Race is omnipresent in Deacon King Kong. Set in the Causeway Projects of 1960s Brooklyn, the novel features a diverse cast of characters including African Americans, Latino people, Italian people, and Irish people. Although all of these people live in close proximity to one another, and although the story depicts plenty of friendships between people of different racial backgrounds, there is still great animosity between the various racial groups.. The primary tension in the novel exists between African American characters and the white communities that surround and police the Causeway Projects. The residents of the Causeway Projects feel that their white neighbors do not understand them and attempt to disenfranchise them at every turn. This is apparent is the scenes where Sister Gee, an African American woman, speaks with Potts, a white police officer, about Deems’s shooting. Potts means well and seems to genuinely want to help Sportcoat by keeping him out of harm’s way; after all, because he shot Deems, there are high level drug dealers that want to see Sportcoat injured or dead. However, Sister Gee thinks that police involvement will only make matters worse for Sportcoat, whom she is trying to protect. Sister Gee is painfully aware of how law enforcement and the justice system treat black men, and she doesn’t want Sportcoat subjected to it.
After all, the novel frequently depicts instances of police brutality and corruption. For instance, Elefante, a local Italian smuggler, has the police on his payroll; any time something happens in the Cause, a police officer comes and tells him about it. Additionally, Sister Gee herself is treated harshly by a young officer who comes to the Five Ends Church to question her about Sportcoat, even though she gives him no reason to. In addition, white people control all of the major systems of power the novel depicts: in addition to the legal system and the police force, the major mobsters running the city, like Elefante and Joe Peck, are also white. Ultimately, then, the novel shows how the power dynamic of 1960s Brooklyn largely broke down along racial lines. In particular, it examines who those who wielded their power and influence did so at the expense of minority communities they regularly exploited.
Race and Power ThemeTracker
Race and Power Quotes in Deacon King Kong
Clemens was the New Breed of colored in the Cause. Deems wasn’t some poor colored boy from down south or Puerto Rico or Barbados who arrived in New York with empty pockets and a Bible and a dream […] Deems didn’t give a shit about white people, or education, or sugarcane, or cotton, or even baseball, which he had once been a whiz at. None of the old ways meant a penny to him. He was a child of Cause, young, smart, and making money hand over fist slinging dope at a level never before seen in the Cause Houses. He had high friends and high connections from East New York all the way to Far Rockaway, Queens, and any fool in the Cause stupid enough to open their mouth in his direction ended up hurt bad or buried in an urn in an alley someplace.
Rather it was the memory, not long ago, of Sportcoat shagging fly balls with him at the baseball field on warm spring afternoons; it was Sportcoat who taught him how to pivot and zing a throw to home plate from 350 feet out […] Sportcoat made him a star in baseball. He was the envy of the white boys on the John Jay High School baseball team, who marveled at the college scouts who risked life and limb to venture to the funky, dirty Cause Houses baseball field to watch him pitch. But that was another time, when he was a boy and his grandpa was living. He was a man now, nineteen, a man who needed money. And Sportcoat was a pain in the ass.
“Church is a good thing. A great thing, really. Building up our community. Thank God.” He lowered his head to Earl’s ear. “We ain’t tearing down our community, brother. We’re building it up. Look at all the businesses I got. The jobs we’re providing. The help we give people. Is the white man opening car washes? Is he running car-rental places? Restaurants? Is he giving us jobs?” He pointed to the window, the filthy street, the abandoned cars, the dead brownstones. “What’s the white man doing for us out here, Earl? Where’s he at?”
Sister Gee snorted. “Things got unstable ’round here four years ago when that new drug come in. This new stuff—I don’t know what they call it —you smoke it, you put it in your veins with needles . . . however you do it, once you do it a few times you is stuck with it. Never seen nothing like it around here before, and I seen a lot. This projects was safe till this new drug come in. Now the old folks is getting clubbed coming home from work every night, getting robbed outta their little payday money so these junkies can buy more of Deems’s poison. He ought to be ashamed of hisself. His grandfather would kill him if he was living.”
Like most of Sportcoat’s team, Soup disappeared from adult radar at the Cause when he entered the labyrinth of his teenage years. One minute he was striking out to the guffaws of the opposing team, the Watch Houses, the next minute word got out that Soup was in jail—adult jail—at seventeen. What put him there, no one seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Everybody went to jail in the Cause eventually. You could be the tiniest ant able to slip into a crack in the sidewalk, or a rocket ship that flew fast enough to break the speed of sound, it didn’t matter. When society dropped its hammer on your head, well, there it is. Soup got seven years. It didn’t matter what it was for.
He scanned the East River, checking the line of barges moving along. Some of them he knew. A few were run by honest captains who refused hot items. They wouldn’t move a stolen tire if you paid them a thousand bucks. Others were captained by blithering idiots who would kick their scruples out the window for the price of a cup of coffee. The first type were honest to a fault. They just couldn’t help it. The second type were born crooks.
Which one am I? he wondered.
“Soon as they started whipping on him, Deems ran off the roof. He run off soon as they started cutting Bumps up. The minute them Jamaicans left Bumps laying in the alley, Deems came out the back door of Building Nine and ran over to Bumps holding a steaming pot of rice and beans. He must’ve had it cooking in his house. He said, ‘Here’s your rice and beans, Bumps.’ He poured that whole pot on him.
“That Christmas Club money is all we can control. We can’t stop these drug dealers from selling poison in front of our houses. Or make the city stop sending our kids to lousy schools. We can’t stop folks from blaming us for everything gone wrong in New York, or stop the army from calling our sons to Vietnam after them Vietcong done cut the white soldiers’ toenails too short to walk. But the little nickels and dimes we saved up so we can give our kids ten minutes of love at Christmastime, that’s ours to control.”
Sister Gee looked at the people staring at her: Dominic, Bum-Bum, Miss Izi, Joaquin, Nanette, and the rest, at least fifteen people in all. She’d known most of them her whole life. They stared at her with that look, that projects look: the sadness, the suspicion, the weariness, the knowledge that comes from living a special misery in a world of misery. Four of their numbers were down—gone, changed forever, dead or not, it didn’t matter. And there would be more. The drugs, big drugs, heroin, were here. Nothing could stop it. They knew that now. Someone else had already taken over Deems’s bench at the flagpole. Nothing here would change. Life in the Cause would lurch forward as it always did.
“I think I can handle that, Mr. Sportcoat.”
“Come again? Mister?”
Sportcoat pawed at his forehead with a wrinkled hand. There was a clarity to the world now that felt new, not uncomfortable, but at times the newness of it felt odd, like the feeling of breaking in a new suit of clothing. The constant headaches and nausea that had been his companions after leaving the swigfest for decades had lifted. He felt like a radio tuning in to a new channel, one that was beginning to fuzz into range, slowly coming in clear, proper, the way his Hettie had always wanted him to be. The new feeling humbled him. It made him feel religious, it made him feel closer to God, and to man, God’s honored child. “I ain’t never been called Mr. Sportcoat by nobody.”
As the ferry pulled away from the dock and arced into New York Harbor, heading due southwest, it offered her a clear view of the redbrick Cause housing projects on one side, and the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island on the other. One side represented the certainty of the past. The other side the uncertainty of the future. She felt suddenly nervous. All she had was an address. And a letter. And a promise.