The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State. Patricia Fernandez‐Kelly. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
I am torn. For the past decade, I have eagerly waited for this book on Baltimore. I have always seen Baltimore as a worn, weary city that reached its manufacturing peak long ago and is now in a state of social crumble and disrepair. I have also seen how its crack and heroin markets add more melancholy to the gloomy row house scenery and how its suffering African American and Latino residents try to create security and meaning in an economically meaningless and insecure world. To date, the most popular sources on Baltimore come from the award‐winning drama series The Wire, and from the highly acclaimed nonfiction book The Corner. So I welcomed the chance to read The Hero’s Fight—a chance to see the bleak city from a social scientific point of view.
I was somewhat let down.
Fernandez‐Kelly bases the book on her field research and interviews with 50 African American families during the 1990s in West Baltimore. She established close ties with several of those families, even paying the parochial school tuition of four children. The main aim of the book is to provide “a progressive critique of the American State” (6). For Fernandez‐Kelly, this critique is needed because scholars often condemn conservative policies, yet fail to condemn the paternalistic liberal policies that render the poor as childlike and dependent. She claims that this is evident from how the state’s bureaucratic agents, despite their best intentions, negatively shape the meanings and survival strategies of the poor. Thus, she wants to show how this process looks from the perspective of her study participants.
Fernandez‐Kelly also aims to expand ethnography—to experiment with ways that “it can be pushed further in the twenty‐first century” and to test “the limits of ethnographic narratives while honoring theoretical analysis” (13). To do so, she provides biographical chapters that outline the lives of seven study participants. After each biography, she follows with an analytical chapter that tries to explain it theoretically. These “chapter dyads”—the biographical chapter and the analytical chapter—are meant to stand alone and make sense of one aspect of Baltimore’s poverty. This is how Fernandez‐Kelly tries to reveal Baltimore in a new way.
This is how, from the start, she runs into analytical problems.
For instance, the first biographical chapter outlines the life of D. B. Wilson, an African American man who migrated during the midcentury from rural South Carolina to Baltimore. Through a strong work ethic (and luck), he landed secure employment as a company chauffeur. His stable job and good wage eventually earned his family middle‐class security during the 1970s and early 1980s. But when he was discharged from work (the company downsized), he was forced to drive a yellow cab into retirement.
However, the analytical chapter that follows D. B. Wilson’s story proved disorienting: it abruptly switched to a textbook‐like discussion of the United States labor market in the twentieth century. At times, the chapter felt like it belonged in an entirely different book, with lots of employment graphs that had no direct links to Wilson’s life. Later in the chapter, Fernandez‐Kelly provides a general, brief history of Baltimore, which again fails to directly relate to Wilson’s upward, downward, and stagnant mobility. Instead, it was a free‐for‐all of U.S. labor market information with little focus. Fernandez‐Kelly should have weaved the contextual information into Wilson’s biography, which would have forced her to present the relevant labor market and historical material. Then readers would have seen the clear link between history, biography, and social structure.
Most of the other chapter dyads repeat the disconnection between biography and analysis. For instance, the biography of Big Floyd, a young African American man, wonderfully describes his struggles to attain both viable work and family stability despite the mother of his children being a crack abuser. But the analytical chapter that follows does not directly apply to Big Floyd’s problems. It becomes a broad, textbook‐like discussion of U.S. African American employment, with a special emphasis on the labor attainment of African American women (which is not a focus of Big Floyd’s biography). Then Fernandez‐Kelly lightly discusses masculinity, which she also does not clearly link to Big Floyd. The chapter does improve toward the end, when she introduces the views of other study participants. But much of the statistics and literature review should have been placed in endnotes; this would have allowed her to apply the relevant information directly to Big Floyd and others.
The most problematic sections of the book are Chapter 5, “Shaping the Inner City: Urban Development and the American State” and Chapter 6, “Distorted Engagement and Liminal Institutions: Ruling Against the Poor.” In these chapters, Fernandez‐Kelly finally introduces her guiding theoretical framework and her concept, “distorted engagement.” Building on Peter Evans (1995), her theoretical framework (as I interpret it) is how the United States is a “developmental state,” or a state that has some distance between public officials and special interest groups (in a broad sense). This distance then allows the United States to create neutral social policies for the public good. However, the state’s intervention is still uneven, benefitting some segments of society over others. And even when the state does intervene, it does so in a way that hurts rather than helps the intended beneficiaries (again, this is my interpretation). Fernandez‐Kelly calls this “distorted engagement.”
