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Our America: A look Beyond the Veil

Our America is a non-fiction story that chronicles the lives of two inner city Chicago boys, LeAlan and Lloyd. The boys were given a microphone to record their experiences and thoughts growing up in the south side of Chicago in the early to mid nineties. Our America is the transcribed version of these stories. This essay intertwines LeAlan and Lloyd's stories with the stories told by black artists through the decades.

Our America: A Look Beyond the Veil


“We want to give you kids in America a message: Don’t look at ghetto kids as different. You might not want to invite us to your parties, you might think well rob you blind when you got your back turned. But don’t look at us like that...We have a hard life, but were sensitive. Ghetto kids are not a different breed--were human” p. 83

Public Enemy: Don’t Believe the Hype

“BACK!” Chuck D spits, and it pops like a gunshot. Without the cheesy 90’s video effects which slam the word “back” onto the screen, Chuck D could easily have been misunderstood as saying “Bang!”. Blasting off the song with a gunshot sound which rings out into a matrix of gritty city sounds, Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” intentionally plays off fears of the white community. Chuck D’s booming voice is unapologetic in its toughness, its masculinity, and its power. “Fear me, I am the epitome of Public Enemy” he shouts, and it isn’t too convincing that his statement is sarcastic. The song intentionally leans on black masculine stereotypes, but it also asks the listener to get beyond that. The message: “don’t believe the hype” is purposefully  embedded in the hype, and Public Enemy is asking you to find the message yourself. They ask the listener to see beyond the masculine fronting of Chuck D, or the comic clowning of Flava Flav, to what may lie beyond the masks.
‘Our America’ presents the lives of LeAlan and Lloyd to get readers to see beyond the masks of masculine fronting and comedy. “Our America” attempts to do what Du Bois did with “The Souls of Black Folk: “raising [the veil of race] so that you may view faintly its deeper recesses, -- the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls” (1903:3) . Black music and black oral and written histories invite readers in; they invite readers to see beyond white stereotypes. But the problem has always been for America to listen.  “Who wants to listen to a poor child?” one teacher asks (1998:18) “but these kids want to talk, they want to tell their stories”. At times these stories are heavily masked themselves, but it is only upon the examination of the mask--an analysis of its fainter recessions, that a more authentic image emerges of the face behind it. This essay explores the masks worn by LeAlan and Lloyd to understand the true faces behind the masks and understand their experience growing up in ‘Our America’ more deeply.

Joking, Jiving, and Playing the Dozens: The Comic Mask
Digital Underground: No Nose Job (while riding on a public bus to pass the time) LeAlan: This lady's pushing the bus. She putting the pedal to the metal. LeAlan: Whew! We almost hit a car, we almost hit it. I think we did...No, we didn't. I was scared there for a minute--I almost had a heart attack
Lloyd: If we would have had an accident, you think we would be hurt?
LeAlan: I would have faked it--I would have sued: “my neck hurts, I can’t move!” I would have sued for a million dollars! my nose broke!
Lloyd: you would have been crying if your nose broke!
LeAlan: Aw, my nose, I hurt my nose!
Lloyd: Would you rather have a rubber nose or a plastic nose? I ain’t talking about the kind like Michael Jackson
LeAlan: A rubber nose cause if I have a fight and they hit me it just bounce right off and repel back and them and hit them in the face” p. 80

From playing the dozens, to jiving and yo-mamma jokes, humor has played a pivotal role in black culture. Thus, it was no surprise when Digital Underground stormed America with goofy songs like “Humpty Dance”,  and “No Nose Job” in the early 90s. Digital Underground rocked eccentric russian fur hats, thick rimmed glasses (before they became a hipster fashion statement), and, most notably, Shock G was always found wearing his signature mask adorned with a large prosthetic nose. This creates a certain irony in the song “no nose job”. On one hand, the song is clearly about black pride. “polly wants to be a cracker” he jokes, but “for me the bigger the nose the better!”. Shock G is not bashful about his nasal-hubris. A large number of Digital Underground's songs reference his “pickle” sized nose. And while there is no doubt that Shock G takes on a certain pride about his schnoz, the irony of it all is that his nose is very clearly part of a mask.
When LeAlan and Lloyd joke with each other, it is also part of a larger jiving culture.
When the boys introduce each other, Lloyd jabs at LeAlan “His belly takes up his whole body--about one hundred percent of his natural body weight” only to add “We call him Bucky Rogers because of his beaver teeth--they hang all the way down to his chin!” (31). LeAlan doesn’t take offense though, he just dishes it right back “Let me describe Lloyd. He’s short...He’s got a head like a Martian--his head takes up about sixty percent of his natural body weight!” (31). While playing the dozens and jiving helps create a sense of pride and community, on a functional level it also keeps the mind off the burden of reality.The humorous exchanges between Lloyd and LeAlan represent the comic mask many inner city kids don to get through the day. LeAlan and Lloyd admit they often ride the bus to escape and sometimes “act the fool on the bus and attract attention” (79). Not unlike the goofy mask of Shock G, LeAlan and Lloyd also mask the blues reality of the city by ‘‘acting the fool’. Just because the nose of Shock G is a prosthetic, doesn’t mean the pride is disingenuous. The pride of jiving and joking in black culture is real but the reality is that the comic relief hides something more emotional--more tragic.

