Growing Up Black and Poor in Chicago
ALTHOUGH I am white and middle-class, I grew up not far from the all-Black Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, one of the first and largest high-rise housing projects in the nation. My family would have to drive by them when we left our neighborhood to shop, and I was always frightened by the mysterious, ghost-town atmosphere that hung over the homes. As I grew older, I learned to be frightened by the stories of drugs, gangster wars and filthy conditions told to me by friends who had friends in the projects and by the evening news. To this day, though I went to school and lived less than a mile from them, I have never met anyone who lived there.
William Morrow, New York, 284 pp. $18.95
Last year, Newsweek published a cover story titled "Brothers," which chronicled the reunion of 12 black men who grew up together in the Robert Taylor Homes. In 1962, when it opened, the housing project was a highly-touted social experiment, and a real opportunity for low-income Black families--a way out of the slums and tenements controlled by greedy white landlords. Brothers is the expanded, book-length account of the lives of these 12 men, and tells their compelling stories with a depth that was missing in the otherwise excellent article.
Sylvester Monroe '73, the White House correspondent for Newsweek's Washington Bureau, was returing to find out what had happened to the friends who started out life in the projects with him, and how they had survived the deterioration of one of the most dangerous and depressed urban areas in the world. The Robert Taylor Homes have 19,000 official residents, although many more people than that live there unofficially, causing desperate overcrowding. Those 19,000 comprise less than one-half of 1 percent of Chicago's population. An average of 10 percent of the city's armed robberies, assaults, rapes and murders occur there.
Brothers gave me my first glimpse into the Robert Taylor Homes, and what life there can do to people. This book shows how utterly degrading publicly sanctioned slum living is. The steel mesh fencing that encloses the balconies of each building to prevent people from falling symbolizes the hopelessness that pervades the project. There's a great view of the city skyline, but through the bars of a cage it seems very far away.
THE book doesn't claim to have solutions to the problems of growing up Black and poor in the ghetto, and doesn't join the current debate over whether the rising Black underclass is the product of cultural pathology in the Black community, or the lack of economic opportunity for Blacks. Instead it proceeds on the worthwhile premise that not enough people on the outside even know that these problems exist, or, more significantly, know that people exist behind the problems, and behind the traditional stereotypes.
Brothers gives the invisible Black man a voice. Monroe, of all his friends, made it the furthest out of the ghetto. Through a government program called "A Better Chance" that sent inner-city Black kids away to school, Monroe went to a prep school in Rhode Island, on to Harvard, and was able to fulfill his dream of writing for Newsweek. Some of his childhood friends made careers out of the gang activities and drug pushing that all of them were involved with as teenagers. Others continue to struggle daily.
Roy Johnson--dubbed "Honk" for his light skin--had a reputation as the toughest of outlaws in the toughest area of the Taylor homes. Although he did well in school, he received little encouragement and he kept up his renegade lifestyle until he finally got put in prison at age 35 for the armed robbery of a chicken shack. The others, like "Half-Man" Carter who would work three different jobs at a time just for something to do, or "Moose" Harper, who found religion, did the best they could.
Some of these men are the missing Black fathers who have had kids with three different mothers, the criminals who sell drugs and shoot each other in alleys, the high-school dropouts who work anonymous jobs and live in anonymous sections of the cities. Some of them are the success stories unnecessarily pointed to by well-meaning white liberals as "proof" that some Blacks can become useful members of society. In reality, they are individual men who have done nothing more than follow the different motivating factors that life has presented them.
But if the stories are straightforward, the book itself is an irony, and one that demonstrates most clearly the problems Blacks still face. Although Monroe knows the material best, Peter Goldman--a white, albeit highly respected Newsweek editor and writer--is the author. The irony was sufficient to compel Goldman to explain why he was chosen to author a book which attempts to give voice to those who are usually mute. His semi-apology, that he is more experienced than Monroe, conforms too well to the by-now-standard reasoning used to justify the lofty positions that are still the preserve of whites.
GOLDMAN'S justification is even harder to take as the writing often employs a strange mixture of slang and cliche, stream-of-consciousness and narration that strains to mimic on-the-street realism. Goldman was way over his head in trying to reproduce the voices of Black men. "Basketball is both pastime and narcotic in the ghetto, the cheapest high on the street," or "James Bonner wasn't no fictional bad-ass like Stackolee or Sudden Death. James Bonner was the real thing," are but some of the most glaring examples. The writing improves as the story develops, and fortunately, the power of each man's personal experiences prevents this from being more than a minor annoyance.
Though reading Monroe's excellent personal introduction, in which he recounts his experiences of growing up and his difficult, still incomplete transition from a Black world to a white one, makes one wonder if talent was really the sole reason Goldman authored Brothers.
Brothers adds a valuable contemporary account of the Black experience in America, joining such important works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Roots. It may not provide solutions, but after reading it, one can at least look at the faces on the cover photo and know a little bit about who they are.