Amy Jacques Garvey: Selected Writing from the Negro World, 1923-1928

Edited by Louis J. Parascandola

The University of Tennessee Press | 2016 | 251 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

A Wonderful Mind

Amy J, Garvey, an obscure figure for most Americans, was the second wife of the famous Black Nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Garvey, an immigrant from Jamaica, “created the most significant black mass movement in history. His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (UNIA) was first established in Jamaica in 1914.”

As Parascandola also notes in his introduction, after Garvey came to the United States in 1916, “by the early 1920s, he had created more than 900 branches in some 40 countries with about 6 million members. UNIA was a pro-capitalist, masculine movement that promoted race pride, Pan African unity, economic self-sufficiency, and the redemption of Africa from European imperial power.’”

Amy Jacques Garvey shared this vision with the same passion as her husband. However, soon after they married, Marcus Garvey started freefalling from grace. First, he came under attack from establishment blacks. Some, like the august W.E.B. DuBois, thought that he had little understanding of American blacks, and worse, that he was crude. With little class.

Others, like A. Philip Randolph, loved Marxism with the same, blinding passion that the Garveys loved Capitalism. This is what Amy Garvey wrote in the Negro World, as she and Marcus made a cross-country train trip, stopping at big and small cities where they had branches of their organization:

“A town or city exists on nothing. Its backbone is either the minerals of the earth or the vegetation of the fields. Either manufacturing or farming, and in both cases handling and distribution play an important part. In cases of seaport towns and big railroad centers, distribution of goods of all kinds is an industry in itself, Where are our big thinkers who are laying an industrial foundation to save us from economic starvation? We have none.”

In addition to the black Socialists, who would have none of this, there were the whites that also became alarmed by her husband’s separatist views and his growing influence in black communities nationwide.

Writes Parascandola, “Under fire from all of these groups, particularly after Garvey’s meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 to discuss matters of racial separation, the movement began to collapse. Garvey came under indictment on charges of mail fraud involving the Black Star Line stock in 1922, was convicted in 1923, imprisoned in 1925, and was eventually deported in 1927. It was during this turbulent time that Amy Jacques Garvey became involved in UNIA and the Negro World,” the weekly newspaper that Marcus Garvey founded in America, in addition to the Black Star Steamship Line, restaurants, laundries, a hotel, a printing press and a doll factory.

Amy Garvey met her husband in 1919 and became his personal secretary. She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a middle-class family, was mixed race and well educated at an elite Jamaican school. She moved to New York City in 1917, and, despite her own racially mixed background, quickly came under Garvey’s idea that “God had deliberately created the races differently and intended them to be separated.

She was put in charge of the Woman’s Pages of the Negro World, but what she wrote was not something I would have read in most woman pages in newspapers and magazines across the country during this period, no matter what the color or creed.

First, the entire newspaper was printed in Spanish, English and French, reflecting a worldview. Second, her essays, editorials and occasion short fiction reflected this worldview. You have already read some of her thoughts on the virtue of Capitalism, which showed us an excellent grasp of large-scale production and distribution of goods. In addition, she also had a firm grasp of international issues.

Amy J. Garvey commented on events happening in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, even predicting that one day the “Yellowman,” as it were, will one day rule the earth.

She also kept a sharp eye on Gandhi and applauded his efforts to end the practice of the English strategy of Divide and Conquer by telling Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jainists, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and pockets of Christians and Jews, that in the end, they were all Indians and that the English should go back to where they came from.

Amy Garvey was also a strong feminist. Here is a excerpt from one of her essays on the subject: “There is nothing more significant in the life of mankind than the gradual emancipation of woman from her dependence upon man and the giving to her a decisive voice in her relations to man in the family.”   

She goes on in the same article to praise Mustapha Kemal, who had just liberated Turkey from centuries of rule by Islamic Sultans, “for a more honorable place for woman.” As for America, she predicted that in a “few decades I would not be surprised to see a woman President.”  

