For the past month, in anticipation of what would have been his fortieth birthday, I’ve become a obsessed with Tupac Shakur — torn between the very public shape-shifter that he was who scrawled THUG LIFE on his abdomen and the relatively young man who grew up without a father, and transitioned into manhood under the harshest of circumstances.
I became curious in Tupac insofar as he represents a litmus test on whether progress has been made in terms of reversing trends in black men’s life expectancy, incarceration numbers, and on the whole, having more options for manhood beyond the archetypal Thug or Gangster or in the extreme opposite, the bourgie Negro devoid of a political consciousness.
For Tupac, and many black men, there’s little middle ground in terms of life choices: It’s life or death; college or prison; hardcore or soft; a thug or a (insert expletive.) Contrary to mainstream media, Tupac Shakur was a complicated figure who had so much more to give the world, if only we lived in a world where black men aren’t made to feel lucky if they live long enough to collect social security.
In an unofficial survey I conducted with a group of poets and writers, culture critics, and academics, I posed the question: If Tupac Shakur was still alive, what might he be doing?
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