The 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.