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A Mother's Legacy of Misery : ROSA LEE: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America. By Leon Dash (Basic Books: $23, 279 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Sam Fulwood III | Sam Fulwood III, a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau, is author of "Waking From the Dream: My Life in the Black Middle Class" (Anchor Books, 1996)

When we are introduced to the subject of Leon Dash's "Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America," she is "tired and worn down." She's resting in a Washington, D.C., hospital, awaiting her midday release after a four-day stay that began with a rush to the emergency room. It is 11 days past her 52nd birthday and six years before her death.

In one of his few asides to the reader, Dash says his protagonist "is convalescing in Howard University Hospital not because of any illness that you or I might contract. She is there because her body has been so wracked by heroin that it is shutting down."

This is an early and telling glimpse into Dash's mind-set as he prepares us for the world through which he will guide us. Those two sentences suggest--at the very outset of this depressing and disturbing book--that we should distance ourselves from its subject, a depressing and disturbing woman named Rosa Lee Cunningham.

To drive home this point, which seems to contradict his purpose stated much later in the book, Dash writes in the prologue that Rosa Lee is unlike anyone we might know: "She is 52 years old, a longtime heroin addict, with a long record of arrests for everything from petty theft to drug trafficking. Her eight children--the oldest of whom she bore at age 14--were fathered by six different men, and six of the children have followed her into a life of teenage parenthood, drugs, and crime. By any definition, Rosa Lee is a member of the urban underclass, the segment of the poor population trapped in a cycle of social dysfunction, deprivation and misery."

Then, as if to explain all to come, Dash promises his well-insulated and apparently naive readers that "Rosa Lee's life story speaks volumes about why this group on the bottom rung of society is growing rather than shrinking."

I am not convinced that "Rosa Lee" succeeds in doing this. Rather, I fear the book makes it easier for the nation's "over-class" to continue ignoring the plight of the urban poor. With its long and vivid descriptions of problems in black America, "Rosa Lee" fails to assign any social, historical or political context to this woman's life. As a result, she can be ignored as irrelevant to anything other than her own misery.

Cunningham's life may well be a guidepost to finding "viable solutions to poverty," as Dash suggests. Nevertheless, dramatic storytelling absent broader context is little more than entertainment--a way for the more fortunate to snuggle closer to each other and erect higher walls to separate themselves from people like Rosa Lee Cunningham.

As if anticipating these objections, Dash defends himself against critics--especially those like me, middle-class and African American--who he says "react with visceral rage to a public, close-up look at African Americans in poverty as an assault on their hard-earned status and material well-being, something they fear can be taken away from them." Others among us are simply "embarrassed about the circumstances and lifestyles of the black underclass," Dash writes.

Perhaps I'm in another category. I celebrate Dash's choice of subject and applaud his expose of urban poverty. More journalists (not to mention political and business leaders) should do likewise. Some have taken note, awarding Dash and his photographer colleague Lucian Perkins the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for their eight-part series on Cunningham's life that ran in the Washington Post and later became the basis for this book.

But looking and "reporting" are not enough. Analysis and explanation of why and how these problems come about in the first place are needed as well. Dash admits there's little new in his work. "There have been other studies of families like Rosa Lee's, but that doesn't preclude any of us from examining poverty's impact on families again and again," he writes.

Is it helpful, though, to tell the same story over and over, numbing readers who may have that "been there, done that" feeling? Why not probe other facets of the poverty problem, such as the institutional forces that lock people like Cunningham into their predicaments?

At one point, Cunningham tells Dash: "I didn't understand what you could do with an education." Is that her fault or the fault of forces greater than even she can imagine? How can the "underclass" do better when they don't understand what to do? This is a worthy question undergirding a serious examination of poverty--but you won't find it in the dramatic depiction of Cunningham's life.

To be sure, "Rosa Lee" deserves a dollop of praise for the mechanics of its presentation. Dash is a sensitive, informed and measured journalist. His approach is akin to that of a documentary filmmaker, employing a cinema verite style that graphically shows Cunningham's poorly spent life and that of her extended family as they stagger from crisis to crisis without much joy or hope.

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