Seeking Respect in Back Row America

Book - 2019
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Widely acclaimed photojournalist Chris Arnade shines new light on America's poor, drug-addicted, and forgotten - both urban and rural, blue state and red state - and indicts the elitists who've left them behind.

Once or twice a generation, an author reveals what life is like for the truly needy and disenfranchised. Like Jacob Riis in the 1890s, Walker Evans in the 1930s, or Michael Harrington in the 1960s, Chris Arnade cuts through the jargon and abstractions to expose the reality of our current class divide in stark pictures and unforgettable true stories.

After abandoning his Wall Street career, Arnade decided to document poverty and addiction in the Bronx, spending years interviewing, photographing, and becoming close friends with homeless addicts, hanging out in drug dens and McDonald's in the South Bronx. Then he started driving across America to see how the rest of the country compared. He found the same types of stories everywhere, across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and geography.

The people he got to know, from Alabama to California and Maine to Nevada, gave Arnade a new respect for the dignity and resilience of what he calls America's Back Row-those who lack the credentials and advantages of the Front Row. The strivers in the Front Row, with their advanced degrees and upward mobility, see the Back Row's forms of meaningas worthless, and then tell them they are wasting their time staying in dying towns or cities. Why not move for better jobs?

The responses from the Back Row-about the comforts of faith, community, family, and tradition-are seen as backward. But the Back Row finds love, companionship, and dignity in surprising places-in drug dens, community colleges, churches, and even in McDonald's. In Arnade's pictures and writings, the suffering and flawed are also seen searching for dignity in the midst of loss and humiliation.

As Takeesha, a woman in Hunts Point, told Arnade, she wants the secular elites to see her as she sees herself- "a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God." This book is his attempt to help the rest of us truly see, hear, and respect millions of people who've been left behind.
Publisher: [New York, NY] : Sentinel, 2019.
ISBN: 9780525534730
Branch Call Number: 362.50973 ARNADE
Characteristics: x, 284 pages : color illustrations ; 25 cm


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Mar 05, 2021

Props to this author for ditching his Wall Street, cushy life to travel around the country with no other goal than to listen and get to know folks totally different from him. He has a good eye and the photographs are well framed and colorized, capturing the soul of the people in his lens. Would categorize as a serendipitous ethnography - I don't think the author meant for it to be ethnographic, but he used the basic methods to similar effect. The people he speaks to are wise and have important things to say, which he does a good job of recording faithfully, letting each person have their say.

Aug 23, 2019

This book is a beautiful compilation of prose and photographs, one man's attempt to share stories from people in "back row America": the places from which most have fled and where no one goes on vacation. His journey and the people he finds are not remarkable, but are moving in this unique slice of life tale. The author teaches readers that the people and events about which he writes are a worthy part of the same ordinary world as you. The author could have focused a bit less on his own journey and role, but I feel as though he ultimately stayed true to the goal of letting people share their stories in a dignified manner. As well, this book falls somewhat awkwardly in physical size and genre between a standard non-fiction book and a coffee table photography book. However, the storytelling and photographs are artfully paired. The message of this book is powerful, timely, and significant in the world today. It's not a pleasant or fun read, but it's a book that can change you.


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