Namond Brice, son of the infamous Barksdale hitter Wee-Bey Brice, is competing in a debate. The former corner boy now wears formal attire on stage hovering above three judges, all listening attentively to his impassioned pleas. His adopted father, former BPD major and certified member of the show’s exclusive clubs of “good Po-lease,” Howard “Bunny” Colvin, sits with his family in the crowd, his look of paternal concern confirming for the largely white, liberal audience what it wants to believe, what it needs to believe: Namond, the corner boy with the heart of gold, has been officially saved.
As someone intimately involved with the machinations of the local debate league here, this scene has always stood out in my mind. I understand why this narrative would make sense to David Simon; disaffected youth finds solace in a community where he literally "finds" his voice and can engage in the sort of dialogue and mutual sharing of ideas so often missing on "the corner." The complex and nuanced reality of Black life in Baltimore is omitted in the bleak, European tragedy narrative "The Wire" is locked into. And with so many people theorizing about how to "save" Baltimore now, it seems important for there to be a deconstruction of "The Wire's" problematic tacit political assumptions on race.
"The Wire" is a fine piece of art—it truly stands alone in American television—but as a political text, it reflects the problems in much of leftist American political discourse, with old-hat union politics and white liberalism being the only life rafts thrown to the audience in a sea of pessimism. The disjunction between the portrayal of Namond being saved by debate and an analysis of how debate actually works in Baltimore is just the clearest example of the problem with this.
Maybe this is why over its five seasons there is hardly a whiff of a "Black Lives Matter"-type movement in response to conditions in Baltimore, for that would require: (a) a realistic portrayal of police brutality, which the show largely avoids in deference to its "good Po-lease" mythology; and (b) a show runner that would embrace the belief—which their vestigial Marxism and white liberalism both stand in contrast to—that Black people have the power to come up with their own solutions and ultimately save themselves.
Lawrence Grandpre is a board member of Baltimore's Leaders Of A Beautiful Struggle and the co-author of "The Black Book" with Dayvon Love.