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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2513

When he began his research on school integration, Coles was alert for signs of emotional trouble in the black children and in their families, brought on by the extremity of their circumstances, with mobs of angry whites surrounding the schools, with white families conducting highly successful boycotts, and with law-enforcement...

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When he began his research on school integration, Coles was alert for signs of emotional trouble in the black children and in their families, brought on by the extremity of their circumstances, with mobs of angry whites surrounding the schools, with white families conducting highly successful boycotts, and with law-enforcement and military help required to keep them physically safe. Finding that the children usually faced their problems psychologically unhurt, he determined to discover their sources of moral strength. Convinced that the nation faced a crisis of commitment to its essential ideals, he expanded his work into a study of children from a variety of impoverished, depressed, and oppressed circumstances. What started as a single book, based on psychoanalytically informed contact with a few children, became a series of books under a single general title.

The most obvious step, after Coles’s years of work with the Civil Rights movement in the South, was to study children whose families had left the region but had brought with them the experiences and culture, good and bad, with which the South had marked them. Throughout the 1960’s hundreds of thousands of people, largely black and almost all poor, had left the South to find work. Accordingly, he studied both the minority who remained in the South—sharecroppers and mountaineers whose way of life has made them like displaced persons in their own homes—and the much larger groups, migrants and new city-dwellers, including those whose children were integrating formerly all-white schools in Northern cities. These second and third volumes include more interviews with adults—neighbors of the children as well as their parents and teachers—than do the earlier or later books. The subtitle A Study of Courage and Fear applies as well here, however, as it does to the first volume. Many of the adult migrants and children show great determination to struggle on against their hardships. A migrant child speaks of the sadness of leaving a school where the teachers helped him with his studies and encouraged him to develop friendships with the other schoolchildren; when he must leave for the next labor camp, he knows that he may not be able to go to school at all, or that the teachers in the new school may care nothing for him and his needs. Mothers and fathers of such children feel anxious for their future and hope that they will not remain migrants all of their lives, but they recognize how hard it will be to escape. Coles observes tersely how harsh and dangerous are the living conditions that the children take for granted:Jeannette doesn’t eat too well. Nor do many, many other children like her. I still find myself surprised and dismayed by a child’s drawing in which there is a table but no food, or a plate but no food. . . . When a sharecropper boy draws a home, it is small and inconsequential in appearance, a mere spot on the thick, powerful earth, and all too faithfully his home.

In reporting the bitterness, sufferings, and fears of the migrants, Coles shows that they make their children’s lives as good as circumstances allow, and love them deeply. As always, he conveys a complex, carefully considered message. The very poor, confronting whole lifetimes of crisis, excluded from the benefits that American society provides generously to many others, do have strengths of their own. The poor are, in great numbers, patient, perceptive, generous, deeply loving, and brave, although one can also find among them examples of every kind of self-inflicted trouble: heavy drinking, violence, callousness, willful ignorance. Often there is little that even the best of them can do for their children, who must enter the work force at five or six, who get only intermittent schooling, who cannot keep their possessions, their friends, or often their health, who grow up too soon and commonly die young.

Studies such as Coles’s, efforts to improve conditions through local assistance groups, churches’ donations of food and clothing, and the like can do little good for people, especially children, whose conditions are actually desperate. The government, in Coles’s view, has a duty to guarantee better wages and working conditions, medical care (he points out how often migrant women give birth with no help at all, sometimes out in the open or in a shack without heat or running water), schooling, and protection from exploitive bosses. Ultimately, they must have the opportunity to settle down and to escape the migrant stream. Similarly, real improvement in the lives of those in the ghetto, the remaining sharecroppers, and the inhabitants of the Appalachian hills and hollows requires years of intelligent, expensive state action, and significant success will mean a change in many American social structures. Thus, Coles’s sympathy for the “children of crisis” leads him to a consistently radical social analysis.