This obviously didn’t happen, as well as quite a few of her other predictions. Nevertheless, this was a person with an excellent mind who didn’t mine using it. Editor Parascandola noted that although she was a prolific writer and original thinker, she has been grossly overlooked by history.

Most of the reason, he writes, is because “she often deflected attention from herself to her husband,” Marcus Garvey.

Hopefully, this historic book will finally give her, her due.

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Some Go Hungry

By J. Patrick Redmond

Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic Books | 2016 | 226 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

book jacket

Some Go Hungry by J. Patrick Redmond has the distinction of being three things at once.

First and foremost, it’s a fine debut novel by a greatly talented young author.

Second:  It is a cutting-edge novel that presents a Prodigal Son Returns motif that’s derived from the conflicts, tensions, and dangers between small-town Midwestern social norms and the protagonist’s efforts to navigate that milieu.

Third: Some Go Hungry is a literary novel that’s rooted in the traditions of naturalism and realism, and from its title to its content it harkens back to two other novels with Midwestern settings and bold narrative explorations,Some Must Watch by Edwin Daly and Some Came Running by James Jones.     Before highlighting the superb qualities that make J. Patrick Redmond’s debut novel as good as it is, it’s important to highlight some back-story about the third main point. There’s some marvelous connective tissue here.

Quickly, a brief digression:In downstate Illinois throughout the 1950s, legendary novelist James “From Here to Eternity” Jones and his mentor, Lowney Handy (a childless, older, married woman, whose sponsorship and support of Jones from 1944 to 1950, allowed him to write his exceedingly ambitious, National Book Award-winning From Here to Eternity.) She ran a countercultural writers’ group, locally known as The Colony. James Jones financed the venture. It was incorporated as the Handy Writers’ Colony. At its peak, it harbored more than twenty aspiring authors. The Colony was a short-lived yet trailblazing experiment (a truly countercultural realm before Haight-Ashbury and infinitely more serious than any Beat-related shenanigans). What does any of that have to do with Redmond’s Some Go Hungry?

Plenty. Because the hallmark of the bulk of the writing done at the Handy Writers’ Colony in the 1950s was serious fiction (the novel being the Holy Grail), with a strong emphasis on truth-telling in relation to sex, all types of relationships, and most of all the struggle of individuals to prevail against mainstream prejudices.

Example: When Edwin “Sonny” Daly’s novel Some Must Watch was completed at The Colony and then published by Scribner’s in New York in 1957 (the same prestigious publishing house that published Hemingway, Fitzgerald, James Jones and so many others), it was noted by critics to be a startling debut for an author then barely 20 years old; and his theme of incorrigible parent-son acrimony dovetailed with the popularity of James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause.

One year later, in January 1958, James Jones’s second published novel—Some Came Running—offered up a magnum opus of a narrative, within which Jones sought to anatomize a macrocosmic array of small-town Midwestern characters and patterns by dramatizing, in microcosmic detail, one dozen lives of quiet postwar desperation.Now we have J. Patrick Redmond’s Some Go Hungry, which confronts a slew of contemporary issues and intimate human problems with intelligence and grace.

In essence, Some Go Hungry is the story of Grey Daniels, a gay man raised in Southern Indiana (as was J. Patrick Redmond), who returns to Vincennes to help manage his family’s restaurant business (which the author in fact did). Though the novel is rooted in autobiographical material, it is not a memoir. 

Tension abounds and much recent social history is deftly woven into the fabric of the narrative. It is to Redmond’s credit that his novel never veers into melodrama.

It’s also admirable that while the story induces recollections of Matthew Shepard and his awful fate (the homicidal gay-bashing that led to Shepard’s brutal death in 1998 has been chronicled in a film and also in the play The Laramie Project), it finds its own way to memorialize a high school classmate of Redmond’s, who was presumed to be gay and whose murder back in the mid-1980s remains unsolved.

