And Their Children After Them

Yes, I’m still wading through stacks of notes about books I read over winter break. Even though it will be summer before we know it.

One of the other books was And Their Children After Them, a sort of follow-up to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which I haven’t read, and won’t, now). It’s about what happened to sharecroppers in the American South after the collapse of the cotton-production industry, as a major source of employment.

This isn’t a thorough review of the book. I tend to struggle with those, because I get sucked into specific insights that spring from the text, and my interpretation of it, which makes pulling together a coherent analysis, overall, difficult.

Instead, here are some quotes that I highlighted, and what they’re making me think about, which is, after all, the reason I do this reading, every year, in the first place.

  • Cotton buyers said, describing the sharecroppers, that “those people are different than us”. And we do this a lot. I encounter this every year in my Poverty in the Global Economy course, when some of my students are quick to assume that living without running water is preferred by some in the developing world, because “that’s what they know”, as though waterborne diseases are a cultural preference, instead of a universal scourge. We console ourselves in thinking that people can accommodate conditions that we would find objectionable, even abhorrent (poverty, overcrowding, difficult work, time separated from family), because they are somehow used to it. They’re not.
  • A farmer who took in a sharecropping family even when he didn’t really need the additional labor, and then treated them much more fairly than the other landowners did, said to his son, “If you can’t help somebody, for God’s sake, don’t hurt them” (p. 62). We often want to separate malicious attack from ‘benign’ neglect, as though the latter were really preferable to the former. And maybe there is some difference. But, really, if your job doesn’t pay enough to feed your kids, do you care–that much–if the company you work for is doing that ‘on purpose’, or just because they don’t care enough to figure out how their actions are harming you?
  • In describing how participation in a job-training program helped one of the individuals profiled in the book find her way to some measure of economic stability, the author reported, “It should provide some relief to know that there are people helped by state programs, and in just the way the programs were designed to help people” (p. 114). It made me think about how much the government needs a good PR person, for public assistance programs. I mean, nonprofits have had to get better about telling their stories and demonstrating their impact, because of the competition for funds, but who is really telling the story of how government programs improve people’s lives? Where there is good news to share, how can we share it?
  • Issue fatigue is, apparently, far older than the social media that has exacerbated it. When the original authors were pitching their idea to write about sharecroppers, the publishers were only willing to consider white sharecropping poverty. African Americans were expected to be poor, and that wasn’t news, even decades ago.
  • Internalized stigma is a powerful force. Even those individuals who were literally living in shacks without plumbing–as recently as 30 years ago–refused to take welfare. Our failure to combat the stigma associated with receipt of public benefits can have very harmful consequences and dramatically exacerbate unmet need. We have to be careful with our messages, and not just because they shape external perception about service participants. They also craft self-identity.

I’m working on my summer reading list; the spring semester will be over in less than 2 months. What are you reading, or have you read recently, that has had an impact on you? What would you recommend?

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