“My Name is My Name”: Marlo Stanfield, The Wire, and the African American Culture of Honor

In Season 5, Episode 9 of The Wire, Marlo Stanfield (played by Jamie Hector), Baltimore’s reigning kingpin, announces to his associate Chris Partlow (played by Gbenga Akinnagbe) that “my name is my name.” Marlo, Chris, Monk, and Cheese were discussing who might have talked to the police and got them locked up when the subject of Omar came up. Monk, played by Kwame Patterson, mentioned off-handedly that Omar was running his mouth about Marlo in the street, at which point Marlo became extremely angry, exhibiting his first display of intense emotion in the series. “Omar said what?” Marlo asked. “Nothing, Omar tried calling you out by name but it wasn’t nothing,” Chris replied. “What did he say about me?” “Nothing man, just talking shit” “He used my name, in the street?” Monk noted that Omar “just said that you needed to step to and that…I don’t know, he just running his mouth.” Chris said that Marlo had a lot on his plate and did not need to worry about something as small as that. “What the fuck you know about what I need on my mind?” Marlo thundered. “My name was on the street? When we bounce from this shit here, y’all go down on them corners, and let them people know word did not get back to me. Let ’em know Marlo step to any motherfucker, Omar, Barksdale, whoever. My name is my name!”

For Marlo, protecting his reputation and his honor is essential to his control of the streets. This is why he deems it so important that people understand he had no idea that Omar had called him out by name. If anyone does think that he would let something like that slide, they may get it into their heads to rob him or try and murder him. As big as his crew is, there is no way he could fend off all people who may wish him harm except through the power of fear. Thus, it was essential that people know he would step to any challengers to protect his reputation.

Notions of honor appear in other parts of The Wire as well. In Season 3, Episode 11, Brother Mouzone, a hired hit man played by Michael Potts, met Avon Barksdale in a barbershop and noted that Avon had contracted his services to drive off a rival gang, but that one of Avon’s crew, Stringer Bell, had tried to have Brother Mouzone killed. Avon asks Brother Mouzone if he wants money, saying “it’s business.” Brother Mouzone replies “business is where you are now, but what got you here is your word and your reputation. With that alone you still have a line to New York, without it, you’re done.” Just like Marlo, Avon’s success on the streets owed to his ruthlessness, willingness to use violence, but also to his honor, within the context of street culture. If Avon cannot control his employees and keep his word, he will no longer have a drug supply in New York and will certainly lose what he has worked for over the years. He thus makes the difficult decision to let Brother Mouzone kill his partner Stringer Bell, restoring honor to himself and his organization.

The refusal of Avon and Marlo to be dishonored is a tradition in black culture with roots in antebellum America. While scholars such as Mechal Sobel, Albert Raboteau, and others have delineated the importance of Christianity among slaves, many, if not most slaves, rejected Christianity and adhered to African traditions, Islam, atheism for some, and the culture of honor for others[1]. Honor became something of a stand-in for religious beliefs and while it was adapted from white southern notions of honor, it was also fitted to the slave experience. For example, the unwillingness of slaves to be dishonored by other slaves and their need to seek vengeance upon those who wronged them was a clear appropriation of the white southern culture of honor. But for slaves, loyalty to the slave community became a critical, if not the central, piece in their code of honor. Stealing from whites was seen as acceptable and not even thought of as stealing, but stealing from other slaves was taboo. As Henry Bibb noted in his autobiography when accused of stealing by his former master, “a slave has a moral right to eat drink and wear all that he needs, and that it would be a sin on his part to suffer and starve in a country where there is a plenty to eat and wear within his reach. I consider that I had a just right to what I took, because it was the labor of my own hands”[2]. Along similar lines, lying to whites was something that was necessary to survive, but slaves were expected to be honest in their dealings with each other.

The aspects of the culture of honor that involved revenge for slights and violence was strongest among young men and women in the slave community. By the time they reached middle age, many slaves would have jettisoned these notions of honor, as was the case with Fields Cook. Cook was enslaved on a Virginia plantation from the 1810s to the Civil War, and while he strongly embraced notions of honor in his youth, by his mid-30s he became a Baptist preacher[3].

If we were able to follow the lives of Marlo and Avon into middle age, we would likely see a waning of notions of honor, especially the intense need to protect their reputations, although perhaps not an embrace of evangelical Christianity like Fields Cook. Indeed, in Season 4, one of Avon’s top soldiers, Wee-Bey Brice, rejects street culture and notions of honor that he had lived by for years, allowing his son to be adopted by a former police major, Bunny Colvin. Colvin thought Wee-Bey’s son was intelligent and should have a chance to get an education. Wee-Bey’s wife De’Londa disagreed, arguing he should be a soldier just like his father. Wee-Bey replied “well look at me up in here, who the fuck would want to be that if they could do anything else De’Londa?” Wee-Bey’s reassessment of his life choices after years in prison shows the close tie between youth and the culture of honor, a culture with deep roots in African American history.

