On the Edge

ON THE EDGE, by Carl Husemoller Nightingale, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is a hybrid of sorts. It is, on the one hand, an intensely scholarly work that cites numerous studies in sociology, history, and related disciplines. On the other hand, Nightingale draws upon a wealth of personal experience living in a black Philadelphia neighborhood and working with black inner-city youth as a volunteer. The result is a book which achieves striking depth, emotionally as well as intellectually.

Nightingale begins by examining various theories which have been offered by scholars and commentators to explain the rising tide of violence and progressive dissolution of family life among poor black inner-city Americans. While poverty, joblessness, social isolation, the welfare system, and historically rooted behaviors may all be pertinent factors, none singly or in combination with the others successfully explains the social decline that has taken place, according to Nightingale. He believes that the missing pieces of the puzzle are characteristics of mainstream American society that have been absorbed by poor urban black Americans, much to their detriment. These characteristics include an emphasis on force to discipline children, the stubborn persistence of racism, the prevalence of a culture of conspicuous consumption (which fosters unreachable, and thus frustrating, expectations), and the predominance of violence in American culture, particularly in films and on television.

Nightingale offers two relatively manageable solutions: first, an effective jobs policy, and second, the fostering of an alternative worldview among poor inner-city African Americans, one based on emotional self-awareness.

Some readers will find Nightingale’s conclusions arguable, and the book occasionally reads like a dissertation. Nevertheless, this study provides indispensable insights on an issue that should be of consuming interest to all Americans.