Masculine Fronting, Intimidation and Insecurity: The Tragic Mask
DMX: Who We Be
LeAlan: That shows you how lonely these kids are…
Lloyd: why cuz they want to talk?
LeAlan they’re just like M&M’s all hard on the outside and sweet on the inside
LeAlan: you saw how he was about to cry?
Lloyd: yeah I saw that p. 112

The power of DMX is unmistakable. Not only is his image imposing (to say the least) but his growling voice adds raw power to his masculine rap style. The image of DMX comes from a history of masculine fronting that started with artists like NWA, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube and other rappers that flourished during gangsta-rap’s fledgling days. DMX growls a bullet point list of the blues reality of the city in “Who We Be”: “The streets, the cops, the system, harassment”. His growl is reminiscent of GrandMaster Flash’s statement “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge”; It functions as a bite warning. On one hand the masculine growl can be seen as a bite warning stemmed from aggression, but it can also be seen as a plea--a growl coming from a place of fear and insecurity. At the end of the song, DMX cries “Somebody come and stop me (please!), somebody come and get me”. And while the song may seem hyper masculine and aggressive, the chorus keeps asking listeners to see beyond the mask. “They don’t know, who we be” the chorus sings in angelic treble clef that rises over DMX’s growls.
Inner city boys like LeAlan and Lloyd didn’t have to listen to DMX or NWA to understand the need for a tough guise in the city. LeAlan says bluntly “if they see you’re soft in the projects it’s like a shark seeing blood--they're going to attack!” (55). The aggressive masculine fronting of artists like DMX and inner city kids like LeAlan and Lloyd functions as a mask, but just because it’s a mask doesn’t mean it doesn’t also represent reality. The tough guise represents the blues tragedy of the city, a necessary way of acting to get by. It’s not a coincidence that gangsta-rap chose inner city violence as the topic of many of their songs. It doesn’t hide the blues reality, it presents it to you full force. LeAlan and Lloyd allow readers to peek beyond this masculine facade though, to the softer side of city kids.

Death, Tragedy, and Sorrow: The Grief Behind the Mask
Puff Daddy/Faith Evans/112: I’ll Be Missing You
Lloyd: You get your anger out by fighting [after your brother, Eric Morse, died]?
Derrick: sometimes
LeAlan: how do you feel about the young men that did this?
Derrick: Bad
LeAlan: how has your life been after this?
Derrick: Sad

While Puff Daddy didn’t front the hyper-masculinity of Ice Cube or Tupac, it took the world by surprise when Puff Daddy, Faith Evans, and 112 came out with the heartfelt “I’ll Be Missing You” after the murder of friend and colleague, Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. The song starts with a jolting car crash which ruptures the initial beat. After a pause, it leans into a deeper rhythm. For one of the first times in rap history, the veil was released slightly and audiences could feel the true hurt and vulnerability beneath Puff Daddy’s persona. He sings softly “It's hard to just keep going. It's like I feel empty inside without you being here” and ends, bluntly but strikingly “I miss you Big”.
Perhaps what was most powerful, and most heartbreaking, about reading ‘Our America’ was the way the story read as a carefully crafted tragic novel, only to come to the realization that this wasn’t the poised prose of some eloquent writer, but the raw sorrow of two teenage boys. Lloyd speaks of missing his mom who died of alcoholism “[Before my mother died] I used to wake up in the middle of the night and go downstairs and just lay beside her, and we’d watch TV and laugh. Sometimes when I wake up I think I see my momma standing right there before me. But now I have to get over it, because shes gone and I can’t do nothing about it” (65). It wasn’t just Lloyd’s mom who died. The reality of death in the city was everywhere. As the duo uncovered the story of Eric Morse’s death, the details were hard to read. When Eric Morse was thrown out the 14th story window, Eric’s brother Derrick ran down 14 flights of stairs trying to outrun his brother’s falling body. When he got to the body “he told [the police] he wasn’t going to leave--he had to wait there until his brother woke up.” (122). The extreme violence in the city was normalized in dialogue between kids. LeAlan starts talking to a man on the street, and the man remembers “they pushed both the guys down the elevator shaft, and they cut one guys head off and put his thing in his mouth”. LeAlan replies simply “Yeah, it’s nothing new” (103).

