Monday, May 6, 2013

When Children Want Children and Rosa Lee: two books by Leon Dash

In 1984, Leon Dash, a journalist for the Washington Post, rented an apartment in a Washington D.C. ghetto for eighteen months and became intimately involved with six families.  He journaled his experiences with these families in an attempt to get at the heart of why so many black girls become unwed mothers.

 What he found was that it was not a lack of education or government intervention plans that allowed it.  These young girls knew exactly what they were doing.  They were not simply being promiscuous and finding themselves pregnant.  They were having sex and multiple sex partners with the objective of getting pregnant.

 They knew all about sex education from school.  The local clinics provided them with free birth control as well as state funded abortions.  These girls used none of these things.  They wanted to get pregnant.  They pursued sex with the intention of getting pregnant.

Dash realized these girls were not the victims but were the aggressors who pressured boys and even men to have sex with them for no other reason than to have children.

This unexpected discovery led Dash to search for answers.  Why were these girls engaging in a practice that produced poverty and misery?  His search caused him to delve into the back story and family tree of each of these girls. 

His conclusions were that these girls were not getting pregnant to increase a welfare check or out of ignorance but because the culture of their community elevated the status of women when they became mothers.  He traces this phenomenon back to the generation of these girls’ great grandparents who were sharecroppers in the south.

  He holds the white plantation owners who enslaved and sexually abused the black women responsible for this generational cycle of out of wedlock pregnancy.

Dash’s second book, Rosa Lee:  A Mother and Her Family in Urban America is about a woman in her fifties, Rosa Lee, who is a heroin addict and is HIV positive.  All but two of her eight children are also drug addicts and criminals and two of them are also HIV positive.

Dash spent four years with Rosa getting to know her and her family.  Again he searched their backgrounds and pretty much arrives at the same conclusion as in his first book:  that living as share croppers in the south caused a break down of the family and produced the lawlessness, out of wed lock pregnancies, and eventual death of Rosa and her two children.

Dash in both books is unapologetic and honest.  He traces Rosa’s life of crime to when she stole as a child that led to her shoplifting as an adult.  She even trained her children and grandchildren how to steal and sell the stolen items.

 Her recurring theme is, “I’m just trying to survive!”  However, that doesn’t explain that most of the money she obtains through her criminal behavior, prostituting herself as well as her children, and also her and her children’s welfare checks go to maintain her heroin habit.

Dash shows the remorselessness of Rosa.  She admits that what she’s doing is wrong but she doesn’t try to stop.  She not only endangers her children but gets them addicted to the drugs as well.  When a man offers her money to have sex with her nine year old daughter she accepts.  This daughter eventually becomes a heroin addict and also develops AIDS.  Even after being diagnosed with the disease, Rosa and her daughter and a son, who also has AIDS, refuse to stop having sex.  They bluntly inform Dash that they don’t care if they transmit the disease to anyone else.

She makes drug transactions through her grade school aged grand children because the police won’t arrest them.

I found both books to be tragic tales of self-destructive lives but I did not find Dash’s conclusions (basically, it’s the white man’s fault) to answer every question.

First of all, as Dash himself admits, most black families who came up out of poverty in the post Civil war south, including sharecroppers, did not turn to a life of drug addiction and crime.  Secondly many white families (my father’s included) came out of similarly hard circumstances.  Before the 1960’s the majority of black and white families from poverty-stricken backgrounds moved up to middle class status.

Even out of Rosa’s extended family, out of all her brothers and sisters, she’s the only one that turned to a life of crime and drug addiction.  The cycle of criminal behavior started with her, not before.

Finally, the percentage of white and black families that are being raised by single moms, and more and more often grandmothers, has grown exponentially since the 1960’s.  Before 1965, less than thirty percent of black children were born out of wedlock.  That number is now eighty percent.  Forty percent of white children are now born out of wedlock.  The majority of these children live under the poverty line.

Dash insists that government welfare checks aren’t the reason the women in his first book are having babies or causing people like Rosa to become drug addicts.  Maybe so, but they certainly aren’t preventing it and they definitely are enabling it.

Rosa and her children-with the exception of two who left and joined the middle class- never made it past grade school.  The pubic school just kept passing them through the grades until they dropped out.  Rosa couldn’t even read.  Yet she was a rocket scientist when it came to working the system.  She knew how to get a welfare check for every single child she had.  She went to a methadone clinic to get her drug fix for free, yet still spent most of the government checks on drugs and used charity organizations to feed her children.

 The checks didn’t stop her from shoplifting.  When she was in the hospital, one son came to visit her and while there stole the phones from the rooms on her floor and sold them to local stores.

Leon Dash said he wrote these books to alarm the rest of us into action.  But he provides no solutions.  He can’t.  As a secularist he has to admit that man made institutions did not help urban America, they enabled it.

The problem is a moral and a spiritual one.  As Rosa herself proved, even if Dash, while faithfully recording her life, refuses to come to that conclusion. 

In the year before she died of AIDS.  Rosa joined her local church and became a Christian.  For the first time in her life, her body was free from drugs.  For the first time she looked back on her life and regretted the devastation she wrecked on herself and her family. 

Her body may have become a victim to disease, but in the end her spirit was delivered from corruption.

Even though I don’t agree with Dash’s viewpoint, I congratulate him on boldly taking on a serious plight in our society that is eating away at its stability like a cancer.  I saw this first hand when I taught in public school and he’s right.  The rest of America needs to acknowledge this travesty and seek ways to take action.

As a Christian I have my own opinions, of course and I also have opinions about seriously reforming our government welfare and educational system but those are subjects for another time.

Leon Dash (born (1944-03-16)March 16, 1944, in New Bedford, Massachusetts) is a professor of journlism at the University of Illinois in Champagne.  A former reporter for the Washington Post, he is the author of Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, which grew out of the eight-part Washington Post series for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.  (From Wikipedia)


  1. Indeed this sounds like a thought provoking book. I too disagree with Dash's conclusions. Without getting too into I do think that these are very complicated problems and that one needs to be very carful about relying on anecdotal evidence. Still, even if we think that the ultimate conclusion is erroneous, it sounds like there are things to learn from this book.

  2. That's exactly the word for it: anecdotal. Six families is not a sufficient amount of people to formulate positive conclusions, even though it made his stories interesting and personal. These books are well worth reading and my review is superficial because there was too much to include.

  3. This is a very interesting point of view to read from if you're tackling this subject. Though, the fact that the girls "knew all about sex education from school" because "the local clinics provided them with free birth control as well as state funded abortions" and how "these girls used none of these things. They wanted to get pregnant" goes along with my belief that there needs to be a social change--a mental change from a culture or community that elevates women status when they become mothers. The change needs to be that women do not just fulfill the role of mother and the men, if married and if they consider them-self the breadwinner, should not to just aim to survive and provide for the family but make a contribution to society through what he loves to do, because he will put more effort toward that.

  4. Ashley: Very insightful comments coming from a teenager. I agree with you. There definitely needs to be a social change.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.