The problem with these two chapters is that they have too much going on. For instance, they provide an array of historical information, which seems like a broad U.S. history lesson, but one that lacks focus and teaches nothing new. And to develop her concept of “distorted engagement,” she introduces other established concepts, which again, read like long, textbook‐like discussions of those sources. More importantly, there is no coherence and no clear connections between the chapter’s information and the lives of Baltimore residents.
Do not mistake me. There are highlights to the book. The biographies are highly informative and well written. For instance, Fernandez‐Kelly presents the story of Little Floyd, who identifies as a girl while being in a boy’s body. Here, she wonderfully describes how Little Floyd navigates Baltimore through his transgender identity and how he struggles at school, at home, and in intimate relationships. However, she never analyzes his life in relation to the vast gender identity or masculinity literature. Moreover, she gives us little understanding into how Baltimore’s poor African American community interprets Little Floyd’s gender identity. Thus, Fernandez‐Kelly misses a magnificent opportunity to enhance our understanding of gender in marginal urban areas.
Another highlight is her discussion of child abuse in Chapter 8, “Down the Rabbit Hole: Childhood Agency and the Problem of Liminality.” Here, Fernandez‐Kelly nicely integrates the child abuse literature with the lives of study participants. Mainly, she shows how parents, state agencies, and children interpret child abuse policies differently—and how some children manipulate these policies to their advantage. For instance, she illustrates how some children call authorities not so much to stop parents from the physical abuse but to punish their parents for not allowing them adult‐like freedoms—fascinating data.
But it stops short. Surprisingly, Fernandez‐Kelly interrupts her Baltimore study to present child abuse data from her immigration study in south Florida. This weakens her Baltimore analysis because she had to rely on data from a different region and population to make her case stronger. She should have just expanded her Baltimore analysis to include how Baltimore children interpret corporal punishment and whether they have internalized its violence as a useful relationship strategy.
There are other book highlights, like the story of Clarise, whom Fernandez‐Kelly sponsored to attend a local private Catholic school. And there are more book sections that repeat the same unnecessarily long and unfocused literature reviews, like Chapter 10, “Paradoxes of Social Capital: Constructing Meaning, Recasting Culture.” And then there are statements where Fernandez‐Kelly disregards previous research to make it seem as though she is sailing in uncharted territory. For instance, in terms of research on young people, she states:
Although youngsters have been the subject of developmental psychology and, less frequently, of social psychology (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969), they have not been examined until recently for their theoretical import into sociology (Corsaro 2010; Lareau 2011). (156)
This is a troubling statement because many sociologists, such as Amy Best (2006), Ann Ferguson (2001), Nancy Lopez (2003), the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies (for instance, see Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson ), and many, many others have studied youth in theoretically and analytically sophisticated ways.
In terms of illegal drug markets, she states:
Literary and journalistic narratives are filled with descriptions of criminal business acumen, but sociological writings seldom examine illegal activities from a business point of view. (318)
This is another troubling statement because illegal drug market scholars, such as Terry Williams (1989), Philippe Bourgois (2003), Bruce Jacobs (1999), Timothy Black (2009), Randol Contreras (2013), and many, many, many others have all dealt with various aspects of the illegal drug market, including the entrepreneurial ability of drug dealers. In all, her neglect for previous research further weakens her book because she has no way of showing how she adds anything different or new.
It pains me to conclude that Fernandez‐Kelly adds little theoretical understanding of Baltimore. It pains me because I understand that she is truly passionate about improving the lives of marginal Baltimore residents. And this book is her attempt to show both an academic and public audience what it means to be black and poor and stifled in a city with limited job prospects and very little hope. However, the book’s analysis just never matches up with the strong biographical portraits. In fact, I often found myself hoping and waiting for the moment where it all lined up and came together. The moment never came through.
I am torn.