigration, and cultural sensitivities (emphasized further in his 2006 collection of essays, The Audacity of Hope), suggest that he is a product of the 1960s more radical moment. Obama's exploration of the social problems in America has led him to significantly different conclusions to Shakur who states that "separation" may be a solution for the "failure of positive multicultural existence" in the United States (382).
Despite obvious disparities between the two, there are some suggestive and fruitful parallels to be made between the President's own frank coming-of-age story and Shakur's violent and seemingly sensationalized tales. Such similarities are particularly notable in terms of the memoirs' narrative structure, their emphasis on language and literacy skills, and the politics of racial representation. Both texts were released in the chaotic aftermath of the 1993 LA riots; an event which, as discussed in Monster, revealed the difficulties and complexities of being a young African-American man in urban America. In the academic realm, this was a particularly poignant moment for British Cultural Studies, with fervent debates in the field of race representational politics being prompted by Stuart Hall's innovative essays "New Ethnicities" (1988) and "What is this 'Black' in Black Popular Culture?" (1992).1 Although British Cultural Studies was thriving by the 1960s, this article will situate Monster and Dreams in some of the more recent interventions and developments in the discipline, as well as life writing and prison literature criticism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Cultural Studies was often identified as being split between "structuralism" and "culturalism." The former references the operations of discursive power and constraints on individuals. Indeed, structuralism literally determined the underlying structures that made meaning possible, exploring how meaning was produced and reproduced by dominant ideologies within a culture. …