A former reporter for the Charlotte Observer, Pam Kelley has won honors from the National Press Club and the Society for Features Journalism. She contributed to a subprime mortgage exposé that was a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Her recently released book, Money Rock, is the gripping story—by turns action-packed, uplifting, and tragic—of a striving, Charlotte-based African American family, swept up and transformed by the 1980s cocaine epidemic.
Here’s Pam’s take on research, long-form journalism, the New South, economic mobility, race, and the Queen City:
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You collected a trove of research, including interviews, archived Charlotte Observer articles, and other secondary sources, to make this book as accurate and detailed as possible. Tell us about your process. Were any pieces of the puzzle particularly challenging to track down? What resources did you rely on most heavily to compile your sources?
PAM KELLEY: I relied heavily on interviews, returning repeatedly to characters with new questions – lots of picky details – as I worked to recreate scenes.
When I asked the federal court system for Belton Platt’s trial transcript, they couldn’t find it. That would have been a major problem. Fortunately, his brother had saved a copy, which he handed over in a shopping bag.
I received several unexpected gifts like that, including color photos of Money Rock’s jewelry, which arrived in the mail from the U.S. Department of Justice months after I filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
His mom had saved great stuff, including reports he wrote as an adolescent working toward Boy Scout badges. One in particular was a window into his world. He played on a public housing basketball league organized by the Charlotte Housing Authority. In a report for a badge focused on community citizenship, he listed various community organizations, including basketball teams, which existed, in his mind, “to keep kids off the streets.” That description of a basketball team would never have occurred to a middle-class kid.
One big challenge for me was understanding the policies that created the segregation and inequity that shaped Belton’s life. I relied on several books, including Tom Hanchett’s excellent Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, came out in 2017, at the perfect time. It helped me put all the pieces together.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: In the Prologue, you write, “the question grew more complicated the more I researched, as I saw everything I’d missed the first time around,” referring to when you first covered Big Lou and Money Rock’s shootout for the Charlotte Observer in 1986. I’m curious - are there other topics you covered as a reporter that you now, due to the passage of time and introduction of new research, feel weren’t covered fully?
PAM KELLEY: Many of them. But that’s the nature of daily journalism. There’s a lot we can’t know when we’re writing. A newspaper story is a snapshot, a first draft of history often impossible to contextualize in the moment.
Today, there’s general agreement that media coverage of the cocaine and crack epidemic was often racist and hyped-up for maximum shock value. But at the time, reporters were relying on government agencies and law enforcement, which were pushing a drugs-are-destroying-our-country narrative to limits that now seem shocking and bizarre.
Here’s a perfect example: In September 1989, President George Bush devoted his first prime-time address to illegal drugs, holding aloft a clear plastic bag of crack that he said had been seized in Lafayette Park, near the White House. Reporters later found that officers hadn’t seized the crack. They’d lured a young dealer there and actually bought it from him. When the lie was exposed, NPR interviewed jailed crack dealers who pointed out that nobody sold in Lafayette Park, because they’d never get a customer.
Crack users lived mostly in poor black communities. But our government wanted us to believe it was everywhere.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: You wrote for the Charlotte Observer for many years before penning Money Rock. In what ways did that work leave you prepared and/or unprepared to take on the long-form journalism of Money Rock?
PAM KELLEY: My training as a reporter served me well. I knew how to dig up documents and track down people, to corroborate stories and check facts. But writing a book-length narrative forced me to abandon writing devices I’d relied on at the newspaper, to slow the story pace and resist giving everything away in the first few paragraphs.
This story actually began as a series in the Charlotte Observer. The book idea emerged after I started a great MFA program in nonfiction at Goucher College. One of my mentors suggested using Money Rock’s story to write about Charlotte’s black poverty. Suddenly, it was a bigger, more powerful narrative.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: The book’s epigraph includes three quotes:
“For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” -Matthew 13:12
“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships” -W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
“With cocaine, my success came speedy
Got me twisted, jammed into a paradox
Every dollar I get, another brother drops
Maybe that’s the plan, and I don’t understand” -Ice-T, New Jack Hustler
All three are deeply relevant to the tale of Money Rock, and when placed together in this order, the effect is staggering. How did this compilation of quotes come to you?
PAM KELLEY: I ran across each in different stages of writing, and all three addressed something I wanted the book to explore.
When I read the Du Bois quote, I thought of Belton growing up in public housing while being bused to Myers Park Elementary. He made his first white friend there, a kid whose family lived in a big house and employed black maids.
When I heard those lyrics from “New Jack Hustler,” I thought of his three sons who died violently while he was in prison.
That passage from Matthew appears with different wording and in different contexts in the other gospels, and so it has been interpreted in various ways, but it struck me as an apt description of America at our present moment.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: While writing Money Rock, were there ever moments when you questioned whether you were accurately representing the characters about which you wrote? If not, why not? If so, how did those doubts affect your writing process?
PAM KELLEY: I always worry about accurate portrayals. People are complicated, and if you focus on certain aspects and ignore others, you can create something that’s factual but false.
To portray Belton, my protagonist, I interviewed people who’d known him in all different stages of his life. When he was on the streets, many people loved him – and still do – because he was generous with his money. But his ex-wife and several mothers of his children described his failings as a husband and father. I’m indebted to them for helping me create a more nuanced, accurate portrait.
MAIN STREET BOOKS: The city of Charlotte has made strides toward progress since 1986; however, considerable (often insurmountable) obstacles continue to block the mobility of black and low-income Charlotte citizens. What do you think are the most effective steps the New South (or Charlotte more specifically) can take to move toward a more integrated, mobile, and equitable society?
PAM KELLEY: Many people in Charlotte thought they’d buried Jim Crow after the school system carried out a federal judge’s order to use busing to integrate schools in the 1970s. But the city never addressed deeper problems – housing segregation, decades of redlining and other policies that limited investments in black neighborhoods. White people had opportunities to build wealth over generations that were denied to African-Americans. So of course racial inequality has never gone away. And since we never addressed housing, once we ended busing, schools re-segregated.
A while back, on an NPR show, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, talked about the “urgent need for us to know how we got to where we are. Most people have no idea.” I agree. In America – and Charlotte – we need truth telling before we can move forward.
The city has been the recipient of some clear messages on this subject – notably its last-place economic mobility ranking out of 50 of America’s largest cities and the violent protests that followed Keith Lamont Scott’s shooting death two years ago.
The good news is that some terrific local organizations are teaching about the connection between history and present-day inequality – the Levine Museum of the New South, Race Matters or Juvenile Justice, the Community Building Initiative, to name a few.
I’m hoping my book plays a part in this vital conversation.
Charlotte also needs affordable housing, and lots of it, especially for people whose income falls below 50 percent of the city’s median. City leaders are taking good first steps, but the problem is huge. I’ve heard lots of talk about building “workforce housing” that’s affordable to teachers, police officers, nurses. We also need housing for the people who do your lawns, serve you burgers at the drive-through and bag your groceries. And we need to put it in middle-class neighborhoods – yours and mine.
I’ve begun to hear affordable housing described as reparations. When you consider all the housing destroyed during Charlotte’s urban renewal, that sounds reasonable to me. I’ve lived in this area most of my life, and I’ve seen this city accomplish amazing things. Do we have the civic will to fix this inequality? I don’t know. I hope so.