Children of Crisis Critical Essays

Robert Coles


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 2513 words.)