Renegade Dreams Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago
by Laurence Ralph
University of Chicago Press, 2014
Cloth: 978-0-226-03268-9 | Paper: 978-0-226-03271-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-03285-6


Every morning Chicagoans wake up to the same stark headlines that read like some macabre score: “13 shot, 4 dead overnight across the city,” and nearly every morning the same elision occurs: what of the nine other victims? As with war, much of our focus on inner-city violence is on the death toll, but the reality is that far more victims live to see another day and must cope with their injuries—both physical and psychological—for the rest of their lives. Renegade Dreams is their story. Walking the streets of one of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods—where the local gang has been active for more than fifty years—Laurence Ralph talks with people whose lives are irrecoverably damaged, seeking to understand how they cope and how they can be better helped.
Going deep into a West Side neighborhood most Chicagoans only know from news reports—a place where children have been shot just for crossing the wrong street—Ralph unearths the fragile humanity that fights to stay alive there, to thrive, against all odds. He talks to mothers, grandmothers, and pastors, to activists and gang leaders, to the maimed and the hopeful, to aspiring rappers, athletes, or those who simply want safe passage to school or a steady job. Gangland Chicago, he shows, is as complicated as ever. It’s not just a warzone but a community, a place where people’s dreams are projected against the backdrop of unemployment, dilapidated housing, incarceration, addiction, and disease, the many hallmarks of urban poverty that harden like so many scars in their lives. Recounting their stories, he wrestles with what it means to be an outsider in a place like this, whether or not his attempt to understand, to help, might not in fact inflict its own damage. Ultimately he shows that the many injuries these people carry—like dreams—are a crucial form of resilience, and that we should all think about the ghetto differently, not as an abandoned island of unmitigated violence and its helpless victims but as a neighborhood, full of homes, as a part of the larger society in which we all live, together, among one another.


Laurence Ralph is assistant professor in the Departments of Anthropology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. 


Renegade Dreams is a tour de force—extremely well written and engaging, and replete with original insights. Once I began reading Ralph’s book I had a difficult time putting it down.  His field research is fascinating. And his explicit discussion of the interconnections of inner-city injury with government, community institutions, as well as how it is related to historical and social processes, is a major contribution.”
— William Julius Wilson, author of The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy

“Too many scholarly and popular takes on African Americans’ lives and life chances are predicated on assumptions about cultural inadequacies or even genetic inferiorities, on the idea that black people all around the world are little more than damaged goods—to be pitied or punished.] Ralph’s thought-provoking book wonderfully demonstrates how and why human beings continue to survive—and even thrive—in the face of incessant injury and attack. His Chicago is peopled by characters we’ve seen before (gangstas and grandmas, old heads and youth workers, pastors and principals, activists and addicts), but they breathe and bounce throughout his pages like more than just rehashed stock figures in some ongoing morality play about urban black pathology.  Thoroughly researched and powerfully told, Renegade Dreams is a paradigm-shifting anthropological rejoinder to popular stereotypes and scholarly cant about ‘inner-city violence,’ its causes, and its aftermath.”
— John L. Jackson Jr., author of Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

“Astounding in its clarity and groundbreaking in its power, Renegade Dreams is as miraculous as the efforts of its all-American characters to remake life and invent a future out of injury. The textures and rhythms of Ralph’s realist narrative are charged with critical insight and transcendental significance, making ethnography into a work of art.”
— João Biehl, author of Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

“In Renegade Dreams, Ralph has achieved what few ethnographers, investigative journalists, and drive-by sociologists ever do: a radical empathy for his subjects that refuses to impose a colonial worldview. At the heart of this book is a fierce utopian sensibility expressed by the dogged optimism of Chicago residents—felled by bullets and injured in a thousand ways—but who insist on participating in our aspiration society. Young men in wheelchairs, bodies half-dead, glide like rolling zombies in our mind’s eye and yet leap from these pages with life and vigor. Their dreams carry forth in politics, play, poetry, and prose. They live in defiance of statistical narratives of the violent isolated ghetto. Theoretically rich and superbly written, this book exposes what is hidden in plain sight: the full humanity of people whose lives are greater than the sum of their pain and peril and far more connected to ours than we’d like to believe.”
— Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America

“Although it lacks the easy narrative of many traditional ethnographies, this is precisely the book’s strength. There is no convenient valorisation of the ordinary extraordinariness of the lives portrayed here. Their dreams are shown to be chaotic, complex and contradictory. Just like life in ‘Eastwood.’”
— Times Higher Education


