Tag Archives: race relations

When Understanding and Tolerance Trump Assumptions and Stereotypes

CBR_Logo2Living Black:
Social Life in an African American Neighborhood
by Mark S. Fleisher

Mark Fleisher, a balding, middle-aged, white Jewish man, spent six years conducting research in “Little Chicago,” an African-American neighborhood on the north end of Champaign, Illinois, not far from the campus of the University of Illinois. An ethnographer by trade, his assignment was to be a local evaluator for a project designed to study gangs and violence as well as intervention and prevention. Fleisher was tasked with interviewing hundreds of adolescent gang members in the North End.

Fleisher spent six years hanging out in the North End, usually the lone white person in the neighborhood. During those six years, he came to know many of the area’s residents, several of whom feature prominently in his reportage of the area and its people, Living Black.living black

Published by the University of Wisconsin Press within days of the release in Chicago of the Laquan McDonald video, the timing for this book and its topic couldn’t be more relevant.

Living Black takes readers inside a neighborhood most of us likely would never willingly venture into, a neighborhood marked by gangs and violence and poverty and unemployment and drugs. It’s the kind of neighborhood that many people would avoid at all costs, the kind of neighborhood that, if they had to drive through for whatever reason, they would lock the doors, roll up the windows, and floor it through stop signs and red lights. The kind of neighborhood most of us would assume to be dangerous.

That was not, however, the neighborhood that Fleisher found.

Rather, he writes, “the North End was a quiet, low-income residential neighborhood … No homeless folks panhandled by day and slept by night on sidewalks or under bushes. No bag ladies pushed swiped grocery carts packed with heaps of plastic bags. Street corners didn’t harbor drug sellers, and local gang youth didn’t hold court there or in parks.”

What Fleisher found was a community of friends and family with deep connections and a rich social life. What he found were children playing in parks, mothers gossiping with friends, and families holding birthday parties for their children. He found a community where people didn’t chastise, scold, belittle, or judge their peers.

Did he find this community among convicts and felons? Yes. Among unwed teenage mothers whose baby daddies were nowhere to be found? Yes. Among young gang members who sold weed? Yes. But he also found this community among mothers and grandmothers and cousins who stuck together, generations bound by blood and history.

In many ways, Living Black is a book about dichotomies. Fleisher writes, for instance, that “the North End had two faces, one soft and welcoming, the other hardened, portending the area as a dangerous place. The North End I saw in the 1990s was a peaceful, sleepy enclave of black and white neighbors. The North End I heard about was an angry, gang-ridden, segregated community.”

One community, the latter, based on hearsay and assumptions; another community based on experience and reality. Fleisher took the time to get to know the residents of the North End, to move beyond assumptions, to listen to them, and to withhold judgment.

Coming on the heels of a year of protests and violence in Chicago, Baltimore, Ferguson, and so many other cities and neighborhoods across the country, Living Black opens a window on a world that so many of us make assumptions about, succumbing to stereotyping without actually having any real experiences or relationships on which to base those assumptions and stereotypes.

Where so many of us assume poor, African-American neighborhoods to be ghettos rife with cold, hard violence, Fleisher reveals a community full of residents who care about and take care of each other. Where so many people assume the residents of these neighborhoods to be drug-dealing laze-abouts who cash out on welfare, Fleisher reveals resilient, self-sufficient members of a community doing whatever it takes to earn a living, put food on the table, and keep a roof over their heads.

And he does so with little editorializing or commentary. Although it’s not perfect, at times redundant and occasionally too academic, Living Black is thoughtfully observed. It is written with compassion, more objective than not, although not completely impartial: Fleisher himself admits to sticking his nose where it didn’t necessarily belong, having become close with many of his interview subjects. Weighing in on the love lives of his friends/subjects and trying to get jobs for them might be outside the purview of an ethnographer. But it isn’t outside the purview of a human being.

And, above all, Living Black is a human story, not necessarily an account of white vs black or haves vs havenots. This timely study offers a glimpse into a part of society that many of us choose to ignore. At a time when tolerance and understanding seem in short supply, Living Black should be required reading for anyone who could benefit from a look outside their own world into the world of others. Which is most of us.

Three-Star Review

November 2015, University of Wisconsin Press
Sociology/Current Events
$29.95, paperback, 160 pages
ISBN: 978-0-299-30534-5

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war
that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood
can never become a reality…
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love
will have the final word.”

—Martin Luther King, Jr.


Filed under nonfiction

Much More Than Half

CBR_Logo2Meet Me Halfway:
Milwaukee Stories
by Jennifer Morales

When Johnquell, a  seventeen-year-old African-American with a college scholarship, passes away after a gruesome accident in his white neighbor’s home, his community must find ways to bridge the gaps between races, ages, and orientations in their neighborhood. In nine linked short stories, Jennifer Morales untangles the complicated relationships among African-American and Puerto Rican teens and their white classmates and teachers, Vietnam vets, Latino landlords, former Black Panthers, and all their sprawling families as they search for common ground.meet me halfway

Morales’s collection is truly masterful, diving deep into her characters and layering them one on top of another to weave the vibrant tapestry of the Rust Belt neighborhood. Each of the nine stories highlights a different member of the community, and the author fully develops each, inhabiting the unique and believable voices of a grade school girl, an elderly racist neighbor, a sexually confused middle-aged woman, and many others. Morales’s thorough fearlessness extends beyond the voices of the characters; she penetrates the contemporary culture of racism and bigotry in a way that elicits empathy and demands respect from even the most detached of readers.

