Friday, January 27, 2012

Between Good and Ghetto

Do you like Elijah Anderson's work? Were you influenced by Patricia Hill Collins? Are you interested in the concept of "doing gender"? Want to read an excellent ethnography? Are you concerned about violence in America's inner-cities? Do you want to learn about the complicated conditions in which African-American girls come of age in poor neighborhoods? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then I recommend Between Good and Ghetto by Nikki Jones.

Many of us try to write with race, class, gender, and sexuality in mind. It is easier attempted than achieved. Jones accomplishes the task as she shows how girls and young women navigate violent neighborhoods (and in some cases, violent relationships). In an effort to be "good," girls carefully avoid dangerous places. They stay home to avoid trouble and sometimes limit their close friendships, because being a good friend means fighting occasionally on behalf of a friend. A "ghetto girl" develops an identity as a fighter and gains respect and status for her ability to fight, and consequently can survive in "male spaces" and dangerous places. The lives of girls are characterized by fluidity between and within the expectations of good and ghetto (p. 155).

Jones spent three years doing fieldwork in Philadelphia. She interviewed males and females and made observations in several places: homes, neighborhoods, high school, the trolley, court, and more. The book offers astute sociological analysis. It's a story located within urban sociology. Jones was encouraged by journal reviewers to locate her work in the criminological literature on gender and crime--in effect, that would have meant treating her subjects as deviants and victims. But she told the stories of African-American girls in the way that she wanted: within the perspective of urban sociology and Black feminist thought. She describes the circumstances of poor, urban, Black girls. She shows how power dynamics permeate girls' relationships with men. Jones writes: "With every new story, my own frustration over what is allowed to happen to Black girls in general, and to poor, Black girls in particular, soars. These girls are made more vulnerable because of their race, age, and economic status" (p. 161). "The battle for respect, dignity, and positive life chances," she writes, "is not one these girls should have to fight on their own" (p. 162).

The book has me thinking about violence in new ways, and has challenged my thinking about normative gender expectations. It gives nuanced meaning to terms like "ghetto," "inner-city," and "baby daddy," words that are often carelessly used and misunderstood in everyday life and in popular culture. This book will help me be a better teacher in the three courses I teach most: Introduction to Sociology, Social Psychology, and Race & Ethnicity. Having said that, it would seem to benefit anyone teaching any course in Sociology.

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