[1] Daniel Fountain’s recent book argues that during the antebellum period most slaves rejected Christianity and that blacks would not embrace the religion en masse until after the Civil War. See his Slavery, Civil War, and Salvation: African American Slaves and Christianity, 1830-1870 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

[2] Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself (New York: 1849), 195.

[3] Fields’s Observations: The Slave Narrative of a Nineteenth Century Virginian Mary J. Bratton, ed. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/fields/fields.html Accessed 3 August 2014. For culture of honor among Virginia slaves see John C. Willis, “From the Dictates of Pride to the Paths of Righteousness: Slave Honor and Christianity in Antebellum Virginia” in Edward L. Ayers and John C. Willis, eds. The Edge of the South: Life in Nineteenth-Century Virginia (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 37-49.

Comments

  1. Great post, Chris. I’ve often wondered about the deep historical roots of ideas like honor, and respect, in the African-American community. You don’t mention ‘respect’ above, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether there a ‘culture of respect’ that is different, or the same as, the ‘culture of honor’? – TL

    • Chris Cameron says:

      Thanks Tim. Respect would be included in the culture of honor, both today and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps because of the fact that slaves got little to no respect from their masters, they were often very unwilling to tolerate disrespect from fellow slaves. This was especially true of slaves in leadership positions such as drivers, a phenomenon that Randy Browne explores in his excellent article on Obeah in the July 2011 William and Mary Quarterly. Browne’s article also points to the Atlantic dimension of the culture of honor, which I did not mention in the post. Respect likewise plays a central role in the contemporary black culture of honor. We see this throughout The Wire, when Marlo, for instance, takes out that security guard simply for confronting him about stealing, and I would say this is a pretty accurate depiction of African American street culture in general. Tolerating disrespect would be an affront on one’s honor that could have pretty disastrous consequences for those involved in drug dealing or other organized illegal activities.

      • Thanks! You mention above that the Af-Am culture of honor was both an appropriation from the Southern white culture of honor and a kind of community defense mechanism. Do you know of any recent literature about the continuation that Southern white culture of honor—a kind of past-meets-present analysis like yours above? Also, I wonder how white/black cultures of honor are transplanted in the North, if they stay the same or undergo variable modifications? – TL

        • Chris Cameron says:

          A great book to check out is Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s A Warring Nation, which traces the differences between black and white southerners’ notions of honor in the antebellum period and how they played a role in 20th century politics. I’m not quite sure about the differences between northern and southern cultures of honor. I do know from experience, having lived in the South Bronx for a number of years, that much if not all I’ve noted about black southerners would apply to black northerners. I’d have to look into this more, but a greater difference might be between urban and rural rather than northern and southern cultures of honor.

  2. Patrick Rael says:

    Thinking about how “culture of honor” might relate to Southern honor, etc….
    I wonder if there is a way to sensitively think about “culture of honor” as a manifestation of “pre-modern,” “traditional,” or perhaps even “pre-capitalist” social values. Yes, yes, these words are all highly problematic, but the distinction I’m reaching for is one between values associated with an intensely market-driven world in which the state polices contract (thus placing much social contest in the realm of the legal), versus a social world not dominated by legal redress of social conflicts. Perhaps “honor” arises where “law” cannot reach. Bert Wyatt-Brown’s work constrasted Southern honor with distinct forms of redress available in a North undergoing a transformation to a market society. Joanne Freeman’s _Affairs of Honor_ does similar work (in a talk I attended, she posed the Caning of Sumner in largely these terms). From another class direction, consider also Elliot Gorn’s “‘Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry” (AHR, 1985).
    African-American notions of honor seem similar in the sense that they arise from codes of conduct that cannot be governed from without; they emerge as alternatives, in fact, to external controls. “Honor” is important when you cannot rely on law. “Honor” is functional when the resolution of social conflict falls on you.
    Since the modern state functions largely to adjudicate such conflicts, perhaps cultures of honor are likely to arise when that state is absent or dysfunctional.

    • Chris Cameron says:

      I think you are right Patrick. Notions of honor first arose among blacks to regulate disparate slave communities, in which masters only cared about relations between slaves in so much as it affected their production and reproduction. They could have cared less about one slave calling another a coward, for instance, unless it affected their bottom line. I believe the same holds true of contemporary black notions of honor, although there the issue is not the absence of the state but what is seen as its dysfunctional nature, namely the disproportionate number of blacks arrested for petty drug offenses and smaller crimes and the fact that black crimes are often seen as problematic when they affect whites but not when they impact other blacks. Thank you for bringing Freeman and Gorn’s work to my attention, as this is something I would like to begin to explore in class a bit more.

Speak Your Mind

*