Monday, July 16, 2007

Obama: Walking the talk...

Altgeld Gardens
A garden community?
(Image from Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison)

I'm still reading Barack Obama's fascinating memoir, Dreams from My Father, which I'm finding not only well-written but also funny ... and sad.

In the early 80s, Obama spent some time working with churches in trying to organize the African-American 'community' of Altgeld Gardens, Chicago. In the course of his work, he met some odd characters, such as an African-American man named Wilbur Milton who wore a clerical collar, called himself "Deacon Will," and had joined the Catholic Church despite having grown up Baptist.

Friends of the 'Deacon' called him just "Will," and he was rather willful. Obama describes Will's tendency to get off track:

As much as I liked Will, as much as I appreciated his support, I had to admit that some of his ideas were ... well, eccentric. He liked to smoke reefer at the end of a day's work ("If God didn't want us to smoke the stuff, he wouldn't have put it on this here earth"). He would walk out of any meeting that he decided was boring. Whenever I took him along to interview members of his church, he'd start arguing with them about their incorrect reading of Scripture, their choice of lawn fertilizer, or the constitutionality of the income tax (he felt that tax violated the Bill of Rights and conscientiously refused to pay).

"Maybe if you listened to other people a little more," I had told him once, "they'd be more responsive."

Will had shaken his head. "I do listen. That's the problem. Everything they say is wrong." (page 173)
Not a man easy to work with on organizing solidarity....

But Will had another side to his character, and in a meeting with a small group of the church-based organizers, said something that revealed a fundamental problem facing African-Americans in the Northern cities:

"I'll share something that's been on my mind for a while. Nothing big -- just memories. You know, my folks weren't rich or nothing. We lived out in Altgeld. But when I think back on my own childhood, I remember some really good times. I remember going to Blackburn Forest with my folks to pick wild berries. I remember making skating carts with my ... buddies out of empty fruit crates and old roller skate wheels and racing around the parking lot. I remember going on field trips at school, and on the olidays meeting all the families in the park, everybody out and nobody scared, and then in the summers sleeping out in the yard together if it got too hot inside. A lot of good memories ... seemed like I was smiling all the time, laughing --"

Will broke off suddenly and bowed his head. I thought he was preparing to sneeze, but when he raised his head back up, I saw tears rolling down his cheeks. He continued in a cracking voice, "And you know, I don't see kids smiling around here no more. You look at 'em listen to 'em ... they seem worried all the time mad about something. They got nothing they trust. Not their parents. Not God. Not themselves. And that's not right. That just ain't the way things supposed to be ... kids not smiling."

He stopped again and pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket to blow ihis nose. Then, as if the sight of this big man weeping had watered the dry surface of their hearts, the others in the room began speaking about their own memories in solemn, urgent tones. They talked about life in small Southern towns: the corner stores where men had gathered to learn the news of the day or lend a hand to women with their groceries, the way adults looked after each other's children ("Couldn't get away with nothing, 'cause your momma had eyes and ears up and down the whole block"), the sense of public decorum that such familiarity had helped sustain. In thier voices was no little bit of notalgia, elements of selective memory, but the whole of what they recalled rang vivid and true, the sound of shared loss. A feeling of witness, of trustration and hope, moved about the room from mouth to mouth, and when the last person had spoken, it hovered in the air, static and palpable. Then we all joined hands, Mr. Green's thick, callused hand in my left, Mrs. Turner's, slight and papery to the touch, in my right, and together we asked for the courage to turn things around. (pages 177-178)
Later, Obama put an arm around Will's shoulders and told him:

"That reflection at the end was pretty powerful, Will."

He looked at Mary and they both smiled. "We noticed you didn't share anything with the group," Mary said.

"The organizer's supposed to keep a low profile."

"Who says?"

"It's in my organizer's handbook." (page 178)
I like Obama's humor. It's witty and also a good way to deflect a question on an issue that he wasn't yet ready to talk about, his own mixed past.

But to get back to Will and the nostalgia about the past.... What he and the others had been talking about was the loss of community. Some days later, Obama happens to see a Korean woman hard at work in her shop, and he reflects upon the problems facing African-Americans in Altgeld, comparing it with his own observations on the interrelations of work, markets, community, and moral order:

The scene took me back to my childhood, back to the markets of Indonesia: the hawkers, the leather workers, the old women chewing betelnut and swatting flies off their fruit with whisk brooms.

I'd always taken such markets for granted, part of the natural order of things. Now, though, as I thought about Altgeld and Roseland, Rafiq [of the Nation of Islam] and [the African-American businessman] Mr. Foster, I saw those Djakarta markets for what they were: fragile, precious things. The people who sold their goods there might have been poor, poorer even than folks out in Altgeld. They hauled fifty pounds of firewood on their backs every day, they ate little, they died young. And yet for all that poverty, there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust.

