Images © ted.com
Welcome, welcome! We’re glad you’re reading with us, or at least reading this post. Whether you’ve joined us in the past, followed our posts and reviews, browsed Bookly as a good distraction during the work day, or if this is your first time visiting… either way, welcome!
We’re glad you’re here. Especially this month. This July we’ve selected an important non-fiction read. Since in July we celebrate and reflect on our American history, we chose a story to teach us more about who we are as Americans… On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman.
Goffman is an American sociologist who currently works as an assistant professor at The University of Wisconsin—Madison. Published in 2014, this book is Goffman’s ethnographic account of the six years she spent living in West Philadelphia (sorry, but you know where our head went with that. Just us?) observing the impact of mass incarceration and policing on low-income, urban, African-American communities. She started this research during her sophomore year at Penn and it eventually evolved into her doctoral thesis, and this book.
When it first debuted, On the Run was named by The New York Times as one of “100 notable books of 2014.” The New York Times Book Review also named it as an “Editor’s Choice” selection. And the book only gained popularity when Goffman’s TED Talk received over 1 million views.
However, her book has since been met with a series of controversies. First, there’s the issue of who is allowed to speak for whom. An understandable question addressed in a New York Times Magazine article this January:
“Above all, what frustrated her critics was the fact that she was a well-off, expensively educated white woman who wrote about the lives of poor black men without expending a lot of time or energy on what the field refers to as ‘‘positionality’’ — in this case, on an accounting of her own privilege.”
And then there are the inconsistency issues in her book. A few sources (Philadelphia Police and hospital administrators) are unable to confirm a few of her stories as they’re told in the book. But who do you trust in that situation? There are a few other oddities and inconsistencies as well. However, is the author to blame? Or does the fault lie with her field? This seems to be a common theme. As explained by Leon Neyfakh in a Slate article last June, “Goffman changed details and scrambled facts in order to prevent readers from deducing the identities of the people she was writing about. In the process, she made her book all but impossible to fact-check.”
Several thought-leaders have come to her defense placing blame on sociological formalities instead. Her current employer (University of Wisconsin – Madison), her publishers, and her thesis adviser have all stood in support of her and her book.
Either way it sounds like this book will be a learning experience. We’re excited to read Alice Goffman’s story. We hope you’ll join us!
“Forty years in, the tough on crime turn in American politics has spurred a prison boom of historic proportions that disproportionately affects Black communities. It has also torn at the lives of those on the outside. As arrest quotas and high tech surveillance criminalize entire blocks, a climate of fear and suspicion pervades daily life, not only for young men entangled in the legal system, but for their family members and working neighbors. Alice Goffman spent six years in one Philadelphia neighborhood, documenting the routine stops, searches, raids, and beatings that young men navigate as they come of age. In the course of her research, she became roommates with Mike and Chuck, two friends trying to make ends meet between low wage jobs and the drug trade. Like many in the neighborhood, Mike and Chuck were caught up in a cycle of court cases, probation sentences, and low level warrants, with no clear way out. We observe their girlfriends and mothers enduring raids and interrogations, “clean” residents struggling to go to school and work every day as the cops chase down neighbors in the streets, and others eking out a living by providing clean urine, fake documents, and off the books medical care. This fugitive world is the hidden counterpoint to mass incarceration, the grim underside of our nation’s social experiment in punishing Black men and their families. While recognizing the drug trade’s damage, On The Run reveals a justice system gone awry: it is an exemplary work of scholarship highlighting the failures of the War on Crime, and a compassionate chronicle of the families caught in the midst of it.”
— On the Run back blurb
Don’t forget to share your thoughts with us by using #booklymark.