True To The Game
The Adventures of a New Jack Gangsta Moll
She tells the story from the perspective of a “high yella: Fly girl
In her self-published first novel True To The Game, a play upon the old hustler’s motto “True to the code,” Philadelphia writer Terri Woods has given us an intimate look into the world of the young rich gangsta class that ascended in black inner-city neighborhoods during the Crack plague of the 1980’s. Although she calls the book a “fable,” like rap music, the bold New Jack anthems which is the sound track of Ms. Wood’s generation, the novel keeps it real, looking unsentimentally at the thrills and the tragedies of the cocaine cowboy life. And, interestingly enough, while Ms. Woods’ literary heroes are Iceberg Slim aka Robert Beck, Donald Goines and Jackie Collins, her business model is Master P, a ghetto rapper/entrepreneur in New Orleans who became a Hip Hop mogul worth over $300 million.
Like Master P, Woods has produced her own creative product and began its publication by selling it out of her car trunk on busy street corners in the black neighborhoods in Philly before finding outlets in the community that would sell her book. And like Robert Beck and Donald Goines, she observed the street life she chronicles at close range. Of course, Chester Himes, a great novelist, also belongs to this tradition. But Himes had no influence on Ms. Woods because she was unaware of Himes’ existence while writing True to the Game, and had yet to read a single line by him as of this writing.
Teri Woods, down with words and true to the game.This is a reflection of the fact that Ms. Woods is a hip/hop novelist–who describes herself as an “underground writer”–with no literary pretensions. Like Himes, or Ice T, she felt compelled to write because she believed that she had lived an experience in America that had not been properly taken note of by the fabulists of contemporary American life, and yet it is a story that deserves to be told. Himes began writing in the Ohio State Prison, where he was doing time for armed robbery, because he felt that he had discovered a dark side of human character that most people were unfamiliar with and he wanted to explore it. As perverse as this may seem it is hard to imagine that Ohio State University, with all of its learned professors of literature, could have provided Himes either the leisure to write, or the subject matter for literary exploration comparable to what he found in the joint. The point here is that while literary critics are generally the product of academia, writers come from everywhere, not just from the ranks of those who nurture literary ambitions.
Terri Woods had never thought of being a writer but she decided to write True To The Game because “I couldn’t find anybody who was writing the story I lived for a few years in the 1980’s when I was a teenager and looked like every nigga I knew was makin’ millions and livin’ large from the coke business. I mean, it was incredible, guys I knew from the neighborhood were actually makin’ millions! Then by the beginning of the nineties they were all gone, either dead or in jail.” What we have then in this gripping little book, which is actually 70 pages longer than Chinua Achebe’s great novel on the destruction of traditional African culture Things Fall Apart, are voices from a lost world.
True To The Game is a sharply drawn minimalist portrait of the glitter, glamour and ultimate tragedy of a ghetto fabulous gangsta society whose lifestyle was financed by fool’s gold mined from the vapors of smoldering cocaine rocks. It is a world of Glock totin’ urban cowboys who ride the streets of America’s cities in Range Rovers, Mercedes Benzes, Rolls Royces and BMWs with their fly girls at their side. And it was all wiped out in a flash, like Dinosaurs in the aftermath of a cosmic explosion, rendered null and void by a crackdown of the police power of the state at the insistence of a fed-up citizenry.
What ultimately sets this novel apart from the gangsta chronicles of Beck, Goines and Himes, aside from the fact that Himes skillfully employed parody to illuminate the absurdity of black life in mid-twentieth century America, is that these books are told from a male perspective, while TTTG‘s point of view is that of one of the high yellow fly-girls who decorate the arms and share the opulent but dangerous lifestyles of the young drug lords who became folk heroes to poor youths trapped in America’s post-industrial cities. It is a point of view that Ms. Woods appears well qualified to tell.
The fact that she is a round-the-way girl and not an intellectual who is familiar with the sociological literature on the black underclass is a distinct asset. And her apparent indifference to feminist arguments is also a plus. For in the absence of these pedagogical and ideological polemics, what we are left with is the unadorned observations of a gifted storyteller trying to keep it real. Like James Baldwin, arguably one of the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century, used to define his role, Ms. Woods is a witness.
