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"A Man without a Country": The Boundaries of Legibility, Social Capital, and Cosmopolitan Masculinity

From: Criticism
Volume 52, Number 3-4, Summer/Fall 2010
pp. 399-411 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0045

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In "Ebb Tide," the first episode from the second season of The Wire, Bodie Broadus, a rising lieutenant in the Barksdale crew, travels to Philadelphia on behalf of Russell "Stringer" Bell, who in the aftermath of the first-season arrest of Avon Barksdale, is running the day-to-day operations of the crew. The trip is Bodie's first outside of the city of Baltimore, a fact that is comically presented when he is confused when his car radio begins to lose the signal to the radio station he had been listening to. Bodie's confusion speaks to the larger issue of worldview and how the boundaries of the block often limit the worldviews of The Wire's many characters. Indeed, part of the appeal of The Wire is that it privileges the worldview of the block, though, in the absence of experiences beyond the confines of Baltimore's so-called inner city, the block literally becomes a nation—something that must be policed and defended at all cost for far too many of its characters. To speak of concerns beyond the block—something perhaps akin to a cosmopolitan worldview in which one is seen as a citizen of the world—is to risk censure from tightly knit hood (i.e., neighborhood) relations and to raise suspicions about even more tightly held convictions of what constitutes legitimate hood masculinities. In his book The Minds of Marginalized Black Men, sociologist Alford A. Young Jr. argues that such a limited view—a social isolation—has adverse effects on the ambitions and life chances of black men relegated to segregated, nonwhite, urban enclaves. Rather than frame his study solely from the standpoint of that isolation, Young observed men whose worldviews and ability to respond creatively to their conditions were enhanced by their mobility beyond the confines of their insular communities. As Young writes of his informants, "[T]he group of men with the greatest awareness of the complexity of the processes of mobility and attainment in American society were those with the most extensive contacts beyond the neighborhood."

If there is one character in the world of The Wire that personifies an awareness of the complexities that Young outlines, it is Russell "Stringer" Bell (Idris Elba), Avon Barksdale's second in command and arguably the most integral figure in Barksdale's operation. Bell's character played a secondary role during The Wire's initial season, but with the incarceration of Barksdale at the end of that season, Bell became more prominent, ultimately becoming a primary focus of police surveillance. Audiences were further briefed on Bell's complexity during the first season when Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) follows him around the city, after a chance sighting at Baltimore's Northeast Market, eliciting the retort "market day for Stringer too" from McNulty's partner Bunk Moreland. That it is McNulty, the character who mainstream audiences were seemingly expected to most identify with that provides a real-time glimpse into Bell's movement, signals Bell's critical role in The Wire's larger narrative. In a subculture defined by the contradictions of crass materialism (the "bling") and understatement (the proverbial white tee), Bell's modest sedan, button-down oxford shirts, and windbreaker easily mark him as illegible, within the context of the block (i.e., neighborhood). That Bell was also enrolled in business courses at Baltimore City Community College—Introduction to Macroeconomics the day McNulty follows him ("What the hell?")—only adds the allure of a character whose worldview is so clearly beyond the realm of the corners (i.e., street corners) that Barksdale's empire controls.

Bell's corporate demeanor provides some clue into his motivation for being in the drug game in the first place; despite his evident skill set, intelligence, and discipline, the glass ceilings and doublespeak around issues of diversity in the workforce and on elite college campuses in the pre-Obama era would have likely made it difficult for Bell to function in those institutions at the high level he does within Barksdale's operation. Bell's embrace of the drug trade enables him to make his way on his own terms, enabling his literal ownership of the game, if...