Biggie Smalls' America

By Marc Dion

May 29, 2017 5 min read

I love this country, where Biggie Smalls and confusion won a victory just before Memorial Day, reminding us all of what it means to be an American.

Smalls, a rapper otherwise known as The Notorious B.I.G., was as important to some people as Willie Nelson is to some people, and Kurt Cobain is to some other people. Smalls died when someone put four bullets into him.

I liked Smalls because, even though I'm a 60-year-old white man with a complexion like the end of a Q-tip, I'm a writer. I like other writers, if they're good. Smalls was a good writer. So was Tupac Shakur.

Smalls grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where he knocked around, sold dope, absorbed time and thought about the words in his head.

He got the words out eventually, and he got famous. Once white people ear the word "rapper," they can't hear the word "poet." Oh, we'll settle the word "poet" on any white songwriter, no matter how bad. Kurt Cobain? Poet. Biggie Smalls. Rapper and thug.

In Brooklyn, there's a huge mural of Biggie on the side of a building that is owned by a man named Samuel Berkowitz, who wanted to remove the mural because the people who came to view it made his tenants uncomfortable.

The neighborhood is "gentrifying," which means the people inside the building are using doctor-prescribed Xanax like it was ketchup, but they do not want a huge mural of a dealer in illegal drugs painted on the side of their building.

Berkowitz asserted his property rights, which is a very American thing to do. The people of the neighborhood, and others, tried to preserve the mural as art, and as scenery, which is a very American thing to do.

America is a shifting place. Bedford-Stuyvesant has been an Italian/Jewish neighborhood, and black neighborhood. Orthodox Jews are flooding into the area, and the young people we call "hipsters."

And there was Biggie, grinning down at it all.

The white Jewish landlord, the de-blackify-ing neighborhood, the mural of a black man and the struggle to keep it reek of the rough America where someone's always new on the block, and people run away from the new people, then other people chase out those people, and everything is always becoming something else, and, for the first time in your family, someone marries a Puerto Rican girl.

If you are an American, you like that bubbling, that boiling that makes steam come out of the sides of the pot. Sinatra sang to gangsters, and Biggie Smalls rapped about gangsters. Sinatra had to deny knowing some people, and Biggie died because he knew some people, and the corner store in your neighborhood just started selling Russian canned goods.

So, Biggie's admirers, the admirers of the mural, took a stand, and they won, but it won't last forever. About 10 blocks from my house is a building that used to be a synagogue, but is now home to an Evangelical Christian sect. Someday, it may be a synagogue again. This is America. New people move into the neighborhood all the time.

Biggie was free speech. The landlord is property rights. The neighborhood is changing.

The soldiers who died in America's wars? They were Jews, slum-dwellers, blacks, zoot suiters and white farm boys. Some of them said their last words in Spanish or in Polish, because they were calling for a mother who didn't speak English, back home in Chicago or Los Angeles.

At it's best, America changes so fast you can't get a clear picture of it as it hurries past you on the sidewalk. The experiment is rude, and loud, and sometimes violent, and soldiers have died to keep it going, and that is all we know about Memorial Day.

To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit Dion's latest book, "The Land of Trumpin" is a collection of his 2016 columns with a foreword by "Listen, Liberal," author Thomas Frank. "The Land of Trumpin'" is available in paperback, and on Kindle, Nook, iBooks and Google Play.

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