Dramatis Personae


Part One. The Injury of Isolation

Introduction. The Underside of Injury: Or, How to Dream Like a Renegade

Field Notes: Late Death

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226032856.003.0001
[Gentrification, Gangs, Urban Violence, Injury]
The chapter describes a curious phenomenon of the last decade. Local politicians have used the ideologically-charged language of "urban violence" to justify destroying buildings in the name of "development." Ralph details what happens when a municipal government and influential church, interested in developing a neighborhood that has been historically associated with gang activities, overlooks the role of gang members as influential social actors in that same community. Ralph's compelling research shows that to mobilize against these efforts to remake their community, many Eastwoodians have aligned themselves with the Divine Knights. By showing how the ideal of development can injure those whose lives and neighborhood are judged in need of "developing," we see the unexpected ways that institutional expertise impairs our understanding of the black urban poor, and also the unexpected ways that these residents fight back. (pages 21 - 54)

Field Notes: Early Funerals

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226032856.003.0002
[Nostalgia, Historical Consciousness, Gangs, Mass incarceration]
This chapter explores three different generations of gang members, and their varied versions of the past. Ever since a generation of gang members was incarcerated due to the "war on drugs" in the 1980s, the Divine Knights have been devoid of central leadership. A world apart from their, perhaps, surprising roots in civil rights activism, the gang has now splintered into drug trafficking subsets. Decades of fracture has had dire consequences for the Divine Knights' youngest constituency, who are dismissed as "renegades" because they supposedly disregard the aspirations of the collective in favor of their own individual pursuits. Just as leaders of other local institutions regard the gang as a "negative" element within Eastwood, gang leaders regard renegades as "negative" elements within the gang. Hence, Eastwood's renegade problem is a parable, if you will—an allegory about broader societal blind spots when it comes to helping black urban residents. (pages 55 - 86)

Field Notes: Inside Jokes

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226032856.003.0003
[Hip hop, Authenticity, Gangs, Urban Violence, Drug Trade]
This chapter deals with the difficulty of extricating oneself from the gang, through the lens of that staple of the urban street, hip hop music. For a few decades now, rappers have been a convenient bogeyman, a target for conservatives and liberals alike to lament the evasion of social responsibility by today's youth. Although it is a worthwhile endeavor to hold hip hop artists responsible for the representations they put out in the world, the daily obstacles that aspiring artists face complicates these criticisms, and upends our ideas of authenticity. In the debate concerning hip hop's claims to "the real," Ralph contends, cultural scholars too often talk about the urban poor without talking to them. This work largely assumes that urban black youth must be affected by hip hop imagery, but does not take the time to examine their living reality, punctured by crime and debility, that helps shape how these youth are injured on a daily basis. (pages 87 - 114)

Part Two. The Resilience of Dreams

Field Notes: Getting In

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226032856.003.0004
[Disability, Urban Violence, Injury, Gangs]
Gang violence leaves behind a trail of young, disabled men. With wheelchairs, as with most everything else, the realities of life are quite different than we expect. Over the last four decades, a burgeoning disability rights movement has transformed American understanding about what it means to be physically impaired. Disabled activists have normalized a social model of disability, in which there are multiple ways to view ability and physical capacities are not devalued. But the disability rights movement does not speak for Eastwood; their victories have obscured the very different challenges of being poor and black and in a wheelchair. Here we see what happens when several disabled, ex-gang members use their life stories to try and steer other young gang members away from the Divine Knights' code of sacrifice and vengeance. Far from the "social model" of disability, these ex-gang members rely on an older "medical model" that highlights physical differences instead of diminishing them. The fact that they are willing to insist on the defectiveness of their own bodies as a way to deter gun violence is an example of the sheer magnitude of problems with which poor African Americans must contend, and the sheer burden that violence creates in communities like Eastwood. (pages 119 - 142)

Field Notes: Resilience

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226032856.003.0005
[HIV, Drug Addiction, The Will, Resilience]
In this chapter Ralph describes how Eastwood's recovering addicts and HIV patients use the Eastwood Community Church to hone an illness narrative that helps them remain sober or adhere to an antiretroviral drug therapy. This church works with plan and great purpose to assist anyone who is willing. Yet, because they are interested in helping drug addicts and HIV positive youth, they must make their message of personal transformation commensurate with medical understanding of injury in which healing now refers to the routine management of illness. As the Eastwood Community Church helps urban residents hone a will to remain sober or adhere to an antiretroviral drug regimen, black urban youth contest and re-interpret familiar narratives of redemption. By the chapter's end, we learn that these youth are themselves key resources upon which both religious and medical institutions rely, as their life stories and performances teach other community members what it means to be resilient. (pages 143 - 166)

Field Notes: Framing

Conclusion. The Frame: Or, How to Get Out of an Isolated Space

Postscript: A Renegade Dream Come True