114th Annual Conference - Pasadena, California
Friday, November 11 - Sunday, November 13, 2016

Families of Violence: Community, Gangs, and Belonging in Donald Bakeer’s Novel CRIPS

David Rose, Humboldt University (Germany)

Donald Bakeer’s CRIPS (1987) posits traditional families and street gangs as contending units of social belonging. Paying special attention to the aspect of violence, my paper will outline how gangs are constructed in the text as substitute familial structures, exhibiting an allure the biological family has difficulties keeping up with.


African American literature has a long tradition of envisioning fictional alternative communities to white (mainstream) society, ranging from the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston to Toni Morrison’s novels, most notably Home. In some respects, the modern-day street gang can also be interpreted as an expression of this communal impetus, as a social unit that not merely facilitates the perpetration of acts of crime, but also engenders a sense of community among its members. Reading Donald Bakeer’s 1987 novel CRIPS in this way, my paper investigates how the text envisions gangs not solely as destructive, but as well as productive social institutions that carry the potential of engendering familial belonging, in the process becoming substitute families in their own right.
Bakeer’s novel orchestrates the allure of two opposing types of blood ties: the feeling of belonging to one’s own (biological) family versus the allegiance to the (more or less chosen) community of fellow gang members. While ostensibly an “anti-gang novel,” Bakeer’s book, I argue, to a certain degree undermines its own premise of helping to put an end to gang violence. By subcutaneously depicting the community of the gang as a strong and sometimes tightly knit group that acts as a quasi-familial unit, the novel constructs an image of gang belonging that the traditional family has difficulties keeping up with.
In my paper, I will outline how Bakeer’s text paints a picture of street gangs that is very nuanced and does not cater to either of the extremes that are so frequently evoked when it comes to gangs: glorification or vilification. Bakeer neither presents the gang members as street heroes, nor as drug-crazed, oversexed sociopaths. At the same time, the book is far from denying that the culture of violence that gang confrontations have established on inner city streets represents a serious threat to the possibility of a peaceful and equitable life for residents of the neighborhood.
As I will argue, the novel falls short of its goal of helping to reduce gang violence in more than one way. It undermines its own intention of establishing the importance of strong familial bonds – especially in the form of father-son relationships – as crucial factors in the fight against violence by depicting the street gang as a much more attractive source of support and belonging than the traditional family. In addition, whenever a sense of community develops in the context of the biological family, these instances are often permeated by the simultaneous occurrence of violence that only makes these communal moments possible in the first place. In this way, I argue, gangs turn into substitute families, and the formation of group bonds and violent behavior become inextricably intertwined in Bakeer’s novel, creating a triangle of family, violence, and belonging that is exceedingly difficult to untangle.