New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracyby Earl Shorris
A startling redefinition of poverty, and a bold proposal for conquering it by clearing the ancient path from the humanities to politics. The journey begins on the streets of North Lawndale in Chicago, where the author was born in the Depression and where he returns to measure the difference that half a century has wrought in the social and economic life of the 24th Ward, today more than ever a place of the most desperate poverty. New American Blues takes the reader into the private life of the poor: to Tulsa, where the mother of three little girls awaits the promised return of a man who tried to kill her with a chain saw; to the mountains of Tennessee, where a teenage girl, who lives in an abandoned house with no running water, goes to a movie theater for the first time in her life. Why do the poor have no political life, no public life now? What we discover is that the poor exist inside a surround of force, which prevents them from living the political life at any level: family, neighborhood, community, city, or nation. Was it ever different? Is there anything to be learned from these haunting vignettes? If the poor could rediscover their lost connection to society in its largest sense, the problem might cease to exist. This possibility, suggested to the author by a woman in a maximum-security prison, is the seed of the brave experiment in true democracy, in real education, that forms the last part of New American Blues. This is a beautiful and dangerous book. It can change our understanding of what it means to be poor, and also our understanding of what it means to be American. Sections of this book were featured in eight weekly installments of NPR's "Marketplace."
The result of traveling the country and viewing the worst of American poverty, this study offers views of often ignored impoverished areas (e.g., northern Florida, Jewish Brooklyn) as well as the heavily scrutinized inner city. Shorris coins a unique terminology to define and unite these disparate scenarioshe speaks of the "surround of force," the word "force" implying not violence, but the pressures (drugs, hunger, inadequate health care) that plague nearly all poor people. Furthermore, Shorris is careful to make the distinction between "relative" and "absolute" poverty, noting that American poverty is relative because, via the medium of television, poor Americans are able to see their nonimpoverished countrymen. Shorris's background in academics and philosophy (he was a teenage scholarship student at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s) is apparent, not only through his Aristotelian belief that a political life is the remedy for the problem at hand, but also in his thesis (put to the test in the so-called Clemente Course that he documents in the book's second half) that an education in the humanities could be the solution to multigenerational poverty. While it has become a bit of a truism that only education can truly help the poor, Shorris's innovation is in his emphasis on a liberal education on the order of the Chicago curriculum as he experienced it.
While Shorris chooses some curious enemies (for example, while approving of New Deal programs that put the poor to work, he criticizes President Clinton for supporting workfare) and shows his age with his inability to understand inner-city artistic forms like graffiti and hip-hop, he genuinely caresa characteristic noticeably lacking in many who claim to want to eliminate poverty.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 8.30(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.91(d)
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