CHILDREN OF CRISIS, VOL. II: Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers; VOL. III: The South Goes North by Robert Coles

CHILDREN OF CRISIS, VOL. II: Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers; VOL. III: The South Goes North

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As Coles explained in the text he wrote for The Middle Americans (1971), his studies of children under social stress have led to an examination of how families manage and what their worlds are like. Volume I of this series explored how black and white children experienced and dealt with school desegregation. Volume II concerns migrant workers, sharecroppers, and mountaineers, their children and ministers, teachers, sheriffs, bossmen, guards, foremen, officials, and ""the rural mind. . . its unyielding, hesitant side and its generous, affectionate side."" It gives a picture of the South which parallels Genovese's historical approach to the Old South -- within exploitative, oppressive structures ""We know each other, we're together,"" as a white planter puts it here, and there is not just an aggregation of horrors but a working society with trust, respect, and mutual accommodation. The differences in child rearing among migrants, hill people, and Black Belt tenants are commented on, and Coles interpolates first-person extracts which make up much of these books. Volume III recounts extended meetings with black and white families who have moved North, largely through interviews with children and adults involved in the Boston school bussing program, and with other ghetto inhabitants and visitors -a fireman, a junkie, and so forth. As in Volume I, these studies undertake to jar our ""abstract"" idea of ""the deprived and oppressed"" and let them articulate their strengths. Coles is brilliant in eliciting the children's sense of their world; his adults too are remarkably individual. But the Ageean cadences and flow and scrupulosity finally produce a bad aftertaste. Coles values, for himself and in others, ambiguity and bewilderment. He dislikes smug, condescending, obtuse professionalism and he insistently rejects ""cleverness,"" analysis, positions, organizers, conclusions, generalities. He revels in the facts of life which confound liberals and sentimental radicals, such as black exploitation of blacks. There is death and sickness and also callousness in these volumes, but no strong representations of real vice or brutality or destruction in, for example, the areas of child abuse and insanity. And there are no live villains: the big mining interests, the banks holding slum real estate, the politicians who deny food supplements are mentioned but not integrated into these ""worlds."" Instead we get the local bad guys and the fall guys, the ""human side"" of the cop and the racist parent, school principal and petty landlord: this is done convincingly and not just their character but their circumstances and self-perceptions come through. But in his horror of stupid and inhuman approaches to ""problems"" and ""issues"" (he always puts them in fastidious inverted commas) he succumbs to an inverted rhetoric and snobbishness. Coles says that what society needs is more love and more ""helping spirit."" What could be more patronizing and exploitative than to indulge all this intelligence and supersensitivity and then deliberately and explicitly abjure solutions? Perhaps to have done otherwise might have made this work less compelling to many and less convincing to many more; but to elevate this difficulty to a principle is evasive, and though reading these books is an important and valuable experience, it is vitiated by this attitude on Coles' part.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1971
Publisher: Little, Brown--A.M.P.