Much of this novel is dialogue-driven, and yet its most powerful passages are often those that shine a light on that which is not said. In the Midwest, silence is telling.

Inevitably, overlapping themes of hypocrisy and fear and bigotry and contempt infiltrate the story’s architecture. Some Go Hungry reminds us of how dangerous it is in a traditional small-town in the so-called Heartland to be different. Remember: the Midwest is a vast portion of the United States, ranging from Western Iowa to Northern Wisconsin, and all across Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska, and beyond.

In this narrative, the realistic social structure is utterly intact and to a large degree unimpeachable: that is, the homophobic, Bible-clinging, God fearing archetypes who populate the town and cheer on a local youth pastor for his hellfire-and-brimstone, anti-gay sermons are the same folksy neighbors filling up the narrator’s family’s restaurant on Sunday afternoons (and just about every other day of the week).

Of course that local youth pastor has skeletons in his closet – like the fact that he and the narrator had their adolescent sexual awakenings with each other in their teens. Redmond dramatizes with brilliant restraint how surreal it is for the narrator to sit in a pew and be silent as the youth pastor now rails against “deviant” lifestyles.

Fortunately, that restraint on the part of the author sustains the book. Some Go Hungry is not a novel merely of interest for the LGBT demographic. It is, indeed, a novel for all readers who believe in the healing power of words. 

The capstone issue here is that Some Go Hungry has been published under the banner of Kaylie Jones Books (an imprint of Akashic Books in New York City). And, yes, author and publisher Kaylie Jones is the daughter of James “From Here to Eternity” Jones. Her decision to publish J. Patrick Redmond’s thought-provoking novel would doubtless please both her father and his maverick ally, Lowney Handy.

M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to Neworld Review.

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Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day

By Joel Selvin

Harper Collins | 2016 | 358 pages

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Joel Selvin

Sixties Memories Won’t Fade Away

Rock critic Joel Selvin says he didn’t go to Altamont in 1969—the denouement of the Rolling Stones’ month-long tour of America that has been mythologized as a generational milestone.

I was there, and I’m not sure if it was a milestone.

Does Selvin’s depiction of the frenzied day and night of rock music match my memory of it? No, it doesn’t.

The question is: does Selvin get the story right in his Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day?

I think he mostly does, but the very title augurs the grandiosity with which so many baby-boomers regard their teenage years. Those of us who were born after World War II and roughly before the affable yet now nearly forgotten hero Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, were beneficiaries of the greatest period of general prosperity the country has ever known.

One could argue that period led directly to the carefree counterculture that was just around the corner. If you can remember the beloved Ike puttering around a golf course or christening a battleship, you might also remember the decade that followed—although the mantra goes: if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t really there.

Selvin covered the rock scene for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1970 into the new millennium and he can throw together a character sketch of Bobby Weir, Tom Donahue, Grace Slick or Bill Graham without batting an eye. Maybe more important he cannot only tell you the history of LSD (at one time mass produced by the grandson of a U.S. Senator, chemistry wizard Owsley Stanley), STP, speed, peyote and mescaline, but can give you a Google-map view of where they were first manufactured and spread out from the Bay, beyond the Golden State, and into the greater population of the people now nervously monitoring their IRA accounts and assessing the viability of reverse mortgages. My contemporaries.

This is all-important because Selvin weaves into his story snippets of philosophy about such things as “evolution of consciousness” and pronouncements like “the dream never died” that I’ll get back to later.

By elevating Altamont to epochal status he sets a formidable task for himself. For him, the botched free concert changed the game in the already tail-spinning world of the 1960s. It shut the door on whatever dreams there were of love, peace and understanding—if that was, in fact, what the era was all about. But he may have extended his metaphor too far. In fact, in a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007, he already made it clear that when the fabled Summer of Love flowered in San Francisco in 1967 “the party was already over.”

