Review of the Book
based on these stories
Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins
Part 1: A difficult journey
Part 2: Stealing became a way of life
Part 3: Paying a heavy toll for illiteracy
Part 4: Wrestling with recovery in a changing drug culture
Part 5: Two sons who avoided the traps
Part 6: Daughter travels the same troubled path
Part 7: A grandson's problems start early
Part 8: A life comes full circle, and Rosa Lee faces loss
Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)
About the Series
In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rosa Lee Cunningham's grandparents and parents gave up their North Carolina sharecropping life for an uncertain journey north. Rosa Lee is the link between past and present, between a world that has disappeared and the one that her children and grandchildren face today in Washington. Her life story spans a half-century of hardship in blighted neighborhoods not far from the majestic buildings where policy-makers have largely failed in periodic efforts to break the cycle of poverty.
From 1991 to 1994, Leon Dash, an investigative news reporter for The Washington Post, followed Rosa Lee Cunningham and her family to create an intimate portrait of their daily lives. Rosa Lee lived in a world defined by her poverty, illiteracy and criminal activities, and Dash's eight-day series, which appeared in The Post in September of 1994, was his investigation of the forces surrounding the black urban underclass as seen through the experience of one woman, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Many in Rosa Lee's family, including two of her eight children, managed to secure footholds in the mainstream of American society; their relative success makes it all the more important to try to understand Rosa Lee's life. Although her story is discomforting and disturbing, she wanted it told. "Maybe I can help somebody not follow in my footsteps," she said. Rosa Lee Cunningham, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, died in 1995.
Dash's series won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. A book based on his reporting and his subsequent friendship with Rosa Lee, "Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America," has been reviewed by the Post's Book World.
While the series ran in the paper, over 4,600 readers called a special response line set up by the newspaper; they both applauded and derided the story. Some callers saw the series as a unique, frightening but important look into the world of the urban poor. But others felt that it reinforced stereotypes of black Americans as criminals and welfare recipients and did not do enough to highlight the success stories of Rosa Lee's two sons who "made good."
Leon Dash joined us online on Monday, October 14, and Tuesday, October 15, to communicate with readers; please read the discussion, where you can continue to talk online about the book and series with other readers.
Leon Dash has been a staff reporter for the special projects unit of The Washington Post since 1984. A native of New Bedford, Mass., Dash grew up in New York City and graduated from Howard University.
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