What "Crackhead" Really Meant in 1980s AmericaRoundup
tags: crime, African American history, urban history, 1980s, drugs, crack cocaine, Drug War, Cocaine
Donovan X. Ramsey is a writer in Los Angeles and the author of When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era.
The crack epidemic has passed into legend since its end in the mid-1990s, and the further we get from its height, the larger it looms in the collective imagination. That’s partly a product of memory itself, it seems, but it’s also a consequence of which memories of the epidemic have been prioritized.
For more than three decades, the accounts of law-enforcement officials, politicians, and pundits have dominated the conversation. Most of those people were never touched in personal ways by the epidemic, except perhaps for what they did at work or saw in the news or experienced in passing. For those people, the crack epidemic was and continues to be an idea that encapsulates everything bad about the ’80s and ’90s—the poverty, crime, gangs, violence, everything the ghetto represented in America after the civil-rights movement.
But for the community members who came face-to-face with the crack epidemic, it was as real as flesh and blood. Crack and its attendant misery permeated every aspect of our lives. For us, the crack epidemic was more than a collection of statistics used in an article or speech. It was embedded in our neighborhoods and homes. It was in some people’s childhoods, interrupted constantly by trauma, tragedy, threats, and stress.
Michelle lived just a few doors down the block from my family, in Columbus, Ohio. I hardly ever saw her, though. In fact, I don’t remember ever actually meeting Michelle, but I was taught to be afraid of her. My mom, a cautious woman who otherwise avoided gossip, would drag our house phone room to room by its long white cord and talk at length with her friends about Michelle From Down the Street.
She had too many strange people going in and out of her house. The neighborhood could hear her parties at all hours of the night. She looked “a mess.” It was all “just so sad,” my mom would say with a slow shake of her head. She would move on to other topics, but I stayed fixed on Michelle and tried to imagine what might be going on just a few feet away.
One Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on our front porch with my older sister when a van pulled up and parked in front of Michelle’s place. Out of it came an older woman and a young girl, each resembling our mysterious neighbor in her own way. Because my sister knew everything, I asked her who the strangers were. “Duh! That’s Michelle’s family,” she said, adding that the small girl was Michelle’s daughter. “Why don’t she live with her mom?” I asked. My sister shrugged her shoulders, annoyed, like it was the kind of inconsequential question she’d never ask, and answered, “I don’t know. Probably because Michelle is a crackhead.”
It was 1993 or 1994. I was just 5 or 6 years old but had heard the word crackhead countless times, usually from other kids. Crackhead was a go-to insult—so-and-so was “acting like a crackhead”; “yo mama” was a “crackhead.”
It was popular, I assume, because it belonged to the grown-up world, and using it made us feel grown. I suppose we made crackhead a slur because we feared what it represented, a rock bottom to which any of us could sink. That’s what children do when they’re in search of power over things that frighten them: They reduce them to words, bite-size things that can be spat out at a moment’s notice.
I couldn’t make sense of the fact that Michelle was a crackhead. She lived just down the street, after all, and she had a family. Crackheads were supposed to be foreigners from some netherworld, whose main activities were begging for money and otherwise disrupting community life. Then they were supposed to return to wherever they came from—alleyways, sewers, wherever the trash went after we threw it out.