Money Rock the man – Belton Lamont Platt – is the beguiling star of “Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South” (The New Press, $26.99 hardcover), a debut nonfiction book by Pam Kelley, a former prize-winning reporter for the Charlotte Observer.
Kelley first interviewed Platt, known then as Money Rock, in 1986 in prison. Platt, then 22, tried to convince her he was innocent. Kelley figured he wasn’t, but found him charming. Later, she’d learn that when he sold cocaine, he tithed from his proceeds to a local church.
Cocaine made Platt wealthy. By 22, he could buy diamonds and fancy cars, and he stashed sacks of cash in his car trunk – wads of which he gave away to people in need. Also by 22, he’d fathered six children by five different women.
In “Money Rock” – one reviewer calls it a New South version of “The Wire” – you’ll learn about Platt’s transformation in prison.
If you don’t already, you may also begin to understand how a city like Charlotte produces a man wild to escape poverty. How a city of gleaming skyscrapers for years turned a blind eye to places like the old Piedmont Courts, where Money Rock conducted business.
And if you don’t already, you’ll see how segregated Charlotte still is – haves mostly here, have-nots mostly there – and how the roots of that segregation run all the way back to slavery.
“Money Rock” – thoroughly investigative and delightfully readable – could serve as a Bible for Charlotte in the years to come – if we are indeed a city serious about righting our long-standing wrongs.
Q. You first interviewed Money Rock – Belton Lamont Platt – in 1986 when he was in prison on a shootout conviction. He was 22. You were 26. Twenty-five years later, you happened to dip into rap artist Jay-Z’s memoir, “Decoded.” His life reminded you of Money Rock’s, and the idea for this book was born. How did you begin?
A. We reconnected in 2011, and during our first sit-down interview, Belton told me that his story could be a book. He likes to remind me of this. But my idea back then was far more modest – a series for The Observer, which ran in 2013. It focused mostly on Belton. The book idea emerged after I started an 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 became a bigger, more powerful narrative.
Q. What intrigued you about Money Rock?
A. One reason I love being a journalist is that it gives me permission to be nosy – to delve into the lives of interesting people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. Initially, I wanted to understand what drove Belton in his Money Rock days. I wanted to hear what it was like to be a major cocaine dealer, why he bought so much jewelry. Eventually, I began looking at larger questions, such as the role structural racism played in his family over several generations.
Q. In telling Money Rock’s story, you also tell Charlotte’s story – how we’re still a city divided into black and white, rich and poor. The book becomes a near-X-ray of how often unconsciously and indifferently Charlotte continues to segregate.
A. Segregation was and is part of life, and white people often aren’t aware of it because we don’t have to be. In the 1980s, Belton sold cocaine in Piedmont Courts – a public housing project, now demolished, that was considered the most dangerous place in town. I was a young, white reporter covering trials of drug dealers, and it never occurred to me to ask: Why does this crime-ridden, run-down development exist in this prosperous city? And why do only black people live here? Once you pull that thread, Charlotte’s legacy of racism starts unraveling, all the way back to slavery. I now understand systemic racism. Once you see it, you can’t not see it. I’m hoping readers have the same experience.
Q. Money Rock’s mom, Carrie Graves, is as much a vivid character as is her son. Outspoken. Pro-active. Generous. An eagle of a caring mother. Would he have turned his life around without her?
A. Like Carrie, Belton is a survivor, so I’d argue yes, once he decided to turn his life around, he would have succeeded, with or without her. That said, Carrie’s support sustained him through hard times. When you go to prison for many years, friends and family visit initially, but many forget about you. Carrie’s support never wavered.
Q. Cocaine is like a character in this book. It takes center stage for a time, then slinks away.
A. The history of cocaine in America is freighted with racism. In the early 20th century, when the drug was still legal, it was used in all kinds of products. The Hay Fever Association even endorsed it as an official remedy. But in the South, whites began claiming cocaine turned black men into violent beasts with super-human strength.
