My brother was murdered on the streets of Brooklyn, New York, when I was barely old enough to know the world or even him. Another brother wasted away in prison for most of my childhood. To this day, I really don’t know him. Although incarceration and death eluded my sister, she consistently found herself entangled in fraught circumstances and profound misery. She bore her first child at an early age and another several years after that. At some point, she began to find comfort in crack cocaine. At another point, the city placed her sons in foster care. For years, my sister and her sons cycled in and out of homelessness. I had nephews before most people do, and they both lost their lives well before their time. One, still in his adolescence, drowned in the East River. The other, hardened by the city’s cold concrete life, died years later, bleeding to death after being stabbed in the neck by his stepson. My sister survived – that is, in the sense that merely being alive can be called survival.
I dodged a similar fate. My parents plucked me from this ‘tangle of pathology’, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once called it, by sending me to a prestigious New England boarding school. Still, most of my peers did not make it out of Brooklyn – whole, fulfilled or alive. Andrea Elliott’s magisterial Invisible Child tells the story of a young black girl, Dasani Coates, who almost made it out. For me, the book was a haunting tale, a grim reminder of the ghosts of my past. Dasani and I walked the same streets. We both endured unimaginable family tragedies. She was also sent to a boarding school, the Milton Hershey School, a ‘cost-free, private, coeducational home and school for children from low-income families’ with a ‘tradition of preparing children to lead productive and fulfilling lives’. But that’s where our paths diverge.
In this, her first book, Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, follows eight years in the life of Dasani. Elliott met Dasani and her family (including her seven siblings) outside their homeless shelter, Auburn Family Residence, in 2012 while working on a story about poor conditions in New York City’s homeless shelters and the Bloomberg mayoralty’s seeming indifference to the plight of the unhoused. In Dasani, she found a precocious young girl ‘who could narrate her own experience of growing up poor’. This book is not simply about Dasani, though. It’s also about how she, her siblings and her parents, Chanel and Supreme, ‘learned to navigate poverty’s systems’ – agencies whose names suggested ‘help’: ‘Child protection. Public assistance. Criminal justice. Homeless services.’
Dasani is a fighter. As Elliott observes, ‘If Dasani could design her own video game, she would call it “Live or Die”.’ She adds, ‘The protagonist would be an eleven-year-old girl fighting for her salvation.’ Her report card from the first grade presaged the struggle that would define her life. Although her teachers rated her ‘excellent’ in reading and written language, she struggled in ‘personal social development’. In the category of ‘gets along well with others’ they noted that she ‘needs improvement’.
This is not entirely surprising given that Dasani’s existence has been defined by constant struggle. Then there’s Chanel’s maxim. There are three ways to be popular: ‘Dress fly. Do good in school. Or fight.’ Dasani did the best she could with the first. She worked hard towards the second. She excelled at the third. Her work ethic got her accepted at a boarding school that could have changed her life, but her penchant for battle got her expelled. The book ends with Dasani tussling on the streets for personal dignity and brawling in the courts to keep her family together.
The pulsing power of this book’s narrative comes not only from Dasani’s voice but also from Elliott’s rigorous method. She immersed herself in the life of this young girl’s family. She kept over ninety notebooks and recorded 132 hours of audio and 28 hours of video. She developed relationships with various members of Dasani’s extended family and those within the governmental bodies who shaped the course of their lives, from teachers to case workers. With this rich material, Elliott gives life and, at times, heart to the bureaucracies and bureaucrats that have defined the fates of Dasani and those she loves. These actors are caring but inadequate, or they are unsympathetic, even cruel. The most important observation in the book is that the various agencies that should provide a social safety net in fact strangle the individuals they seek to save.
Elliott does not always allow this poignant narrative to speak for itself. Instead, the reader encounters tendentious connections between Dasani’s tragic circumstances and the sordid racial history of the United States. There are prolonged asides about slavery and Jim Crow, as well as allusions to gentrification and economic inequality, but there is no articulation of a clear causal connection between these phenomena and the unyielding string of crises in Dasani’s life. At times the book exhibits what the political scientist Adolph Reed has described as ‘ontological views of racism as an animate force that transcends time and context’, along with their corollary, a ‘preference for invoking historical analogies in lieu of argument’. This is an approach that fails sufficiently to explain the specific ‘mechanisms through which contemporary inequalities are reproduced’.
At the end of one chapter, Elliott tells us that Brooklyn was ‘built on the backs of slaves’. She references the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at a local park, where the remains of whites and blacks imprisoned by the British during the Revolutionary War are interred, and where those who ‘perished in the cause of liberty’ and ‘spirits of the departed free’ are memorialised. The juxtaposition of black death and the language of liberty and freedom is used to suggest the falseness of the promise of the American experiment for African-Americans like Dasani. But while certainly evocative, such passages misrepresent the forces haunting Dasani’s family, which are behavioural and structural – they are contemporary.
Everyone involved in this story had the capacity to make better choices at key moments in their lives. Although Chanel and Supreme ‘promised to do better’ and get ‘real jobs’, their ‘criminal records, their periodic relapses, their daily attendance at the drug treatment clinics upon which custody of their children rests’ got in the way. There were also moments when Dasani and her parents gathered the wherewithal to do the right thing, only to be thwarted by rules, agencies or social workers meant to help them. Supreme complained about the dire state of their apartment to the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Instead of blaming the landlord and others who refused him assistance, the ACS portrayed Supreme as a ‘culprit’ who had ‘neglected the “hazardous” conditions of his home, and by extension his children, who are found to be “unkempt, dirty, smelly and having a foul odor”’.
Despite Elliott summoning the ghosts of America’s racial past to interpret Dasani’s experience, we don’t need to reference apparitions to understand cataclysmic present-day policy failures. Even when the poor can escape the ‘tangle of pathology’ that envelops their lives, the tangle of agencies seeking to rescue them can still relegate them to a condition of disadvantage. This tale of unrelenting human suffering underscores the meagreness of our conceptions of ‘survival’ and ‘hope’. If those terms are worth their names, they should offer the poor more than just life. After spending her childhood fighting, Dasani has earned more than the right to life and some semblance of a family. But that’s all she got. That’s poverty.