A review of Going from the Projects to PhD: Transcending my geography
By Hassen Hussein
In this riveting memoir, Dr. Yvette Pye weaves a compelling story of how “a ghetto bastard,” abandoned by addicted parents and wayward siblings, goes on to earn a Ph.D. from the prestigious University of Minnesota, joining a club of about a dozen African American geographers. She does this within the context of her native Chicago engulfed by a multidimensional crisis and neighborhoods decaying from the scourge of drugs, criminality, and joblessness.
Without being prescriptive, she distills the secrets to her triumph over adversity into five short bits of advice: diligence, resilience, agency, an active life as “sedentary life equals death,” and embracing silence.
The book began with a bang in the unlikeliest of places: the prologue. It opens with a vivid portrayal of a frantic scene of senseless urban violence where the young Pye confronts “the harsh realities” of her geography as a close friend — Corey — lay dead, an innocent victim of gang warfare.
A reminder of how little has since changed in her native Chicago is the recent killing of a promising 15-year-old female student — Hadiya Pendleton — a potential future gunned down ironically after attending the second inaugural of the first Black president, another Chicagoan.
Pye’s characterization of school as a safe haven, attributing her salvation to the unfailing care of a grandmother whose love anchored an otherwise lost ship in a sea of troubles, is a universal story. Pye’s point about how “the voices of the streets” trump good counsel also resonates with parents.
Despite the plethora of films about the horrors of the “hood,” few may fully grasp the utter despair of a tumultuous inner-city life in which, once caught in its webs of dysfunctions, escape becomes impossible. A kid goes “to five different schools in one school year” there all because basic social structures have all but collapsed and society is indifferent.
“Being Black in America does something to the self,” Pye writes as if echoing Du Bois, “covering it with layer upon layer of doubt, lack, insecurity, and message of inferiority.” The most surprising part was her belated discovery of being “a minority” and coming to the realization that her personal ordeal was not an exception but rather the rule — the predicament of Black folk everywhere — in graduate school after a wider acquaintance with the history of European colonization of Africa. The belated realizations leave the impression that inner-city Black America is a world onto itself — rendering the world outside undiscovered and foreign.
Although Pye’s feats are phenomenal, they pale in contrast to the hardship many still have to contend with. The problems being structural, earning a Ph.D. did not end Pye’s invisibility — as Obama’s meteoric rise did not dent the marginalization of African Americans. In fact, her peculiar status as the lone Black professor in a university catering to an increasingly diverse student body demonstrates the uphill battle ahead without diminishing the symbolism of her personal conquest.
Despite its gripping details and insightful commentary, Pye’s memoir feels incomplete. For example, relating how student housing was a place to form “dearest friendships” and also where she came close to tearing her “family to shreds” would have been more illuminating.
Her conclusion also broke the book’s tempo before reaching its climax. For me, the book ended where Yvette, after taking stock of her life’s achievements, declared “Not bad for a little Black girl from the backside of the West Side of Chicago. So dream big?” Another minor shortcoming was failing to place family photographs in the body of the book where they belong.
My life and Pye’s lives couldn’t have been more fundamentally different. She is female, from an inner city, and devoutly Christian, and I am none of those things. And yet, I was engrossed by her remarkable story because we are essentially the same — especially in our longing for a more just world where Dr. King’s dream of being judged by the content of one’s character and being assured of an equal shot at the American Dream is realized.
As a credible first-person account of a bruising struggle by America’s disadvantaged people to stay alive and achieve a life of security, dignity and fulfillment, the book recommends itself to a larger audience. Those committed to tackling our enduring legacy of inequality, which undermines advances in race relations, will find it particularly informative, with the caveat that finishing the unfinished business of fashioning a level playing field, as King would say, for all God’s children requires more than celebrating individual success.
In a way, Pye’s is a tale of human perseverance and our uncanny ability to forge a world of our choice despite, and actually because of, adversity.
Hassen Hussein is executive director of the Oromo Community of Minnesota (OCM). He welcomes reader responses to hx firstname.lastname@example.org.