Ode (Owed?) to Baltimore

[Savage Minds is pleased to present an invited post from Mike Agar. Mike Agar left academia in 1996 with an early emeritus exit from the University of Maryland and now works in New Mexico as Ethknoworks (ethknoworks.com for details on his checkered past and present). His long life on drugs is described in Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs. He recently published The Lively Science: Rebuilding Human Social Research and currently works on water governance in the Southwest.]

The phone was ringing and the message light blinking when I walked into the project office in Baltimore. Fred, an outreach counselor my age with whom I’d worked on a Johns Hopkins project, had already shown me a copy of our flyer that he’d gotten I didn’t know where. “It’s all over the streets,” he said with the sideways smile he used when he knew he had me inside a teaching moment.

It was the late 90s and I’d just started running a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to figure out why illegal drug epidemics happened. Yet another white researcher in a majority black city. Though I lived in a suburb near the University of Maryland, College Park, from which I’d resigned in 1996, I wanted to do the project in Baltimore because I’d done work there before consulting with Hopkins public health and I was weary of the strange city that Washington was and is. Many people in Washington said that Baltimore is a “real” city.”

We wanted to do some oral history interviews with Baltimoreans who had been involved in the crack epidemic around the time it took off in the early 1980s. I called a colleague who ran one of the main methadone clinics in the city and asked if I could put a flyer up on their bulletin board. “Sure,” she said. It offered $25 for a one to two hour interview and left a phone number.

“It’s called ‘study money,’” Fred said, holding up the flyer, referring to the $25 payment. Usually it was offered for taking part in research projects out of Hopkins or the UM medical school located in the city. Later I looked in the alternative newsweekly and, sure enough, columns of ads offered payment for participation in clinical research. “You volunteer for some studies,” explained Fred, “ a few bucks here, a few bucks there, you can make it through the day.”  That’s why the phone in the office was ringing off the hook and why the answering machine was full. That one flyer had been copied and handed out in several places in the city by methadone patients trying to help out family and friends.

I started answering calls. It went on for hours. Most people were too young, or too late getting involved with crack, or hadn’t used it at all. Often they’d say, “Hold on a minute,” and go look for another person they thought would qualify. After we had our quota of interviewees I still answered and, when I told the caller we were set, I heard disappointment, even sadness, sometimes anger. Finally I put a message saying “no more” on the machine and left to drink a Guinness. I felt like shit, like Baltimore was a research colony and I was a colonizer.

I’d been involved in drug research projects many times over the decades, in many cities, where a token payment was offered in return for participation. I’d never seen anything like what I experienced that day. Later a friend and research colleague, James, called Baltimore a “petri dish,” a lab for research experiments. I learned an urban legend that medical schools sent out a van late at night to kidnap old black people for research.

One day I ran into Blue, another guy about my age. That was his street name. We’d met and then kept running into each other, sometimes in weird ways, like me taking my sig other out on a date to a fancy restaurant and Blue sitting in the park sipping out of a brown paper bag. We’d always talk for awhile. I told him the study money story. He said, “You do what you can, like the lottery, one chance in a million is better than no chance at all.”

There are many more stories to tell about how Baltimore touched me and taught me. Fred, James and Blue were black. So was the Mayor, most of my colleagues, most of the people I interviewed, and most of the drug scenes I visited. Thanks to them I learned more about Black America than I’d ever suspected there was to know. The irony was, I wasn’t doing anything like what we used to call “street ethnography” back in the 1960s and 70s. I was just working in a diffuse way, mostly on past events, in a new world I’d never lived in before. It had some drugs in it, but it also had a history and way of looking at things that I had known existed but knew almost nothing about.

I was in California tending to a dying elder when 9/11 happened, a few years after the NIDA project started. When I got back to Baltimore I ran into a guy I didn’t really know, but we recognized each other by sight. “Where you been?” he asked me. I told him and then mentioned how terrible 9/11 had been. “Yeah,” he said, “ Welcome to my world.” By then I felt like I knew exactly what he meant, a semiotic hurricane washing over me along with those few words.

