Review by: Carlos Rodriguez
In Gang Leader for a Day, Sudhir Venkatesh documents the life of the projects in Chicago in order to be able to understand gangs and poverty. It is the journey of how Venkatesh is able to gain entry into the world of the Black Kings, befriend the leader, and study how the community works around the gang. Throughout the book, Venkatesh accents the perplexities and problems that are caused by the community workers, police offers, gang members, and gang leaders in order to survive and cop with everyday life in the projects.
Venketash’s work begins after his discussion with William Julius Wilson. Wilson plans to study black youth through surveys, and asks Venkatesh and other graduate students to create questions (5). Not convinced with the books he has read, statistics, and research that his colleagues and others have gathered about the housing projects, Venkatesh decides to find out what life is truly like in the projects. He goes into the projects looking for Building Number 4040 (9), but is held hostage by Black King gang members under the impression that he is part of a rival gang. J.T., the leader of the Black Kings, comes in the building where Sudhir is held hostage, and lets Venkatesh live. J.T. tells Venkatesh that the way to approach this is not by just purely asking questions and conducting research, but by actually interacting and hanging out in the community (21). Venkatesh then relates the reader of several years that he spends with the Black Kings and various people in the Robert Taylor Homes. Venkatesh most of spends his time writing his notes in the apartment of Ms. Mae, J.T.’s mother. Here he writes about his work and also depicts to the reader about the beating of C-Note (65), violence and poverty, the drug epidemic, community meetings, being gang leader for a day (116), Ms. Bailey and the Boys & Girls Club, and dealing with the backlash attached to giving information to J.T. about everyone’s earnings in Robert Taylor (203).
This book is definately an interesting read that will leave the reader either wanting to read it from beginning to end in one sitting, or excited to pick it back up soon. J.T. is a multidimensional character who in my opinion is a better and more interesting character than Venkatesh himself. He is a young, smart, ambitious, eager, and loyal character that serves as the anchor of the book. I also enjoyed how Venkatesh is able to relate to the reader a story that seems authentic and gives the reader satisfaction because of this. It is great to be able to see the inner workings of a project and a gang. The gang aspect of the book is a great one because the reader sees the advantages and disadvantages that the Black Kings give the community. The Black Kings protect the community, but at the same time hurt it by selling drugs, causing violence, and taxing community members. However, this book not perfect by any means.
One of the main weaknesses of Gang Leader for a Day are the ethics of Venkatesh. Whether it is true or not, much of the book makes Venkatesh look like all he wants is information from the residents of Robert Taylor. Even though they let him into their lives, it seems as if he had the chance to just have the information he knew now and get his answers, he would forgo this supposedly life changing experience. Venkatesh constantly lies to J.T., telling him that this is a biography of him, and near the end of the book, Venkatesh mentions that he doesn’t truly consider J.T. his friend (283). Take for example when Venkatesh is asked to take notes on the finances of everyone in the RT projects, and Venkatesh willingly gives J.T. the information. The residents are hurt because they have to pay more to the gang and Ms. Bailey (202). Either this is Venkatesh being naïve, or just Venkatesh doing or writing this in order to make this read more interesting. Either way, it seems immoral.
Overall, Gang Leader for a Day, while not a perfect book, is still a great read, and in the end, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Venkatesh is ultimately able to achieve what he set out to do, have an ethnography that shares his findings, and at the same time be able entertain the reader. We also get to peek into the life of the projects and gangs in Chicago, both positive and negative. Gang Leader for a Day is at times compassionate, sad, funny, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and ultimately an introspect about our society. It should be read by all.