The Children Are Dying
For years Ned O’Gorman, a white man, a poet, an essayist, has been working with Harlem’s young black children in a storefront nursery and children’s library he founded. He has already written two books about the nursery: The Wilderness and the Laurel Tree and The Storefront. This latest book, with its grim, admonitory title, is not meant to describe the further educational observations of an especially dedicated and honorable man. He is at this point in his life desperate, sad, enraged. He believes that isolated efforts such as his mean little in a world he comes close to writing off as a living hell, populated by an American lumpenproletariat:
The children who come to me are children who exist in a colonial “outpost” of the American empire. I have been eleven years in Harlem, eleven full years: I have watched a place on this earth decay while the nation in which that place exists grows in power and wealth. It is as if Harlem, like Biafra or the gutters of Calcutta, had become a dispensable part of the fabric of national life. Nothing has happened in eleven years to make one jot of difference in the lives of the children conceived during that time or in the lives of the children who came to my nursery since 1966.
At another moment he is even more drastic and unqualified: “The wreckage in Harlem is almost total, and the possibility for change now, as I write, is almost nil. I think that the generation I teach in my little school is lost, and I think their children will be lost, too.”
The beginning of O’Gorman’s book is less gloomy. He sounds like the James Agee who wrote the scripts for The Quiet One and In the Street, earlier views by a white poet of Harlem. A thirteen-year-old black boy, already a liar, a would-be rapist, and God knows what else, prompts in the author rage, but also words like these: “But I thought, too, of his beauty, of his childhood and of those years that had come to him since birth with all the human plagues. I wondered what he was like when he was a year old, when he lay in someone’s arms, watching the light and dark hover over him, bringing the seasons and music but bringing, too, the attendant swells and hammerings of death….”
Such soaring, touching words soon yield to plain autobiographical detail, followed by brief narrative accounts of young lives in the process of rapid, fatal deterioration. The author tells us that he does not live in Harlem, that he can come and go as he pleases; he was born lucky, has “lived always in the midst of beauty.” He also tells us that he knows that he will stir many to anger and scorn: yet another white man, some may say, peddling his noblesse oblige, his clever generalizations, and his self-dramatizing stories, meant to alarm, but in a curious way reassure, liberals—because bad as things are, and modest as the author appears, surely he is living proof that one decent, kind-hearted soul can make a difference, even in Harlem. Moreover, in the book’s early pages the author may seem a familiar young existentialist, a source of inspiration to those troubled bourgeois souls in the throes of an “identity crisis”:
I came to Harlem because I simply had to decide what to do with my life. The task I was ready for was teaching in a college, but I did not want to traipse about forever clutching English literature anthologies in my arms. I did not want to rot away in academia, and the two years I spent in it were sure signs that if I did teach, I would rot. Harlem drew me.
No doubt some blacks will be offended by such vulnerable self-description; and even more put off by the evidence of psychological abuse and degradation so relentlessly presented in this book. The author has no interest in protecting himself. His work is dangerous; on upper Madison Avenue he daily has to face down threats in a neighborhood where knives or guns are used all the time. This book will earn him additional enemies. He attacks those who “romanticize Harlem, a task some black intellectuals have taken on as their special mission.” He also attacks a “cruel power elite” which (in the case of New York) he does not flinch from spelling out: “Catholic, Jewish, Black, Protestant, Religious, Judicial, Educational.” Like many truly religious people, he abhors the pretensions of priests and ministers who, calling upon the name of God constantly, hold hands with the prevailing powers. Harlem is full of people claiming to be God-possessed, yet willing to turn their backs on their down-and-out neighbors.
Ned O’Gorman’s “problem,” apparently incurable, is that he can’t act in that way. He detests what he calls “abstract calm”: that of intellectuals, all too ready to mull, sift, sortand have it both ways by advocating political changes while living high on the hog; and that of various bureaucrats, church authorities, school officials who offer pieties and banalities by the bushel to a people dazed and broken. He wants for the spiritual life of Harlem’s children what he calls “the fury and the passion of revolution.”
