Krys Boyd, host of the KERA radio jewel, THINK, interviewed me earlier this week. We talked about poverty and my assignment as chair of Mayor Mike Rawlings' new "Task Force on Poverty." During the course of the interview, she asked me about the poor who battle through and "make it" to a better life. I acknowledged that a very few do manage to find better lives on their own. I call them poverty's "poster children." The whole discussion reminded me of what James Baldwin once said about the idea. He was quoted in an Atlantic Monthly essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Here's what Baldwin said:
The people, however, who believe that this democratic anguish has some consoling value are always pointing out that So-and-So, white, and So-and-So, black, rose from the slums into the big time. The existence -- the public existence -- of, say, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. proves to them that America is still the land of opportunity and that inequalities vanish before the determined will. It proves nothing of the sort. The determined will is rare -- at the moment, in this country, it is unspeakably rare -- and the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few.
A few have always risen -- in every country, every era, and in the teeth of regimes which can by no stretch of the imagination be thought of as free. Not all these people, it is worth remembering, left the world better than they found it. The determined will is rare, but it is not invariably benevolent. Furthermore, the American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement. This equation has placed our cities among the most dangerous in the world and has placed our youth among the most empty and most bewildered. The situation of our youth is not mysterious. Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. They must, they have no other models. That is exactly what our children are doing. They are imitating our immortality, our disrespect for the pain of others.