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Black brothers, in their own voices

By Karen Elaine Laing / October 7, 1988



BROTHERS: BLACK AND POOR - A TRUE STORY OF COURAGE AND SURVIVAL by Sylvester Monroe and Peter Goldman

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New York: Morrow. 284 pp. $18.95

AFTER publishing a widely read and much discussed article on the lives of black men in the ghetto in March 1986, Newsweek selected a team of experienced journalists - five black, one white - to take a more in-depth look at a group of 12 childhood friends from a ghetto on Chicago's South Side.

The book they produced, ``Brothers,'' is an attempt to substitute sentiment for suspicion in the mainstream conscience. The foreword quotes Ralph Ellison's classic ``The Invisible Man'': ``I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.... When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination....''

The Newsweek team attempted to add form and substance to the shadowy perception of black manhood. In general, the reader gets a feel for the closeness and desperation of the housing projects depicted in the news media. The 12 men interviewed tell their stories in their own voices and in their own time. The book is organized by types - ``outlaws,'' ``scufflers,'' and ``strivers.'' Their early lives are covered in an introductory chapter, and a closing chapter titled ``Reflections'' tells where they were at the time of their Labor Day '87 reunion.

``Brothers'' reinforces the media perception of these men as a dangerous and an endangered species. Hear the voices:

``When they wore the colors of the Saints, they took on the aura of danger and the possibility of respect - a respect their fathers had been denied.''

``So Willie Edwards had made the last gesture within his power as Amanda Harris' husband. He gave her back her maiden name and he left.''

``If you came up in Trey-nine, like he had, prison was where you were from.''

``Her second son was growing up as hard and glittery as a dime-store pinky ring.''

But to be really heard, these voices, however charged with emotion, need context, and this ``Brothers'' fails to provide. The details of a life that make it seem less mysterious, less menacing, are missing. When do these men, who are seen before they are heard, find time to put the obligatory crease in their slacks?

Why was it, we wonder, that the projects they grew up in were ``heavy with the expectation of their defeat''?

The book says constant change is a fact of ghetto life, but, as these interviews show, women provide stability in the lives of these men. In any ghetto there is no dearth of women as wives, nurturers, drill sergeants, and mistresses. In ``Brothers'' the women, like the men, are painted with broad brushstrokes.

It is not enough merely to say what these men or women did, be it murder or mending. We need to know what about life or love keeps them going.

In closing, Monroe writes: ``It is perhaps one of the great ironies of my life that so much of it has been spent trying on the one hand to get people to see me as a black man, and on the other not to write me off or apply some damnable double standard when they do.''

``Brothers'' has not written off black men. Neither has it established a new standard by which to judge them.

Karen Elaine Laing is on the Monitor staff.