The dust jacket of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, Nicholas Lemann’s masterful account of the black migration to the North in the 1940s, bears a handsome photograph. The picture shows five black children perched on a car parked on Chicago’s South Side. The car’s license plates tell us it is 1941. Smartly dressed in their Sunday best, sporting suits, ties, and fedora hats, the boys stare at the camera with a gaze that is slightly anxious but also radiant with determination.
Alex Kotlowitz describes a very different sort of photograph at the outset of There Are No Children Here, his heartbreaking study of how life in the ”promised land” has turned out for poor black families. Taken in 1985, the picture shows a 10-year-old Lafeyette Rivers, a resident of the Henry Horner Homes, one of Chicago’s roughest public housing projects: ”Lafeyette stood in a dark hallway of his building. He was wearing a striped tank top, baggy jeans, and a Kangol cap that was too big for him; his high-tops were untied. In his hands was what appeared to be a baseball. And yet, despite the youthful attire, he looked like an old man. There seemed bottled up inside him a lifetime’s worth of horrors.”
Between these two images lies nearly a half century of painful American history. The great migration that began with such high hopes in the 1940s has ended, for too many black families, in squalid housing projects like the Henry Horner Homes. Lemann and Kotlowitz’s books take the still unresolved issue of black America dramatized by these pictures and make it vivid.
Even though Lemann’s study follows a number of black families in their migration from Clarksdale, Miss., to Chicago, his best chapter describes the policy debates in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s. After the market for unskilled labor had shriveled in cities like Chicago, a growing number of urban blacks were left in even more wretched straits than their sharecropping forebears. At this point the federal government, under Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, decided to declare a ”war on poverty” by enacting both civil rights and antipoverty legislation. But, as Lemann so persuasively shows, the war on poverty was ”tenuous” at best. Federal programs left the poorest inner-city blacks untouched — a failure still used as an excuse for political inaction.
The human cost of such inaction is unforgettably illustrated in Kotlowitz’s book. He recounts just two years in the life of one family, but he is able to make the reader feel the horror of the ghetto by showing its effect on two young boys: Lafeyette Rivers, a decent but troubled child, and his younger brother Pharoah, a buoyant and bright boy.
One small but typical vignette suggests some of the book’s flavor. When Pharoah comes home after school one spring day, he discovers that his mother has somehow found the money to throw him a surprise birthday party — the first birthday party he has ever had. In the midst of eating hot dogs and dancing with his friends, Pharoah’s neighbor runs in and tells everyone to duck — an altercation between drug dealers in the building is about to erupt in shooting. The kids shrug, crouch, and wait — this happens all the time. When they return to partying, a loud thud stops them again. Earlier that day, a relative of Pharoah’s mother had staggered into the apartment and passed out. During the party the man had tried to get up to go the bathroom but hadn’t made it: ”He lay face down, urine seeping through his blue jeans onto the linoleum floor.” Undaunted, Pharoah and his cousin decide to play outside: ”As they walked out the building’s back door, they stopped. A teenage girl stood there vomiting.”
This is scarcely the most shocking episode in a book filled with robberies, rapes, shootings, stabbings, drug overdoses, murders — and several encounters with the sorts of state welfare and law enforcement officials who would have done Torquemada proud. As Lemann concludes, alluding to similar evidence in his own book, ”to be born into a ghetto is to be consigned to a fate that no American should have to suffer. The more clearly we can be made to see that and to understand the causes of the situation, the less likely it is that we will let it stand.” After finishing Kotlowitz’s deeply disturbing report, one can only hope that Lemann is right. The Promised Land: A- There Are No Children Here: A+