American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
November/December 2017

Tally’s Corner Revisited

Hilary Silver, George Washington University

The cover of Tally’s Corner

The cover of Tally’s Corner and a photo of Tally’s corner 50 years ago.

Fifty years ago, Elliot Liebow published Tally’s Corner, based on his fieldwork among African-American “streetcorner men” in a segregated Washington, DC, neighborhood. Two editions later, this extraordinary 1967 book is still ranked #538 in urban sociology on Amazon, has almost 3,000 citations on Google Scholar, and its cumulative sales top one million. Like its 1943 predecessor, William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, the book is a classic of qualitative social research that has inspired generations of sociologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers.

On October 19, 2017, the Department of Sociology at George Washington University commemorated the anniversary at a symposium, “Tally’s Corner Revisited.” Participants reminisced about the author, praising Liebow’s empathic, accessible writing style, which his doctoral adviser, Hylan Lewis, likened to novels such as Invisible Man and The Iceman Cometh. Although Liebow died in 1994, his wife of 40 years, Harriet Liebow, attended and revealed the mixed fortunes of the children of Tally—Richard, Sea Cat, and the other pseudonymous streetcorner men.

The book’s long-term impact has been enormous. In his keynote, Maurice Jackson from Georgetown University, who just published a report for the DC Commission on African-American Affairs, placed Tally’s Corner in historical context. His talk recalled the richness of African-American life in “Chocolate City.” Liebow’s research provided a timely response to the 1965 Moynihan Report on the Negro Family, showing that black family life faced contemporary constraints having less to do with a “culture of poverty” or legacies of slavery than with social structure and institutional racism.

“What appears as a dynamic, self- sustaining cultural process is, in part at least, a relatively simple piece of social machinery,” Liebow wrote.

The book was published between the passage of the Civil Rights Acts and the 1968 DC riots. As the Kerner Commission and broader public strove to understand changing race relations, Liebow rendered the perspectives of African-Americans more intelligible.

Tally’s Corner addressed five main roles of the streetcorner men: fathers, husbands, lovers, friends, and breadwinners. The men were not passive, as stereotypes had portrayed them, but strove to achieve the same things as all Americans. They patiently waited for day labor, but also knew it often did not pay. This affected their relations with women, families, and friends. An exaggerated machismo offered a way of concealing failure from others and from oneself. Linking face-saving conduct and micro-interactions to larger macro-structures, Liebow made the men’s frustrations tangible.

The symposium’s first panel featured Elijah Anderson, Mitchell Duneier, and Michelle Chatman discussing the impact of Tally’s Corner on their own ethnographic work. Anderson shared how Frank Westie, his undergraduate advisor at Indiana University, asked him to review the book, which, in turn, inspired his own, A Place on the Corner. Instead of the economic forces Liebow emphasized, Anderson stressed the symbolic racism that continues to impede African Americans. Even the accomplished bear a stigma of the “iconic ghetto,” requiring repeated demonstrations of their respectability and credibility. Duneier praised Liebow for an empathy that “reached over the chain-link fence” that divides the races. Tally’s Corner is worth re-reading, he claimed, to remind the public that black men are not phantoms in their families’ lives, and to show how public space is essential for groups of friends to form, like the men in his books, Slim’s Table and Sidewalk. Finally, Chatman, an anthropologist from the University of District of Columbia, presented her current research on the black churches near Tally’s Corner. These community institutions are struggling to survive as African-American congregants leave DC for Prince George’s County, MD, and as whites move into Shaw. She argued for repurposing these buildings to preserve an important part of the city’s African-American history.

Current Trends

Tally’s Corner in Washington, DC, today

Tally’s Corner in Washington, DC, today

Little remains today of Liebow’s depiction except the men outside the District Liquor store near Tally’s Corner, situated at 11th and M Streets, NW (Shaw). Gentrification is rearranging and concentrating the lower-income black population in DC. The black population of the city has fallen below 50 percent for the first time in nearly 60 years. Median annual income of white families is $120,000, compared to $41,000 for African-American families. In 2016, unemployment in DC for black people was 13.4 percent compared to a rate of 2 percent for white people (Jackson 2017). Changes in federal government employment are increasing economic insecurity in the black middle class as well. Michael Bader’s survey of the DC metro area confirms that African Americans still face higher crime than whites and distrust the police who should protect them from it (2016).

On a second panel, Derek Hyra discussed the impact of Shaw’s gentrification and the micro-segregation between white “hipsters” seeking edginess and long-time African-American residents confronting unaffordable rents. William Spriggs, Professor of Economics at Howard University and Chief Economist of the AFL-CIO, recalled that racial shifts in population are also reducing political power and control over DC hospitals, transit, schools, and other institutions crucial to the local economy. Two local activists also presented: Parisa B. Norouzi, Executive Director of Empower DC, spoke about the difficulty of implementing resident-led development proposals in predominantly low-income black neighborhoods. Dominic Moulden, Resource Organizer for Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONE DC), observed that today, hanging out on a corner is increasingly criminalized. Community policing of black bodies in a context of hyper-unemployment raises the issue of equal rights to public space.

Issues Liebow raised in Tally’s Corner are still hotly debated: Can white ethnographers really understand African-Americans and their communities? What is owed to the subjects of study? Does class trump race as a source of African-American disadvantage? How do low-income men seek respect in a society that dishonors them? And can change best come about through inter-racial coalitions, or through community solidarity, common culture. and history?