Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
on June 26, 2009
This is Elliot Liebow's first book. I was extremely fortunate in having it as assigned reading in an introductory sociology course when I was an undergraduate. The book is exceptional in many ways.
When Liebow reached the dissertation stage in his doctoral program at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he was uncertain as to how to proceed. His advisor's advice was simple: "Go out and make like an anthropologist." Which is exactly what Liebow did.
Liebow "made like and anthropologist," moreover, not in an exotic society in the South Pacific or the Amazon, but in Washington, D.C. itself. He spent over a year observing and participating in the life of inner-city Black men who frequented an area referred to as Tally's corner. His choice of this area and these men required a good deal of tact, self-confidence, and anthropological skill: a thirty-seven year old White man entering and interacting in a group of young to middle-aged Black men who had no particular reason to accept him as anything other than a meddling outsider representing the dominant race.
Liebow, nevertheless, gained acceptance and provided insights into life among low-income inner-city Blacks that were unsuspected and invaluable. For example, the area was not nearly as socially disorganized as was commonly assumed. Instead, helping relationships based on friendship and kinship were commonplace. The area was, in fact, a neighborhood.
Black men were not the recklessly sexual itinerant impregnators that they were and often are assumed to be. Instead, their failure to stay with the women who bore their children was commonly rooted in their feelings of inadequacy at being unable to find a job that would enable them to support a family. These same men often provided nurturing and a modicum of financial support to other women and their children, people for whom they did not feel responsible. As a result, what they gave was beneficently gratuitous and would not be construed as not enough.
On the job, when they could find one, there was a prevailing expectation among employers that the Black workers would steal. As a hedge against this, the employers paid less than they otherwise would have. Consequently, the Black workers made very little money and, as a result, were more likely to steal to augment their incomes. This is a set of circumstances that renders the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy as something more than a cliche'.
Liebow's discussion of sitting in a car with a group of Black men discussing their sexual prowess is the kind of the account that gives his ethnography a strong sense of authenticity. Men have too much "dawg" in them to have diminished sexual appetites as they grow older. Men have too much "dawg" in them to be strictly monogamous for the long term.
Nevertheless, Liebow documented the existence of close but non-sexual friendships between men and women. Expressions like "goin' for cousins" meant that a man and a woman were good, supportive friends but remained sexually uninvolved.
Not long after Liebow's research was finished, the location called Tally's Corner fell victim to urban renewal. Again, a place that was construed as nothing but a slum, but was in fact a neighborhood, was destroyed in the name of progress.
Liebow's Tally's corner is a truly fine piece of ethnographic work. I still find it refreshing that he went into the field without research questions in mind, but came away with really interesting results.