Leon Dash Biography - Hired as Journalism Intern, Traced One Woman's Life Story, Defended Story's Message
Leon Dash won American journalism's top honor, a Pulitzer Prize, for his 1994 series about a District of Columbia grandmother and her family, "Rosa Lee's Story." The series appeared in the Washington Post, where Dash had been an investigative reporter for a number of years, and chronicled one woman's impoverished, crime-filled life in the nation's capital over the years. Dash's reportage later appeared in book form as Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America.
Other stories written by Dash had also won acclaim, including his 1989 book When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing. Though sometimes criticized for depicting the sadder side of African-American life in big cities, Dash has argued that he simply tries to show both sides of the story. The "why" behind his subjects' choices is what he tries to illuminate. "I'm trying to make people understand the motivations of those around them," he told Guy Friddell, a reporter for the Virginian Pilot, "because there's a lot of confusion about the circumstances that produce particular behavior."
Hired as Journalism Intern
Dash was born in 1944 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but grew up in New York City's Harlem and Bronx neighborhoods. Following an early ambition to become a lawyer, he enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s. Struggling to make ends meet, he took a night-shift job for a company that steam-cleaned building exteriors, but he was not cut out for the work. "It got cold, so I looked for an indoor job," he recalled in the interview with Friddell for the Virginian Pilot. He found his calling at one of the city's leading newspapers, the Washington Post, beginning as a copy person on what was called the "lobster" or overnight shift, from 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. A year later, in 1966, he was hired as a journalism intern and cub reporter.
After graduating from Howard in 1968, Dash joined the U.S. Peace Corps for two years. This volunteer organization brought young American professionals to some of the neediest corners of the globe, and Dash was sent to teach school in Kenya. He then returned to the Washington Post to work as a reporter. In part, he was drawn to a career in journalism because of his social conscience. Young and idealistic, at a time when the recently enacted civil rights laws seemed to portend such promise, he believed he could spur further change through his articles. He quickly grew disillusioned. "Within a decade I started doing the same stories over, particularly on the dilapidated conditions of public housing in Washington," he told Friddell in the 1997 Virginian Pilot story. "And those conditions had not changed. And up to this day it hasn't changed."
Nevertheless, Dash did publish important stories as well as his first book, written with Ben Bagdikian, 1972's The Shame of the Prisons. He became the newspaper's West African bureau chief in 1979, and returned five years later to carry on his investigative work in Washington. The first story that bore his new byline was "A Question of Justice: Cellmates' Word Sent Woman to Jail," but Dash soon turned his attentions to the rising number of teenage parents in the District of Columbia. Stories such as "Young Black Pregnancies: Truth Is the First Answer" led to the publication of his second book, When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing, in 1989.
Traced One Woman's Life Story
Dash then decided to delve into just one family in Washington and chronicle a tale of how poverty and substandard schools, combined with a lack of parenting skills and the lingering effects of slavery, seemed to beget generation after generation of the urban under-class. The woman he chose, Rosa Lee Cunningham, had eight children by six different fathers, and had been jailed repeatedly for theft and drug dealing by the time he met her. She was also a heroin addict, as were some of her children. Dash's 1994 series on Cunningham and her family won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, which he shared with Post photographer Lucian Perkins. It appeared in book form as Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America in 1996.
Dash had spent four years with Cunningham and her family. She was born in 1936, one of eleven children of North Carolina sharecroppers. Her mother, a domestic, was prone to violence, and though her father had a job as a cement-layer, he drank heavily. Growing up in the poorest section of Washington, Cunningham had never lived in a house with electricity as a child. She was expelled from school before the age of 14 because she was pregnant. At the time, she had not yet learned to read or write. Cunningham subsisted several years as a nightclub waitress who sold heroin to her customers on the side. She moved on to working in a strip club, and then became a prostitute.
