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Isay, David. OUR AMERICA, Scribner, 1997  

From Subject
"Douglas S. Phelan" <dsphela@ILSTU.EDU> Review: OUR AMERICA (Phelan)

Date: Tue, 21 Apr 1998 09:34:21 -0500 
From: "Douglas S. Phelan" <dsphela@ODIN.CMP.ILSTU.EDU> 
Subject: Review: OUR AMERICA (Phelan) 

Isay, David. OUR AMERICA, Scribner, 1997
Review by: Doug Phelan E-mail: dsphela@ilstu.edu

Imagine waking up one morning and looking around your apartment only to find it rat infested and dilapidated. You step outside, preparing to walk to your friends house, but stop, fearful of walking through the open field between your house and your friends, wondering if there might be another shooting. A lot of people have been shot in that field, but you go ahead, crossing the field as if it were Vietnam with snipers in the distance. David Isay, with the help of two young black boys, attempts to be the voice of young children growing up in poverty with his book OUR AMERICA. The boys, LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, recorded their story on a tape recorder while Isay edited the tapes to create this book as well as an award winning documentary about life in the ghetto.

The conditions of the ghettos have been deteriorating steadily the last twenty-five years. Manufacturing jobs have left these areas, hurting the most disadvantaged citizens even more. Projects like the Ida B. Wells have become more and more isolated from the outside world, as well as becoming more impoverished and dangerous. These communities are sealed behind invisible walls, living stacked up on top of each other inside wire mesh and boarded up windows. LeAlan and Lloyd constantly make an analogy between the projects and Vietnam, living in a war zone. How many veterans returned home from Vietnam with psychological effects of the hell they had just been through? This hell exist in the isolated projects, and the residents are fighting similar conditions which creates psychological damage. LeAlan’s last words were "I hope I survive. I hope I survive. I hope I survive. Signing off. Peace." He was a senior, preparing to graduate and go on to college. His best friend, Lloyd, was not as lucky. He had failed a grade, and was a junior. You could feel his chances of surviving diminish.

Children growing up in the projects are forced to learn everything your not suppose to learn in order to survive. Kids in kindergarten can talk about intercourse, drugs and death as well as some adults. They live in conditions repeatedly described as Vietnam, analogies are made of abandoned houses looking like a scud missile had struck it. Half of the apartments at Ida Bees are boarded up, bums, graffiti, drugs and gunshots make up the environment in LeAlan and Lloyds neighborhood. At the time LeAlan and Lloyd began taping their experiences, they were just finishing Donoghue Elementary Grade School. The principle of the grade school must face these children knowing that many will not live to graduate. The principle herself faces dangerous conditions everyday at her school, and the age of the violent students can be anywhere from 6 years old and up. The conditions are self-destructive, the deck is stacked against the children as soon as they are born. White America has hidden away these people, and turned their back.

The conditions of the projects has created an environment of hate. As LeAlan stated, "if a white man comes into the projects, he won’t have to touch them, his associates will take care of that. That’s the enjoyment of the projects." There is a resentment against the people from the suburbs, as apparent by the times LeAlan and Lloyd would sit on the bridge over Lake Shore Drive and hurl rocks at the cars. The people might stop their cars, but they won’t chase us. They don’t have the heart to enter the projects. The bridge between the people living in the projects and those living in the suburbs is a long bridge, and not getting any closer. People from the projects view the suburban people as having grown up with a silver spoon. In comparison, one would certainly agree with this claim, but the suburbanites just simply keep driving by until the drive into their two car garage, kiss the wife and read the newspaper.

There was a time, before the high rise apartments that the projects were made up of single family homes. As LeAlan’s grandma recalls, the yards were beautifully kept, as were the houses. There was a sense of pride, but the high rise apartments took this pride away. It was the white mans answer to isolating the disadvantaged blacks, stacking them up on top of each other. Thousands of impoverishes families packed together, hidden away, satisfying the "responsibilities" of the white man. The impoverished families are still enslaved to the white mans system, just trying to survive.

Living in the projects creates a man which cannot expose any weaknesses, such as emotions. "Telling someone you love them is soft, and if your seen as soft in the projects its like a shark seeing blood." The messages Isay creates throughout this book are strong and sobering. looking at the ghetto through the eyes of a child must touch anyone who cares to expose themselves to reality. I admit I was fighting my desire to really know what the conditions are like, to know the conditions is to feel a responsibility to do something. Unfortunately, it takes a tragic event like the Eric Morse story to force politicians to respond to the conditions at projects like Ida B. Wells.

When it comes to dirt, politicians like to sweep it under a rug. Eventually the dirt pile grows until the rug cannot hide the dirt anymore. Eric Morse could not be hidden, and the event caught the attention of Jesse Jackson, Newt Gingrich, and President Clinton. All stated how things were going to change, but after everyone left, nothing changed. The Morse incident occurred in the worst part of the p[projects, the Wells as they are called. Most of the apartments are empty, creating a location where the most troubled youths could meet and have their way with no interference. Isay spends about half of the book covering the Morse tragedy. A five year old black youth refuses to steal candy from a store, and eventually loses his life over the refusal. Dropped from a fourteen story window of which the assailants were ten and eleven years old. This event summarizes the tragic conditions, and the battle that children face while growing up in the projects. The message is clear: the children have no hope. Some of these children survive to become adults, and often drink of do drugs to escape the reality that exist outside their door. Many black leaders speak of opportunity for black youths, but what good is it if they cannot even survive to enjoy these opportunities? Some black leaders feed off the feelings of these people living in the projects, condemning the conditions and criticizing programs such as scattered housing. William Simpson, an editor of the Park Forrest branch of the NAACP, is one such man. Surely Simpson, whom presumably lives in Park Forrest, does not desire the impoverished blacks to continue living in conditions such as the ones that exist in the Ida B. Wells projects. I would argue that there is not a black family living in the projects that would not want to take their family out of those conditions, and move to a scattered housing program. Lets forget the political motives to keeping the blacks together as a tool, and proceed with what is best for the black family, not the politician.
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