In the 1970s, it became a hip drug for white people. In 1977, the Charlotte News wrote an upbeat feature story about cocaine as “drug of the rich.” But when crack – which is simply cocaine in another form – emerged in the 1980s, drug dealers and users, most of them black, were again demonized. And crack-related crimes carried much harsher penalties than powder cocaine.
Q. I’m fascinated with your take on the long-demolished Brooklyn neighborhood in Second Ward, where black people lived, worked, worshipped, shopped and conducted their lives. Its disappearance affected Charlotte’s poor black citizens. How so?
A. White Charlotte’s destruction of Brooklyn as part of “urban renewal,” coupled with the city’s refusal to build housing to replace the homes it destroyed, was a huge blow to African-Americans in Charlotte. Many black businesses never re-opened. Social connections were severed. Poor people were forced to rent apartments they couldn’t afford. The congregations of a dozen black churches were scattered. Second Ward High, the city’s oldest black high school, was demolished, and white leaders reneged on promises to build a new school.
Many black residents haven’t forgotten. This wound hasn’t healed. And Charlotte wasn’t unusual. Urban renewal and highway construction destroyed hundreds of black neighborhoods all over America.
Q. A recent Observer story reported the new grocery stores opening in southeast Charlotte while in the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods, are “food deserts.” How else have we perpetuated our long history of Jim Crow?
A. I suspect a lot of 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 busing 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. No surprise, once we ended busing, schools re-segregated.
Q. “Something was up in Piedmont Courts,” is how you open the book – giving it the power of a novel. What literary devices did you use to keep it so alive and compelling?
A. For starters, I had to abandon devices I relied on as a newspaper writer, to slow the story pace and resist the impulse to give everything away in the first few paragraphs, for instance. Research and reporting were also key. I didn’t observe most scenes, so I had to reconstruct. I used court and police documents, newspaper stories, letters, diaries and so many interviews. Thank God for trial transcripts, which give you dialogue.
For that opening in Piedmont Courts, I interviewed Belton repeatedly. I’d start writing, realize I was missing certain details, go back, interview again. The shootout was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I learned from a newspaper story that Christmas tree lots had already opened, and that helped me set the scene – contrasting this violent showdown in Piedmont Courts with holiday shopping and tree buying in the rest of the city.
Q. Your epigraph quote from Matthew 13:22 seems prophetic. “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.”
A. I consider myself an optimist, but I’ve been finding it hard to see that arc of history bending toward justice. 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.
Q. This book can be a wake-up call for Charlotte to right its long-standing wrongs. But as you show over and over, people are blind to their own blind spots.
A. Charlotte has been receiving wake-up calls for a while now – 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. My hope is that the book helps readers see the connection between our history and present-day inequality. We’ll never move forward as a nation until we understand this.
I should mention that some terrific local groups are teaching about that connection – the Levine Museum of the New South, Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, the Community Building Initiative, to name a few.
Q. I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, but I will say that Money Rock is out of prison. What are your expectations for his future?
A. Belton became a minister in prison. When he got out in 2010, he started a church in South Carolina. Then he launched a restaurant. He and his family recently moved back to the Charlotte area, and he may open a restaurant here. Belton is an optimist and a born entrepreneur. He’s told me that after so many years in prison, any day on the outside is a good one. Setbacks never discourage this man, as readers will see.
Q. What’s your relationship with Money Rock today and with his mother, Carrie Graves?
A. I consider them both friends. I love talking politics with Carrie, who, by the way, was one of the first black women to run for City Council in Charlotte. She ran unsuccessfully in 1969. Belton is planning to attend book events with me and answer questions. He’s a great speaker.
Sept. 25, 7 p.m. at Main Street Books, 126 S. Main St., Davidson; free.
Oct. 3, 7 p.m. at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Road; free.
Oct. 15, 6 p.m. at Bibliofeast, a fundraiser for the Women’s National Book Association Charlotte chapter, at Maggiano’s at SouthPark; $60.