Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate. (Anonymous)” In the 1980 Chicago slums this quote couldn’t be truer. The slums were/are a terrible place for not just children, but everyone to live. The Henry Horner homes in particular are full of death, drugs, and poverty. This may not seem like the greatest place for children to be raised, but for some, they know nothing different. The constant gang trouble, drug trafficking, and hiding from stray bullets are an everyday occurrence for people living in these government housing complexes.
The devastation is a never-ending cycle. The parents get into drugs and violence, and the children have no choice but to imitate their parents and everyone around them as they grow up. The end of the cycle is unseen for most, but for some, such as Lajoe Rivers that cycle will end with her youngest five children. “But you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children. (Lajoe)” The plot begins in the summer of 1987, the boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers are enjoying their time near the tracks searching for snakes.
Here, the boys could be children. They could let their imaginations run wild and they could just take a break from the horrible life they have waiting at home. Lafeyette and Pharoah are a part of large family living in the Chicago projects. Their mother, Lajoe, has eight children; the three older ones have slowly fallen off the deep end, but the five younger have a chance to do good. Lajoe takes great pride in her children and does everything she can to raise them to be upstanding citizens and stay out of trouble.
She is greatly disappointed in the way her first three turned out, so she makes it a point to keep the younger kids under strict supervision. Because of the absence of their drug addicted father, Lafeyette, a child himself, takes the role of man of the house. He looks out for his siblings and takes care of his mother. Even when Lajoe loses her welfare check, her Lafeyette stands strong and reassures her it will all be ok. During the course of their lives, the children face everything from drugs, violence, rape, imprisonment, and worse of all, death.
They learn quickly that they must grow up fast to overcome the despair that shadows their everyday lives. Lajoe tries hard to preserve the youth of Pharoah and the triplets. Because of this, most of the responsibility gets put on Lafeyette and his childhood is quickly taken from him. Throughout the boy’s lives, there are significant events that shape the way they grow up and how they learn to cope with their surroundings. For Lafeyette, losing several close friends to violent deaths results in him hating gangs, and also resenting police officers.
Pharoah eventually finds himself having bad feelings towards the white people that just offer ridicule and never help, to the worthless black boys. Racism plays a huge role in the boy’s lives, and the older they get the more they can see and understand it. But, in the end, Lajoe is successful in what she dreamed and hoped for. Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the triplets all turn out to be good kids and for the most part, stay out of trouble. The housing complex is fixed up with the arrival of Vincent Lane, and news of Terence getting his GED warms his mother’s heart.
Among the main characters is a young boy, Pharoah Rivers. Pharoah, around nine years old in the beginning of the book is the fifth child born of Lajoe Rivers. Life in the projects takes a great toll on poor young Pharoah. He is old enough to know what is going on, but still young enough that he hides behind his youth to shield himself from the terrifying experiences of most children living in the Henry Horner homes. Throughout the story, Pharoah’s character changes on an up and down roller coaster. In the beginning he is a very shy, innocent, youthful young boy who tends to keep to himself.
He spends most of his days daydreaming to escape his scary life. He thinks about the trees, the dog, the snakes, all the smaller things in life and it makes him happy. He is often ridiculed for being small for his age, but his drive for knowledge makes up for his size and he excels in school. Although Pharoah struggles with a stutter and it seems to get worse throughout most of his childhood, he manages to overcome it and takes great pleasure in answering questions and speaking out in class. His mother relished in the fact that her son was so brilliant for his age, and often bragged about the young boy. Pharoah is Pharoah. He’s going to be something,” she would tell friends. “When he was a baby, I held him up and asked him if he’d be the one. I’ve always wanted to see one of my kids graduate from high school. I asked him if he’d be the one to get me a diploma. ” (Lajoe, 116) I feel that out of all the characters in the book, I relate most to Pharoah. Although I am not a small black boy living in the projects, nor do I have any similar life experiences; our personalities parallel in several different ways. Growing up I was the small stick girl that everyone else would make fun of.
