Interview: Former Drug Dealer & Convicted Felon Shares His Journey From The Streets To New York University
It’s 65-degrees on a clear, bright Sunday afternoon in Harlem, a.k.a. Black Manhattan. With a calm excitement, tourists stroll the infamous Lenox Avenue visiting locally owned eateries ensconced on the avenue that Malcolm X, Cam’ron, Rich Porter and James Baldwin, among others made famous. In addition to the seemingly unbothered tourists’ sightseeing, the financially stable whites –who are moving into Black Manhattan thanks to gentrification–venture in and out of their luxury apartments unaware or unconcerned with the urban plight that surrounds the area.
Despite the eye-candy that lines Lenox Avenue, if one looks a little closer, past the fake and forced smiles or the aggressive ice grills and blank stares, one can see the residue of crack — the potential that crack strong-armed and imprisoned — and the remnants of once close knit families who were ripped apart by the rocked-up cocaine.
Unfortunately, Harlem isn’t the only ‘hood in America that crack has ambushed. Cooked cocaine has devastated families from Florida to California to Portland, Oregon. Which brings us to the subject at hand: Portland native and former dope-boy-turned author, filmmaker, and New York University English professor, Mitchell S. Jackson.
With the recent release of his documentary The Residue Years—based on his autobiographical book of the same name, the tall and caramel complexioned Jackson, 40, met with Vibe on Uptown’s Lenox Avenue.
Over black coffee, mango slushies, and unhealthy burgers and fries, the former basketball player discussed his journey from drug dealer, watching his mother’s crack addiction, and his stint in prison to becoming a critically-acclaimed author and English professor.
“Although it’s my story, I like to think that it’s our story. Because for most of us, that’s all we have are drugs or we dreamed about playing in the NBA,” Jackson said in between bites of food and sips of his mango slushy.
No one wakes up and decides that they’re going to sell drugs. As cliché as it sounds, many men and women are pushed by intense and traumatizing socioeconomic conditions to involve themselves in the drug trade.
As a child Jackson had no direction or positive plans of action. His dad was absent. The only man in his life was a hustler. And his mom was addicted to crack. Jackson saw the horrors of crack up close and personal. Despite his mother being able to hold down a job with her addiction, there were many days when the rent went unpaid.
“She was a functioning addict,” Jackson tells Vibe. “She had a job, she would even go six months, and do nothing. And then one day, she would be gone for a while. Then, when I was thirteen, I had enough of that sh*t. I had to figure out how to get us out of this sh*t.”
Tired of his mother sending the rent up in crack smoke, Jackson made a tough decision to dive into the dope game as a faultless 13-year-old man-child.
“But I wasn’t really good at it the first time, so I stopped almost immediately,” he said.
After a brief stay in the drug game, Jackson set his sights on making it to a Division 1 college basketball program, then the NBA. Unfortunately, his hoop dreams didn’t pan out. Jackson did manage to land a spot on Clark College’s b-ball squad, but later transferred to Portland Community College. The soft-spoken Jackson even earned an academic scholarship in the process. But scholarship money wasn’t enough to help with the demanding issues plaguing his family.
“I got two scholarships. One was for $500 for some Rotary Club or something, and I got $1,000 from somewhere else,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, this ain’t going to do nothing. What is this going to do?’ And I took that, and went and bought a pack. And that’s when it really started.”
This time around, Jackson excelled in the dope game. By the time he turned 19, he was worth $20,000. But the street life wasn’t fulfilling.
“So, I was doing that and going to college. I’m 19-20 years old. I got a Lexus. I’m coming to practice with money in my pocket. My coaches were borrowing money from me,” he admitted. “Both of them knew, but only one was hitting me up for money. Looking back, that was the worst time of my life because I was home; I didn’t have any dreams, I didn’t have a plan, and I was doing that. I was doing stuff that was putting me in a lot of danger.”
Once his junior college basketball days came to a close, Jackson received an academic scholarship to Portland State University. But before he could start PSU, street life caught up with him, and the cops busted Jackson with five ounces of crack and a gun. As a result, he was charged with distribution of a controlled substance and possession of a stolen firearm, and was sentenced to sixteen months in Mill Creek Correctional and Santiam Correctional.
But the academic scholarship to PSU would prove to still be instrumental in Jackson’s future.
“So I applied to the UMAS scholarship– Underrepresented Minority Academic Scholarship. I got that and that was the scholarship that they had for me when I got popped,” Jackson said. “I had that scholarship already, so I called and said, ‘Yo, I have a family emergency.’ They didn’t ask no questions, and they said, ‘Cool, we’ll hold it for you when you come back.’ And that’s how I got in school. I was sentenced to sixteen months, so they weren’t tripping. It was a school year and a summer.”
Since Jackson’s release from prison, he’s received his bachelor degree in speech communication from PSU, and a M.F.A. in writing from New York University. He’s won several fellowships, published his critically acclaimed autobiography “The Residue Years” (Bloomsburg, 2013). He’s currently prepping his second book, “Survival Math” (Scribner, 2017). And he just finished his documentary dubbed The Residue Years–based on his book. Also, his mom is drug free.
“Everybody knows somebody in the hood with a hoop dream or some other sport. Most people can name a famous rapper or entertainer, but how many people can name a successful black writer beyond Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou?” he said. “I’m living a dream I didn’t even know I could have when I was young. And somewhere else there’s a guy like me — and you — who might see this and begin to transform before he hits or prison cell. Or a guy sitting in a group home or a prison cell or on the block might see this and think they could be the next one.”
Jackson continues: “This story affirms that we can’t be afraid of assiduity. That not all success must happen overnight. It’s like field of dreams; ‘If you build it they will come.’ But you got to put the time in to build it right. Plus, I’d argue that being a good writer, a person who has command of language, is an empowering and respected position.
After leaving a tip on the table for the waitress, Jackson sadly shakes as if he wants to shed a tear, and mumbles that some of these Harlem kids will probably rarely venture past an eight block radius.
“We need some hope, man.”
Watch Jackson’s three-part documentary, The Residue Years, below.