Racial Identity and Narration in The Corner

4 Nov

“While the vast majority of Baltimore’s major drug markets are located in black neighborhoods, many users serviced by these markets are white.  At Fayette and Mount, as on so many other American corners, the demand for heroin and cocaine is decidedly multicultural.” (The Corner – “Author’s Note,” p. 537)

As David Simon and Ed Burns explained in the excerpt above, race is at the center of the social, political and economic issues explored in The Corner.  Race, particularly the racial identities of the writers/narrators, also plays an important role in the book.  Interwoven with interviews and stories of the people of West Baltimore are lengthy polemics on the role of the War on Drugs, deindustrialization, and a poor educational system – among a host of other factors – in creating the American corner.  In these particular sections, the narrator’s voice comes out strongly: David Simon and Ed Burns are authorities on the outside pulling back the curtain so that other outsiders can have access to an otherwise closed-off “underworld.”  Despite their privileged position, these expository moments highlight the fact that the narrator and subjects of The Corner are fundamentally different in terms of race.  And this difference is significant.  Simon and Burns admit as much later on in the author’s note, writing, “Being a bit pale ourselves, we stood out on Fayette Street, and we were initially regarded by many of the corner regulars as police or police informants” (537).  While Burns and Simon gain a great deal of access to and form significant relationships with their subjects, these racial differences required the two to authenticate themselves, to overcome a significant racial barrier within the community they desired to document.  In some ways, this colored the interactions between the authors’ and their subjects, the narrators’ point of view in telling their stories, and the type of book that was produced.


However, in the miniseries, this racial difference and distance between the narrator and the characters is eliminated immediately.  In a sort of director’s note, African American actor and director Charles Dutton establishes his own credentials for telling this story.  Rather than authenticating himself to the people of the corner, however, he does so to the viewer.  He recalls his own time growing in up in Baltimore and his relationship to the corner.  Instead of being an outsider looking in, Dutton establishes himself as an insider projecting to the outside world.  Thus, much of the tension between the narrator and the subjects, and significant discussion about race, are glossed over in the miniseries.  How does the racial differences of the narrator and the people of West Baltimore manifest itself in the miniseries?  Is anything lost in the adaptation because of the change in narrator?

One Response to “Racial Identity and Narration in The Corner”

  1. andrewkgreen November 5, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    This is super interesting. I think this question of race and authenticity has a lot of relevance for our discussion of Baltimore, because these same questions were brought up in evaluating The Wire and how accurately it portrays certain ways of living. On the one hand, there is the question of what David Simon could possible know about growing up poor and black in the inner city. On the other hand, it often takes an outsider’s perspective and a TRUE talent for storytelling to make stories like this move from raw disaster porn to the level of high art to which that the wire has ascended. One way the Wire (which lacks the Charles Dutton figure of an experienced narrator) addressed this issue was by casting a cohort of non-professional actors from the same world they were attempting to dramatize. I don’t know if this is the exact same thing, but I think a lot of people were really struck by this “authenticity”, however much we actually believe it affected the rendering of this world.

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