High in the Lower Depths

Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America

by Leon Dash
BasicBooks, 279 pp., $23.00

Most discussion of the black urban underclass is statistical or otherwise theoretical and removed, treating it as if it were life on an inaccessible planet. What makes Rosa Lee, Leon Dash’s report on a particular Washington ghetto family, so convincing and so valuable is his intimacy with his subjects, an intimacy that very few writers about the underclass have ever achieved. Dash had to do his work in neighborhoods that are dangerous enough to daunt most experts on poverty, and he had to overcome the deep suspicion toward outsiders that members of the underclass tend to have. That he won the trust of the people in his book is a testament to his dedication and commitment—Dash has been working on this project since the beginning of 1988—and, probably, to his refusal to condescend to them, to be falsely ingratiating or judgmental.

Dash presents himself, both to the family he is writing about and to his readers, as a sympathetic but absolutely uncompromising truth-teller, no matter how unpleasant the truths are. “My precise intention,” he writes, “is to make the reader as uncomfortable and alarmed as I am.” About the possibility that the facts of his subjects’ lives might not be “representative,” or will contradict liberal opinion, or will be misused by tendentious readers, Dash refuses to worry. He has dedicated Rosa Lee “to unfettered inquiry.”

The central character of Dash’s story, its heroine so to speak, Rosa Lee Cunningham, is a woman in her fifties who occupies the next-to-bottom rung of American society: at the very bottom would be people living on the streets or in institutions. Rosa Lee and her family live independently in Southeast Washington, but barely: they are on welfare and food stamps, and they are in and out of hospitals and jails. Beyond receiving government benefits, Rosa Lee supports herself as a drug dealer, a petty thief, and a prostitute. She is the unwed mother of eight children with five different fathers. She is illiterate. Although she is poor, the word “poverty” is pitifully inadequate to describe her problems. Extreme social disorganization and isolation from the American mainstream would be closer to the mark.

Rosa Lee’s parents were sharecroppers in North Carolina who migrated to rural Maryland in l932—and then to Washington in 1935, the year she was born. Her father, Earl Wright, was a manual laborer, became an alcoholic, and died young. Her mother, Rosetta, worked as a domestic, which was the standard employment well into the 1960s for uneducated black women living in cities. At fourteen Rosa Lee had her first child out of wedlock and dropped out of school. She had another child at fifteen and another at sixteen, the latter followed by a four-month marriage to the baby’s father. She had five more children, all out of wedlock. During most of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Rosa Lee, her mother, and the nineteen children they had between them, at times living together and quarreling …

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