Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men – Elliot Liebow

thecornerThe first edition of Tally’s Corner, a sociological classic selling more than one million copies, was the first compelling response to the culture of poverty thesis-that the poor are different and, according to conservatives, morally inferior-and alternative explanations that many African-Americans are caught in a tangle of pathology owing to the absence of black men in families. The debate has raged up to the present day. Yet Liebow’s shadow theory of values-especially the values of poor, urban, black men-remains the single most parsimonious account of the reasons why the behavior of the poor appears to be at odds with the values of the American mainstream.

While Elliot Liebow’s vivid narrative of “street-corner” black men remains unchanged, the new introductions to this long-awaited revised edition bring the book up to date. Wilson and Lemert describe the debates since 1965 and situate Liebow’s classic text in respect to current theories of urban poverty and race. They account for what Liebow might have seen had he studied the street corner today after welfare has been virtually ended and the drug economy had taken its toll. They also take stock of how the new global economy is a source of added strain on the urban poor. Discussion of field methods since the 1960s rounds out the book’s new coverage.

I first became aware of this book through reading the excellent The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood; which would eventually form the bedrock of so many storylines in The Wire.  In many ways that book is the perfect follow-up to Tally’s Corner, which in itself is a dynamic study of relationships in poorer neighbourhoods and their place in wider society.

This seminal work focuses on a cross-section of a Washington DC street corner society (poor African-American men who work only intermittently if at all) and the local environs.  It gives the reader a glimpse into a different world, where the choices both men and women make have come about through the struggle against poverty through generations. It’s a world where different rules apply exclusively to them no matter how absurd some will appear to outsiders.

It is thus, a book that rewards reading and learning not so much with pleasure as with the painful recognition that American race troubles remain so stubbornly at the center of social and economic life.

The above quote underlines the lack of understanding still prevailing all these years on, or perhaps the lack of interest in solving the problems that affect us all in some way.  Focussing on the men – who pass mostly under the radar – and their relationships – both work and family – the reader is given an intimate portrait into the life of the time. The cast is fairly sizeable and diverse and all the stories are equally fascinating of challenging in different ways.

Their vulnerabilities are made clear and are shown throughout the book, there is a different and understandable mindset, that is accepted and makes sense to that community.  Stemming from complex psychology and backed up with the statistics of the time; as well as anecdotes of childhood experiences and the consequential adult fears when looking at other societal groups, the reader will frequently ask if these people ever stood much of a chance?

Liebow, a white man who tried to be just an observer but as with others in such a position he couldn’t (understandably) always remain impartial all of the time.  Towards the end of the book he freely talks about how he felt in certain situations, the times when it was morally right to step in whilst at other times to avoid situations for his own safety and for the fairness of the project. He shows the lives in detail as they are, often tragic with a few lighter moments but full of complex built up defences that means success can never be attainable.

These are problems not solved today, the addition of drugs (see The Wire and The Corner, just down the road from Tally’s Corner in Baltimore) has seen the situation become even more challenging to reverse; the well of hopelessness is there for all to see.  This book is utterly compelling and fair-minded, a must read for anybody interested in understanding those that are so often marginalised.  That the book remains so essential today is a startling statement on society and its aims.

 What is lacking is not know-how and programs but a clarity of purpose, of motive, and of intention.









12 Replies to “Tally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men – Elliot Liebow”

  1. Very, very fascinating topic. A month or so back, either Jenny or Teresa (it’s a shared website) at shelflove.wordpress.com wrote a piece on another thing that might interest you, sort of the flip side of the coin, called “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide” by Carol (I think the last name is) Anderson. Sorry about the uncertainty; my handwriting is so bad that if I scribble a note down even for myself, I have to look at it again soon or I forget what it said. Anyway, the book is about all the not-so-obvious-to-white-people-but-very obvious-to-black-people ways in which prejudice in the system, rigged to value whites over blacks, work. I was telling my mom about this book, and she seemed to think that the author had been interviewed by the women on a very popular show on daytime tv in the States, “The View.” Whoopi Goldberg is a regular, just to give you a sense of the caliber of the talent involved. There’s also a very talented debater named Joy Behar on there, whom I hadn’t known before I saw the show. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the show is that there are about 5-7 different regulars from all different perspectives politically. Mom and I of course root for Whoopi and Joy because they are the most liberal, and we love to see them win arguments over some of the (we think) daffy things the more conservative women say. Anyway, it’s a provocative and central topic right now even more than ever, with the conservatives making such headway against us in D.C.


    1. Interesting you should mention tat book as I watched a documentary last night which opened my eyes to the subtle tactics employed by US politicians to demonise the black community, you may have heard of it, it’s called 13th. I will head over and check that book out later, its always good to learn more about a topic and the ways people are manipulated by politician and business looking to profit from such a situation. We have something similar to The View called Loose Women, sadly our version is embarrassingly shallow and dull.


    1. It really underlines how far we still need to go. With all the improvements since the 60’s in general, it is crazy to think of these yawning gaps in policy that still leave people behind.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Progress is a term that changes its goalposts every so often, at least we can educate ourselves to the problems and hopefully the world will one day truly want to sort out its problems and inequalities.


  2. I see you’ve finished Tally’s Corner, while I still have 80+ pages left of White Trash. This book looks like it could be a really great complement to White Trash, so I will be asking the library to buy a copy of this book. It’s a little depressing to see how slow progress is made, but I think the first major hurdle is educating yourself and others on the problems.

    Did you take issue with Liebow, a white man, writing this book on African Americans?


    1. Education is the thing, school curriculums would benefit from books such as these. Teach people young and it will start to get through to them. Of course that all depends on what government thinks is to the benefit of the population which is usually learning by rote to make sure the test scores are good so they can tell the voters.

      I didn’t have an issue with the author being white, at the time I assume there were more white people in such positions so it would have been natural for that to be the way of it. His notes on how that affected his standing with the local residents is an interesting read, they both relied on him but were wary of him as well.


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