Review: Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America”

It is probably inevitable that readers will draw a parallel between Chris Arnade’s Dignity and J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, the hugely successful book of the author’s growing up in Jackson, Kentucky, published several years ago. Via the military (and then higher education), Vance managed to escape his childhood background. Arnade comes at the issue—the attitude that the elites have toward the less educated and unemployed in poor areas of the country—in a completely different way, though his own origins are somewhat similar to Vance’s. After becoming a financial success on Wall Street, Arnade began photographing (and eventually writing about) people surviving in Hucks Point, in the Bronx. More importantly—although he was warned that he should not go into certain areas of the Bronx—he ignored those warnings and, over time, befriended many people who live there in what he calls America’s Back Row. These are people who are unemployed, addicted, and often homeless, living on the streets or in whatever place they can seek refuge.

Arnade had been a hugely successful (meaning financially) bond trader for eighteen years. He had a Ph.D. in Physics, “lived in the best part of Brooklyn,” sent his children to private schools, and considered himself open-minded, aware of his privilege. But he was restless, aware that his long walks in the city were taking him into more dangerous areas. More importantly, he began talking to people, those who are deemed unsuccessful—and taking photographs of them (with their permission). What he discovered almost immediately was that these people want someone to listen to them, without judging them, trying to scold them, or save them. In short, dignity.

This is where Arnade’s book hits home, knocking me over. He’s a mirror of me and I suspect many readers of CounterPunch. We are concerned about social problems in the country, especially financially inequity. We give money to charities, tend to vote progressively, and have friends and associates of different ethnic backgrounds and educations. We know, however, that that’s not enough or our country wouldn’t be undergoing such distress. Often, we feel impotent about what we can do. Well, Arnade felt compelled to get involved, quitting his lucrative job and recording the lives of the people at the bottom. These are the people most of us see on the streets of big cities almost every day, asking for money. Sometimes we give them a dollar or so, afraid to give them more than that for fear that they’ll spend the money on drugs. We may hand them a granola bar or something else we keep in our cars to make us feel good about what we do.

Arnade quickly learned that many of these people congregated in and around their local McDonald’s, often for warmth and safety. “Most people didn’t ask for money, even the most desperate.” What they wanted was someone to talk to, someone who listens to them. My son is a social clinician, who has told me the same thing: people need someone to listen to them. Arnade bought them meals at McDonald’s, sometimes a package of cigarettes; sometimes he gave them a few dollars, but not enough for drugs. After a while at Hucks Point, he moved on, mostly to black neighborhoods in Buffalo, Selma, and Milwaukee. Then, finally, for balance to “poor white communities, like Prestonburg, Kentucky; Briston, Tennessee; and the Ozarks.” He put 150,000 miles on his car. He is opaque about his family’s reaction to his work and his obvious absence, presumably for lengthy periods of time.

This is how he concludes his introduction: “What [these communities] had in common was that all were poor and rarely considered or talked about beyond being a place of problems. All had been described as left behind, despite some, like Hunts Point, being adjacent to rich and successful neighborhoods…. Despite their differences—black, white, Hispanic, rural, urban—they were all similar to Hunts Point in one important way: despite being stigmatized, ignored, and made fun of, most of the people I met were fighting to maintain dignity.”

The people in many of the areas Arnade visited had lost the jobs that had given them that dignity. Industry closed, moved off to locations overseas where workers were paid less; the guarantee of security that had been there for their parents a generation or so earlier no longer existed. People left many of these communities also, stores closed, houses were abandoned. Drugs came in to tempt the people who remained. Arnade refers to a McDonald’s in Bakersfield, California as a “clubhouse for druggies.” A female addict who suffered from childhood trauma, poverty, dysfunction and abuse told him candidly about her addiction: “I am out here trying to kill myself. I want to get a gun and do it faster, but I’m too scared to blow my head off.”

But most of the people Arnade talked to and photographed were not so grim. “On the streets people share,” money (when they have sufficient), drugs, food. Communities exist. They also rely on churches, which they see as welcoming because storefront churches, especially, understand them. Moreover, the people in the back row want to stay in these communities, these towns where they were often born and grew up. “Their communities have been shattered, their sense of place and purpose ruptured, leaving them with no confidence in ‘worldly’ institutions and with a clearer sense of the importance, value, and necessity of faith in something beyond the material.” People told him that when you have nothing else, all you have is your home. “Moving would mean destroying their identity and breaking their support system of family and friends. Their happiness would be reduced. The few good things they have going for them, things that don’t cost money, would disappear.”

