Do You Know “Our America”?
“Many times, many ways in America, young African-Americans do not get to speak their piece. In this book, you will hear about the lives of two African-American men growing up in the ghetto. We live in a second America where the laws of the land don’t apply and the laws of the street do. You must learn our America as we must learn your America, so that maybe, someday, we can become one.” LeAlan Jones, Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago
Several years ago, as Kurzweil Educational Systems embarked on a writing campaign with those who manage The Max Warburg Courage Curriculum, I was exposed to the reading materials used to support students in ninth grade. One book in particular truly deepened my understanding and insight into the day-to-day struggles, not just of life, but to live, for those growing up in America’s ghettos. It is a book that is at once painful to read, but at the same time should become required reading for all those who think they have the answer or want to jump to conclusions based on what they see on the news, hear on the radio, or read in the papers.
Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago is the work of LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman. It is a book that is based on their participation in “Ghetto Life 101” and “Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse” NPR series that highlighted life in the poor and violent world of the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. At the age of 17, no small feat to achieve in the South Side of Chicago, LeAlan and Lloyd set about writing the book with unused material from the NPR series. What they created is likely one of the most insightful, eye-opening, provocative and sad narratives that I have ever experienced.
In summary, the stories contained in the book is that of a local NPR broadcaster seeking “two young, intelligent African Americans to be on the radio,” LeAlan and Lloyd are able to talk their way into the offices and get hired as reporters. From there, LeAlan and Lloyd work their way through the Ida B. Wells projects with a tape recorder gathering an audio account of life in the “hood.” What they are able to gather is at times gut-wrenching, humorous, and all-to-real, but incredibly important to try to learn from and understand. As if the day-to-day accounts weren’t enough, there is also the story of Eric Morse, a five year old boy held by his feet from a 14th story window by 10 and 11 year old boys for refusing to steal candy in 1994. This story ends just as tragically as you might expect. However, it’s not the end of things and it is well worth it to read the remainder of the book to learn how LeAlan and Lloyd are getting along in 1996.
I am not trying to sell Our America as a feel good story, though for LeAlan and Lloyd I think things have turned out okay from what I’ve been able to learn since reading the book, but rather I am promoting this book because it puts a microscope on ghettos in America and exposes the reader to a life they may never have known really exists nor even begun to experience. If for no other reason than to gain understanding of how the poorest in our country live, I highly recommend investing the time in Our America this summer.
“This is LeAlan Jones on November 19, 1996. I hope I survive. I hope I survive. I hope I survive. Signing off. Peace.”