So what was Altamont? In the fall of 1969 the Rolling Stones, who after the implosion of the Beatles a year before, became the premier rock and roll band, launched a 24-show tour of the United States. They had recently fired the band’s founder Brian Jones (who subsequently died that summer) and replaced him with ace guitarist Mick Taylor, who was then too young to walk into a bar. The rest of the band members were in their early 20s. A couple were fathers.

Before the Stones tour, set to begin November 7, in August, the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, was thought to be a success despite many planning mishaps, and has since been idealized as a love fest.

The Stones didn’t play Woodstock because front man Mick Jagger was in Australia making a movie.

In the meantime, Jerry Garcia and his Grateful Dead band were planning a West Coast response to Woodstock in Golden Gate Park. But the city refused them permits. They’d have to find another location. Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully persuaded Keith Richards to come on board to boost the profile of the event. In Selvin’s telling, the Stones tour had been a smash hit, but tickets were the highest yet for a rock concert, topping out at $8.50—pre-scalping days. Writers such as the widely respected Ralph Gleason were dubbing the Stones the greed-masters of rock. Not cool. “They couldn’t be seen as doing it for the money,” Selvin says.

So they signed on for the free concert—automatically making them the headliners. It would be December 6, at the end of their tour. But it was a concert without a venue.

The Grateful Dead suggested Sears Point Raceway, an hour up the coast near their Sonoma Valley getaway. This also hit a snag. The Stones wanted to tie the project in, along with their tour, to a documentary film brothers Albert and David Maysles were making about them, and they wanted control over distribution of the ultimate film, as well as the lion’s share of the profits.

Super attorney Melvin Belli was brought into the deal. As it turned out Filmways owned a piece of Sears Point and would only allow for use of the venue if it could control distribution of the film. The Stones wouldn’t have it.

As the momentum grew a disparate collection of bands, groupies, hustlers and interlopers frantically searched for a venue.  Altamont was a lesser raceway east of San Francisco with inadequate parking and minimal comfort facilities. The owner offered it for free for publicity for his track, which he thought would lead to lucrative future bookings. Everybody wanted to be the next Bill Graham.

By this point the concert was just a few days away and there was no time to shop around for a setting. Altamont it was. Technicians worked around the clock to set up the stage and sound system. The stage, it turned out, would be only a foot off the ground. (This would be one of the more calamitous of a series of blunders.)

The audience would fan out from the stage up to the lip of the bowl formed by close hillsides. To keep fans from rushing the stage the Hells Angels motorcycle gang—Cro-Magnons and misogynistic bullies—would occupy a fan-free zone between the stage and the audience. The pay for their “security” services: $500 worth of beer.

Selvin does a masterful job of building the suspense of the story, weaving in the characters and the disputes that led to catastrophe late into the night of December 6 (It spilled into Pearl Harbor Day). He also gives ample evidence of the callousness and naiveté of the stars of the show. Mick Jagger approved of use of Grateful Dead pals the Hells Angels for security because he didn’t want any real police on site. And he had his way. The understaffed local police did no more than haplessly monitor traffic far outside the raceway.

By Selvin’s account it was never clear who was in charge of the festival-concert. A wily character by the name of Jon Jaymes squeezed into the Stones inner circle and brought in limousine drivers and engineered much of the haphazard planning. The Grateful Dead, meanwhile, moved into the background, and in the end declined to perform. And anyway they had a gig in San Francisco that night. Sam Cutler of the Stones managed most of the stagecraft and emceed the event.

This was primarily a gathering of hippies from the Bay area supervised by a motorcycle gang with roots in Oakland. It was a mostly white event, which is significant to the outcome, and for what the event is mostly remembered for: the killing of a young black man, Meredith Hunter. Hunter and his white girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, got to Altamont early in the day and secured a spot not far from the stage, close to the Hells Angels barrier. The motorcyclists had their eyes on the flashily dressed black man and his young white girlfriend throughout the concert.