Along the way, Cunningham became an expert shop-lifter, which she did to both feed and clothe her own children and to satisfy her taste for stylish items. She was jailed eight times for stealing. "She wasn't ashamed of what she did," Dash explained to a writer for London's Observer, Nicci Gerrard. "She was amoral. She didn't see that she had any other options. What else could she do to survive? This is modern America. If you are born into the underclass, you have two ways to go: you can sink into dire and desperate straits, or you can join the criminal classes."
Cunningham's life took a bad turn in the mid-1970s when she finally became heroin user herself; needle use and prostitution eventually brought a diagnosis of human inmmuno-deficiency virus (HIV), which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, for Cunningham. Some of her children would also test positive for HIV, and her oldest son, who had been sexually abused at a very early age by the male babysitter Cunningham had hired to look after the children while she waited tables, was released from prison weighing 70 pounds in order to die at home. An almost equally horrific fate befell her oldest daughter, Patty, who had witnessed the transactions when Cunningham became a prostitute and brought her customers home. When Patty was eleven years old, one of the men asked Cunningham if her daughter was also available. Dash writes that this was the only episode in her life for which Cunningham was ashamed.
Defended Story's Message
Not surprisingly, Cunningham was a grandmother before she was 30, and the third generation grew up in even more desperate circumstances, now armed with guns and prone to crack-dealing and addiction. When Dash's series on the family ran, the Post logged over four thousand calls in response. Many of the paper's African-American readers were outraged that the Post had chosen to run a story that played into the worst stereotypes about the urban black underclass. There were far more positive stories it might have chose to tell, Dash's detractors claimed.
In response, Dash pointed to two of Cunningham's children, Alvin and Eric, who had grown into responsible parents, homeowners, and civil-service employees. Both had been able to transcend their home life with the help of mentors—in one case, a social worker, and the other a teacher. Each of the adults taught the boys to read. "People say I should understand less and condemn more," Dash reflected in the interview with the Observer's Gerrard. "Condemn! How can we condemn human beings who have been given the short straw from birth? Sure, Rosa Lee made bad choices, she did dreadful things. What would you or I do, in her life?"
Dash took a dying Cunningham back to the North Carolina area where her family had lived in the years after slavery. She met cousins, and mesmerized an audience when she spoke at a church service. One of the more interesting points that Dash made in his series was the reason why blacks in the District of Columbia had not seemed to fare as well as others who had left the South in the Great Migration northward after the First World War. In other cities, they found decent-paying factory jobs or post-office work—but many of the blacks from the South who came to Washington found a long-entrenched black population who already held many of the good jobs, and who treated the newcomers with disdain. Cunningham's parents, moreover, were from a part of North Carolina that was deeply rural and isolated. Called "swamp blacks" even by other African Americans in the area, families like Cunningham's parents were descended from slaves who had worked the plantations deep in the heart of Roanoke River country. As a result, they were nearly untouched by twentieth-century progress by the time she was born, when the Great Depression had caused cotton prices to plummet and sent families like hers to the cities in search of a better life than sharecropping.
In 1998, Dash retired from the Washington Post to take a professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches journalism and African-American studies. Cunningham had died in 1996, the same year his book about her family was published. As he reflected in the Observer interview with Gerrard, though to those who never met her Cunningham seemed a tragically flawed character, "she was my friend. She was an extraordinary woman… monstrous, wonderful, brave. She had no idea. When she died I missed her. I keep in touch with some of the children. And witnessing her life made me unable to judge any longer. After all, I am black. It could have been me."
(With Ben Bagdikian) The Shame of the Prisons, Simon & Schuster, 1972.
When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage Childbearing, William Morrow, 1989.
Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, Harper Collins, 1996.
Austin American-Statesman (TX), September 29, 1996, p. E6.
Commonwealth, November 4, 1994, p. 9.
Guardian (London), August 16, 1997, p. 18.
Observer (London), August 24, 1997, p. 6.
People, June 8, 1992, p. 40.
Time, September 30, 1996, p. 75.
Virginian Pilot, April 5, 1997, p. B1.
"Leon Dash," Inside Medill News, www.medill.northwestern.edu/inside/2002/leondash.html (August 3, 2004).
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