Models Monday: The Importance of Names

John Brooks, photo featured in the book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago
John Brooks photo featured in the book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago

In October 1994, two boys, ten and eleven-years-old, dropped five-year-old Eric Morse from the 14th floor of the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman, residents of the notorious complex, documented their witness of the tragedy in a radio documentary they named Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric MorseThese very young teens, fifteen and sixteen-years-old, were thought ideal ethnographers of “ghetto life” as a result of the previous NPR documentary they recorded in March 1993 that Jones titled Ghetto Life 101. David Isay, the author originally considered to deliver content for a public radio station airing stories concerning race and ethnicity in Chicago, served as the producer and editor of their work. Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicagoblends the two award winning radio documentaries into a cohesive story documenting the lives of the occupants of Chicago’s oldest African-American public housing development.

In the book’s Introduction, Isay writes that after Eric Morse’s lethal fall, “LeAlan and Lloyd spent about a year recording the story (through most of 1995). Over the course of their investigations, they became the nation’s experts on a tragedy which made headlines across the country when the two boys convicted of the crime became the youngest kids ever sentenced to prison in this country” [emphasis mine] (20). Since when did residing in a place make someone an “expert”? Are they, then, responsible for naming the two children in the photograph above “Ghetto Kids?” Are they responsible for the “Ghetto Glossary” proceeding the content? Were these young men attempting to cite their estrangement from citizenship in creating this Glossary? Do they see themselves as foreigners? Why is it so oddly compelling to witness how people resist, survive, and live in the terrible places they are forced to occupy and it not be equally compelling to scrutinize the people who put them there? Are these young men “experts” regarding the system that has ghettoized poverty? How would they caption  photographs of the children born to the people who maintain such systems? “Privileged Children,” or “Luck of the Draw Kids,” perhaps? ” What kind of “privilege” is this? Seems more like a “flaw” to me.

Did anyone awarding these children prizes for their portrayals of the ravages of urban poverty ever tell them to refuse to accept “Ghetto Kid” as a proper name? If they didn’t, then those decision makers should be called “Shameless.”

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