Two views of growing up black in America

April 28, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson

Early on in Alex Kotlowitz's "There Are No Children Here (Doubleday, 324 pages, $21.95) is a scene that illustrates the chasm separating America's haves from its have-nots.

The brothers featured in this book are playing with some friends in a vacant lot in Chicago. They spot an approaching commuter train and take cover. Rumor has it that commuters shoot at neighborhood children found trespassing on the tracks. Meanwhile, on the train, commuters are afraid to sit by the windows. Their grapevine says the neighborhood children are snipers.

Such is life in contemporary America.

Mr. Kotlowitz's book is subtitled "The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America." Those last three words are heartbreakingly true. Pharoah and Lafeyette Rivers, two brothers growing up in the Henry Horner Homes, a 34-acre public housing project in Chicago, are indeed living in the "other America."

It is a distressing, oppressive and spiritually debilitating world where "the black scorching of fires, recent and old, surrounds empty and boarded-up window frames, which look like the blackened eyes of a defeated boxer," and obtaining a high school diploma is a near-miracle.

Though they live a short bus ride from Chicago's famed Loop, they may as well live on another planet. In their America, the "death train" stops regularly, often violently, and carries away the innocent as well as those employed by the violent, drug-dealing gangs that battle over turf. For these children, death is no stranger. They attend "more funerals than weddings." And, because violence and stray bullets are such an integral part of their lives, their mother buys them burial insurance.

For them, the violence and tension are unnerving. They are scarred. At one point Pharoah, who loves school, is so disturbed by it all that his minor stutter becomes virtually uncontrollable. His brother, Lafeyette, turns inward to search for some meaning in his world.

This book, which grew out of a series of articles Mr. Kotlowitz wrote for the Wall Street Journal, provides a deeply compassionate, yet unflinching look into the other America. In a sense, it is a call to action. But there is no preaching here. Mr. Kotlowitz doesn't have to: Seeing this world up close and through the eyes of these children, their family and friends is enough.

It is well-nigh impossible to imagine reading this book without being at once amazed and inspired by the perseverance and hope of those who live in Henry Horner Homes, and at the same time ashamed and appalled that this "other America" exists and entraps so many.

Though the "other America" may be separate, Mr. Kotlowitz has shown that its existence cannot and must not be denied.

Here is Pharoah, 11 years old, talking of his fears: "I worry about dying, dying at a young age, while you're little. I'll be thinking about I want to get out of the [pro]jects. I want to get out. It ain't no joke when you die."

Lorene Cary's "Black Ice" (Knopf, 238 pages, $20) provides a different glimpse of America. This finely written personal memoir of adolescence recounts Ms. Cary's two-year enrollment at St. Paul's School, a private prep school in Concord, N.H. Her story begins in 1971 when, as a young girl in Philadelphia, she learns that the former all-male school is undertaking two experiments: It is going coed and it is integrating.

For Ms. Cary, who returned to the school as an instructor and later as a member of the board of directors, the experience was twofold. There is her struggle to come to terms with herself as an FTC African-American in a school that has little knowledge of her people.

"What did they know about me? About how it felt to be trapped in a world of wealth? What did he [the school rector] know about being trotted out for visitors who spoke to me as a sociological curiosity?" Anyone who has been through this experience knows Ms. Cary speaks the truth.

But "Black Ice" is more than just a tale of race relations at an exclusive prep school. It is also a wonderfully told reminiscence of self-discovery and the universal journey through adolescence. For Ms. Cary, as for all of us, it is a period of a peculiar estrangement, of awkward growing pains, of first love and betrayal, of newness.

As she explores her new world, she finds that white students also are grappling with some of the same problems confronting her.

In one instance, she and a fellow student break through their barriers and defenses and find common ground. In Ms. Cary's words, it was a ". . . triumph of love over race."

In another scene, Ms. Cary points out her own failings. After befriending a Japanese girl at the school and marveling at the girl's basketball skills, she realizes that she has her own set of misconceptions: "I felt ashamed for having thought of her as a geisha girl. I had done to her what I suspected white people did to me."

At turns funny and illuminating, "Black Ice" is graced by a sense of honesty and an understanding that the task of knowing oneself is never done.

"I wondered whether 'crossover' was the word I wanted. Did it convey enough tension? Or did it sound like dying a cultural death into a choir of black preppies. . . . I wanted an image of wholeness, inclusion, moving circles that come together, overlap, drift apart."

Mr. Thompson is a reporter for The Sun.

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