Because of my bony figure I was often teased and thought to be younger than I really was. And like Pharoah, I learned to look past how small I was and build all my strength and power with my mind. I excelled in school every year of my life. Through elementary school I was awarded certificates for my achievements and enrolled into the “Talented and Gifted” program at my school. I was smart for my age, almost a couple years ahead in some subjects. This persisted through middle school, high school, and even through college. I strive to do my best, just as Pharoah does.
I can imagine that Pharoah’s mind looks somewhat like mine did when I was his age. I had the biggest imagination and often used it as an escape from normal life. No, normal life for me was not drugs, gangs, and street violence; but I still had a sometimes empty and scary reality. My military family and I lived overseas all of my childhood and my father was often absent due to fighting for our country. Every day he was gone my siblings and I would wonder if we would ever get to see him again, or if he would be killed doing his job and never return.
That was my scary reality, and the constant absence of my father caused me to daydream and life in a fantasy world most of my days. Because of this, I can understand why Pharoah tries so hard to hold onto his childhood and how he can life every day in a daydream to escape the harsh reality of his life. “As the young children pursued each other from one end of the parking lot to the other, Pharoah stood by himself on the building’s back stoop. He leaned on the black metal bannister. Chin in hand, and stared into space, paying little attention to the shrieking children just a few yards away. (Kotlowitz, 61) Poverty, the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support; condition of being poor (Webster Dictionary). Poverty is a constant issue for not only the America, but all over the world. This theme runs the course of the books narrative, and is clearly shown in the lives of Project inhabitants. Throughout the story the cycle of poverty is clearly shown. The living conditions and dependence on welfare is a definite example of what poverty looks like. Gangs run the streets, drugs run the gangs; and with both of these comes violence.
For most in the Projects, the only way to live is through illegal activity. Often it is easier to get into and faster to make money. And for most, it is nearly impossible to escape. In the book there is mention of “The Other America”, referring to the projects. Because America strives to be the greatest country citizens often try to hide the poverty that runs our inner city streets. For the wealthy it is easier to just turn away and pretend this “other America” doesn’t exist. “Horner sat so close to the city’s business district that from the Sears Tower observation deck, tourists could have watched Lafeyette duck gunfire on his birthday. (Kotlowitz, 13) Poverty is a reality for many Americans. The constant reliance on food stamps, welfare, and government housing is what these people live like. The sad thing is that Americans would rather pretend this doesn’t go on in our country than do anything to fix it. For me, this doesn’t make any sense. Because my mother works for First Steps; a government funded program for underprivileged families with children with disabilities, I have seen firsthand what poverty in America looks like.
When I help my mother on her job and we enter the run down unsubsidized houses or the broken down trailers and shacks it gives me the overwhelming feeling of hate and anger towards our government and people. There is no reason there should be so much poverty in our country. I feel if American citizens would stop worrying about everyone else in the world and just try to fix our country; a majority of poverty could be eliminated. “Many times, American citizens talk about helping abroad in underdeveloped countries.
As an international student, I appreciate that. However, if there is poverty right across the street, why not help those of where you live? ” (Molina, 1) Exactly! Why are we sending so much money out of our nation? In the end all that is going to do is hurt us. America is not the only country to have problems with sending money away; a British writer states that it would be immoral to withdraw their funds to lesser countries, but the rich should also be more generous in the sense that they give more to their own country, not everyone else (Glennie).
A little generosity is all it takes. Ther are many people in America that have millions of dollars. It doesn’t take much to feed a needy family, so why do they hoard the money? Due to the governmental changes, and the economy failing, the American Government is putting more and more of its people into poverty. The numbers of jobless, homeless, starving families is reaching new heights and isn’t going to stop until people help each other out (Shaft). The first step to fixing poverty in America is to look and realize it’s here.
There should not be people growing up in the “Other America”, this should not exist. Americans need to come together and get the country straight. I know it is easier said than done, but nothing will get done until someone first says something about it. People like Lajoe and her family don’t need to live in fear, not in the greatest country in the world.