Looking into the long reflecting pool of the past, I find myself wondering what it was that made me an activist against injustice. I was born in the rundown, poor, and at times dangerous South Bronx in New York City, where Black, white, and brown people as well as immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe lived side by side, or perhaps more accurately crowded together.
I’m the middle child of four siblings, not counting the foster children my mother cared for. My father worked six days a week in a dark leather factory where the sound of sewing machines never ceased and lay-offs were constant. We grew up after WWII in the basement of a six-story building at a time when jobs were hard to find and scary to lose. Many young men (really boys) joined the armed services for the same reasons today’s men and women volunteer. Reasons that have become clichéd but nevertheless remain: a promise of some kind of concrete future instead of the wavy unknown, dead-end jobs, or other depressing adult futures they anticipated. Many, including my brother, returned home with little or nothing “concrete” to show for the turmoil they endured. It was another path for girls at the time, one anticipated for me as well: early marriage. Until the introduction of the birth control pill in the 1960s, unplanned pregnancies with no chance of legal abortion were a young woman’s constant fear. Many dangerous kitchen table abortions were performed, whether or not on an actual kitchen table.
Yet growing up in the South Bronx wasn’t entirely negative. Being part of a neighborhood, a place where people knew you and you knew them, was reassuring. People understood each other’s similar circumstances, which allowed for sympathy and community. Though poverty is no fun, I remain grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up among such a diversity of people. There is no formal education that can teach the depth of this experience.
The Borough of the Bronx has always been divided by money. The North, including Riverdale where no one I knew lived, had money. The East and West aimed upwards but most still lived paycheck to paycheck, and the checks were there. The South remained an afterthought for many years; its poverty, burned buildings, illnesses, and crime existed way too long. Today, people living there continue to struggle to eke out a decent living and to pay the constantly rising rents on buildings that remain as dangerously uncared for as the broken sidewalks in front of them. Rumor has it that in the last decade there’s been new construction and more investments made in the area. Recently, however, I watched a photo exhibit online of the South Bronx, and it was startling to see how much hasn’t changed.
Poverty invites illness. Growing up, I saw many people afflicted by sickness that kept them homebound, or only able to work between bouts of physical symptoms. We are all somewhat powerless when sickness strikes or an accident occurs. What do poor people, including those who work low-paying jobs, do in such situations? Then as now, they suffer the illness, for sure, but also suffer the aftereffects of costs when and if they do occur. Preventive care remains a luxury, dental care as well, and missing teeth and/or dentures affect nutrition and the comfort of eating. Doctor’s visits are rare in poor neighborhoods, and so in dire situations people go to the closest hospital emergency room, which in many rural areas can be miles away.
Being a sensitive and curious child, I was also a reader at a very early age. We had no books at home, so I went to the library as often as possible. Finding the children’s books available back then less interesting, I began reading books for adults. Fortunately, the librarian turned a blind eye to my choices, checking them out without comment. Books made me more deeply aware of the indignities around me. As I got older, I couldn’t help but see the hypocrisy of a country that loudly proclaimed its values of equality, values taught from the kindergarten pledge of allegiance on and found emblazoned everywhere, values that turned out to be largely unrealized for millions of people. I wondered why people accepted the misery, why weren’t they/we fighting to change such unlivable conditions?
Of course, what I observed growing up was not isolated to the South Bronx. Today, it continues to be experienced in communities nationwide. Poor and working-class people often work two or more jobs to make ends meet, if they have jobs at all. Many experience persistent anxiety about putting food on the table, paying the rent, purchasing clothing for their children, or, heaven forbid, getting sick, worries that can rob a person of the strength even to pay attention to more than the present moment: what’s on their plate for dinner; how to make it through the day, week, month, never mind the year. All this in addition to the energy-sapping systemic racism faced by people of color.
