Models Monday: Books and the Generous Poor

I watched the 2009 Academy Award nominated documentary film Trouble the Water this weekend and it was an enthralling feature. The film combines footage that Kim Roberts captures while she and her husband Scott are trapped inside their home in the 9th ward as Hurricane Katrina bears down on New Orleans. The film also chronicles the aftermath of these events. At one point in Kim’s film, she tells neighbors who are preparing to make their way out of the city that she would leave too if she “could afford the luxury.”

Poverty plays such a central role in the narrative that it easily becomes an effective character in the film. As a result of being poor, Kim and Scott cannot escape the storm; many of their neighbors get displaced; some of them die. Though the fact of death seems hard to trump, some of the most disturbing scenes in the film involve the U.S. military. Kim, Scott, and their neighbors sought higher ground at a U.S. Naval base not far from their homes after the Coast Guard recommended the location. Though the base has approximately 200 family housing units and over 500 evacuated rooms in the barracks, Kim and Scott’s group was refused. When Scott asked a guard if the women and children could be accommodated, he reports that a guard told him to “get off the property or they were going to start shooting.” One soldier disputes Scott’s report that soldiers loaded their M16s, another soldier appears to uphold Scott’s version of events. Refused shelter at the Naval base, Kim and Scott’s band moves on down the road to Frederick Douglass High School where no one is there to refuse them. In the scene’s aftermath, soldiers are featured outside of Douglass High School discussing their recollections of encountering the group. One soldier describes the scene as “a wreck” and another claims that he means “no offense to civilian people” but he claims from what he witnessed, civilians “have no concept of how to survive.” It seems to have escaped this soldier’s attention that this particular group has survived one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Despite the hostility directed at its own citizens, President Bush awarded the Navy officers a commendation for “defusing a potentially violent confrontation.”

Kim and Scott offer a representation of poverty that defies the government’s view of them. From the government’s perspective, poor people are generally violent and immoral. Where they clearly understood the poor as figured in Kim, Scott, and their group as pathological, the story that Kim tells through her camcorder offers a narrative of such authenticity that the one told through the film’s broader narrative has greater credibility and challenges the myth of the rapacious poor. Through Kim’s lens, the viewer sees she and Scott extend their home and space to neighbors who would have been alone otherwise; and though they have few resources, we see them sharing all of what they have with those they shelter. While the film can tolerate an understanding of these obviously poor people being generous and thoughtful, the government cannot. I thought about such intolerance as I read and thought about Little Free Libraries this weekend.

Last weekend, I went to the Decatur Book Festival and saw some of the Little Free Libraries being auctioned off there. These reflected the creativity of builders throughout the country who have taken up this project. Little Free Library is a national organization and the project involves communities creating tiny public libraries where community members are free to exchange books. When Little Free Libraries are officially established, their location gets placed in Google Maps and there is additional written documentation of the library’s history thereby blending old and new technologies. 

As Little Free Libraries seek to use books to build community, they suggest that lacking an ethos of sharing and generosity involves all communities and not just poor ones. Frankly, the hostility often shown in doctors offices regarding magazines not being removed reflects the ethos in some elite communities over resources, particularly reading material, and a need for a greater spirit of generosity.

The starting bids for the Little Free Libraries at the Decatur festival began at $300. Though I didn’t sign-up, I like what they represent. As it stands, my version of exchange takes on the vernacular approach like that of Kim and Scott: I assist however I can. In considering their story, it raised issues for me about what “community” actually meant as neighborhoods installed their adorable little libraries. Did it only refer to people who lived on your block or had people intended a broader understanding of “community?” To that end, I wondered how comfortable Kim and Scott would feel “borrowing” books from a library on a block where they did not reside; I also wondered if they would be welcome to do so. In other words, issues of race and poverty, trust and suspicion definitely interact with this very engaging public service project.

Little Free Libraries highlight the rarity of the sharing of resources but a simultaneous desire of doing so. Even though they did not have very much to give away materially, what little they had, Kim and Scott shared it. The government’s view of poor people as exemplified through the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina rejects recognizing the poor as anything but pathological. I wonder if communities across the country offer a better model of recognizing the generous poor.


One thought on “Models Monday: Books and the Generous Poor

  1. I appreciate your contemplation on the social consequences of stigmatizing–no, to your point–pathologizing–the poor. Having grown up poor, and still being intimate with poverty among my relatives, friends, and neighbors, I can attest to the kind of generosity you acknowledge here. The “generous poor” is a template for my understanding of community, as it in fact defined my childhood–and insured my survival!

    I heard about the Little Free Libraries project and their appearance at the DBF on a local radio program, and they seemed to be presented as a kind of art project; the potential excitement of sharing books through such a creative venue wasn’t lost on me, but it also had an air of nostalgic “fellow-goodwill” about it. And your concern about access is key. I wondered which communities would be the lucky recipients of those hand-crafted miniature libraries–to riff on your example, would Kim and Scott even live within miles, much less “blocks,” of these charming little repositories?

    To your larger point, though, can we make more visible the ways that folks in poor communities around the country–folks most at risk–are making ways to share with one another on the daily, in ways both expected and not–as acts of human integrity… and far from the glare of the self-congratulatory (and well-underwritten) media displays of “largesse” or the cynical, cyclical “exceptional” tales that become fodder for politicians? How people are supporting households of out-of-work family members, or sheltering foreclosed-on friends–or the quiet economy of bartering that is sustaining financially beleaguered folks in ways that the better-off may be oblivious to?

    Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness…your generosity.

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