Regarding the racial aspect of many peoples’ lives in the communities he visited, Arnade states what few white Americans are willing to admit. He uses the example of Selma, Alabama: “Selma may be emblematic of civil rights victories, but if you look closer, it is a reminder of the destructive power of racism and the failure of the current status quo to deliver tangible results to most black Americans.” There’s still a terrible educational meritocracy in our country. Some children in poorly segregated schools and immigrant communities “don’t know anyone who went to college,” so how can that become a goal for gifted students in those schools? Also, I know from personal experience that these schools do not have college counselors steering the best students on to higher education.

The dozens of photos in Dignity are both depressing and uplifting. The man and woman in the photo on the cover look as if they are in their sixties, but they may be much younger because life in the back row ages people much more quickly than those in the middle or the front. They are seated in what appears to be a McDonald’s. There is no food in front of them but one cold drink. The man has tattoos on parts of his arms, a mustache and a beard. He’s wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt. The woman, whose arm is wrapped through the man’s, wears a green spaghetti-strap summer dress, and a fairly large crucifix hangs around her neck. She has a faint smile. Because of his facial hair, it is impossible to determine if the man is also smiling. Both convey a sense of patience, of waiting for something to happen, perhaps for food to be ready for them, but Arnade describes people who sit in McDonald’s for hours at a time. A happy couple? Well, perhaps, but more likely a couple that have suffered through a life of defeat and are waiting for the next obstacle to knock them over.

What they do convey is a sense of endurance, of survival, under much more difficult circumstances than I (and probably you) have ever encountered. And that is true of the people in many of Arnade’s photos: two old black men sitting at a table, with one cup of coffee in front of them; a Somali woman in a heavy winter coat, with a boy on a skateboard behind her who is probably her son; a black man, missing one leg, in a wheelchair in a heavy winter coat, scooting himself down a street with his one good leg and his hands; people in churches and mosques, praying; young men dressed in matching athletic suits, possibly waiting for a game; also (among the many people who could be described), a black woman holding a sign in front of her that reads: “Revolution. America Was NEVER Great! We Need to OVETHROW This System!” Amen.

The saddest photos are of men and women shooting up, sometimes with blood running down their arms, sometimes with a needle held in their mouths, truly faces of despair, of an ageing process that has been so fast that undercuts some of the more optimistic observations in Dignity. There’s a man pushing a shopping cart with two young children inside it and a black plastic bag that looks as if it may hold all of their worldly possessions. He doesn’t look that old (forty perhaps) but one can only surmise both his own future and that of the two children. Mostly, however, the photos (except for a few that show babies) are devoid of very little children.

To end on a more optimistic note, I cannot resist mentioning three photos that depict young men who appear to be flying—yes, that’s what I said, flying. The first one is, in fact, the first photo in the book immediately after the chapter heading that reads “Hunts Point.” This is the most death-defying of the three, showing two men, shirtless but wearing jeans and shoes, both well above the ground and a broken-down truck/trailer, that offers no suggestion that they could have bounced off of it. The man who is higher up (his head the lowest part of his body) looks as if he could have jumped off the building behind him but also as if he will land on his head on top of the vehicle and be killed. The second man is flying at the side of that vehicle, arms spread out, head at the top of his body also facing the vehicle. He can probably land on his feet, if he is lucky, but he’s four or five feet off the ground, his back toward the camera. Taken together, they suggest acrobats in a circus but with nothing soft to land on—especially for the man higher up.

The last photo in the “Hunts Point” section shows a teenage boy or young man with his body parallel to the ground, perhaps four or five feet above the cement below him and the water that looks as if it is being sprayed from a hydrant. He has no shirt and is dressed similarly to the two men in the first photo so it is logical to conclude that it is summer and he his cooling off. But, again, how is he going to land without hurting himself on the hard surface below him, since the water may prohibit a complete flip that he may be attempting? No fear of flying here, and that may be the point.

Finally, in the final group of photos in the book, another young man (again, shirtless but with sneakers and shorts) may be attempting to demonstrate a flip but he’s far enough up in the air that that looks not only risky but also impossible. He’s going to have to do something quite fantastic to land on his feet. But, like the two earlier photos, this one also hints at the impossible: an ability to fly. Taken together, the three photos suggest a certain kind of resilience shared by many of the people in the photos in his deeply moving photo narrative. This is what Arnade captures best—in both text and photos—a fortitude that keeps those in the back row not only alive but also in flight, a quality that those in the middle and front rows have likely forgotten or lost. As Arnade states at the end of Dignity, “We have implemented policies that focus narrowly on one value of meaning: the material. We emphasize GDP and efficiency, those things that we can measure, leaving behind the value of those that are harder to quantify—like community, happiness, friendships, pride and integration.”

Cheers for Chris Arnade. I hope his family hasn’t given up on him.

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
Chris Arnade
Sentinel, 284 pp., $30.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.