'Kemba's Nightmare' was her own creation


The May issue of Emerge magazine proves once again why it is black America's premier news periodical. Taking a break from the John H. Johnson -- publisher of Ebony and Jet -- "happy news makes happy Negroes" school of journalism, Emerge devoted nearly its entire issue to the drug crisis.

The main feature was a special report on an African-American woman named Kemba Smith. "Kemba's Nightmare," Emerge called its story. It focused on how this "model child" -- a student at Hampton University -- got sucked into a vortex of drug dealing and murder. Kemba is now a member of the fastest-growing prison population in the country: black women.

"Kemba's Nightmare" is the longest feature story to ever run in Emerge, according to editor-in-chief George E. Curry. Kemba's tale runs 17 pages. Four pages are devoted to two psychologists who try to explain Kemba's actions and the actions of others like her. Another three pages are dedicated to the federal mandatory sentencing guidelines that got her a 24-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.

Kemba's dilemma "raises worrisome questions about federal mandatory sentencing laws and whether the 'war on drugs' is essentially a war on African-Americans," Curry writes. Curry and Emerge are right to pose the questions. But if they use Kemba Smith as an example, the answer to the second question would have to be an emphatic "no." Kemba Smith put Kemba Smith behind bars for 24 years, not federal mandatory sentencing laws or the "war on African-Americans."

I told Kemba's story to a group of business law students at Woodlawn High School. They agreed, almost unanimously, that the only one who could be blamed for Kemba's troubles is Kemba. They had no trouble reaching that conclusion after I presented the lowlights of Kemba's descent into criminality.

Kemba dumped a boyfriend at the behest of her girlfriends, who objected to his lack of cash, absence of car and disdain for the latest clothing styles. She took up with one Peter Hall, who had the cash, clothes and car but was a known drug-dealing varmint. Those African-Americans who insist that the problem of black youth is their obsession with clothes as opposed to academic achievement would do well to dwell on this point. It poses a

question as serious as the one Curry brings up in his editorial: Is the concern of black youth with money and other trappings of materialism so great that it now poses a problem for us as an ethnic group?

Consider Emerge reporter Reginald Stuart's description of how life changed for Kemba and Peter after they were both trying to elude federal agents.

"They walked and walked and walked, Kemba recalls. 'He didn't have any transportation. It was obvious.' No BMW. No Mercedes. No Jeep Wrangler. No Saab. No 300Z. None of the vehicles that turned the heads of Kemba and the other girls at Hampton."

Kemba ignored the signs that Hall was a drug dealer. "I had heard he was dealing drugs, but hadn't seen it," she told Stuart. "I didn't question how he had all these things because it seemed like it was accepted by everybody." Duh.

Kemba refused to dump Hall even after he beat her. Instead, she became his "mule," transporting guns and weapons for him to various cities on the East Coast. Kemba was arrested after Hall was on the lam for drug and murder charges. Other women involved in Hall's drug ring cooperated with federal authorities // and told them what they wanted to know. Not Kemba. She lied to officials and stubbornly refused to tell them of Hall's whereabouts. When she finally decided to cooperate, Hall was dead, and the feds no longer needed her information. The women who cooperated are free and walking the streets.

Kemba used the now reliable excuse for her fall from grace: She had "low self-esteem." It's a legitimate excuse for some, but to me, it just makes Kemba one more member of the world's largest club. Everybody has low self-esteem about something: height, weight, hair, overall attractiveness, intellectual ability, athletic ability and God only knows what else. Low self-esteem should be regarded as what it is: an inevitable rite of passage that must be overcome. It is not an excuse to heed the clarion call to stupidity. But I suspect the proponents of the "everybody as victim" school of thought so prevalent today will disagree.

From her cell in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., Kemba seems to be wising up -- several beatings and countless marijuana joints later.

"I made some bad decisions," she told Stuart. "I don't put the blame on anybody." Don't worry Kemba. In today's political climate you can rest assured someone will find a way to blame everybody but you.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Pub Date: 5/11/96

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