Different families get different kinds of stories

Different kinds of families get different kinds of stories in books. A family drama about a white family is probably upper-middle class, there’s probably someone who’s traveled overseas, and there’s probably lots of “finding yourself” type rhetoric. And there’s something to be said for that. Figuring out who you are and what you like is important.

But this is not that kind of book. This is a family drama about an African-American family. There are three generations and they are all poor. All the adult men in the story have been to prison. Racism weighs heavily on them. The father in the story is white; his father killed the man who would have been his brother-in-law. He has only met his children a handful of times; his parents haven’t met their half-black grandchildren. He is the one the mother and children travel to pick up from prison when his sentence is complete.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a heavy book. You can feel the weight of the generations of racism on everyone. The 13-year-old boy is definitely figuring out who he is, but it’s not in a fun lets-go-see-the-world kind of a way. That kind of privilege is absent here. Instead, it’s about learning to take care of your people and understanding who your people are.

Recommended, but schedule a party or something afterwards.

Community Matters

Our Kids by Robert Putnam

What’s it about?
Our Kids is about inequality in America, particularly as it affects American children. We say that it takes a village; the thesis of this book is that the village is only intact for children of parents with at least a college education. If your parents don’t have a college education, if something has come up in their lives to stop them completing college, then you are less likely to be able to complete college and get ahead in the world.

Why should you read it?
There is an entire literature out there about the downfall of the American family. I like this book because it emphasizes that children are not just the product of their parents, but of the communities they live in. Success is a social norm that people in the neighborhood conform to. If a child isn’t on the path, then he or she gets help, usually with input from his/her parents. (There’s a whole other issue there – too much conformity towards success leading to things like “Why Are Palo Alto’s Kids Killing Themselves?” Could it possibly be that self-selection hurts everyone?) But in the neighborhoods with bad schools, the sense of community isn’t as strong. Dr Putnam shows that people with lower incomes have fewer social ties, and are less likely to know someone who can help when they or their children are having problems.

I like the idea that creating a stronger community is part of the answer. I’m biased in this general direction, I’ll admit. Feeling like you’re part of a group can make a world of difference. Stronger communities create more successful children; successful children become wealthier adults (in theory). It’s a place to start.