Cars began jamming into the available parking at the site hours before the concert was to begin, and hundreds were left stacked along the narrow highway. Early birds scrambled for patches of ground as near to the stage as they could get without being swatted away with pool cue stick-wielding Hells Angels.

Selvin brings readers right onto the stage and the nearby audience through extensive interviews with key players. Because the bikers became increasingly drunk and drugged (LSD-STP-laced fruit punch was circulating throughout the crowd), there was chaos on and near the stage. At one point Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was coldcocked by a biker who didn’t like the way he looked at him. Audience members were apparently so juiced up on acid and other chemicals that some were stripping off their clothes and attempting to rush onto the low-level stage. Overdoses were mounting, and a small emergency medical team was frantically overburdened.

The three friends I had driven to the concert and we were perched on a hillside too far from the stage to see much of the action, and I avoided taking any drugs because I was the designated driver. I think I shared one joint and a bottle of wine the whole day and night. I can’t remember what I ate. As Selvin says, there were hardly any food or drink concessions; it was mainly a big potluck: of mind-altering drugs.

What we could tell from our vantage point was that the concert seemed disorganized. There weren’t enough porta potties, not enough water. Things weren’t right on stage. The Jefferson Airplane played, Santana played. Hours went by before the main act came to the stage. Finally, the Stones led off with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” During his set Jagger stopped mid-song—was it “Midnight Rambler” or “Street Fighting Man” (two sure crowd calmers)?—and yelled out “Hey people! Sisters, brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters. Come on now. That means everybody, just cool out. Will you cool out, everybody?”  Something was wrong, but we didn’t know what it was. We didn’t know someone was being murdered in front of the world’s most famous rock band.

The Maysles brothers captured it on film. Meredith Hunter had either looked at him the wrong way, or rushed the stage, or pulled out a gun that he had brought along, and Alan Passaro, a Hells Angel from San Jose stabbed him repeatedly with a knife. His friends then took turns stomping the young man into ground. By Selvin’s account—and the film and eyewitnesses bear this out—Jagger and his band mates paused momentarily while this mayhem unfolded, and “had no idea they had just witnessed the killing.”

One of the incidental characters running through Selvin’s book, Paul Cox—he would later testify for the prosecution in court against Passaro and be lacerated by his defense attorney—ran to help Hunter. An Angel (the irony of the biker club’s name was fully illuminated that day) blocked his way, shouting “Don’t touch him. He’s going to die anyway.”

Hunter was taken to a makeshift medical tent and Richard Fine, one of the doctors who valiantly volunteered that day, rushed to locate a helicopter to take him to a hospital. When he found one, he was told that it was reserved for the Stones and he couldn’t use it. So he waited for an ambulance. It was too late for Hunter. He died in the tent. But the Stones did catch their helicopter ride minutes later—ascending into the sky just miles from their hotel in San Francisco and, despite a rocky end to their U.S. tour, into the firmament of rock and roll beatification.

Selvin does a skillful job of pulling the pieces of the story together, even if the writing itself sometimes falls short, as in such passages as this reference to the Grateful Dead after the Altamont debacle: “Their camaraderie with the Angels was destroyed. The band’s brush with the big time left them scorched. After much discussion and soul searching, they came together. They were determined to move through the darkness.”

One muddles through passages like this and just wants to get back to the story.

As it turns out the Stones were to find out about what went on in front of them on TV in their room in San Francisco that night. When they saw the report of Hunter’s death, Keith Richards apparently called the Angels “homicidal maniacs,” who “should be thrown in jail.” Selvin says the band was “stunned and traumatized.” This may have been the description of their reaction to the unedited version of “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles film that they saw weeks later.

But the impresario Bill Graham said on the radio that the “blame lay almost exclusively with the Stones” for the outcome of Altamont. Selvin, however, says “the Stones never signed any documents that would tie the band to the concert.” They were absolved of any culpability.

