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If We Must Die

From Bigger Thomas to Biggie Smalls

Aimé J. Ellis

Publication Year: 2011

Investigates a variety of texts in which the self-image of poor, urban black men in the U.S. is formed within, by, and against a culture of racial terror and state violence.

Published by: Wayne State University Press

Series: African American Life Series


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pp. vii-xi

At least once a day, oftentimes more, I wish Aim

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pp. 1-23

In late fall 1994, Christopher Wallace—with the production support of Sean “Puffy” Combs and Bad Boy Records—released his hugely successful debut rap album, Ready to Die. On the album’s final track, “Suicidal Thoughts,” Wallace’s larger-than-life alter ego, Biggie Smalls (also known in the hip-hop world as the Notorious B.I.G., Frank White, Biggie, or, simply, “Big”), testifies to the undefeatable despair of his life, takes ...

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1. “Boys in the Hood”: Black Male Community in Richard Wright’s Native Son

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pp. 23-42

When the nineteen-year-old Richard Wright moved from Memphis to Chicago in December 1927, he arrived in a city that had been acknowledged as a site of great economic possibility and racial refuge for many southern blacks. Indeed, Wright, like so many other young blacks, arrived in the midst of an era of massive migration from the South that saw Chicago’s black population increase from 44,103 in 1910 to 109,458 ...

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2. “It’s a Man’s World”: Rethinking Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice in the Twenty-first Century

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pp. 43-62

When hip-hop artist Ras Kass1 made his 1998 tribute to Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968) in the first anniversary issue of the hip-hop magazine XXL, he reminded his readers of the enduring black nationalist impulse that runs deep within hard-core rap music and contemporary black male identity politics. Controversially recalling a personal and political history filled with rape and misogyny, armed self-defense, and ...

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3. “Am I Black Enough for You?”: Black Male Authenticity in Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America

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pp. 63-90

The opening pages of Nathan McCall’s 1994 autobiography begin in the late 1960s with a graphic display of youth violence. A “gang” of black boys—including Nathan himself—brutally attacks a young white male bicyclist as he pedals into their neighborhood. Chasing after him, the black boys finally reach their victim, pull him to the ground, and proceed to kick and stomp him as he lies helplessly in the street. As dramatic as it ...

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4. Death Bound: The Thug Life

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pp. 91-122

I open this chapter with a powerful citation from “Runnin’,” the popular Tupac Shakur rap single posthumously released for the 2003 documentary film of his life, Resurrection.1 Expressing what is commonly identified as a “thug” mentality, Tupac’s sobering lyrics point at once to a death-defying and death-embracing sentiment of “no fear” among young black men with little to lose. And while “thug” has carried currency ...

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5. “How Does It Feel?”: A Question of Life and Death in D’Angelo’s “Untitled”

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pp. 123-142

In 2000, hip-hop soul artist extraordinaire Michael “D’Angelo” Archer released his much-anticipated second album, Voodoo. The album was introduced over U.S. mainstream radio and music video stations in late 1999 with his Grammy-winning single, “(Untitled) How Does It Feel?” As D’Angelo’s lyrical style and captivating visual performance of the song reliably returns to the rather straightforward convention of the soulful ...


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pp. 143-174


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pp. 175-188


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pp. 189-213

E-ISBN-13: 9780814336656
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814334133

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 3
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1
Volume Title: N/a
Series Title: African American Life Series
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OCLC Number: 755631904
MUSE Marc Record: Download for If We Must Die

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • State-sponsored terrorism -- United States -- History.
  • African American men -- Psychology.
  • Masculinity -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Death -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • African American men -- Social conditions.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Death -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
  • Racism -- United States -- History.
  • African American men in popular culture.
  • Masculinity -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
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