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About Amit Varma

Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

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19 March, 2008

Black, African American, Nigger

Yesterday I read Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day,” in which he describes his years as an embedded sociologist in the Black Kings, a Chicago gang. In the excerpt below, he describes his first meeting with the ganglord JT:

He took the questionnaire from my hand, barely glanced at it, then handed it back. Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful.

I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled. How does it feel to be black and poor?

“I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.

“Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.

“I’m not African-American either. I’m a nigger.”

Now I didn’t know what to say. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking him how it felt to be a nigger. He took back my questionnaire and looked over it more carefully. He turned the pages, reading the questions to himself. He appeared disappointed, though I sensed that his disappointment wasn’t aimed at me.

Niggers are the ones who live in this building,” he said at last. “African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.”

He looked at a few more pages of the questionnaire. “You ain’t going to learn shit with this thing.”

I’d been looking forward to reading Venkatesh’s book for a while, and it was riveting enough for me to finish it in one sitting. But I was disappointed. I expected much more insight on a variety of issues. For example, the way in which the drug gangs ran the housing projects of Chicago seemed to me a fascinating illustration of how informal systems of government and law & order function where there would otherwise be anarchy. I also expected to learn much more about the drug trade and the informal economy. (Venkatesh’s other work tackles these areas.) I suppose this book was meant for a general audience and kept reasonably light, with more storytelling and less analysis.

Also, the characters seemed like cardboard to me, and barring Venkatesh himself, I did not feel I knew any of them well enough. But this wasn’t a novel, and that’s excusable. For a book that takes about three-to-four hours to read, this is certainly worth the cost.

More:

Tyler Cowen’s review.
Venkatesh’s home page.
Venkatesh’s guest posts on the Freakonomics Blog.

Posted by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts

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