The story is set in Henry Horner Homes (a low-income public housing project), ("the projects") and the surrounding neighborhoods in the inner city of Chicago, Illinois. The time frame of the novel is from the summer of 1987 through September 29, 1989
He is one of two brothers who live in the projects of Chicago and who are the subject of Alex Kotlowitz’s exposé of life for the children of the run-down inner city. Lafeyette is the one who is most affected by the dying of his dreams and the loss of his friends to violence.
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He is the other brother and the one who is most outwardly sensitive to life in the inner city. He worries whether he will grow up, is easily reduced to tears, and hides behind his youth to avoid worrisome situations. He is also the more intelligent of the two brothers and will no doubt be more successful in escaping the life he despises in the projects.
The boys’ mother, LaJoe is a deeply emotional person who hates the life her children must endure. She worries constantly about them and is their rock. She, too, however, feels the stress of life where she frequently hears gunfire and even has bullet holes in her apartment walls. She always finds a way to bring a little cheer into their lives even as she prepares them for the possibility of a future as bleak as they fear.
He is the older brother of Lafeyette and Pharoah and the one who is his mother’s greatest disappointment. He has, for most of his life, been her favorite, but he can’t keep himself away from the wrong crowd and finally ends up serving an eight year prison term.
A friend to both Lafeyette and Pharoah, he is an unsettling influence on them. He is sweet and well liked, but he is too often in trouble and just might pull them down with him.
She is LaJoe’s niece and only the second member of the entire family to graduate from high school. She is their combined success story and brings disappointment when she doesn’t move out of Horner right away or get a good job.
LaJoe’s husband and the father of all her children, he is a constant disappointment to the family, because of alcohol and drug problems.
A young black male who is a success story and a special role model for Lafeyette. His death at the hands of the police is devastating to the younger boy.
Actually named Leonard Anderson, Porkchop is the River's boys’ cousin. He is unusually quiet and shy, but filled with a nervous energy that keeps him constantly in motion. He grins rather than talks and he is inseparable from Pharoah.
LaJoe’s best friend, she provides support when LaJoe is feeling her lowest. She also acts like a surrogate mother when the kids need her.
These are two boys who die violently and have an intense impact on Lafeyette.
He is a gang leader who holds absolute control over Horner. He is the leader of the Vice Lords and eventually receives thirty years in prison.
She is a little girl who witnesses the mass murder of four family members and is nearly killed herself. She has the courage to stand up in court and testify against the two men who killed them.
She is the boys’ older sister and the oldest child in the family. She has three children, the youngest of which was born drug-addicted. Lafeyette feels his mother should throw her out of their house because of the drugs, but LaJoe can never reject a member of her family.
THERE ARE NO CHILDREN HERE - STUDY GUIDE / BOOK SUMMARY
The protagonist of a story is the main character who traditionally undergoes some sort of change. The protagonists of this book are Lafeyette and Pharoah. Together they face many obstacles that young black boys endure living in the inner city of Chicago. They have different ways of coping, but are better at facing the worst the city has to offer than are many of the other young black children who live around them.
The antagonist of a story is traditionally the force that provides an obstacle for the protagonist. The antagonist does not always have to be a single character or even a physical character at all. The antagonists in this book are many: the social system that creates impoverishment for minorities; the corruption and mismanagement of the Chicago Housing Authority; the gangs and their warfare; and the drugs they sell. The two boys face these problems each and every day, and any one of these antagonists could be the end of them. However, they also must face their own inner demons that may lead to either of them giving up and giving in to the corruption of the inner city.
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The climax of a plot is the major turning point that allows the protagonist to resolve the conflict. The climax of this story occurs when Lafeyette is arrested for vandalizing a car, a crime he insists he did not commit; he is allowed to go home while awaiting sentencing.
Lafeyette is sentenced to a year’s probation and 100 hours of community service. The author gets both boys into a private school even though Lafeyette is unable to meet the challenge and returns to public school. Pharoah thrives in the school’s atmosphere, getting good grades and learning to overcome his tendency to daydream and forget his responsibilities. Rickey begins running drugs for one of the local gangs and is arrested for carrying a long butcher knife. He is placed back into juvenile detention and his mother believes if he doesn’t get out of the projects, he’ll either hurt someone else or be hurt himself. The CHA finally cleans out the horrendous mess in the Henry Horner basements and reclaims the buildings from the gangs. Dawn and Demetrius finally get an apartment with ABLA Homes, but end up with another child. Both are still looking for permanent work. Terrence expects to get out of prison sometime in 1991.
SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
Lafeyette and Pharoah are two brothers growing up in the horrors of inner city Chicago in a low-income public housing project in 1987. The author asks their mother for permission to follow their lives for two years as a way of exposing life in “the other America.” He follows and catalogs their disappointments, joys, and tragedies over those two years, and in the process, shows the readers what so many people in our country would rather ignore.
Parts of America are War Zones
The first important theme is: parts of America are warzones. Inner city Chicago as examined in this book is a place where children live in sub-standard housing, often with only one parent (usually their mother), and who face gang violence everyday. They frequently have little to eat, do poorly in school, have a miniscule support system, and are let down by their own government. Their futures are bleak and the rest of America would rather hide its head in the sand and pretend these children are doing fine.
The Ravages of Poverty
The second important theme involves the ravages of poverty. The Rivers family is in a “Catch-22:” they will never escape the projects without a good job, but they can’t get a good job without an education and they can’t get an education, because they have no money. Of course, they have no money, because they can’t get a good job! It is an existence that defeats them at every turn. It will only be with outside help that they’ll be able to break the chains that bind them and outside help is slow to arrive.
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Yet another theme is racism. The Rivers family and all the poor blacks living in their neighborhood repeatedly face the white people who would rather ignore them and pretend that they don't exist. The gangs are allowed to rule with impunity in the community, the CHA is mismanaged and no one cares, innocent black children are killed, no newspaper covers it, and the law seems unwilling to investigate it, and the people in the projects are often arrested for crimes they didn’t commit. The miracle is seen to be that good people like the Rivers family can survive in spite of everything stacked against them.
The Deferral of the Dream
The final theme is that of the dream deferred. In his poem, Langston Hughes says that having to put off one’s dream can mean many things. It can dry up and blow away forever. Its loss can fester like a sore and create deep bitterness. The bitterness can then be like rotten meat, stinking inside you and reminding you of what you could have had. Its loss can weigh you down like a heavy load or it can make you explode with rage. All of these outcomes are possible for Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the other children in the projects, and the author wants us all to wake up to the consequences of ignoring the plight of a dream deferred.
The mood is almost entirely dark and gloomy because of the daily existence the two boys face. However, there are moments of hope such as Pharoah’s second place in the spelling bee, Dawn’s graduation from high school, and Lafeyette’s deep compassion for children. By the end, the mood seems even more hopeful as Pharoah thrives at the private school and Lafeyette seems to be finding his way as well.
Alex Kotlowitz was born and raised in New York City. He is the son of an author with four novels to his credit (Robert Kotlowitz) and a social worker mother. His mother Billie, who died in 1994, ran the Thematic Studies Program at John Jay College. His brother, Dan, is a professor of Theatrical Lighting Design at Dartmouth. Alex attended and graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
Prior to working for the Chicago bureau of the Wall Street Journal beginning in 1984, he worked on an Oregon cattle ranch for a year and then contributed to a local alternative newspaper "The Lansing Star", in Lansing, Michigan for a year. For the next five years he freelanced, writing articles and contributed to The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on PBS television, the New York Times, and National Public Radio. His focus remained tied to urban affairs, poverty, race relations and other social issues. The Wall Street Journal noticed his work and hired him in 1984.
Alex is perhaps best known for writing There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, published in 1991. This book was a surprise bestseller and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Helen B. Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism, the Carl Sandburg Award and a Christopher Award. The New York Public Library also selected There Are No Children Here as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century.
The story was originally adapted from an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 1987. It was about the effect growing up amidst violence was having on the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah. In response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, Alex suggested that they should follow the story as it unfolded in other communities. In the fall of 1993, There Are No Children Here was adapted for television as an ABC Movie-of-the-Week special starring Oprah Winfrey.
Alex left the Wall Street Journal in 1993 and concentrated on books and selected writing. Between books, Kotlowitz has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and public radio’s This American Life. His articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and The New Republic.
