LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD • A “vivid and frank” (NPR) 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
“A master class in disrupting a stubborn narrative, a monumental feat for the fraught subject of addiction in Black communities.”—The Washington Post
“A poignant and compelling re-examination of a tragic era in America history . . . insightful . . . and deeply moving.”—Bryan Stevenson, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Just Mercy ONE OF THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY AND VULTURE’S TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Time, The Washington Post, NPR, Chicago Public Library, Publishers Weekly, She Reads
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 today: 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 legacy: 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.
About the Author
Donovan X. Ramsey is a journalist, author, and voice on issues of race, politics, and patterns of power in America. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, GQ, WSJ, Ebony, and Essence. He has been a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, NewsOne, and theGrio and has served as an editor at The Marshall Project and Complex. Ramsey holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Morehouse College.
“A compassionate and urgent story that centers the victims of this superdrug, When Crack Was King is an illuminating look at the devastating, racialized impacts of the U.S. criminal justice system—and a warning for us to do better as more drug epidemics rear their ugly heads.”—Time
“[A] panoramic social history . . . Ramsey aims to give the story of the crack epidemic a human face while telling it from start to finish, a herculean task. By and large he succeeds.”—The New York Times
“[Ramsey] makes a convincing case that government policies criminalized what was essentially a public health crisis, and he busts some of the most pernicious media-generated myths of the epidemic—including the much ballyhooed threat of the ‘crack baby.’”—NPR
“We haven’t reckoned with the crack era, or pinned it as the historical marker it was. . . . Ramsey gives the full view, from teenagers who grew up in the shadow of crack to city leaders who got overwhelmed by it. The sweep is long overdue.”—Hanna Rosin, The Atlantic
“[Ramsey] looks at the crack epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s from several perspectives, from a Newark drug kingpin to a former Baltimore mayor to a longtime addict, and asks the reader to reconsider the details of a life-shattering scourge.”—Boston Globe
“[When Crack Was King] manages to convey the scope of history while also remaining grounded in the specific and personal. And it feels particularly relevant as America stares down another drug epidemic with no clear end in sight.”—Los Angeles Times
“Ramsey takes a wide and necessary view of the choices—sinister and well-meaning alike—that led to the epidemic. To complement his sweeping historical and political analysis, Ramsey also spends time with individual people who weathered the worst of the era and lived to share its lessons.”—The Millions
“Illuminating . . . For all its traumas, When Crack Was King . . . is also a narrative of redemption, telling of the thousands of extraordinary decisions by ordinary people that brought the crack epidemic to an end.”—The Guardian
“Beautifully composed and carefully researched, When Crack Was King is a thoroughgoing survey of the crack epidemic. Since I lived through it, I thought I knew about this period—until I read this clear-eyed book.”—Ibram X. Kendi, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller How to Be an Antiracist
“Forget what you think you know about the crack era, because this definitive account resets the record. Both unflinching and compassionate, it has the power to expand your heart. It’s a stunning and unforgettable debut.”—Heather McGhee, author of New York Times bestseller The Sum of Us
“Donovan X. Ramsey tells the story of the crack era—its causes, victims, and survivors—with insight and compassion. If you’re anything like me, you won’t soon forget the characters on these pages.”—James Forman Jr., Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Locking Up Our Own