Few names throughout history simultaneously acquire the labels of “famous” and “infamous”. Thanks to Hollywood and the streets of mid-20th century Harlem, former drug kingpin turned social worker/activist, Frank Lucas, rose to prominence and gained living legendary status as one of the most revered personalities to ever walk the American urban landscape. Along the way, moves and choices he made shaped his present lifestyle into that of a traveling spokesperson against drugs. During these personal missions, Mr. Lucas has become an advocate of decreased drug-related violence and increased educational aspirations for the youth. When he speaks, the children at these venues have no choice other than to listen to him, as his words resonate with brutal honesty and undeniable credibility, for he’s been where some misguided youth dream of being. Sitting on millions. In hindsight, he’ll tell you it wasn’t worth it as he can’t stress it enough to the youth, “Stay in school and get an education. There’s no future in the drug game. Whether you work at a mom and pop shop, or on Wall Street, do what you have to do, but get off the streets”.
On February 24th and 28th 2012, I had a chance to sit down and conduct an intriguing phone interview with Mr. Lucas. With his distinctly raspy and hardened voice, I could sense an easy-going demeanor combined with a no-nonsense seriousness. With every enthralling story there are ironic twists which may leave readers permanently puzzled. I mean really, how many people end up arrested and convicted, then turn around and allow the individual who spearheaded their downfall to become their son’s Godfather, as Frank did with Richie Roberts? That just doesn’t happen at all. What needs to be recognized is that Frank, in the 1930’s and 40’s, needed guidance as a youth just as all children need parent(s) and/or guardians to lead them from going astray. From 1947 until 1968, Bumpy Johnson filled that void in Frank’s life. As Frank said when he described his life coach, “Oh My God, Bumpy was like my father, my older brother, the cousin I never had. He was all of that. He was my mentor, put it that way”. He would later add, “Bumpy tried to keep me on the straight and narrow, not wanting me to do too much wrong, and to just take care of him”. Frank, for the duration of his life, will always value the life lessons and advice Bumpy provided as survival in the streets is more mental than it is physical.
The movie “American Gangster” was the tip of the iceberg when depicting the life and times of Harlem’s most respected street legend. Mr. Lucas was quick to mention that if he had a chance to do it all over again, he never would’ve became involved in the drug game, and Denzel Washington would’ve had one less bio-pic to star in. I bet all the Denzel fans out there were pleased by his performance just as Frank was when he certified Denzel as the best man for his portrayal. “You can’t get any better than Mr. Washington!” said Frank. And yes, there’s a rumor through the grapevine that an “American Gangster” sequel is in the works. Everybody remembers the Chinchilla coat worn by Denzel in the movie, but the real life Frank Lucas stands firm when mentioning that the flashy, flamboyant, ‘look at me’ façade wasn’t his everyday style by a longshot. He left that style to his peers who he didn’t consider to be note-worthy competition. When asked about people like Mr. Barnes, Frank won’t hesitate in telling everyone that, “Nicky Barnes was no Frank Lucas. Just remember that!”
Now, for a man in Frank’s shoes, there’s a thin line between being respected and feared by the neighborhood, the city, etc. I felt as though I struck a nerve in Frank when I inquired about him being respected, or feared more. Almost as if I challenged his manhood by asking him if he was nervous at all when establishing his previous drug connect in Southeast Asia. His definitive response was, “Man, you know my name! My name’s Frank Lucas! I’m not scared, or nervous of anything! I’m a man. I do what I’ve got to do.” Yeah, maybe I went too far with that question, but I was willing to take it a step farther asking him if he was ‘protected’ when locked up. Frank’s immediate reply was filled with a strong scent of irritation. Almost as if, how dare I ask him? Frank told me, “Was I protected??? What do I need to be protected for??? I don’t hide from nobody! I don’t run from nobody! My name is Frank Lucas!” He continued by saying, “People respected me and if they didn’t fear me, then they had to have been crazy”, continuing with a reaffirmation, “I don’t know if they feared me or not, but if they didn’t they must’ve been crazy. I feel pretty good about that. I’m a man! I do what I have to do, you know?”
For a country like America to say that there’s a “war on drugs” happening today is hard to believe when drug-related incarceration rates through the years have increased, yet inmate rehabilitation is almost non-existent. Without some form of rehab we know that repeat offender rates increase. So the question becomes, who is the “war on drugs” truly aimed at and how can we change this momentum? When asked about his perspective on this topic, Frank paused and added some critical commentary by saying, “Zero. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.” He continued with, “They’ve got Stanford and Harvard kids up there who don’t know what a damn drug is in the first place. They don’t know how to run things. They need someone that’s been in the business and knows how to do it. They don’t want anyone like that. They don’t want a guy like me. They want to hire the big shot with millions, but it just won’t work. They have to wake up sooner or later. Always do.”
Oh yeah, and for those emcees wondering if Frank cares if you think he’s a snitch, he knows in his heart that anyone labeling him like that could never walk a day in his shoes, let alone one minute. As he put it, “I’m not really into rap music. My son’s a rapper, but if it’s not James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, or something, I pay it no mind.” With all the artists/emcees out there lying about their street exploits, it’s easy for Mr. Lucas to differentiate between the true to life original gangsters from his era and the false flagging gangsters of today’s generation. Frank firmly stated, “There’s no comparison at all. You shouldn’t even put those two together. In the old school, you had someone at the top who gave orders everybody followed and lived by. Now, everyone does things on their own.” You can call it an undisciplined, renegade mentality that lacks in leadership and guidance, therefore lacks longevity and the bodily freedom to prosper. “Watch the 6 o’clock news and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Like I told the kids the other day, the only thing you’ll get out of it is jail, or a tag on your toe.”
Any last thoughts from the one man Harlem stood clear of more than any other? Frank would conclude with, “I’m just an old man trying to make a living, trying to do the best I can and stay out of trouble.” And to the children out there, Frank would like to impress upon you, “Do Not, and I repeat, Do Not try to do what I did. Go to school and do something positive”. After his previously documented lifestyle, it might be hard for some to believe, but if complete redemption is truly possible then Mr. Frank Lucas is on his way to being redeemed. Harlem can now rest at ease.
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