Family portraits.  BOOKREVIEW: A Time Before Crack

In the mid 1980s the Americas were changing. Latin America was in an upsurge and U.S.-backed reactionaries were as popular as Adidas jump suits. The Reagan administration was funding the Contras’ attack on the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Working-class communities here in the U.S. faced historic crime waves, a new level of joblessness and poverty and an emerging drug epidemic.

What is the connection between Nicaragua, New York City and Los Angeles? Crack.

Most explanations of the crack epidemic point to the connections between the CIA-backed Contras, Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the CIA itself. This alliance led to the development of a pipeline from Colombia’s cartels directly to U.S. cities, mass purchasing of automatic weapons, and crime waves in inner cities.

Cocaine was trafficked directly into U.S. cities where a cheaper, more addictive, more dangerous drug was introduced: crack. The crack epidemic destroyed Black communities all over the U.S. and also provided funds for the Contras, U.S.-backed paramilitaries that destroyed Nicaragua’s economic infrastructure, devastating the country. The devastation and destruction created by crack would change the reality of U.S. inner cities forever.

Life before crack

Jamel Shabazz, the photographer behind “A Time Before Crack,” tells the story of what crack stole from Black Americans. We get a visual tour of some of the most devastated working-class communities in New York City before crack — a way of life most young people in New York have never even seen.

This book tells a story of what once was: a time when people smiled with pride, men held their brothers, and then there were the huge eyeglasses! Every pose, high five, and hug was a poster for Black pride. Shabazz paints a picture of a time when people struggled, survived and did so with pride. Everybody had their pose, from young women and B-boys to pool sharks and police officers. The crack epidemic silenced Black pride, power and expression. “Time” displays the smiles and solidarity later replaced with slick smirks and middle fingers.

Stand-out photos

Certain photos make a huge impact and stand out more than the rest. The first is a picture taken in the Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 1980. It depicts four young men sharing two motorbikes. The two in the front have the classic ’80s arms crossed in the “You already know” pose, and the two in the back arch into each other meeting palm to palm, with “Black Power” sprayed onto the cinder-block wall behind them. And they had helmets on: you can obviously be safe and cool.

Another picture, also taken in Brooklyn in 1980, shows a family of about 17 people all on the stoop of their house. The photo demonstrates Shabazz’s ability to catch people in a way that makes it seem like they are not even posing for him, which gives his pictures so much power and depth.

Shabazz’s ability to tell this story, to expose the hidden narrative in all his pictures, is truly a gift, allowing him to reveal the tones, attitudes and presence that would be missing from pictures of the same areas today. If you only have one idea of what Black life is like in the United States, you have lost touch with what was stolen from Black people. Shabazz shows us pictures of families, men holding babies, Guardian Angels who were not awkward and scary, and men with hands interlocked as a sign of brotherhood, compassion and solidarity. This book is a chapter in the story of American Black life, one some of us have forgotten, and one that reminds us of the importance and potential power that lies in our struggle.

Stolen lives

The communities pictured never really recovered. Shabazz focuses on Harlem, Brownsville and other communities in Brooklyn, for all the right reasons. If you walk down the same streets today, you will notice what is missing.

The thing that’s tragic about the crack epidemic is that it was not hidden; there is no super government agency attempting to cover up the facts. There were no “Black-Ops” or shady shadow deals in this story, just open imperialism and state oppression at its best. No one is trying to tell you that the CIA had nothing to do with it. Everyone knows. We all knew. Every person I talk to about this book, about the effects of crack and what it stole from the Black community, knew exactly what I was going to say.

Shabazz’s “A Time Before Crack” is a testament to what was purposefully stolen from Black people: our pride and control of our identity. It is a testament to the role that the U.S. government and the CIA played in openly supporting right-wing military groups bent on death and destruction in Latin America. It is a testament to the fact that U.S foreign policy is not that foreign at all.

Reprinted from Dynamic Magazine, a publication of the Young Communist League (

A Time Before Crack
Photographs by Jamel Shabazz
Powerhouse Books, 2005
Hardcover, 144 pp., $35