When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era

Longlist, National Book Awards 2023 for Nonfiction

ISBN 9780525511809
One World / Penguin Random House
Author photo of Donovan X. Ramsey. (Photo credit: Antonio M. Johnson)
Donovan X. Ramsey

Donovan X. Ramsey is a journalist, author, and an indispensable voice on issues of identity, justice, and patterns of power in America. His reporting has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, GQ, WSJ Magazine, Ebony, and Essence, among other outlets. More about this author >

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From the publisher:

A kaleidoscopic account of the crack cocaine era and a community’s ultimate resilience, told through a cast of characters whose lives illuminate the dramatic rise and fall of the epidemic

The crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s is arguably the least examined crisis in American history. Beginning with the myths inspired by Reagan’s war on drugs, journalist Donovan X. Ramsey’s exacting analysis traces the path from the last triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement to the devastating realities we live with a racist criminal justice system, continued mass incarceration and gentrification, and increased police brutality.

When Crack Was King follows four individuals to give us a startling portrait of crack’s destruction and devastating Elgin Swift, an archetype of American industry and ambition and the son of a crack-addicted father who turned their home into a “crack house”; Lennie Woodley, a former crack addict and sex worker; Kurt Schmoke, the longtime mayor of Baltimore and an early advocate of decriminalization; and Shawn McCray, community activist, basketball prodigy, and a founding member of the Zoo Crew, Newark’s most legendary group of drug traffickers.

Weaving together riveting research with the voices of survivors, When Crack Was King is a crucial reevaluation of the era and a powerful argument for providing historically violated communities with the resources they deserve.

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