War, Violence and the American Dream: Confronting Reality
Jimi Hendrix: Star Spangled Banner Lloyd: You ain't made it til you're out of here. The other day they were shootin right outside my house and I thought I was fixin to get shot. I didn't know where to run so I just ran into somebody's hallway and closed the door. I was spooked. LeAlan: I bet you woke up and went to school the next morning though didn't you? Lloyd: Heck yeah!
LeAlan: People forget about stuff like that. Man, I think if we make it out of here we deserve a Medal of Honor or a Purple Heart. Because if you aren't wounded physically, you're wounded spiritually. I believe we deserve a Purple Heart for coming out of this motherfucker. I believe we’ve been in a damn war.
Lloyd: It has been a war..
LeAlan: And now we’re grown almost, no more kiddy games, no more wishing on a star. p. 197

Jimi Hendrix didn’t have to say anything as his guitar sputtered a mash-up of the National Anthem with grinding war sounds. Using the gritty sound of his electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix captured the confusion, hope, and desperation of millions of Americans abroad and at home. The song starts with a distorted national anthem that wars with the abrasiveness of Hendrix’s guitar. The national anthem ebbs and flows from the song, until it is completely gone, and all that is heard is a cacophony of disorienting explosions and screams. It isn’t until the very end of the song, that Jimi Hendrix strums the national anthem sweet and clear. It is unclear whether he meant it to represent genuine hope or sarcasm.
Even though LeAlan and Lloyd didn’t experience Vietnam, they understood the confusion and desperation of Hendrix’s song. the war in Vietnam ended 30 years prior, Lloyd describes the war still happening at home: “If you take [these kids in the ghetto] out of hearing gun shots everyday---POP! POP! POP! -- if you get ‘em out of Vietnam listening every day, every night, and every second, you’re going to see a big difference” (43). LeAlan adds “Think about it. The whole Ida B Wells looks like a 1995 concentration camp. All you have is steel. Dirt and iron. Metal. Thats all. Concrete and mortar. Thats all. Nothing else. A kid deserves something better than that. I deserve something better than that” (145). It was unclear whether the national anthem was going to become forever succumbed in Hendrix’s song, and for LeAlan and Lloyd, falling from the American Dream back into their war torn neighborhoods was a constant fear. LeAlan discloses “Its a lot of stress thinking about the possibility of not making it. So I still work constantly. Its like swimming. While you're working you're going to stay afloat, but the minute you stop moving is the minute you start sinking. When you think you’re comfortable is when you drown” (173). LeAlan and Lloyd understood that they didn’t deserve to grow up in a second-class America, but the problem was getting America to listen.

Hope, Unity, and Love: The Plea for Redemption
Marvin Gaye: Inner City Blues
LeAlan: My name is LeAlan Marvin Jones
June Marie Jones (grandmother): and [your mom] gave you that name
LeAlan: for Marvin Gaye
June Marie Jones: Because she liked to hear him sing p. 52-53

“Inner City Blues” starts with a two pronged beat that is unmistakable. The first beat is more subtle, the pulsing of pressure from the right ventricle to the lungs. Then the second beat is the backbeat, the powerful flush of blood from the left ventricle into the rest of the body. This heartbeat rings over the cityscape in Gaye’s video and then transcends fluidly into an african drum circle. The listener can no longer pull the beat of the heart from the beat of the drums--together they create the polyrhythmic flow of the song. “Inner City Blues” is a song about the pulse of the city--a humanization of the beating hearts so many have forgotten. But it is also a plea for humanity. We are all human, all our hearts are beating together, and it is about time we realized our common humanity. And while most of the song embodies the blues reality of the city, Marvin Gaye rings out into gospel redemption when he breaks the beat at the end of the song, and enters into a crying plead “Mother, Mother, everyone thinks we’re wrong, but who are they to judge us?” Marvin Gaye was adored for his romantic singing. He allowed people to escape, if only for a moment. But he represented more than just an escape; he represented the plea that life could be different.
LeAlan and Lloyd are the embodiment of that plea. “Some people might look at me and say ‘he’s just some little nigger from the ghetto’” LeAlan bluntly starts. “that might be” he admits, “But listen to what I’m saying. I know you don’t want to hear about the pain and suffering that goes on in ‘that’ part of the city...but ‘that’ part of the city is your part of the city too.” He continues his redemptive plea saying “but I believe it’s going to be all right. Somehow, some way..we can make this happen. Not me by myself, not you by yourself,. I’m talking about all of us as one, living together in our America” (200). Just as Marvin Gaye took America on a tour of their forgotten cities, LeAlan and Lloyd take readers on a journey through their hometown, and show America the beating hearts behind the masks. They allowed readers to see a world few have access to-- a world beyond the masks of tough fronting and comedic relief of inner city kids to the scared and tender eyes beyond. After they let readers in, LeAlan and Lloyd end with a simple call “Don’t look at ghetto kids as different..we’re human”. But from ‘Right to Work’ programs, to ‘No Child Left Behind’ America’s response has been more akin to the disorienting grind of Hendrix’s guitar, than any semblance of the American Dream.


Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Jones, L., Newman, L., & Isay, D. (1998). Our america. New York NY: Pocket Books.


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