He is a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University where he teaches two courses every winter, and a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame as the Welch Chair in American Studies where he teaches one course every fall. He currently lives with his family just outside of Chicago.
CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES AND ANALYSIS
The book is preceded by two poems: Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” and one about children by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In both, the reader is made to think about a world where one’s dream is destroyed and where children are lost. What are the consequences, Hughes seems to ask, if we continually destroy the dreams of the children who are born in the worst conditions our country has to offer? What kind of explosion are we allowing to build up? Longfellow says that if children disappear, are made to grow up long before their time, we can expect that we’ll see a desert behind us and darkness in front of us. In both cases, the poets are attempting to awaken the reader’s sense of outrage that children are made to suffer needlessly, also the goal of the author of the book.
In the Preface, the author explains how he met Lafeyette and Pharoah when he was asked to write the text for a photo essay a friend was doing on the children in poverty in Chicago. The friend had met them at the local social services agency, and Mr. Kotlowitz went to their home to interview them. He had a number of children to interview, but he was unnerved at the time at the relentless violence that Lafeyette described. The boy was only ten years old and already spoke in terms of “if he grew up” rather than “when he grew up.” He wasn’t sure he would make it to adulthood. Kotlowitz also explains that the title of his book came from LaJoe, the mother of the boys, who when asked if he could write about her children, told Kotlowitz, “But you know, there are no children here. They’ve seen too much to be children.” Kotlowitz goes on to explain that one in every three children in Chicago lives in poverty, a higher number than the national average, and by the time they have entered adolescence they have experienced more terror than most people confront in a lifetime. LaJoe comes to accept the idea of a book, because she feels it’s important to tell their stories. She had once said that she occasionally wished she were deaf, because there was so much noise from guns, screaming, and shrieking that she thought it would drive her insane. The book therefore becomes a way to make us all hear, make us all stop and listen. So it turns out to be a narrative which follows the boys for two years as they face many obstacles in their search for some inner peace. It doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending, but it is a beginning, the dawning of two lives, and the story of two brothers and two friends.
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The Preface, although important for explaining how the book came to be, is more important for setting the stage. As we begin to delve into Lafeyette and Pharoah’s stories, we already know that it won’t be something we particularly want to hear. However, it is something we need to listen to, think about, and hopefully, become galvanized to help change.
CHAPTER ONE Summary
In this chapter, Pharoah is nine years old and Lafeyette is almost twelve. They are making their first visit to this particular set of railroad tracks on a warm Saturday afternoon in early June. There are five tracks in all, leading from the western suburbs of Chicago. From this high point in the city, Pharoah can see the downtown skyline, his own home, a red brick, seven-story building, his elementary school, and the towering spire of the First Congregational Church. He is also distracted from the view by the small amount of nature present here - a butterfly and wildflowers that grow along the rails. Also with the boys are Porkchop, their younger cousin and Pharoah’s best friend, and James Howard, Lafeyette’s close friend. They are each carrying a crowbar or other tool for digging, because they are looking for snakes. An older friend named William had nabbed one the summer before and allowed the boys to touch it and hold it. Of course, that memory is tempered by the realization that William is another statistic of the projects. He died when a friend accidentally shot him with a gun he believed was unloaded. They also try searching in a tenfoot-high stack of worn automobile tires and an empty boxcar. The boxcar quickly becomes refuge from a commuter train heading their way. The children had heard that the suburb-bound commuters would shoot at them for trespassing on the tracks. Pharoah finds himself crouching in the weeds nearby as the train whisks by him. He becomes lost in his thoughts and doesn’t want to leave this place with its smell of flowers and a diving sparrow in the sky. They are not ready to stop for the day, but the sun is going down and the place is dangerous at night. They slide down and begin the long trek for home.
This chapter best presents the kind of impressionable child that Pharoah is. He loves the smell of the wildflowers, the flight of the butterfly, and the diving momentum of the sparrow. In later months, he will recall this place as one of tranquility and he will come to savor this sanctuary when he most needs to escape reality.
Another important aspect of this chapter is the contrast of the gentle sanctuary to the memory of William’s violent death. This is the rule rather than the exception in these boys’ lives.
