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In the heartbeat of the turbulent sixties, two great legacies were being molded into their culminating impact. Frank Lucas, a relatively obscure name until the current film, American Gangster introduced him to a new generation, set precedent in entrepreneurial genius. At the height of his career he is said to have earned more than a million dollars a day. Regrettably, his business was illicit drug trafficking. However, the brilliance of Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Lucas has had many of us rooting for his triumph. This man controlled a drug empire that brought heroin onto the streets of New York and into the lives and families of countless African Americans. His doomed wealth was anchored in hundreds, who admired his ruthlessness and acumen and thousands who succumbed to the addiction and destruction that his drugs ensnared. He brought false hope, incarceration and death to self, family and community. But he had homes all over the country and he made a million dollars a day. He was making money faster than Oprah!
A parallel legacy was also taking root during the time Lucas ran his drug empire. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about the same age as Lucas, also knew incarceration, high family risk, and left a legacy that many have not entirely understood. The most money he received was, perhaps, for the Nobel Peace Prize and he donated that money to fund the struggle for civil rights. His impact is in no way fully captured by the national holiday that we celebrate, but can be seen in lives that have been transformed by opportunities that brought Ivy League educations, public school access, Black caucuses in national and local elected bodies as well as housing, employment and health parity for many. He sacrificed his life for liberation that could be felt from Montgomery to Memphis to Johannesburg. He spoke life, sacrifice and promise. Yet, he never owned his own home.
Today when we recall the legacy of Frank Lucas, it is tempting to admire the machismo and power of an American gangster. After all, he is one of us. We fail to condemn a mother’s decision to worship with her son, accept his luxurious gifts and at the same time ignore his crimes and heinous acts against humanity. Still today we are highly impressed by his money that was earned on the bodies, minds and souls of our children, mothers and fathers. We used to call it blood money. How many overdoses can be traced to his import of purer heroin? How many children saw mothers strung out on drugs because of his boldness? How did the incarceration rate of our men exponentially soar, because of the power of the Blue Magic that he distributed? Some of this pain can be directly traced to the work of this American gangster. Yet, we are tempted to admire his money more than we condemn his damage. His legacy is significant.
There is great danger when we become so disconnected from power that we admire profit more than we admire principle. King was described as an American prophet who trumpeted justice and righteousness, but in one generation we have become so separated from integrity that we will take the victory that money brings over the victory that is proclaimed through prophetic declaration. It is disturbing when the role of gangster is more appealing than that of prophet and when material mastery eclipses moral responsibility. Test it. Ask our youth (and even ourselves) what we would risk for a million dollars and what we would risk for liberation. We still have work to do and until we get it right, our celebration of gangster can distort the message of justice and freedom and delay the fulfillment of healed families and empowered communities.
Dr. Brenda Wall is a clinical psychologist.