But they drove the vehicle from start to finish. For them, it was all about the money and the desire for what Selvin calls “a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.” Selvin is prone to such hyperbole.

As for Alan Passaro, the Hells Angeles bought him one of the top lawyers in San Francisco, George Walker, who cherry-picked a jury of older white men who hated hippies. And although Walker was black, he also ousted prospective black jurors. Paul Cox, the star prosecution witness, who was afraid to testify, was annihilated by Walker. And the jurors were made to watch the Maysles clip so many times that it lost its impact on them. The jury’s finding: Pissaro acted in self defense.

In the end Altamont, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, “was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.”

But was it something more than that? Selvin says “in a single day, the innocence of a generation was shattered.”

I don’t think so.

My friends and I found my dusty old VW bug in the early morning of December 7, tired, but glad to have seen the Stones, albeit from a distance, and drove back to Sonoma State, where I had to write a paper on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for a class the next day. I doubted that I would go to another free concert.

Selvin seems conflicted over Altamont’s ultimate effect on the Sixties. On the one hand, he says “the innocence of a generation was shattered.” Yet he says, “it wasn’t the end of the Sixties in some definitive, apocalyptic way as it is so often portrayed.”

“All the ideas and aspirations for the evolution of consciousness that were at the heart of the movement still remain,” he argues. “That dream never died.” Maybe.

Historian C. Vann Woodward said “Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, its general superiority.”  This is no truer than in the way people of the sixties persist in maintaining their specialness. And everyone has a Sixties they remember.

Maybe those memories are something like these:

Everyone has a Sixties they cherish. And those who have more yesterdays than tomorrows like to think of their youth as special.

As for the music, what writer Selvin likes to call the spirit of the Sixties was never found in the lyrics of the Rolling Stones, at least not the spirit of love and brotherhood that Selvin likes to remember. If anywhere it may have been found in the Youngblood’s “Get Together”:

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

Did we ever get together? Nearly half a century later some would say we are more fragmented than we would like to be. During this election season, the ubiquitous public opinion polls tell us that it’s not about getting together anymore, it’s about getting ahead or getting even. We are a divided nation. An ugly new tribalism is afoot.

As for peace, love and understanding: it’s a bitter tonic to have to admit that maybe you weren’t so special after all.

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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

Heliotrope Books | 2016 | 418 pages

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Matthew Desmond

Our Worst Shame

If you’ve ever received a shut-off notice or rearranged your finances to pay your rent (desperately calculating how you can pay for food, electricity, garbage, Internet, etc. over the next month) then this book is for you. If you’ve gone to a foodbank, as a client or as a volunteer, this book is for you. If you’re following the election this year and interested in the minimum wage being raised or how race will play out with regards to the proposal of “building a wall,” well then, this book is also for you. This book is simply remarkable.

Matthew Desmond, a sociologist, spent over a year living in the poorest areas of Milwaukee, tracking eight families. Part of the time, he spent in a mostly black area of town known for violence and poor housing; the rest of the time he spent in one of the worst trailer parks in the city.

His work extends to looking at landlords and the crews set up to get rid of renters’ stuff after they have left. The housing situation he describes is beyond deplorable. In the mostly-black neighborhood, renters hardly get what they pay for.

Desmond describes houses that are literally falling apart, decrepit, and sometimes not up to code. In spite of these conditions, people seem pleased to have apartments at all. Even the shabbiest apartments get treated with care and excitement when the renters first move in. He describes the feeling of hope and possibility inherent in moving into a new place. However, Desmond proves that if loving even the worst housing is not hard, then staying in housing can be extremely difficult, hence the name of the book: Eviction.

Take the case of Arleen. A single mom, she has two boys to care for, a fiercely loyal older son and a special-needs younger boy. She moved so many times that I lost track. Her evictions are caused by horseplay from her son and by not having enough money to pay rent.