But Meet Me Halfway accomplishes something that many race stories don’t: This collection doesn’t divide good from evil, but paints the community in endless shades of gray. In the first chapter, readers are introduced to an elderly woman who cannot fathom why her best friend would go out of her way to cook dinner for her black neighbors. Later on, though, Morales tells this woman’s own story, and we see her as a widow rattling around in a too-large house, struggling to come to terms with her age as her family pressures her to move into an assisted-living facility. In no way does Morales excuse or undermine the bigotry her book addresses; rather, she villainizes the behavior while portraying its perpetrators as complex, multidimensional human beings. In this way, because no one “antagonist” is beyond repair, there is hope for a better future.

Meet Me Halfway has already been chosen as the Common Reading Experience for the incoming class at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and this is a title that truly deserves that recognition. Morales, who lives in Wisconsin, tells a Wisconsin story—a Midwest story—using one of the country’s most segregated cities as a backdrop. But the fact is that her message is evergreen and universally relevant, and her approach is gentle and insistent, preaching a vision of the future that makes room for every voice and every creed.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Fiction/Short Stories
$19.95, paperback, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-0299303648

—Reviewed by Sarah Weber

Learn more about the book.
Read more about the author and her work.


Filed under Uncategorized

Rambling Toward Change


Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball

Michael Lenehan

ramblers coverAward-winning journalist Michael Lenehan has turned in a solid debut title with what is billed as “America’s Next Great Sports Story.” Ramblers is a meticulously researched history of Loyola University Chicago’s 1963 basketball team, the first to put on the court more black players than white, at a time when the very notion of integration sparked brutal race riots. Lenehan’s riveting story combines elements of Chicago, university politics, basketball, class, and race relations, intertwining each aspect to detail the 1963 men’s NCAA basketball championship—and all the social, political, and cultural upheaval that surrounded it.

Ramblers is more than a sports story. It’s more than a chronicle of one winning season. Basketball fans may be familiar with the team’s fast-break game, then a new style of play that led to upset after upset, stunning players, fans, and pundits alike. But chances are that many readers are likely unfamiliar with the groundbreaking 1963 season the Ramblers saw, both on the court and off.

Published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Ramblers’ landmark season, the book hit bookstore shelves in the midst of this year’s March Madness and is sure to delight fans who can’t get enough of anything related even remotely to brackets. Lenehan weaves a rich tapestry to tell this story, focusing on the coaches, players, and colleges that set the stage not only for a thrilling NCAA tournament but for a season of social change that upended college sports. Sports fans will be fully absorbed by Lenehan’s electrifying play-by-play prose, following along breathlessly as he describes game after game of that stunning season.

But there is more in Ramblers than just a good sports story. Even readers with only a passing interest in basketball or college sports will find something of value here. Lenehan deftly covers the struggle that universities dealt with in the 1950s and ’60s when it came to integration. Of particular interest is Lenehan’s look at the evolution undergone by the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the winning SEC team that, year after year, was unable to participate in the NCAA tournament due to policies against playing integrated teams. Only by breaking with tradition, evading the law, and sneaking out of the state were the 1963 Bulldogs able to travel north to put their all-white team on the tourney court—in a game they ultimately lost but in a bigger contest they won.

Riveting, electrifying, fast-paced: Lenehan’s new book is all that. At times, however, the text gets bogged down in too many anecdotes, long-winded stories that could have been struck from the book without damage. Readers more interested in the social, political, and cultural aspects of the story may find the play-by-play descriptions a bit too much. And, those readers may be further turned off by the author’s apparent swipe at his publisher’s subtitle for the book: In the foreword, Lenehan all but fully disavows the notion that the Loyola Ramblers actually changed the color of college basketball. Lenehan argues that no single team, nor no single game, did so. And, in fact, one really could argue that it wasn’t the Ramblers who forced that change; perhaps it was, in fact, the bravery displayed by the state-skipping Bulldogs that really made the difference and helped tear down color barriers.

Regardless, Lenehan shows in Ramblers what college basketball did for integration. Unlike “Hoosiers” or “Hoop Dreams” or “Glory Road,” Loyola Chicago and the 1963 NCAA tournament never generated a flashy Hollywood movie to tell the story. Lenehan has done the players a great service here, uncovering an important story long overdue in its telling.

Three-Star Review

March 2013
Agate Publishing/Midway
$16, trade paper, 297 pages
ISBN-10: 1572841400
ISBN-13: 978-1572841406

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


Filed under nonfiction