There Are No Children Here

I picked up this book by Alex Kotlowitz, about a family living in the Henry Horner housing project in Chicago, to learn more about urban poverty. It’s from 1991, and because it’s reportage (unlike The Strange Career of Jim Crow, which is history) I was preoccupied with how old it was while I was reading it. I kept wondering if it was outdated. Things can’t still be that bad, can they? Here are some of more horrifying details:

  • The Rivers family is grindingly poor. LaJoe Rivers can barely feed her children, but she spends $80 a month on another necessity—their burial insurance.
  • The buildings are so cheaply constructed that the bathroom medicine cabinets in adjoining apartments are connected: “Over the years, residents had been robbed, assaulted, and even murdered by people crawling through their medicine cabinet.”
  • Lafeyette is so traumatized by violence that he begins to lose his memory. “He recalled nothing of Bird Leg’s funeral. He couldn’t remember the names of any of the performers at the talent show. He sometimes had trouble recounting what he had done just the day before in school.” Pharoah, for his part, develops a stutter and faints at the sound of gunshots.
  • When the housing manager goes into the basements of Horner for the first time, she throws up. Rusting away amid piles of excrement and animal corpses are an estimated two thousand once-new refrigerators, oven ranges and kitchen cabinets, now useless. They have been there at least fifteen years.
  • With all that, my middle-class self was perhaps most deeply shocked by the fact that LaJoe’s bathtub faucet doesn’t turn off. It just never turns off. And the water pouring out of it is scaldingly hot.

The Henry Horner Homes have since been demolished, but yes, things still are this bad. These towers may be gone but the racist and dehumanizing systems that built them are still firmly in place. Kotlowitz, who produced “The Interrupters,” can testify to that, as can the brothers themselves. (And here’s another eyewitness report from Devynity.)

I really struggled with my racism while reading this book. I’ve read a lot (not enough) in my efforts to become an anti-racist, but nothing has challenged me like “There Are No Children Here.” It triggered off a stream of judgmental thoughts and feelings, all of them roughly equivalent to “Here’s an instance where they could have made it better for themselves; it’s really their own fault.” Maybe this is because Kotlowitz’s book is also about class, which is more thorny for me personally than, say, a posting on Racialicious about why Miley Cyrus shouldn’t twerk. But while thinking about this I was reminded of another book, similar in some ways, which neatly turned my critical thoughts back on me. It’s The Corner, by David Simon and Ed Burns, which asks:

If it was us, if it was our lonesome ass shuffling past the corner of Monroe and Fayette every day, we’d get out, wouldn’t we? We’d endure. Succeed. Thrive. No matter what, no matter how, we’d find the fucking exit.

If it was our fathers firing dope and our mothers smoking coke, we’d pull ourselves past it. We’d raise ourselves, discipline ourselves, teach ourselves the essentials of self-denial and delayed gratification that no one in our universe ever demonstrated. And if home was the rear room of some rancid, three-story shooting gallery, we’d rise above that, too. We’d shuffle up the stairs past nodding fiends and sullen dealers, shut the bedroom door, turn off the television, and do our schoolwork. Algebra amid the stench of burning rock; American history between police raids. And if there was no food on the table, we’re certain we could deal with that. We’d lie about our age to cut taters and spill grease and sling fries at the sub shop for five-and-change-an-hour, walking every day past the corner where friends are making our daily wage in ten minutes. . . .

That’s the myth of it, the required lie that allows us to render our judgments. . . . Yes, if we were down there, if we were the damned of the American cities, we would not fail. We would rise above the corner. And when we tell ourselves such things, we unthink[ing]ly assume that we would be consigned to Fayette Street fully equipped, with all the graces and disciplines, talents and training that we now possess. . . . We would be saved, and as it always is in matters of salvation, we know this as a matter of perfect, pristine faith.

There’s actually a devastating conclusion to this passage that I won’t quote because of its language, but I think The Corner is the superior book for engaging directly with the white reader’s resistance to the truth.

One comment

  1. Charles says:

    What is the definition of anti-racist? If the “welfare system” promotes the described behavior, is it then a tool of racism? If I am aware of my race and yours, and think that I see correlations between certain predominant behaviors and those races, is that racist? If by observation I make judgements without malice or a feeling of superiority, should I feel guilty?

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