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Uganski 1

Julia Uganski

Ms. Bradshaw

AP Literature and Composition

23 Jan. 2019

The River Runs Deep

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem “Children,” asks, “what would the world be

to us if the children were no more?” (Longfellow) The non-fiction novel, There Are No Children

Here, by Alex Kotlowitz profoundly explores Longfellow’s question. Kotlowitz examines the

relationship between children and the environments they grow up in. It would be difficult for

some to imagine waking up every morning not knowing if they will make it to the next day or to

feel as though they may never make it to adulthood. For twelve-year-old Lafayette Rivers and

nine-year-old Pharoah Rivers, the fear of dying exists every day in their lives at the Henry

Horner Homes in inner-city Chicago. In his novel, Kotlowitz chronicles the lives of the two

young, African American brothers over the span of two years from the summer of 1987 through

the summer of 1989. Focusing heavily on the mental state of each boy, Kotlowitz unveils how

going through adolescence surrounded by constant gang violence is significantly deteriorating to

the mental health of the children who grow up in these conditions.

The Henry Horner Homes, where the Rivers brothers lived, were a set of housing projects

or “publicly supported and administered housing development[s] planned usually for low-income

families” (“Housing Project”) built during the 1950s and 1960s (Kotlowitz 22). In 1987, the

Henry Horner Homes were occupied by six thousand people; four thousand of them were

children and virtually all of the people were African American (Kotlowitz 25). According to

findings by Deborah Puntenney in a Chicago housing project similar to Horner, unemployment


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of the residents was at 80%, and 90% of the families residing in the homes were under the

federal poverty line (Puntenney ¶8). It can be assumed that the Henry Horner Homes were in a

similar, if not worse, condition than the similar Chicago housing project. Lafayette and

Pharoah’s mother, LaJoe, was one of the people who were unemployed. The Rivers family relied

on welfare checks in order to get by. Getting by with only the welfare checks was made

especially difficult by the fluctuating number of people living in the apartment complex at any

given time. LaJoe, Lafayette, Pharoah, and a set of toddler triplets occupied the home at all

times. LaJoe’s three oldest children, along with their significant others and their children, also

resided in the home periodically. The money from the welfare check LaJoe received was put

toward necessities first, and having many people in the household left little room for extra

spending money. The Henry Horner Homes, as well as other housing developments in Chicago,

were scarcely funded and horribly run-down. Living conditions were practically unbearable, yet

hundreds of families endured the harsh life of the projects. The housing projects were immensely

suppressive to those living in them. It has been argued that “a permanent underclass emerged in

the United States during the 1960s and 1970s... [and that] social isolation and concentration

effects [were] especially evident among the ghetto poor who are African Americans” (Dressler

500). Constantly ridden with financial strife and surrounding gang violence, the families living in

housing projects found it arduous to escape the dangers life in the housing projects presented.

Seeing that the population in housing projects is primarily African American, perhaps the

reasons for the low-funded, poor conditions of the projects is rooted in something deeper.

The suppression of black people in the United States of America began long before the

United States of America was a country. The suppression began with importing of Africans to

the New World for the purposes of slavery. Due to African slaves being of high export value,
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“the British government in turn exerted great pressure upon [their] American colonies to develop

attitudes and laws which would support a slave economy” (Ploski 335). For decades, slavery

continued in the United States until the Civil War brought upon the Thirteenth Amendment,

which “abolished slavery and involuntary servitude” (Ploski 368). Even though the African

American people were now free, discrimination arose in new ways and quickly. For example, the

ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, a court case in 1896 revolving around whether or not public

facilities should be accessible to all people regardless of race, “paved the way for the doctrine of

separate but equal” (Ploski 357). Separate but equal was not challenged for nearly 60 years until

