Photo from And Still We Rise

True Grit

In his new book, And Still We Rise, Miles Corwin inadvertently addresses a great question of this postmodern, post-riot literary age, one that has been corrupted by celluloid urban outlaws, sullen gang confessionals and other street-redemption narratives that have become black pulp fiction: How on earth do you write meaningfully about the inner city? How do you evoke a place, and its people, without somehow invoking Monster or Menace II Society, without fetishizing poverty or using that poverty in service of a political agenda by drawing its dark-skinned habitants as either monsters or martyrs? How to write about emotional and spiritual plenty in what is primarily seen as, what is ferociously marketed as, a culture of overwhelming deprivation?

Corwin doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls as he chronicles a year in the life of 12 Crenshaw High School gifted seniors — sometimes it feels as if he slips willingly, to prove a point — but his dogged attention to story prevails, and in the end the book shines as a testament to the enormous will of its young subjects, and to the adults who try to harness that will and keep it on course. The great problem and great strength of the book is that it presents a landscape fraught with all the usual pathologies — teen pregnancy, gang violence, abusive households. But Corwin, a veteran Los Angeles Times reporter whose first book, The Killing Season, documented a long, hot summer of ride-alongs with an LAPD homicide team, generally neither shies away from nor enlarges the truth; even when he lapses at points into shopworn imagery, he never pretends to resolve the tension that exists between reality and the pop-culture maxim of “keeping it real” that fuels white, and black, romantic fascination with all things ghetto. Corwin is white, and lets us know up-front that he is an outsider, even though he grows incredibly intimate with the students and their lives; his alienness is, in fact, an integral part of this story, what shapes his own modulated but clear indignation about the gross educational and social inequities black students continually face and are expected somehow to conquer. Not that these kids are heroes, though And Still We Rise is chock-full of heroism. “This book is not about hallowed students and sainted teachers; this book is not hagiography,” Corwin writes in his introduction. “This is journalism, and I attempt to present what I observed in a fair, unflinching manner.”

What Corwin is really saying is that the profiles in courage he uncovered are so fantastic, they hardly need his spin; very sensibly he lays out his premise, establishes a tone of equanimity and then gets out of the story’s way. Or, actually, a dozen stories of a dozen students, interwoven by events, shared class time or similar histories of troubles and triumphs. The locus of action is two advanced English classes, which come to represent warring views of how best to develop the academic and social talents of the small but critical pool of Crenshaw’s identified best and brightest. One significant thing among many is that the group Corwin follows is not marginal but the school’s crème de la crème, the gifted-magnet populace that theoretically lives apart from the main-school knuckleheads in some kind of suspended privilege. They don’t. All of these students, by virtue of where and how they live and to some extent the color of their skin, are at risk. The fact that they are branded “special” in fact often deepens their problems, by complicating their relationships — with their peers, with the teachers and counselors who have such an enormous stake in their success, with parents who run the gamut from supportive to contemptuous to absentee. There is Sadi, a gifted orator, thinker and ex-quasi-gangbanger whose precarious life is transformed by reading The Great Gatsby; Miesha, guided her whole life by a caring older brother who himself once courted scholarship but wound up setting up displays for Pepsi-Cola, and fights to ensure that his sister won’t; Toya, pegged early by Cornell University for success but sabotaged by an unplanned pregnancy she tries valiantly to carry forward along with the rest of her ambitions; Sabreen, a stellar achiever who drops out because she must work full-time to support herself; studious, sweet-natured Venola, who dreams of nothing greater than attending college even as poverty threatens time and again to overwhelm her Southern-émigré family.

The centerpiece story is that of Olivia, a foster-home moll with enough smarts, style sense, determination and resourcefulness to make Erin Brockovich look like Tipper Gore. Olivia works everybody, from the county juvenile-protection system to the taxi-dance hall where she gains employment to Corwin himself, who chauffeurs her when her aging car fails and brings her novels to read when she lands in a lockup. Yet for all of her wiles, it is her desire for academic achievement that burns clearest and brightest, as it does with so many others in the book, and in the end this is the most compelling information Corwin gathers: Students with few resources, little outside inspiration, innumerable emotional obstacles and social disincentives, and virtually no time want to learn. That this happens in spite of the fact that California has lately rid itself of affirmative action and has passed a number of laws criminalizing poor youth should be heartening to everyone, even to the authors of those laws. You can take blacks out of the American Dream, it seems, but not the other way around. Not yet.

In And Still We Rise, the dream is buoyed in large part by two teachers in the gifted magnet, Toni Little and Anita Moultrie, rivals so bitter they communicate only via memos. Little teaches A.P. English to seniors; Moultrie teaches English to juniors. Little is white, single, fiercely intellectual and emotionally mercurial, passionate in her belief that students can best cultivate their own intellect and hurdle over institutional barriers by studying the classics — Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Joyce — and discovering the wealth of themselves therein. Moultrie is black, maternal, upbeat but steel at the core, given to wearing African-inspired garb and doling out life lessons to students she regards as nothing less than her own children, standard-bearers of their people’s future. She teaches some classics but also insists on a number of black authors not in the official curriculum. Both are deeply vested in their students; both rake them over the coals, take them to heart — perhaps too much; both nurture them the best way they know how. Yet the acrimony between these two is palpable, even from Corwin’s cool vantage point, and it is rife with enough racial irony and suspense to keep one reading through to the end, if only to find out whether Little will have a complete nervous breakdown, or whether Mama Moultrie — as she often calls herself — will expand her famous altruism to include her intractable alter ego.

Corwin does so much right that his missteps are ultimately forgivable. In pursuit of truth, he faithfully records the black English that peppers classroom discussions; he describes the tableaux of blond cornrows and gleaming earrings and droopy pants. These are loaded images, which is not Corwin’s fault but something he decides not to mitigate, a bit to the detriment of the book’s great purpose. At other points he is too infatuated with the “palm-tree ghetto,” too enthralled with the Hollywood sign that looms over South-Central like a distant, taunting feudal lord. In fact, the Crenshaw District is the most hospitable corner of what’s come to be known as South-Central; despite the proliferative gangs and other dubious activity, it is hardly a bullet-ridden South Bronx or a fallow Detroit. It takes more than jacarandas blooming over Crenshaw’s dull concrete to convey just how close and how far away the lure of Hollywood and its quick fortunes are to these students. Things are more complicated than that, as Corwin knows; even the roughnecks have shopped at Bloomie’s. Still, Corwin proves what Toni Little sets as her teaching principle and point of discovery each semester, year in and year out: In each of us, there is a little of all of us.

AND STILL WE RISE: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City High School Students | By MILES CORWIN William Morrow | 418 pages | $25 hardcover


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