Code Street Life
Interpreting The Code of the Street
“Gangster life” is often portrayed as exiting and glamorous, while the news often stereotypes the urban slums as being corrupt by violent criminals. Elijah Anderson thoroughly explains in his book “Code of the Street” that life in poor minority communities are not always portrayed correctly in the media. The author offers a unique way of researching for this topic; by living in the area he studies he is able to share information only known by experience.
He intends to expose and clarify the life of the inner city streets. The first chapter, “Decent and Street Families”, explains several issues many families face when raiding a “decent” child. The lifestyles of of these minority communities are, in reality, very complex and intricate.
The book explains how the “Code”, or lifestyle, varies for many groups within the culture. The difference between street and decent families and the way they interact with each other, the difference of communities, and the significance of respect are all main ideas explained within the first two chapters.
The violent surroundings and unfair circumstances are the origin of each individual’s lifestyle. The author uses the term “structural circumstances” to define the position one becomes involved in as a results of their place in society. One example the author used in his novel is the life of a “decent” single mother, where the term “decent’ is used to describe the individuals that do not give in to society’s negative influences.
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Though one common theme among decent families that is currently on the rise is grandmothers raising grandchildren “particularly the increasing number of grandmothers raising grandchildren, often see their see their difficult situation as a test from God and derive great support from their faith and church community” (Anderson 38). Single mothers and grandparents have a much more difficult time swaying their children from the negative influences of the “street”.
One common trait of the “decent” child is the ability to “code switch”. A decent child is often mocked and teased by peers as well as family members as explained in Yvette’s Story, which is the reason for code-switching. One of the first stories titled “The Decent Single Mother” Explains the many hardships of having to raise a child in a dent manner without the support of a fatherly figure. The ability to code-switch permits a child to use crude and vulgar language and act in a different manner while in the streets, thus giving a child a way to survive certain situations. The author insists that this trait is taught by the parents, thought I believe it is learned thorough experience.
In the “street” manhood is defied as how well one can defend him or herself in a fight. And at the same time, being able to fight and not let anyone else talk oneself down raises respect among the peers. The author claims “Respect becomes critical for stating out of harms way” (Anderson 66). There is a problem that might arise after a fight though, revenge. Revenge can become very dangerous depending on the person who was offended by being beaten.
Examples vary form returning with a group of friends or even family members to intimidate others (An example taken from Marge’s story) to returning with a weapon where the outcome can result in serious injury or even death. This “Campaign for Respect” arises when the people feel as if they are abandoned and will not receive help from authorities, feeling as if they are on their own. The author writes: “[M]any of those residing in such communities feel that they are on their own, that especially in matters of personal defense, they must assume the primary responsibility” (Anderson 66).
The film that portrays the best idea as to how the streets of the Bronx might have been like is the film “Boys N the Hood”. There are several scenes in the film that relate to the book. For example, in the beginning of the film the main character, a troublemaker, is sent to live with his father to learn how to “be a man”. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the campaign for respect; a section of which is titled “Manhood and Nerve”. Here the author claims “For many inner-city youths, manhood and respect are two sides of the same coin […] both require a sense of control, of being in charge” (Anderson 91).
Loosing control over a situation can result in disastrous effects. The author does not give any specific examples however since the film closely relates to the topic of the book, bringing an example from the film is appropriate. A scene from the film involves “Doughboy”, one of the main characters in the movie, and his attempt to recover his brother’s stolen football from a group of much bigger and stronger boys. He stands up to the group of boys who are pushing him around.
He gets in the face of one boy in particular and kicks him in the leg. The bigger boy retaliates by slapping Doughboy down and kicking him in the stomach. Doughboy criticizes his brother for being “stupid” and bringing the ball in the first place. Doughboy is has been humiliated in front of his brother and at that time is also feeling embarrassed and places the blame toward his brother.