The Henry Horner Homes are known to the children as the “Hornets” or “the projects” or simply the “jects” (pronounced jets). However, to Pharoah they are known as “the graveyard.” Nothing here is as it should be. There is no enclosed lobby to the building. There is a dark tunnel cutting through the middle. All the first floor mailboxes have been broken into, and there is so little outside lighting that the residents carry flashlights. Even the summer itself turns duplicitous: during Lafeyette’s twelfth birthday, gunfire breaks out. As the eldest, he makes the children hold their heads down until the shooting subsides, and then they crawl back to their homes. In the process, Lafeyette loses all but fifty cents of the eights dollars he had received for his birthday to buy radio headphones.
The one constant in the children’s lives is their mother, LaJoe. She is known for her warmth and generosity, but the neighborhood, which hungrily devours its children, has taken its toll on her as well. So many of the women of the projects must be like LaJoe: grandmothers by their mid-thirties, and great-grandmothers by their mid-forties. They nurture and care for their boyfriends, former boyfriends, sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons. LaJoe had once been so pretty as to try modeling for a while, and she is still attractive enough to receive whistles on the street. However, the confidence of her youth has left her. She has watched the neighborhood slowly decay when businesses moved to the suburbs and the city lost a third of its manufacturing jobs. To her, it has become a “black hole.” She can more easily recite what isn’t there than what is. There are no banks, no public libraries, no movie theaters, no skating rinks, no bowling alleys. There are only two clinics and both will close by 1989. The infant mortality rate exceeds that of Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Turkey. There is also no rehabilitation center even though drug use is rampant.
Furthermore, LaJoe feels that her family has mostly let her down. Her three oldest have disappointed her, as all three have been in jail at least once and all have been involved with drugs. The oldest, LaShawn, has worked as a prostitute from time to time. The next child, Paul, named after his father, has served time in an Indiana prison. The third one, Terence, is the greatest disappointment of all, because she is closest to him. He’s only seventeen, but had begun selling drugs at the age of eleven and had been in and out of trouble ever since.
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She also has a set of four-year-old triplets, Timothy, Tiffanie, and Tammie. All eight of her children have the same father to whom LaJoe has been married for seventeen years. Unfortunately, they have fallen out of love, and he lives at home only sporadically. In his absence, she turns to Lafeyette as her confidant. She relies on him as much as the younger children do. He had been a carefree child, a bit of a ham, and he loved to draw, but over the past year, he has begun to change. He had been caught shoplifting and has been placed in the Chicago Commons’ Better Days for Youth program. He’s also become bossy around the younger children, because he worries so much about them.
Pharoah is different from all the children. His only friend is Porkchop, and he clutches on to his childhood with the vigor of a tiger gripping its meat. Frequently, he becomes so lost in his daydreams that LaJoe has to shake him back to reality. However, these flights of fancy seem to help him fend off the ugliness around him. He giggles at the slightest jokes and cries at the smallest of tragedies. He has developed a slight stutter, but he delights in the attention of his elders who adore him. He is also the delight of Lafeyette who treats him like a friend as well as a brother.
LaJoe is aware that she is not alone in raising children who grow old quickly, but she is determined that the hopelessness and despair that others have given in to will not affect Lafeyette and Pharoah. However, she is also a realist, and that summer she begins paying $80 a month for burial insurance for her youngest five children.
Lafeyette has always promised his mother that he won’t allow anything to happen to Pharoah, but for one brief moment he loses him. Three days after his birthday, gunfire breaks out again. Lafeyette and his mother hustle the triplets onto the floor of the hallway in the apartment building, a drill they have practiced many times. Two rival drug gangs are firing at each other from one high-rise to another. Lafeyette loses track of Pharoah who he finally sees taking cover behind trees and fences. LaJoe won’t allow him to go after Pharoah. Meanwhile, James, Lafeyette’s friend, meets up with Pharoah, and they sprint for the apartment door. They scream to be allowed in, but no one hears them over the gunfire, and they have to run to a friend’s apartment upstairs. The police have taken cover as well, thinking they are the targets. Passersby lie motionless on the ground. Then, as suddenly as it begins, the gunfire stops, and amazingly, no one is hurt. The police tell a reporter who calls about the gun battle that there is no record of a shoot-out. However, Lafeyette knows and so does Pharoah.