Coles allows his interlocutors to speak, even if they ramble, repeat themselves, insist on seemingly minor issues, and contradict the social and political agenda that he favors. His depiction of the poor is therefore complicated, qualified by their own perceptions, fears, and hopes, and by his own wider knowledge. They live in the ghetto, on the road, or in remote settlements; he has visited all these places. Respecting their views, he also attempts to give his readers an idea of the full range of modern social dilemmas, including those not clearly observed or understood by his interviewees. An intelligent, somewhat bossy girl living in Roxbury, a ghetto area of Boston, muses,You hear that sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never harm you. That’s not so. In Mexico the kids probably aren’t called “nigger.” Here, if you go outside this part of the city, you’re in real bad trouble. I’m glad no bus is taking me across town to those white people, to their schools. I’m real glad of that! They call you names. Betty says her cousin is going on the bus, and she says it’s all right there, but Betty doesn’t believe her. Maybe it is all right; I don’t know. Sidney says no. Betty says no. I told them they were wrong, but afterwards I remembered what my grandmother always says: “Tell the white people to their face they’re wonderful, if you ever have to talk with them, but don’t you believe it.” She said there are some nice ones—white people—but there are so many bad ones that she used to ask her mother the same thing Betty says she’s always asking her older brother: why don’t we go someplace else—I mean to another country?

For a year Coles rode the bus with Roxbury children who were integrating suburban public schools, and elsewhere he treats both the values and the weaknesses of the project, with a positive final evaluation of it; nevertheless, here he allows Vanessa, seven years old, to have her say uncontradicted.

The fourth volume in the series looks almost entirely at children themselves rather than their elders, and does so from a different angle; its subjects are physically and culturally remote from most Americans. This is obvious for the Eskimos, but true also for the Indians and the Hispanic people. Exploitation, segregation, hatred, and a wounding indifference have been their lot too, but they have a sense of themselves as belonging to living communities, stronger and more secure than those of the children whom he had first discussed. With them, too, Coles makes limited use of his psychiatric skills, preferring to explore their ways of looking at the world, of preparing for adult life, of recognizing their own differences from the rest of American society in an essentially positive light without diminishing the importance of obtaining for them a greater measure of social justice.

Something that unites the first four volumes, different as they are in the subjects interviewed and in the issues presented, is the author’s insistence on two essentially political points: that the “children of crisis” are generally active, conscientious, and sensible in struggling to make their own futures; and that without lasting, deep change in society, law, and law enforcement, those efforts will normally not be enough to change their and their people’s plight.

He wrote the last volume, in which appear studies of a few children from very wealthy families, at the suggestion of several subjects of the earlier books, who told him that no one can understand the fate of the American poor without also examining affluent ways of life. He notes how slow he was to perceive that many working-class people are hostile to the rich, believing that despite the nation’s democratic facade the rich make most of the decisions that determine the fates of everyone else.

The children studied in all five volumes are chiefly of elementary school age, although several respondents are younger or older. Coles encouraged the children to make drawings, and he reproduces and analyzes many of these. He often approaches the problems faced by the very poor, and of their strengths and weaknesses in dealing with them, through these pictures of people, houses and other buildings, and landscapes—the children’s familiar surroundings as well as their fantasies. Interpretations of the drawings, written in nontechnical language, help the reader to identify the motives and expectations that underlie the children’s behavior. For example, Coles shows that children of both races usually depict black children as smaller than white, living in smaller, dingier homes, having less contact with the sun, enjoying themselves less and learning less. Yet, on the whole, the rich children turn out to be more passive about their own lives than the poor, and less aware of the forces that have the greatest influence on them and on their families.

