Lost Generation

The Children Are Dying

by Ned O'Gorman
Signet, 215 pp., $1.75 (paper)

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…

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