By John Dicker
By Donnell Alexander, Crown,
288 pages, $22.95
Presumably, Donnell Alex ander wrote a midlife memoir because
he wants to impart a few truths: Just because he married a
white girl doesn’t mean he’s not as authentically ghetto as
any gat-strapped thug lifer holding court outside your liquor
store. He’d also like you to know that he’s had quite a lot
of sex with fawning Caucasian honeys, has run the gamut of
trendy West Coast hallucinogens, and is perhaps the most talented
hiphop journalist of his generation. In short, Donnell Alexander
is a lot cooler than you.
Raised by his mother in a small-town Ohio ghetto, Alexander
never materialized as a student or track star. So he headed
to California to claw his way through community college where,
despite never graduating, he found his voice at student newspapers
writing what he describes as “buttwipe journalism.”
Though out in hardcover, Ghetto Celebrity is much better
suited for Nerf: I longed to scrunch it into a ball and punt
it across my living room, but always with the intention of
returning to it later. Alexander’s tiresome (and obscure)
hiphop voice includes prose delicious enough to merit rereads,
but not to counteract the odiousness of his ego.
These two facets walk hand in hand as follows:
Speaking that which isn’t glorious is my contribution to the
It won’t be Jesse Jackson who gives full disclosure to the
awful urgings that urge us all on. And it won’t be those porters
in the airline terminal who won’t ever ride the plane. It
won’t be them that do the dishes, but never have the pleasure
of dining in even a three-star grub joint. Nuh-uh. It’s gotta
be me, because I made it with the permission of no one who
had authority, and my mama told me to speak my truth.
Celebrity’s tag line is “searching for my father in me”
and its premise is the quest to unearth his filial inheritance—or
what passes for it when Dad is synonymous with absence and
anger. Central to understanding his father, Delbert, is putting
a fleshed-out finger on their shared “ghetto celebrity.”
Delbert’s was the result of being a gangster, heroin addict
and pimp with later stints as a hybrid Muslim-Christian preacher.
The Delbert-Donnell storyline grounds the author to something
larger than himself, but often feels like a marketing artifice:
Father-son reconciliation holds considerably more weight than
the recollections of a lesser-known journalist. Alexander
hops between his personal/professional life and family history.
Like the story of how his grandfather migrated from West Virginia’s
rural poverty to Cleveland’s ghetto poverty, to a better life
in a town he chose as much for its access to good fishing
as its affordability.
It’s an interesting tidbit rendered with love, but feels like
the stuff of another book when juxtaposed with Alexander’s
embarrassing confessional narratives. These include cheating
on his fiancée, lusting after his nanny, getting fat smoking
too much weed, etc.
All this raises one big question: Why is he telling us this?
However much his own, Alexander’s hiphop voice privileges
flair over depth. The reason a rap single can become a hit
with lyrics of no greater profundity than “sucka MCs beware”
is that they’re accompanied with a beat and the peculiar appeal
of a rapper’s voice—plus they rarely exceed four minutes.
Alexander’s style obstructs the deeper questions he raises,
like: How does a man become a middle-class professional dad
with no male figure to model?
As he charts his course from small alternative weeklies in
central California to greater gigs at the L.A. Weekly,
Alexander catalogs every compliment he receives: From adoring
white liberals, who fetishize his dreadlocked otherness, to
hiphop frontmen, no stroke goes unmentioned. Alexander claims
it takes a big ego to survive in the white-dominated alternative
press, and maybe he’s right. But while internal arrogance
sustains many a writer, it becomes insufferably onanistic
in a memoir. At one point, an editor tells him he writes like
a dream, and like a dream, needs editing. Alexander tells
us that “no one who’s real would say some shit like that.”
Hmmm . . . 150 pages into this book, the advice sounded real
good to me. (That he wastes time with petty writer-editor
payback is a testament to the self-serving nature of this
Ultimately, Alexander makes it big with a staff gig at ESPN—The
Magazine where he writes profiles of troubled athletes,
and his words are watered down by a coterie of Friends-watching
jock editors. This results in further indignation, and a tightrope
walk to a pink slip.
Perhaps the incoherence of Alexander’s story is indicative
of the schizophrenia that African-American professionals endure
in white-dominated creative fields. Or maybe the author is
just an megalomaniacal jerk. One thing’s for sure: Ghetto
Celebrity proves that African-American writers can be
every bit as self-absorbed as their Caucasian brethren.