One of the things I decided to do for myself this post-divoss winter was re-watch every episode of “The Wire.” I couldn’t remember when I saw it originally, so I searched my Gmail, which is keeping my history for me (here’s a disturbing quote on that subject from the greatest zombie book ever). Apparently I first watched the show in the spring and summer of 2010. So it’s been over four years, and in that time I’ve rewatched Season One once. I finished S1 for the third time last week and yesterday moved on to Season Two. It was Ta-Nehisi Coates’s spirited Twitter defense of S2 that made me want to do the whole thing all over again, but I still find this season less compelling, and for the same reason I did originally: because it’s less Black.
Back in 2010, I knew few people of color personally and had a very weak grasp of African-American history. I was vaguely in favor of racial justice but hadn’t yet come to think of myself as an “anti-racist” (a term I’m moving away from now—the passage of time is a wonderful thing). “The Wire” was my first extended exposure to Black stories, and even though I knew the show was about very particular individuals in a very particular setting, I couldn’t help watching it as though it were a window on all Black life in America. I remember being fascinated I was by the language I was hearing in the Pit scenes, and thinking of it as “how Black people talked.”
So it’s with some chagrin and some interest that I notice how my reactions to the show have changed. “The Wire” is no longer my only window onto Black life; for one thing, I now understand more clearly that there is no such monolith. What’s more, for four years I thought of “The Wire” as a politically radical show. I told other people it was not only a great work of art but a great argument for justice. This time around, it took only a few episodes for me to recognize my misperception. (For one thing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a “liberal” show that’s more sanguine about police brutality.) Although it can be passionately political, at its core “The Wire” isn’t about racism. It’s about writing.
What other show would give you this?
Wallace: Yo, D, you want some nuggets? . . . Man, whoever invent these, he off the hook.
W: Motherfucker got the bone all the way out the damn chicken. Till he came along, n****s been chewing on drumsticks and shit, getting they fingers all greasy. He said tear out the bone, snuggle that meat up and make some real money.
P: You think the man got paid?
P: Man who invented these.
W: Shit. He richer than a motherfucker.
D’Angelo: Why? You think he get a percentage?
W: Why not?
D: N****, please. The man who invented them things is just some sad-ass down in the basement of McDonald’s. Thinking up some shit to make some money for the real players.
P: Nah, man, that ain’t right.
D: Fuck right, it ain’t about right. It’s about money. Now you think Ronald McDonald gonna go down that basement and say, “Hey, Mr. Nugget, you the bomb. We selling chicken faster than you can tear the bone out. So I’m gonna write my clowny-ass name on this fat-ass check for you.”
D: And the n**** who invented them things, he’s still working in the basement for regular wage, thinking of some shit to make the fries taste better or some shit like that. Believe.
W: He still had the idea though.
The first time I watched this, I had a lot of chaotic, anxious race-related noise in my head. Through that noise came the message: “These are some real Black people talking.” I was too distracted by my own discomfort to appreciate the dialogue as dialogue. Now, even though I have arguably the same volume of wild thoughts, prejudices and feelings about Blackness, I’m more used to thinking about race and my own racism. Now what comes through to me most strongly about this scene is its great artistry and craft. These aren’t “real Black people”: they’re beautifully made characters, and the dialogue is not only funny but also effective in throwing each character into relief: Wallace’s sweet naïveté, Poot’s cockiness, D’Angelo’s growing disgust with capitalism in general and the Barksdale organization in particular.
Turns out that the real anti-racist accomplishment of “The Wire” is just as simple as could be: it’s good fiction featuring characters of color who are fully human. This is both apolitical and, in the American media landscape, about as radical as you can get.
Postscript: After writing this, I started asking myself how many Black people actually wrote for “The Wire.” I think Simon, Burns, Pelecanos, Price, and Lehane—who between them wrote 163 episodes—are all white. It’s worth noting that the portrayal of Black lives which I praise so highly above is a largely white creation, and asking why Black portrayals don’t receive the same network backing. Okay, I’m not really asking. Start with the work of Kristal Brent Zook to learn more.