During the Vietnam War, I organized against poverty, racism, sexism, and the war in poor white and working-class neighborhoods. I asked people why living in such awful situations wasn’t creating more of a hue and cry for change? Some of the responses they offered were: you can’t fight city hall; I’m too exhausted; what can one person do; a waste of the time I don’t have; it is what it is. Many complained that leaders promise change when running for government office, but few deliver. I did then, and do now, understand the difficulties of those who have little and who struggle to get by. Yet there have been people from poor and working-class communities who do refuse to accept unlivable situations, who feel compelled to struggle to change an unfair society.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, though not a student, I was a member of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and learned a great deal from working with people in the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party, people who had come together out of their direct experiences of racism and poverty that had kept so many from worthwhile lives. The Panthers were set on doing whatever they could to change the system, and were clear-eyed that only struggle could bring about change and, consequently, more power into people’s lives.
Mostly young, and mostly from poor backgrounds, the members of the Black Panther Party defied what convention taught: that leaders of movements usually come out of the middle and upper-middle classes. Of course, many did and do, and they are leaders who have grown up well-fed and sheltered and safe from hunger or future homelessness. Many also grew up in families where social justice values were part of their everyday lives. There is also a long history of poor and working-class people becoming leaders against injustice; the Black Panthers were one such group. Many others continue to do so as well.
As I write this, many safety net programs are under assault by reactionary Republicans who wish to cut away at food stamps and other supportive programs for the poor. They add work provisions, reviving the old trope that the poor are lazy or shirkers living off the dole, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. In an individualistic society such as ours, they hold to a belief that people should lift themselves out of poverty by their own bootstraps, whether or not they have boots.
But poverty isn’t inevitable, as they would have us believe. Strengthening and expanding the safety net would help people—like those I grew up with and those I met later—to move into better situations. However, Republicans and their “MAGA” followers serving in government can be relied upon to continue to work toward further weakening the safety net. They have grown more reactionary with each passing year, championing white nationalism, attempting to ban books to stop the teaching of the real history of people of color, and denying people the power of knowledge. And knowledge is power, as history has repeatedly shown.
As the rich grow richer, they remain indifferent to suffering or any idea of sharing, or even to allow their incomes to be taxed at a slightly higher rate. Poor and working-class people who are Black, brown, white, Asian, LGBTQ, indigenous, or from elsewhere continue to battle discrimination, inflation, high rents, evictions, poor health, inadequate healthcare, and insecure futures. They scrabble to hang on and perhaps wonder if anyone sees or hears their distress. Is it any surprise, then, that so many people today say they are unhappy? An unhappy society, a divided society, a society that contains hatred is a frightening society that is failing its people.
Today, groups and organizations struggling for social justice have begun to take hold, working to change the inequities of the system. They are harbingers of what is possible. National groups such as Black Lives Matter and The Brotherhood Sister Sol in Harlem work against inequities, training younger generations of social justice activists. These are but two of many such civil rights groups. Reproductive rights organizations are proliferating, strengthened by women angry at the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn legal abortions. Climate change is here, and as more and more communities experience devastating floods, brutal temperatures, and barely containable wildfires, people are making demands for a more green-centered society and an end to fossil fuels and other detriments to the preservation of our planet. Newly empowered union organizing is occurring and hopefully will spread across the nation. All these activities make us hopeful, as they should.
But here’s a truly worrisome thing: we are living in a moment of history when the clamor of reactionary organizing and conspiratorial thinking is gathering strength in a step-by-step manner, leading toward an accretion of power. These politicians and anti-woke pundits use many microphones to preach hatred, and they work to erase whatever progress has been accomplished. Scary as well is the made-up right-wing theory of white replacement, which preaches that white people are endangered by the proliferation of people of color. A theory that is based on ignorance, fear, and racism, but dangerous in a country that once enslaved people.
The march toward a more reactionary society can be stemmed by a strong counteroffensive led by progressive people in and out of government: a counteroffensive that visibly grows in numbers and provides a loud and continuous presence on the streets, campuses, and wherever else it’s necessary. There is no other choice ifwe wish to live in a society that holds a promise for peace, equality, and justice.
My political involvement taught me many lessons of victory and defeat, but has never erased my faith in what is possible. I share my experience here so that others may take heart that things don’t have to remain as they are.
I haven’t been back to the South Bronx since my parents died, but as a writer and a novelist, I visit there often.