In each book, introductory chapters discuss the methods of Coles’s work, the prolonged, close association established with the people (for example, helping Eskimo families to clean and haul home their catch of fish), and the conclusions he has reached. Coles also treats the problems of the participant-observer, committed both to the struggle for social change and to the accurate, informative depiction of the people caught up in it, and other issues of method. For example, he tape-recorded many interviews and employs quotation marks to report what his respondents say, but he changed details that might identify individuals and removed dialect features from their speech. In both descriptive and analytical chapters he focuses at times on injustice and privation, at times on the strength, virtue, and wisdom demonstrated by those involved in crisis. His reports are largely of assertive, perceptive people, often of those who violate stereotypes. His informants include a black electrician who has fixed up his family’s apartment in a crumbling building and wants to move into a house; an intelligent and energetic black teenager who had a long criminal record in junior high school; a proud, articulate black schoolteacher devoted to the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and bitter in her denunciation of atheism, radicalism, and political apathy; a fervent conservative Protestant clergyman whose congregation consists of nearly destitute mountaineers.

Compellingly readable and persuasive, Children of Crisis gently insists on a broad radical agenda: racial integration, national responsibility for the health, safety, and education of all children, and equality in education and in social and political status as well as in opportunity. Admitting that the poor and oppressed themselves may not always judge well of their opportunities or needs, he emphasizes their values, insights, and abilities and presents them, especially the children, for admiration rather than for pity. At no point, however, does Coles imply that profound poverty or exclusion from the mainstream is good; rather, he strives to show how all Americans owe respect as well as a material sufficiency to their most isolated and oppressed fellow citizens.

Coles admires the students involved in the integration struggle, their strong parents, and the patient, hardworking lawyers and activists who advised them. He admires honesty, determination, commitment to the public good, Christian faith, and confidence in democracy, at least where the latter two are not mingled with self-righteousness. He is cynical about the ultimate power of wealth, especially long-established wealth. His reportage accords dignity to those who are usually despised, and makes them eloquent. He chooses examples of several types of people, resolutely denying that they are typical, representative, or cut to any social mold. He refers to stereotypical lower-class and slum-dweller behavior, including drug abuse, violence, sexual license, political apathy, heavy drinking, crime, spendthrift behavior, and drifting; his approach is one of impassioned but realistic advocacy. He states his allegiances forthrightly, noting that he served as a physician for participants in the Civil Rights movement, testified for them before Congressional committees, and supported their cause in his writings. He proposes solutions to the crises he describes, without expecting these, however affirming of traditional social patterns, to be implemented. Faith, loyalty to one’s community and to the constitutional ideals of the American nation, persistence in nonviolent community action against injustice, and publicizing the ways in which the underclass suffers are his chosen remedies. He sees the freedom struggle as largely an indigenous activity, with roots in the life of the black community.

He makes gently satirical use of quotation marks around terms and phrases to call them into question, suggesting that they conceal grim realities. Cumulatively, this device, which he uses often, hints that language itself contributes to the sufferings of the oppressed. He tries to show respect for culturally creative and morally serious ways of looking at life, however different from one another they are, in North and South, among black, white, Chicano, Eskimo, native American, and other subcultures. His comments on his own project, and on all attempts by social scientists to describe the struggles and moral dilemmas of ordinary people, are often skeptical: “Sometimes I erred by becoming too much the investigator.” Or,Do we dare wonder whether our “enlightened” interest in “the poor” and our earnest curiosity about “them” matter very much—except, of course, to our own consciences? That is, what, if anything, will bring about a more equitable distribution of economic and political power in this nation?

Unlike most radicals, Coles grounds his work on an explicitly Christian faith, accepts the personal and social value of the nuclear family, directs only side glances to feminist issues, and declines to address economic or political issues in Marxist or other theoretical terms. His model of nurture is traditional, with a strong ethical and religious shape, although its implications are not socially conservative. He is distant from liberal social critics in questioning the established order of power relations at several levels and in wanting family life, work, the process of maturation to be humanly fulfilling for all. He fails to look closely at male bonding and other forms of comradeship. He is indifferent to most Freudian issues, though he is a psychiatrist and sometimes demonstrates familiarity with the theories, vocabulary, and issues of Freudian practice.

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