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Review of Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America

There comes a time in life some seek to reassess everything they have gained in life.  Such was the case for Chris Arnade as he has chronicled his journey beyond his affluent lifestyle in his book Dignity: Seeking Respect In Back Row America.  Chris Arnade was physics PhD working for Citibank.  

After abandoning his Wall Street career, Arnade opted for mission to document poverty and addiction in the Bronx. He began interviewing, photographing, and becoming close friends with homeless addicts, and spent hours in drug dens and McDonald's. Then he started driving across America to see how the rest of the country compared. He found the same types of stories everywhere, across lines of race, ethnicity, religion, and geography.

His journey taught him how privileged his world was.  Though Chris was a progressive, his venture made him aware of his selfishness in how he lived and how he thought.

Don’t Become Part of Back Row

It is to be noted that Chris was not pastor or a social worker.  He could not save his neighborhood or friends in New York so he opted to travel the country to record what he terms as "back row in America". During his journey, he found people with dignity still intact despite shuttered storefronts, dispersed community and decayed neighborhoods.

Arnade realized that he was part of "front row" who runs the world totally disrespecting and condemning those who are in the back row.  Front row valued the material wealth because it could be measured.  In the process, front row ignored what it could not measure- community, dignity, faith, happiness, etc.  Arnade blames front row folks for plight of the back row folks, because it gave corporate America whatever it wanted- mainly lower labor costs eventually resulting in job losses, as cities, communities, and families crumbled and broke in the cause of economic efficiency.

Arnade implies that back row folks relied on religion to sustain themselves.  The churches were forgiving as it did not matter whether you were into prostitution, drugs, homelessness.  At the same time, Arnade used his interviews, stories and pictures to remind us of those who have been left behind.  He humanized the people who have been affected.  However, at the same time it seems that he missed impact on children and middle class.

Don’t Become Part of Back Row

As Takeesha, a woman in the Bronx, told Arnade, she wants to be seen she sees herself: "a prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God." This book is his attempt to help the rest of us truly see, hear, and respect millions of people who've been left behind. Perhaps Arnade believes that the poor will be with us always.

 The book is very uncomfortable reading because it awakens the conscience.  Perhaps the book was intended to begin repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

This article was published on 05.09.2019 by Prakash Kunjeer
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