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, which challenged public school systems on

discrimination, thus resulting in the ruling of the unconstitutionality of creating separate schools

for black children (Ploski 357). The Civil Rights movement continued on through the 1960s and

still continues to this day, but new issues began to take center stage as time moved forward. The

increase in gang subculture skyrocketed in the 1960s through the 1980s and onward. A

subculture “consist[s] of norms, values, interests - and artifacts associated with them - that are

derivative of, but distinct from, a larger referential culture” (Dressler 499). Heavy emergence of

this subculture was

“Inspired partly by Chicago’s long mob history, partly by the nascent black-liberation

ethic of the day, and a great deal by the extraordinary money to be made, [so] Chicago’s

black gangs [soon] came to dominate the marijuana business—an enterprise model that

would soon become supercharged by cocaine and heroin” (Williamson 27).

The hardly monitored, hidden buildings of the inner-city housing projects were ideal operation

grounds for drug deals and other gang-related activity.


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For Lafayette, Pharoah, and their family, living on the first floor of their building meant

constant danger from the stray bullets flying through their windows from gun fights, as well as

the fear of firebombing. The persistent terror surrounding the two boys eventually caused

negative stress for them, resulting in alterations of the boys minds. Negative stress, or distress, is

“great mental or physical suffering, such as extreme anxiety, sadness, or pain, or the state of

being in danger or urgent need” (“Definition of ‘Distress’”). Negative stress can be caused by

many occurrences, but non-normative stressors are happenings that are common and can cause

severe distress to the mind. Non-normative stressors are not always catastrophic to a person or a

family, but they are “idiosyncratic challenges and events not typically present in families”

(“Dynamics of”). Examples of non-normative stressors may include sudden loss of income,

parental drug abuse, or the sudden death of a loved one. It is hard for adolescents to cope with

these stressors since there is no anticipatory preparations for these typically unforeseeable and

uncontrollable events, and it is made worse when it is known that these these non-normative

stressors might have greater and more dramatic mental health consequences (Adolescence in).

Not only did the boys encounter violence around-the-clock, but their father was absent from their

lives as well. Paul, their addiction afflicted father, was sometimes physically there, but mentally

he was no father figure for the boys.

Each of the Rivers boys was affected by negative stress, but some stark differences can

be noted in how each of them reacted to the stress. Pharoah eventually developed a stutter

because of the never-ending stress caused by gang violence. At some points it was so incredibly

difficult for him to speak that his mother noticed his neck muscles straining “as if he were trying

to physically push the words up and out” (Kotlowitz 53). When Pharoah’s mother, LaJoe, took

him to the health center, a counselor there said that his stutter was partly due to nerves. Pharoah
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later questioned what that meant, and his mother explained that his stutter was caused by him

becoming scared and nervous when fighting and shooting broke out (Kotlowitz 144). For

Pharoah, the stutter “acted as a kind of warning mechanism to himself to be vigilant and

cautious” (Kotlowitz 144). Not only was Pharoah’s speaking abilities impaired by the violence

that surrounded him, but also Pharoah’s ability to believe he would make it to the next day alive.

At one point, Pharoah expressed, “‘I worry about dying, dying at a young age, while you’re

little” (Kotlowitz 264). The consistent violence led Pharoah to believe that one day a bullet

would catch him and take his life; Pharoah was only eleven at the time. Not wanting to cope with

harsh realities of life, Pharoah soon began to claim he was too little to understand things. That is

why when welfare was cut off for LaJoe and the Rivers family, LaJoe chose not to burden

Pharoah with that knowledge (Kotlowitz 97). Perhaps Pharoah was not too young to understand

the situations he was in, but rather he was too young to have to endure them.