The author is not without his own fury, which he tries hard to control as he tells us of suffering. Child after child appears in this book as wounded, in deep pain, ready to give up emotionally, spiritually. After a while the reader wants to say basta—enough of all this. And no doubt many of us will resort to the old rationalizations, the pain-saving psychological deceptions we have learned to use. We may remind ourselves that there is equal or worse suffering elsewhere in the world. Surely one could find hurt, betrayed children in other neighborhoods (white and better off), if one was of a mind to do so. Surely one must recognize that some racial progress has been made in recent years. Meanwhile, nations spend billions so they can blow up the planet, whereas Harlem’s thousands of children waste away daily, and the pleas of Ned O’Gorman go unattended. Those who talk of complexity, the long haul of history, and comparative economic or social analysis are dealt with as harshly in this book as are O’Gorman’s liberal friends, from whom he has come to expect much sympathy, but no action.
Sometimes the author comes close, maybe closer than he really intends, to saying that Harlem is hopelessly mired in “a culture of poverty”:
You see, I think the cycle of poverty becomes almost a physical occurrence in the oppressed people. It establishes in the blood a weakness and a tendency to capitulate, just as in some families, mine for one, liquor lurks in the shadows to grab up the best of our minds and destroy them.
He hastens to add that he is not embracing a “genetic weakness,” but rather “a psychic-imaginative one.” But a few pages later he returns to the same theme, however cautiously: “I tread carefully here because I must ask if the children of the oppressed—black, poor white, North African, Indian—generation after generation do not inherit a faiblesse toward failure, toward despair, toward annihilation.”
Do they “inherit” such a weakness—a fatal tendency “toward” the destiny the author mentions? In fact, the blacks of Harlem are predominantly recent comers North who inherited the workings of centuries of painful experience: abrupt, enforced removal from one continent; an awful passage to another; generations of slavery, in which explicit, socially acknowledged family life was legally forbidden, and in which children were often treated as chattel; additional generations of vigorously enforced segregation, accompanied by extreme deprivation, exploitation, lynchings, a virtual denial of education; and starting in the second decade of this century, the trek toward Detroit, Chicago, New York, there to be the last hired, the first fired.
Of course such a chronicle is known to the author, known to those who (unlike him) peddle far more ambitious and categorical notions of how blacks are culturally, even biologically, “impaired”—an impairment, so it is claimed, “responsible” for the apathy and cynicism and bitterness and disintegration of spirit to be found in places such as Harlem. But those same places also suffer from unemployment rates of 50 percent for young people. They have received people systematically beaten, confined, despised—for a long time defined by the glorious Constitution of the United States as property.
In any case, the author is no theorist bent on making a point at all costs. He sometimes comments on the strength and vitality he has also seen in Harlem, especially among black women, the mothers and grandmothers of the children he correctly describes as in extreme danger of losing their mental and spiritual lives. And he does, here and there, give us specific instances of lives being saved—almost always the result of intelligent action: a child was taken from one unpromising or sordid situation and placed in an environment that gradually exerted a redemptive influence. The boy or girl in question, he believes, must have to begin with at least some valuable sides to his or her psychological “inheritance,” qualities often lacking even in well-to-do white families where childhood psychiatric disorders may prove intractable to changed circumstances and concentrated psychiatric care. “I have seen the loveliest of children turn into animals,” the author declares. And he adds: “I have seen beautiful, caring women turn into passive mothers who transmit to their children the malignant despair that had bent their own lives out of shape.” The strength and dignity have been passed on—but still are overwhelmed by what happens in the wretched streets of one of the world’s richest cities.