It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like Altgeld so desperate, I thought to myself; it was that loss of order that had made both Rafiq and Mr. Foster, in their own ways, so bitter. For how could we go about stitching a culture back together once it was so torn? (pages 182-183)
Well, that's a problem that we all face in our modern -- or postmodern -- anonymous worlds of Durkheimian anomie, the "painful chaos threatening all the time," as Mary Douglas puts it in her 1987 essay "A Distinctive Anthropological Perspective" (Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology, p. 11). As with civil society, how do we reconstruct community when it's gone? I bring Douglas's anthropology of "drinks" into this discussion, along with her anthropology of "food," because community requires food (else what were those markets for?) and family -- both of which are also dysfunctional these days. Michael S. Rose, in reviewing British author Theodore Dalrymple's book Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, notes the connection made by Dalrymple:
In his essay "The Starving Criminal," Dalrymple draws the connection between the destruction of the traditional family structure and the life of common criminals. In his work as a prison doctor, he has seen countless criminals enter the big house malnourished, dying a slow death of starvation. After a few months in the "health farm of the slums," the prisoner would recover his health simply by eating his regular ration of three meals a day. Talking with many of these starving criminals, he discovered that, lacking a normative family life, most of these men had never eaten a single meal -- sitting at a table with others -- outside of prison. Rather, food was consumed alone in purely pragmatic fashion. Many of these culinary loners subsisted largely on chocolate and potato chips; others ingested nothing but sugary soft drinks. This, he says, was a result of the kind of family breakdown made viable by Britain's extensive welfare system, a breakdown so complete "that mothers do not consider it a part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator." (Michael S. Rose, "The Frivolity of Evil," New Oxford Review)
When communities, families, and even meals break down, how can one reconstruct them? I'm curious what conclusions Obama reaches, for some of the big governmental programs that Obama probably would have favored in the early 80s are precisely what commentators like Rose and Dalrymple focus upon as part of the problem.

I'll keep you posted.

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At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for that extract. The culture of 'grazing' must be resisted. Simple, slow food is the key to gratitude. We eat shop bread but rarely. The garden is not great this year but there are onions, shallots, carrots, leeks, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, brussels sprouts, soft fruit, apples and plums. We have begun to eschew 'air miles' in relation to Israeli potatoes etc. Gardening and cooking is coming back in the middle classes with some people keeping hens in suburban gardens.. Schools have organic gardens and the gaining of the green flag is a serious achievement that isn't just given for participation. There is bloom as well as doom.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sounds like good food to me. When I was a kid growing up with my grandparents, we had a garden, but I'm afraid that I didn't learn much about gardening when I was little. I worked a lot in the hayfields as a teenager, then went off to university 500 miles away, then for grad school 1500 miles away.

Now, I live in a Seoul apartment and have no garden.

Do you live in a house with a yard?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes we have an acre which is ideal. No cow. There is no excuse for us not to get a Spring in. In Britain people have access to allotments which they can rent from the municipality, also in Switzerland and probably in other European countries as well. I've seen on T.V. about community gardens schemes in New York's inner city. I may be a romantic but I think it would make a big difference if the Gardens were put back in Altgeld. There is great healing in growing things whether flowers or vegetables or that most demanding of ground cover, the good lawn.

At 4:47 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I know that in Germany, residents can rent garden space. A German friend of mine took me to see one such set of allotments

I like blogging, but when I see the beautiful houses and gardens that some bloggers have as their own and therefore proudly post images of, I get rather envious -- which is perhaps bad for my soul, but I suppose that this could be my cross to bear, a test of my character...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:13 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Philadelphia has a lot of community gardens with a lot sponsored by The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. These are in many of the neighborhoods one would think of as similar to Altgeld Gardens. Mostly old people garden. We also have Fairmont Park. The violence is all over the city. I comment on the next post.

I feel like you Jeffery, I know one blogger who has this beautiful house in France, with a view of the river and gardens. I have a tiny rowhouse, which is literally smaller than some two bedroom apartments.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, looks like you might have a tiny spot to garden in front of your place, but that earth looks pretty hardpacked.

The world is a hard place...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:12 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

Thats not my house, but I do have a couple of tomato plants in my front. I did look for a house with some ground, some rowhouses touch the sidewalk. When I was sick, I wished I had of bought a condo instead; one floor. The stairs were steep, short house, and I felt like I was ninty years old, climbing them.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I hope that you're feeling better now. How are you doing, by the way?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:02 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I am doing really good. Without the weight of the kidneys, I have much more stamina.

At 9:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Good, Hathor.

"May you build a ladder to the stars,
May you climb on every rung,
And may you stay forever young..."

Jeffery Hodges

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