Elliot Liebow on Tally’s Corner

Elliot Liebow paints a vivid picture of America's urban underclass in the 1960s in Tally's Corner.

Elliot Liebow paints a vivid picture of America's urban underclass in the 1960s in Tally's Corner.

The economic downturn has been the subject of nearly endless discussion since last fall.

Whether talking about President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package, the woes of the auto industry, or the thousands of people affected by Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion Ponzi scheme, people who care about finance have had ample material to consider.

But a different group in the country has gotten far less consideration.

They are the underemployed,  the people who before the crash were already out of work and had no real prospects of getting anything substantial or steady soon.

They are the people who in many ways have stopped looking because they know their prospects are so dim.

And, in many cases, they have not just joined these ranks, but have been among them for years, if not decades.

In American cities, a disproportionate number of these folks are black men. 

The late urban anthropologist Elliot Liebow spent thousands of hours with some of these men in Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s as part of his doctoral studies at the Catholic University of AmericaTally’s Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, an intimate, poignant and ultimately somewhat depressing book about people living on America’s margins, is the product of his labors.

Liebow’s book engages on a number of levels.  

He depicts in vivid detail the world of people living on the corner, with particular attention to their calculations about jobs, their experiences with women and fatherhood, and the complex and constantly shifting relationships, alliances, rivalries and tensions between them. 

As the title implies, Tally is the book’s protagonist.  

Liebow writes evenly about the decisions the well-built and charismatic Tally makes, including his fitful work history, his intense but ultimately unsuccessful relationship with a woman he loved, his interactions with his children and his alternately brother-like then violently hostile relationships with his friends.

Of course, Tally is far from the only character. 

One of the book’s major strengths is Liebow’s ability to get inside the world and show the ever shifting network of connection and tension that makes up life on the corner. 

Liebow writes without judgment about these men’s choices, even as the reader feels his dual disappointment-at  the men when they do not show their better selves, and at the society that has created and maintained structures which make the existence of people like Tally far more likely.

Liebow also has a fascinating final chapter in which he tells the story of his efforts to gain access to the community of black men as a white outsider.  He explains the activities in which he did and did not participate and show how he is aware, even as he got tremendous access to the men, that he was not always seeing their unfiltered selves because of his whiteness.  This humility enhances his credibility and makes the reader wonder what else could have been part of the story.

A quick and accessible book,  Tally’s Corner is a sad reminder both that America’s underclass has existed for many decades and that there is great talent in our cities and rural areas that remains largely untapped. For a sobering look during a country’s time of struggle,  Tally’s Corner is well worth the time it takes to read.


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