Sometimes it just seems that getting kicked out falls under the category of bad luck. She actually is somewhat friendly with her landlady, Sherrena, a black woman, who is also portrayed as a decent, though tough, person.

Desmond follows some of the renters to court, where the rules are confusing and seem rigged to benefit landlords. Arleen eventually ends up in a shelter. In spite of her troubles, Arleen is a positive woman, always looking forward, with an ability to laugh at herself. Yes, she could get angry, but she’s also portrayed as a woman of generosity. For part of the time, she becomes friends with a woman who after years of abuse seems so fragile and is constantly moving from foster home to foster home. Although at first it seems like a match made in heaven, eventually the two women explode under the weight of their heavy conditions.

Violence is a constant in the lives of Desmond’s portrayals. Domestic abuse is certainly a reason why the women get evicted. Similarly, landlords sometimes evict tenants because of minor infractions caused by their children. Discrimination is also a constant. Two black women are rejected from housing for no apparent reason, whereas, when he—a white male—pretends to seek the same apartment, he is greeted with open arms.

The deplorable conditions that Desmond describes get spun in a vicious cycle. For example, one family—a mother and her grown daughters and grandchildren—call the landlord to get the plumbing fixed. But, then the landlord blames the plumbing situation on the tenants, saying they pushed things down the sink. So, the plumbing doesn’t get fixed, escalating the faulty plumbing and poor living conditions.

Desmond witnesses this again and again. Sometimes landlords agree to take off part of the rent for tenants who improve the property, but then they often come down hard on the work . For example, one man without legs painted parts of the property but still couldn’t pay the rent.

The situation in one of the poorest trailer parks in Milwaukee is equally bad. Scott, is a former nurse, who once had a nice apartment and a promising career ahead of him. Because of his addiction to heroin, he lived in a trailer park with an older man whom he looked after (his nursing, care-taking impulses continued as his situation deteriorated). 

Pam is a mother of several children who lives with a sometimes violent man. And, Larraine, is an older, ex-beauty, who sometimes “wastes” all her food stamps in one fell swoop to the consternation of her children and friends:

“When her food stamps kicked in, she went to the grocery store and bought two lobster tails, shrimp, king crab legs, salad, and lemon meringue pie. Bringing it all back to Baker’s trailer, she added Cajun seasoning on the crab legs and cooked the lobster tails in lemon butter at 350 degrees. She ate everything alone, in a single sitting, washing it down with Pepsi. The meal consumed her entire monthly allocation of food stamps…”

The argument goes, “if only she or he had more discipline they’d be able to save” or “why does the government pay for such excess?” (the lobster dinner).  But, after paying her rent, Larraine had $164 to last for the rest of the month. According to Desmond, “If Larraine somehow managed to save $50 a month, nearly one-third of her after-rent income, by the end of the year she would have $600 to show for it—enough to cover a single month’s rent.”

One can certainly sympathize and understand why Larraine would “blow” all her money on one meal.

The idea that tenants receiving food stamps or money from the government are “lazy” is dispelled repeatedly through the book. Desmond shows people industriously seeking housing and jobs, calling an absurd number of landlords and dealing with rejection with fortitude. I’m not saying that Desmond coats the reality of the people he interviews in a sugar-coated gloss; rather he shows them with all their warts, their anger, their amazement, their fear.

I sometimes wondered how he could “sit back” and observe some of the terrible scenes he witnessed—women who had become friends coming to blows, Pam, a woman who lives in the trailer park, leaving with her children, desperate to find housing….

Desmond addresses the process of being a sociologist in the back of this book, in “About This Project,” where he describes the bank taking his family home and, therefore, how necessary this project is.

He describes the shame he felt about getting his home taken away and one can see this deep understanding displayed throughout the book.

He describes how we need to unite to face the terrible housing problem in our country. He writes, “Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering—by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

I don’t think you can express it much stronger than that. We need to find a way to allow our children to sleep in housing that is affordable, safe, and constant.


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