DIGNITY by Chris Arnade


Seeking Respect in Back Row America
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A journey across America reveals stories from communities forgotten and destroyed.

In 2011, Wall Street bond trader Arnade, who often took long walks around New York, decided to explore the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx, an area he had been warned was dangerous and forbidding. What he found surprised him: a “welcoming, warm, and beautiful” community, unfairly stigmatized, he thought, because of drugs and sex work. For the next year, he frequented dive bars, McDonald’s, and evangelical churches, where residents told him about the complexities and challenges of their lives, a reality that contrasted starkly with his “cloistered and privileged” world. Questioning his own values, the author quit his job to immerse himself fully in Hunts Point: talking, listening, and trying to help—driving people to detox, prison, or a hospital or doling out small amounts of cash to help them get by. Unfortunately, he got pulled into their lives more fully than he had planned and, for a short time, ended up abusing drugs and alcohol. However, his experience led him to embark on a larger project: a journey to other poor, neglected neighborhoods—“black, white, Hispanic, rural, urban”—to document, in photographs and narrative, life in the nation’s “back row.” In every community, Arnade listened to residents’ life stories: about drug addiction, alcoholism, homelessness, abuse, unemployment, and eviction. He listened, also, as people told him about the importance of faith to help them make peace with their lack of control over their lives and connect them with “something beyond the material.” Arnade strives to afford each individual respect for choices made and understanding for opportunities denied. Although he concludes that everyone—in the front row and the back—must listen, keep from being judgmental, and understand others’ values, he offers no other suggestions for changing an exclusionary, exploitative, racist system that has created vast economic and social inequality, drug addiction, and humiliation. Some analysis would have given this moving volume more heft.

Candid, empathetic portraits of silenced men, women, and children.

Pub Date: June 4th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-53473-0
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Sentinel
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2019


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