Manhood Among the Ruins

Notes on an eviction

This morning I rode through Englewood, on Chicago's South Side, with the Cook County Sheriff's department's eviction team. Most of the evictees were long gone. They'd left behind trash, mattresses, children's clothes, blaring radios, food and dirty linen. But we stopped at one house where an entire family was set to be sat out on the street.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart's office is more progressive than most. (You can click here and get a running tally of the county's jail population and breakdown of its cost.) They'd brought a social worker with them, and the officers were generally polite. But an eviction is an eviction and the fact of the law making you homeless can't really be massaged.

The adult male in the family, who was at home, seemed to grasp this. He argued with the officers and bucked in a way that was very familiar to me. He was in the living room with his spouse and their two kids. He was being emasculated in front of all of them. He had no power. His family was about to be sat out and there was nothing he could do. The officers escorted him outside. They told him to leave the immediate premises or be arrested. Outside there were men hired to haul the family's stuff into the streets.

The social worker took the mother to the back along her two kids. She asked the mother if she had a place to go. She offered referrals for shelter. One of the children, a beautiful brown boy, maybe two years old, wandered back out. "Alvin and the Chipmunks" was on TV. A bowl of cereal sat on the table. The beautiful brown boy kept yelling "chipmunk!" over and over and laughing. I thought of my father who came from home from school at age six, and found his entire life in the street. He lived on a truck with his father for two weeks after that.

When we left, the beautiful brown boy was standing on the sidewalk next to his parents. His mother held the baby on her hip. She said nothing. One of the officers wished them good luck. The man yelled in response, "You talk about us like we dead. We ain't dead. We still a family. Good luck to you." He said it in such a way that he seemed to be trying to convince himself.

Rousseau contrasts moral slavery, "the impulsion of mere appetite," with moral liberty, "obedience to the law you have set yourself." For much of American history the franchise on this kind of "moral liberty" has belonged to men. But it has never belonged to black men as much as it has belonged to white men. And in this day and age, it is increasingly not the strict franchise of men at all. This is as it should be. The past was not better. Still our notions of what men should be remain.

When I saw the father today, I saw a man without the power to set his own laws. I've seen the same pose out in the streets where men yell and threaten violence. I used to think such a display fearsome, but people who must show their power through threatening violence inhabit a low rung. They are not unprivileged. Even the threatening connotes the idea of some natural right which has eluded them, sort of like the phrase "poor white trash."

I've observed this before about the housing riots in mid-20th century Chicago. Those with the most power segregated black people through a dignified "urban renewal." Those with the least were reduced to brick-throwing, arson and riot. A few weeks ago my wife asked me if I would ever engage in cat-calling. I told her that as I am now--respected writer with a son in private school, a wife studying at an Ivy, and latte at the ready--I would not. But had things gone some other way (as they easily could have) I can't say what I'd do. Street harassment is a kind of implied violence, a tool most embraced by those who lack the power to set laws, men who are in doubt of themselves. Real men objectify women with dignity and decorum.

The macho pose, the loud talking, the insistence on violence as resolution, the boastfulness, marks the formative portion of my life. The men who participated in this behavior were no more sexist then the men I know now. But they lacked power. And they came from generations of men who lacked power. And they came up in society that claimed such power as the essence of manhood. The father standing with his family barking, homeless, was attempting to restore some of that power, to assert his dominance in the face of all events. The beautiful brown boy was watching him.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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