Sunday, October 15, 2017

A book by Sherman Alexie

Another book I read recently is Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  It's a young adult novel with a fair dose of funny drawings.  It is a really great coming of age story, and a portrait of life on a modern impoverished Indian reservation.  A challenging thing for me was that the essential thesis of the book is that reservations are such toxic places that the only way for Indian people to live a dignified, decent life is to get off the reservation and away from their people.  This is a theme also present in a lot of writing and talking and thinking about the black American ghetto--the debate around whether it is more desireable (or possible) for low-income black Americans to improve their lot by removing themselves from the ghetto, or rather to develop and improve the ghetto itself, in situ.

I don't know exactly where I stand on this latter debate--given my professional and personal proclivities towards community development, I would like to think the best solution for any impoverished place is to make the place better, such that the community remains intact but now more healthy and prosperous.  At the same time, ghettos (like reservations) are by definition a forced concentration of desperate people into a place separate from the rest of society, and certainly from society's prosperity.  So it makes sense when you see studies that indicate that the only way for poor children of any color to truly prosper is to integrate them with more economically prosperous people, thus opening up similar opportunities (cultural, economic, professional, etc.) to the poor kids as their better-off counterparts.  For instance, there is a pretty robust body of evidence that indicates that the only successful innovation in US public education was desegregation.  None of the innovations of the past twenty years (small schools, charter schools, Classical schools, more tests, fewer tests, etc.) that maintain our resegregated status quo have been consistently successful at closing the gap between rich and poor students.  There just isn't a good way to enable people to prosper if they are only around other poor people and the pathologies of poor communities.  (All this said, a recent study seems to call into question the importance of elementary school quality at all in terms of improving economic wellbeing in poor students).

In any case, the dichotomy that Alexie presents, between remaining with your people and your culture (while remaining mired in poverty, violence, and substance abuse) or leaving them in order to prosper, to me seems less pronounced for other ethnic communities with high poverty rates, because due to their sheer size, there exist large communities that are predominantly Latino or black and thoroughly middle or upper-class.  So you can get out of the impoverished ghetto but still be around people of your ethnic group.  But I don't know of many places in the US where an Indian can be around mainly Indians and yet not be surrounded by poverty.  At the very least, the context Alexie presents doesn't offer this option. So his book challenges all of us to think about those lines and tradeoffs between individual success and ties to family and community.

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