MY MOTHER teaches third grade in a ghetto grammar school on Chicago's South Side. As urban school systems have crumbled in recent years, teachers such as she have been increasingly berated. They have been charged from afar with destroying the minds of ghetto children, with arrogance and racism in the classroom, with a cynical desire merely to extract a paycheck from their job until they can transfer to a "better" school. They are an easy target.
Robert Coles thinks that things are not that simple, and he has spent most of his professional life talking to people--mostly children, but to understand children, you must talk to their parents and their teachers and their neighbors-- and trying to reach the human reality beneath the surface generalizations. And when I think of my mother, of her depression when the children in her class do not perform as well as she had hoped on standardized tests, or of her joy at receiving misspelled Christmas messages at home, I am thankful someone has taken the time and patience to understand.
He has spent years on the road, talking and listening. First in the South, where he not only studied black children affected by the civil rights upheavals of the early sixties, but he brok through the constraints of liberal social science and also tried to understand the hopes and fears of white Southerners buffeted about as the pace of social change increased. Then to Appalachia, the land of hollows and coal mines, where some of the children of the first English settlers in America live in abject poverty, and he talked to a proud people bewildered by an America that had passed them by. And as the black southerners and the white mountain people traveled North, "up there," in search of a better job and a better life, Coles went with them and chronicled their exodus. The South Goes Nort, the third volume of Children of Crisis, documents the adjustments a rural people entering an urban, industrial setting must make in the face of the bewildering array of changes that confront them.
"Lord, I never knew there were so many buildings. Lord, I never knew what a street was, not really, not streets like we have up here, not miles and miles of them," says a black sharecropper from Mississippi. And a little white girl from Kentucky marvels at street lights: "I wonder how the moon feels? If I were the moon, I'd make a face at all the lamps on the streets."
Coles found things that will startle the liberal scholar and the doctrinaire radical alike. He found black fathers of strength in a supposedly matriarchical ghetto and he found a Washington cabdriver from West Virginia who wanted his son to become a newspaperman and hated arrogant bureaucrats who didn't tip him. He found little children with the same dreams as their peers in Winnetka and Newton, and he sorrowed because he knew their dreams would be destroyed. But above all he found complexity. He found that people who may never have heard of the New York Times and who don't care who edits Commentary, respond to the complexity of the world just as variously and just as deeply as those who do. And Coles stresses that the people he talks to and writes about--and in a certain sense writes for--are faced with some of the central realities of life in present-day America.
Eschewing statistics and representative samples, Coles avoids falling prey to the same generality that baffles both dogmatic radicals and value-free sociologists.
He operates in a kind of social-literary tradition that includes figures as diverse as James Agee and Plutarch. Most of his work is devoted to giving a forum to the voiceless; The South Goes North, like his other works, is the transcribed conversations he has had with hundreds of people. His work demonstrates his skill at getting the natural poetry of America's downtrodden to express itself more than it exhibits his own considerable writing talents. By talking to people as people instead of as sterile percentages, Coles paints faces on the nation's oppressed and allows the full dimension of reality to flower. He is always saying yes-but; yes, the mountaineer is racist but he always qualifies his racism; yes, the ghetto youth takes heroin but he worries about his mother who is old before her time; yes, the ghetto teacher is irritated and irritating, but she also cares deeply.
And as the rich complexity of the lives of those often viewed in one-dimensional, socially autistic terms unravels, it is sometimes impossible to keep from being profoundly moved. Listen as Sally, a ten year-old mountain girl, talks about her uncle back in Kentucky who has the dreaded "black lung" disease coal miners are prone to contract: "I don't think I'll ever live in a mansion, no. It doesn't seem fair that only a few people have houses like that, big ones with a garden all around. If we had a garden, we could play on the grass. I think my uncle could breathe better if he lived in one of those houses."
And as coles allows America's lost children and their parents to describe themselves, he also stresses the importance of the tenuous adjustments and tacit arrangements that these people make to survive in a hostile world. Yes, holy-roller religion diverts ghetto residents from a consideration of their real enemies, but it also gives people the strength to go on in a world of adversity. Meaning is given to people's lives through their religion, the world is a fearful place, a powerful God gives strength in Roxbury or in Chicago's Uptown, we who do not live there must always try to un-derstand.
COLES APPRECIATES the complexity of the tenuous adjustments that America's poor have made to adapt to their circumstances, he can sense and has seen the trauma that accompanies any transformation in the order of things. The South Goes North is testament to such trauma. From cloistered universities, it is easy to support busing of schoolchildren; Coles has ridden the buses and knows busing is not an unadulterated good. Academic radicals support community organizing; Coles has talked to people in the communities and knows how firmly the existing order of things is ingrained in people and why change is difficult. In both examples he understands that "social policy" or "radicalization" is really an attempt to alter people's lives, and that the alterers had better understand--in human terms--what they are attempting.
But he is by no means anti-radical, only cautious; his respect and awe for the tenacity and the vitality of the nation's downtrodden is matched by his lamenting the need for such tenacity. He reminds those of us who advocate radical change of both our ultimate goals and awesome responsibilities; we fight in the last instance not on behalf of social theories but to serve people and if we disturb society's equilibrium, we are really upsetting the lives of individuals. We had better be sure we are deeply dedicated to pushing on for a better world to replace the old one we try to shatter
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