That her prose style does not approach the eloquence, erudition and technical virtuosity of Baldwin’s is beside the point. The language she uses is perfectly suited to both her subject and her intended audience, and her narrative technique is adequate to the demands of her story. Through her central character Gena, a feisty redbone fly girl with a near fatal attraction to rich ebony colored gangstas, whose voice dominates the narrative, we are made privy to the language, world view, and vulgar materialistic values of the fly girls and the young Philly dope dealers who flooded the black community with crack cocaine and terrorized its citizens with impromptu gunfire that was liable to break out anywhere.
A ghetto flower with a high school education, Gena has no skills that can command a comfortable wage in the new hi-tech service economy of late twentieth century Philadelphia. Hence she and her girlfriends, who also feel trapped in ghetto poverty and going nowhere fast, decide to trade on their looks and snare a rich dope dealer. They are thoroughly fascinated with the glamour of the player’s life and often choose to go with the highest bidder.
It is a fascination we are acquainted with at the opening of the novel, when Gena and her best friend Sahirah drive up to Harlem from Philly in a rented car looking to hang out. “It wasn’t like Philly. It was larger, and the niggaz looked like Eric B. and Rakim, with humungous gold chains and diamond medallions the size of bread plates. If it was meant to represent wealth, that shit did its job. And Gena liked it. She looked at the girls and could not help staring at them. They had no clothes on. They were sexy and revealing, and Gena wanted to be amongst them, fucking with niggaz, getting her life on. New York was the shit.”
Ms. Wood’s fine ear for dialogue and her insight into the psychology of these black gangsta molls both humanize them and expose them as the scheming skeezers that they are. And while she is meticulous in describing the jewelry, clothes, fly cribs, fast cars, high grade cannabis, and champagne parties that marked the lifestyle of these sporting ladies, she is also unsparing in describing the often horrible fates they inevitably meet when the sweet life turns treacherous. Her critical eye is no less exacting when she turns her attention to the shortcomings of the “brothers,” who range from homicidal maniacs to egotistical Mack daddies, to patsies for the fly girls.
But amidst all the games people are playing Gena meets Quandir, a tall dark handsome multi-millionaire coke dealer with a college degree and aspirations to become a dentist, and he soon becomes her “man of life.” Gena and Quandir have a great love affair that lasts for most of the novel, and ends only when he is assassinated in one of the terrifying shootouts depicted in this novel. Since this happens after he has quit the dope trade, and it cost him a cool million to be able to walk away in peace, Ms. Woods leaves us with the clear message that no matter how sweet the drug life is, in the end it will wreck you. And therein lies the most important lesson of this book.
As a person who came of age roaming the streets of west Philadelphia in the 1950’s, reading this book was a revelation. When I left Philly in 1969, the city was a waning industrial town where the black working class could still find manufacturing jobs that would enable one to support a family, and purchase a house and car; things that most Americans regard as their birth right. But as industry after industry left the area the black working class was placed in an increasingly untenable economic position. By the time crack appeared on the scene during the 80’s, the depressed black community was fertile ground for suppliers and consumers. This book provides a revealing look at what happened. And, as Gena observes, a big part of the disaster that struck the black community of Philadelphia resulted from the fact that “A whole generation decided not to raise their kids.”
For people of my generation, who entered their teen years in the 1950’s, this book is barometer for how much black life inner city has deteriorated over the last 35 to 40 years. For instance, the Richard Allen projects in north Philly is depicted as a hell-hole, but this is where Bill Cosby and conservative economist Dr. Walter Williams were raised along with many other successful black Philadelphians. And the fact that the taking of Arabic names and embracing Islam were commitment rituals for radical activist committed to uplifting the African American community in the 1950’s and 60’s, but had become the distinguishing characteristic for a brotherhood of dope dealers wreaking havoc on their community by the eighties, is a sure sign of decadence!
All the dope dealers greet each other with “As Salaam Alaikum” before discussing a dope deal, planning a hit on another “brother,” or talking about women as if they were all born whores. It’s as if things went backwards in black Philadelphia; “Babylon to Ras!” as the Rastafarians would say. When I asked Ms. Woods about her depiction of the dope dealing fraternity as Muslims, she said, ” I’m just writing about what I saw.” In other words, she is being true to the game.
Text and Photo by: Playthell Benjamin
Cover Model: The Fabulous Aja!