Lafayette, on the other hand, dealt with his troubles in a more withdrawn way. Lafayette

first encountered death at the age of ten when a member of one gang was shot and killed by a

member of a rival gang in the hallway of Lafayette’s building (Kotlowitz 39-40). On his twelve

birthday, Lafayette was still not safe from gunfire. He and his family instinctually rushed

themselves to the protection of their hallway floor when shots erupted outside of their apartment

complex (Kotlowitz 9). When one of his companions, Bird Leg, was shot and killed, it took a toll

mentally on Lafayette. He began to keep his feelings to himself and not talk about the brutality

around him because “Denial is simply a means of survival [there]” (Kotlowitz 54). Eventually,

after suffering another friends death, Lafayette started to become forgetful. His forgetfulness

grew enough that he could no longer remember the things he did only the day before. For

Lafayette, “Shutting out the past was perhaps the only way he could go forward or at least
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manage the present” (Kotlowitz 209). To better understand Lafayette’s situation, one must

understand some principle knowledge about mental health. Marie Jahoda, a social psychologist,

found six approaches to define mental health; two of those approaches are growth development

and self-actualization as well as integration (Borgatta 1258). Lafayette did not have a positive

relationship with either of the approaches. Growth development and self-actualization “implies

an investment in living, a concern with other people and one’s environment rather than a primary

focus on satisfying one’s own needs” (Borgatta 1258). Even though Lafayette felt responsible for

the safety of his younger siblings and was always looking after them, in time, he lost his

investment in life. Lafayette exclaimed to his mother LaJoe, “Mama, I’m real tired. I could go

outside and don't have to come back. Anytime I go outside, I ain’t guaranteed to come back”

(Kotlowitz 216). About a month later, gunfire exploded, and while everyone else ran for cover

from the window, Lafayette stayed calm and continued watching the television through all the

comotion, risking his life (Kotlowitz 216-217). Along with growth development and self-

actualization, the other approach, integration, implies that “the mentally healthy person can adapt

to stress without deteriorating” (Borgatta 1258). At one point, Lafayette had said to a friend,

“‘There are a lot of people in the projects who say… that they won’t be on the streets. But

they’re doing it now. Never say never… but I say never. My brothers ain’t set no good example

for me, but I’ll set a good example for them’” (Kotlowitz 29). The stress put upon Lafayette by

the constant violence eventually became too much for him. He soon, with his friend, Rickey,

joined a small gang of other young boys called the Four Corner Hustlers. Lafayette would also

later be arrested with four other boys for the breaking and entering of a man’s truck. Even though

Lafayette was not the one who actually committed the crime, he was still arrested along with the

other boys and was sent to court (Kotlowitz 265-266). Lafayette’s morals and strong will began
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to deteriorate as time went on because of the fear of not knowing whether or not he would make

it to the next day. Even though he still took care of his younger siblings, he started making

personal decisions that led him into trouble. The poor judgments he was making brought him

closer to the lifestyle he had previously insisted on not becoming a part of.

The significant worsening of the mental states of each boy can be attributed to the harsh

living condition placed upon them in the Henry Horner Homes and in inner-city Chicago.

Perpetual gunfire erupted and the sound traveled through the boys’ ears, becoming more

unbearable by each day. The violence changed the way Lafayette and Pharoah viewed the world.

When asked the question, “what would the world be to us if the children were no more?”

inquired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one might brush off the question, believing that no

such world would ever exist. This world, however, does exist. This world exists in the low-

income, violence-stricken neighborhoods in the inner-cities of America. This world exists in the

Henry Horner Homes where Lafayette and his brother Pharoah live. This world is best described

by the boys’ mother LaJoe when she says to Kotlowitz, “But you know, there are no children

here. They’ve seen too much to be children” (Kotlowitz).


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Works Cited

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1,

ABC-CLIO, 2001. Print.

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Accessed 27 Jan. 2019

“Housing Project.” Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam-Webster,

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Kotlowitz, Alex. There Are No Children Here. Anchor Books, 1991. Print.

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ix-xi. Print.

Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth "Children" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Maine Historical

Society, http://www.hwlongfellow.org. Accessed 27 Jan. 2019.

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EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1467-9906.1997.tb00401.x. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019. (GS)

Williamson, Kevin D. “Gangsterville.” National Review, vol. 65, no. 3, Feb. 2013, pp. 26–28.

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