A man working against such awful odds, and doing so voluntarily out of his persisting decency, will not forever keep cool and retain in the forefront of his mind the long-range political perspectives which others manage to summon up so handily. At times this gentle and giving man, this Harlem poet, becomes bitter and scornful. He turns on almost everyone in sight—even the families of the children he loves and works with, not to mention those of us who proclaim good intentions but are not able to live the life in Harlem he has chosen for himself. There are lapses of logic and overstatements: “Harlem, as is true of all the cities of the dispossessed, is a completely unpolitical, nonpoliticized community.” Completely? “An open classroom always praises the genius of a child’s imagination.” Always? And there are passages that seem to suggest the writer’s premature intimations of death; as if he has caught the disease he set out to conquer. He tells us he may well be in mortal danger himself, and he warns of the possibility of future collective violence. Reading these premonitions of large-scale disaster, we may remember the slogan “Burn, baby, burn” when the accumulated grudges of a people erupted into a death cry—aimless, futile jabs of vengeance. Soon enough an obituary appeared: there was a flurry of sympathy mixed with reprimands and disgust from those cross-town whites who were on television cameras or wrote newspaper or magazine columns.
Now and then this book turns guardedly encouraging. We are told what we might do, if we were a different society—more democratic socialist and less democratic capitalist. Resources would move toward what amounts to an underdeveloped nation within a nation. Instead of celebrating the personal life of a singular man, Ned O’Gorman, and instead of feeling pleased when we learn from him that a boy here, a girl there, has been “snatched totally” from a decaying, foul tenement and an aching, dazed family, we would as a country take active notice. The author refers to a needed “corps of field-workers,” who would work with entire families on their many problems. He talks of a “community of healing.” He dreams of local “twenty-four hour clinics,” with not only medical concerns but larger social and economic interests. But he recognizes that there is no likelihood that the kind of drastic political change he has in mind will take place in the foreseeable future. He falls back, instead, without much hope, on the prospect of a “whole new body of laws” that might take a given “oppressed child away from the forces of oppression.”
He gives such laws impersonal, Orwellian names: what seems needed is the imposition of “the surrogate will” and “the monitoring intelligence.” He acknowledges the dangers such concepts pose—“an alien notion to this democracy.” He is being both ironic and furiously rash. No doubt he has heard of those in the past who felt the awful risks of dictatorship preferable to certain death from hunger for many people. In the late 1930s my mother’s uncle, a politically conservative American missionary in China, became “disturbed” one day after hearing the illustrious Madame Chiang Kai-shek speak about the threat that communism presented to the “tradition of liberty” in China. He is reported to have lost all sense of decorum, to have raised his voice and asked the beguiling Wellesley graduate: liberty for whom? An old and vexing issue for the morally upright who go out to save others, hopelessly damned, in the name of Christ or of simple human equity. There are occupational hazards to such endeavors, a price to pay emotionally. But from them, perhaps, one obtains an occasional flash of revelatory insight, no doubt quickly cut short, lest yet another person become a “revolutionary.”
The last word in this book is given to Edna Driver, a pseudonym for a Harlem mother overwhelmed, driven to near madness, but eloquent and knowing in her capacity to look both inward and out toward Harlem’s dreary streets. “Life is a strange thing to live with,” says this thirty-five-year-old woman who is haunted by mysteries, obsessed by complexities no less worthy of attention than those that are debated in universities: the terrible psychological importance of fate and circumstance; the enigma of God’s, of nature’s purposes, if any; the question of whether or not to struggle for bare, mute survival in the face of frightful daily burdens. Is this woman “hopeless,” by virtue of a “culture of poverty,” or does our country, by virtue of what it permits, still, in such places as Harlem, have a morally impoverished culture?
Ned O’Gorman, surveying Harlem, does not dwell upon its twentieth-century cultural renaissance—the achievements of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, or Claude McKay. Still, his point of view is not unlike McKay’s, whose Home to Harlem gave us a vivid glimpse into a city’s black “lower-life.” McKay was a sensuous and erotic storyteller. Ned O’Gorman is a poet who has for the most part lost hope, and is attending to the world he sees rather than the one he can conjure up with a pen put to paper. When he talks about the Harlem he works in every day, about the “fortresslike aloofness” of its buildings, he brings to mind Ralph Ellison’s “Harlem Is Nowhere,” written to plead for the harassed minds of a community whose “blues,” whose fiercely assertive jazz, like Ned O’Gorman’s book, become, finally, voices of resignation or torment that are heeded aesthetically by us fortunate outsiders—the only response possible, we tell ourselves, as we think about our own constraints and frustrations.
In Loco Parentis November 23, 1978