Some thoughts on recent reading: The South Side, Once in the West, and Just Mercy

I spent some time away from the office this week and took along a few books, including Natalie Moore’s The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, Christian Wiman’s collection of poems Once in the West, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and RedemptionThese made for a terrific week of reading. You can read plenty about them (or better yet, read them) somewhere else, as each has received quite a bit of attention, but just a few brief thoughts:

  • I’ve noted earlier and elsewhere that Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted pairs well with Ramin Bahrani’s film 99 Homes. I think it would also pair well with Moore’s The South Side. While Moore doesn’t have much to say about eviction, per se, she does have a lot to say about the difficulties, uncertainties, and tensions surrounding housing instability.
  • Wiman’s “Razing a Tower” should be read alongside Moore. The poem, which evokes the implosions of public housing towers and complexes, has a certain mysterious resonance with The South Side. Moore writes of the south side as the historical heart and soul of black Chicago and of the long practice of segregation – every bit as intentional as a building implosion – that has contributed to a steady economic decline, political disenfranchisement, and social distress in black neighborhoods. Stories of so many neighbors and neighborhoods have, to borrow from Wiman, “collapsed in a kind of apocalyptic plié.” But what I found most resonant was Wiman’s mysterious sense that something persists even in the aftermath of the collapse: “vanish the dancer and the dance remains a time, an agile absence on the air.” Wiman’s is an outsider’s observation, written by someone who had watched the event. Moore’s insider’s perspective fills her pages with stories that highlight the durability of community, identity, and hope even in the midst of challenge and decline. Moore’s south side is a place too many others call “once proud,” because of a crumbling infrastructure and embattled institutions. Moore wants us to understand that it isn’t “once proud,” but “still proud,” despite that crumbling infrastructure and embattled institutions. “Vanish the dancer and the dance remains.”
  • And an observation about Just Mercy, which I also recommend reading with Moore’s book: Stevenson’s book was a revelation. As I read his account of efforts to overcome racial prejudice in the judicial system, it struck me that what is most moving about the work of Stevenson, and that of others who have gone before or come alongside him, is the ability to overcome indifference. Almost every page of the book exposes a general and systemic – not entire, but certainly overwhelming – indifference to justice, an inclination to ignore justice in favor of convenience and order. Almost every page told the hopeful and inspiring – and all too exceptional and surprising – story of someone working tirelessly to overcome this overwhelming tide of indifference. More could be said about this book (and so much has been), but this was, to me, the most striking and revealing part of Stevenson’s story.

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