The recent killings of black men by police make me feel like the country is running backwards through time and kicking institutions into rubble along the way. With Baltimore it turned personal, almost like the loss of an elder who’d given you much of what you became later. With the riots and the fires, terrible as they were—I kept thinking of James Baldwin’s book, The Fire Next Time—I felt sad but hopeful. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” said Martin Luther King, a quote that fit the moment pretty well.

So when State’s Attorney for Baltimore City Marilyn Mosby walked to the microphone on May Day and announced the charges against the police officers, it was a sign that maybe the language had been understood. Maybe the fire had cleared the way for a path better than the one of long periods of frustration and anger interspersed with brief moments of destruction.

We did good work in Baltimore with the NIDA grant, me and my colleagues and friends and subjects, those categories usually overlapping in any number of ways The most useful thing was that story of crack that we were after with the oral histories. It was used later along with a lot of other resources to change the discriminatory laws against crack as opposed to powder cocaine, a drug insider story too long to tell here.

But the little that the project gave was nothing compared to what I received. A teacher like Baltimore deserves a lot more respect. Maybe, just maybe, the tragedies of recent weeks will bend the city’s history in a direction where they begin to receive it.

Dick Powis

Dick Powis is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. His research interests include men and childbirth, prenatal screening technologies, and reproductive health in urban settings in Senegal. Read more at dickpowis.com.

6 thoughts on “Ode (Owed?) to Baltimore

  1. Could we invite Michael Agar to contribute a series of posts on how he sees anthropology today? Thanks to this post I now know that ethknowworks exists and am happily reading a newly purchased copy of The Lively Science. I have found a teacher from whom I would like to learn more.

  2. Honored by the comment. The thought of trying an angle on how I see some part of anthro makes me smile. But sure, I’d be game to try a sample. SM is tops in my book because they let me write in the style to which I’ve become accustomed. They could always dump it. Then it’d be on John for “what were you thinking” (:

  3. Michael, by all means propose an angle. There are many different people here with a multitude of interests.

    In my own case I have been wrestling ever since graduate school back in the 1960s with how to write a thick description. Geertz convinced me that we need them but not how to produce one. Then, in the introduction to Islam Observed he noted that, while anthropological insights are discovered in microscopic settings, their value cannot be demonstrated without engaging in larger conversations. At the moment I am still pottering with a hugely overambitious project combining social network analysis (SNA) with historical and ethnographic research (HER) to learn more about the world of top advertising creatives in Tokyo. Everything about this work turns conventional ethnographic expectations upside down. I work with people who are richer, more powerful, and frequently smarter than I am. Having worked for more than a decade for a major Japanese ad agency, I can interact with them as a professional peer, even though it goes without saying that they are far more talented and successful than I am. Anonymity? My collaborators would be highly offended if I weren’t publicizing their names and their works.

    I am also a philosophy and history of science buff, much given to pondering the nature of anthropological scholarship. I recently gave a presentation on the theme of what I call ethnographic involution. The idea is another adaption from Geertz, this one from Agricultural Involution. He wrote about Javanese peasants with a growing population on a limited amount of land for rice paddies. They worked harder and harder on smaller and smaller fields, getting poorer in the process. I see a lot of my academic friends in anthropology working harder and harder on smaller and smaller topics and, yes, getting poorer in the process. I take a great interest, then, in those pursuing new avenues, e.g., the business and design anthropologists who participate in EPIC and other business anthropology conferences.

    But, hey, that’s just me. Lots of other interests here.

  4. Hi John. Yes, I became an anthropologist “despistado”–derailed–with the Vietnam War when I went from South Asianist with a year’s experience in a small village in Karnataka doing the traditional thing to a drug researcher in a federal treatment center in the U.S. Then the trail changed a few more times, most recently when I started working independently with a post-structural mix of academic, applied and practice in the mid 1990s. It’s always anthropology but it’s always a lot of other things too. And yeah, UX is a great concept for leading folks in the world into what we do. Let me think about a blog item for SM about being an anthropological amoeba and see if it could work. Guess I query to the general SM email if and when?

    Thanks for that comment.

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