Doughboy’s attempt to retrieve his brother’s football and the resulting assault has everything to do with “juice” and the cultural adaptations Doughboy has had to make as the street kid in his decent family. As a street kid he needs to be aggressive and assert himself physically. Therefore, when his brother’s ball is stolen he reacts violently as this is the language of street life. The older boy, not to be shown up by a small, lesser boy, beats Doughboy up, most likely in order to maintain his reputation as a tough street kid.
Also, just like a street kid, drugs and alcohol become a major part of his life later on as he is always seen drinking a forty. As “objects play an important and complicated role in establishing self-image” (Anderson, 73) his car also becomes a source of juice as it has expensive features and is very well maintained.
The main goal for the decent family is to give the younger generation, usually their offspring, a chance to develop and grow out of the raging violence of the streets. Instilling good morals in a child’s early years is often emphasized: “In decent families there is almost always a real concern with and a certain amount of hope for the future.
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Such attitudes are often in a drive to work … ‘to build a good life,’ while at the same time trying to ‘make due with what you have’” (Anderson 37). Instilling these morals into the children is important if that child is to make the right decisions while in the street. Even though this task is daunting on its own, it becomes especially daunting when there is a single parent.
A household maintained under the supervision of a father figure creates a more stable environment for the child. Sure both parents may work double shifts and may work late night after night, but this only serves as another reason for the children to perform well. A passage from the book shares this idea: “The children nodded attentively. After the adults left, the children seemed to relax, talking more freely and playing with one another.
When the parents returned, the kids straightened up again […] displaying quiet and gracious manners all the while” (Anderson 39). In this patriarchal family the head of the household, usually the father, the children remain obedient out of fear of disappointing their parents. The decent children in this passage have a slightly higher chance at success than their fellow peers solely because neither they nor their parents have given in to the street life.
Respect, or “Juice”, is highly valued in the streets. It is something everyone should earn in order to live without being constantly picked on or harassed. Juice can be earned in multiple ways however the most common way is through fights. In the book, Anderson claims “[T]here are always people around looking for a fight in order to increase their share of respect” (73).
The alternative to engaging in random fights is intimidation through physical appearance. The way a person is viewed depends on physical their appearance where factors such as the more jewelry one has, the most expensive clothing, and even the way one grooms oneself determines the amount of respect they have.
In the last example Doughboy seeks revenge for his brother’s murder and, in the process the characters act out Anderson’s ideas about reasons for revenge and Tre’s decent kid dilemma. Ricky was a much loved and valued member of the group of boys featured in the film. By murdering Ricky, the group of other males has greatly disrespected Doughboy’s position in the streets.
Doughboy, as Anderson would predict, does not appear to fear death as he will face Ricky’s murderers with his gun and kill them, knowing, as he discusses the next day with Tre, that he will most likely “get smoked”, meaning shot to death. “True nerve expresses a lack of fear of death” and this proves manhood, which is very closely related to respect (Anderson, 92). Like Tyree in Anderson’s book, Doughboy feels an obligation to hurt those that hurt his brother and gains power from hurting others in the most severe form (Anderson, 84). Doughboy is purely a street kid.
In short, Anderson’s book, “Code of the Street” discusses ideas of decent and street families as well as the crucial concept of respect in a way that is in agreement with the film “Boyz N the Hood”. The actions of Tre and his father mirror those of a decent family living in poor minority community and Doughboy’s actions are characteristic of Anderson’s ideas about street individuals. Their lives warrant examination in order to determine causes of crime as well as reasons why not all individuals in these violent communities are criminals.
It is clear that opportunities need to be afforded to the individuals in these communities so that they can have hope for the future and not end up with the mindset of Doughboy that it doesn’t matter if he’s shot because everyone has to die sometime. The people must be allowed access to the resources necessary to become decent families which include alternative avenues to gaining “juice.”
As opposed to achieving respect through violence and drug dealing, other standards and means to reach those standards need to be instilled in the community. Education and job training should be stressed and drug problems should be treated. Violence in the community should also be controlled so that individuals feel safe and decent kids can listen to music and study as opposed to the popping sounds of gunshots.
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