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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 19881—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 in a single small apartment, were one big, unhappy family.

In her early teens Rosa Lee began shoplifting from department stores, which became her lifelong vocation. In her early twenties, while working as a waitress in nightclubs, she began to deal heroin. She took customers home after work, often to the very bed she shared with her young daughter Patty. In her late twenties she was caught stealing a fur coat and was sent to jail. In her late thirties, after being left by a woman with whom she had had a lesbian relationship, she became a drug addict. Patty, by then a teen-ager, gave Rosa Lee her first injection of heroin.

Such a summary sounds both clinical and sordid. But through a combination of meticulous observation and empathy, Dash has managed to create in Rosa Lee a vivid, complex, and entirely convincing character, as rich as a character in a novel. What is particularly striking about her is that she isn’t passive or defeated. She has many strengths, like resourcefulness, love for her children, and aspirations toward a decent life, as well as weaknesses, drug addiction in particular. Dash sees her life as a struggle between them.

Rosa Lee is never presented as the Other or as a nobly suffering victim. Dash doesn’t try to gloss over her failings—in fact he is relentless in bringing them to light. At one point Ducky, the youngest of Rosa Lee’s sons, tells Dash that he has decided to devote his life to serving Christ, a common pose in the ghetto to impress a middle-class outsider. Dash won’t have any of it: “Finally, I interrupted. ‘Your mother has told me that you cook powdered cocaine into crack for New York City dealers operating out of your sister Patty’s apartment in this building and that you have been addicted to crack for some time now.”’

Dash’s candor and his painstaking accumulation of details overcome any dehumanizing effect that the story he gives us might have. He begins his account by telling us that “Rosa Lee’s daily life consists of one crisis after another,” and then shows us the crises unfolding. Because he himself is a central character in the story his own reactions serve as a bridge between the two worlds, ours and the ghetto, and it is through Dash and through her relation with him that Rosa Lee comes to vivid life.

During the years that Dash spent with Rosa Lee, she was struggling with drug addiction and disease (she was HIV-positive, and was enrolled in a methadone program), and particularly with the all-consuming problems of her dependent adult children. Of her eight children, two escaped the ghetto and hold conventional jobs. One, Alvin, owns his own home. But the other six children are nonfunctional, and completely dependent on their mother. They spend their lives moving between Rosa Lee’s apartment, the streets, and jail. Richard sells the food out of the family’s refrigerator to buy crack. Ronnie contemplates openly committing a crime so he can be sent to jail, because he will be warm and well-fed there. Bobby, an HIV-positive homosexual prostitute, refuses to take medication or use condoms because (he tells Dash from jail, where he has been sent for dealing drugs) “I don’t want to live.” Patty, the child Rosa Lee is closest to, is a prostitute and desperately addicted to heroin and crack. In 1992, she agreed to let a group of thieves into her boyfriend’s apartment for twenty-two dollars; as soon as she got the money she left to buy crack, leaving the thieves to enter the apartment, where they killed him.

Dash describes what happened when Rosa Lee got a check for $1,298 from the federal Supplemental Security Income disability program, for which she became eligible when she tested positive for the AIDS virus. Rosa Lee herself at this time is off drugs except for methadone:

The check arrives at 1:30 PM on a Tuesday and Rosa Lee cashes it at a suburban Maryland liquor store. Wednesday morning, Rosa Lee tells me what happened when she went home.

Richard, Patty, and Ducky were sitting in the living room looking at her as she walked through the apartment door…. Rosa Lee agreed to give each of them fifty dollars and asked that they not bother her for any more money…. All three of them ran out of the apartment to buy crack.

Richard returned to beg for more money at 5 PM. Patty came into Rosa Lee’s bedroom a few minutes after Richard. And then Ducky came in. Rosa Lee gave them each twenty dollars. They left. The begging, Rosa Lee caving in, and her children returning to wake her up, continued until 5 AM.

Dash makes it clear that Rosa Lee is complicit in her children’s addiction, and not only because she constantly gives in to them. The blame, he sees, goes further back. Rosa Lee was indifferent to whether they went to school as children, and today only three of her eight children can read. It was Rosa Lee who gave her own daughter, Patty, as well as her son Eric’s girlfriend, their first tastes of heroin. She even sold Patty’s sexual services to men when she was only eleven, splitting the fee with her: forty dollars for Rosa Lee, ten for Patty.

The fathers of the children have been continually absent. When Ronnie encounters his father for the first time in eleven years, the man asks him for fifty dollars for heroin. Dash presents such moments deadpan, without calling for a response, whether of outrage or pity; indeed, sometimes the lives he describes seem as much comic as tragic. For the first time in thirty-five years Rosa Lee comes upon one of the fathers of her children: he happens to be the US marshal assigned to a bus taking her to prison. She doesn’t recognize him.

The details of Rosa Lee’s life are harsh and truly shocking, and they make it impossible to place her in any Victorian category of the “deserving poor,” as she might have been in a more sentimental, less truthful book. But they also bring her world extraordinarily to life on the page in a way that it hardly ever is. Dash succeeds in making Rosa Lee a living character whom you can’t help being drawn to. He never, ever covers up for her. But he also sees what is in some ways admirable in her. Illiterate, she is amazingly enterprising. Tears streaming down her cheeks, Rosa Lee tells a judge who is thinking of sentencing her to jail for shoplifting that she is raising three grandchildren alone—which isn’t true. She gets a suspended sentence. In the methadone program she is enrolled in, she develops a profitable sideline: upon leaving the clinic, she retires to a coffeeshop nearby where she deals Darvon and Xanax to the other addicts. When she hears that her only husband, who had walked out after a very brief marriage back in 1953, has been bludgeoned to death by his addict girlfriend, Rosa Lee immediately arranges to get Social Security widow’s benefits for herself.

If the next generation, Rosa Lee’s addicted children, is more defeated than she is, and more helplessly in the control of drugs, the generation after that, to judge by the one detailed example Dash gives, is even worse off because of an additional disposition toward violence. Patty’s son Junior was born out of wedlock when his mother was fourteen. By the time he was two, his mother was hooked on heroin.

The year between the ages of four and five was a pivotal point in Junior’s life…. [H]e was hospitalized for several weeks for what he remembers today was a kidney problem. Patty says nothing was wrong with Junior’s kidneys. Junior’s penis was swollen and he could not pass his urine, she says, but, uncharacteristically, she declines to specify what happened to her son. Whatever occurred, from that point on Junior formed a protective shell around himself and attacked with a purposeful fury anyone he thought was trying to hurt him. He also developed a cruel streak.

  1. 1

    An earlier version of this book was published as a series in The Washington Post, where Dash has been a reporter for thirty years, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. I gave Rosa Lee a book-jacket endorsement.

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