Moments after her birth, the newborn girl was dropped down a pitch-black trash chute, mercilessly by her young teenage birth mother, as if she was just a pack of unwanted, stinking garbage. She was not the first baby to suffer such fate in the community in six months, yet, unlike the baby in the previous incident, she never had a chance to cry out loud and make herself heard by the rescuers. As much as we would all hope this heart-wrenching narrative was mere fiction, it is in fact a true story reported by the New York Times that played out in Brooklyn, New York in the 90s. The African American author John Edgar Wideman took this tragedy as an inspiration and crafted it into a short story that was no less disturbing. To compensate for the fleeting nature of the newborn’s life, Wideman bestowed upon the girl the ability to view the world she was born to from an all-knowing point of view, and, through the baby girl’s first-person narrative, we readers are taken on a journey in which we get to walk a mile in her shoes and behold life in the impoverished areas. In consistency with his notion that “all stories are true”, through this somewhat dramatic and surreal story, Wideman sought to reveal the realistic misery and struggles of the underprivileged population and mirror the oppression by people at a higher socioeconomic status the poor are subject to.
One aspect of the impoverished area’s misery, as depicted by Wideman, lies in the fact that its residents are short-sighted opportunists wishing to make a living through crime and gambling, rather than actual labor. In the story, the omniscient baby observes, “Very little new wealth enters this cluster of buildings that are like high-rise covered wagons circled against the urban night, so what’s here is cycled and recycled by games of chance, by murder and other violent forms of exchange” (Wideman 1397). Here, Wideman cleverly uses metaphor, comparing the external appearance of the inner-city buildings to high-rise wagons, not only showing that these buildings are shabby, but also creating the sense that the area is like an isolated, uncultivated island—-crime infested and having nothing to do with the wealth and civilized nature of the city. Wideman continues to reinforce this point by using wry humor and personification: “Kids do it. Adults. Birds and bees. The law here is the same as the one ruling the jungle, they say. They say this is a jungle of the urban asphalt concrete variety” (1397). The fact that the opportunist mindset is ubiquitous among both the young and the old, even insects, so to speak, in the area means that its misery will not change anytime soon but linger for the generations to come. Wideman also portrays gamblers in great detail: “They cry and sing and curse and pray all night long over these games. On one knee they chant magic formulas to summon luck” (1397). Wideman’s consecutive use of melodramatic verbs portray these residents as being deeply addicted to gambling, pumped up because of their somewhat superstitious beliefs that these games could bring them fortune. These people would only sink deeper and deeper into the spiral of poverty, unable to make changes. Their crime-infested birthplace and lack of access to proper education have made them naturally inclined to gambling and perpetrating illegal act for money.
Against such backdrop, a newborn being thrown away and killed is of trivial importance. The self-aware newborn girl mentions this too: “In my opinion my death will serve no purpose. The streetlamps will pop on. Someone will be run over by an expensive car in a narrow street and the driver will hear a bump but consider it of no consequence. Junkies will leak out the side doors of this gigantic mound, nodding, buzzing, greeting their kind with hippy-dip vocalizations full of despair and irony” (1399) .Here Wideman lists a series of dismaying events and scenarios, conveying to the readers the sense that the people of the community where the baby was born have little empathy for others—-in the “asphalt concrete” version of jungle, everyone cares solely about their own survival and instant gratification. Also noteworthy is the fact that the car is “expensive”: presumably it is the expensive nature of the car that convinces the driver it would be OK to neglect running over people. In this jungle, the dignity of one’s life depends upon the wealth he possesses, and the poor could be killed without sympathy, let alone the newborn baby of an unfortunate teenage mother.
What further displays the oppression by the wealthy against the underprivileged is the “Floor of Power”, where ‘El Presidente” lives (1400). He’s the landlord of the building where the newborn was born, and he treats the building’s occupants “with contempt” (1400). Wideman reinforces the aforementioned idea that in this community, one’s dignity hinges upon his wealth, which makes El Presidente’s arrogance perfectly justifiable in the context. El Presidente could also be seen “jog, golf, fish, travel, lie, preen, mutilate the language” on TV (1400), but all he does was merely exploiting his tenants. This is how Wideman implicitly satirizes people’s worship of the rich—-the fact that in today’s society, many of us let rich people flaunting their wealth occupy our social media page, that whatever rich people do and say tends to get beautified, etc.—-regardless of the fact that some rich people obtain their wealth purely through exploitation, while the poor who are actually working hard get minimalized. Equally noteworthy is Wideman mentioning that the “Floor of Power” is entirely white, and so is El Presidente (1400). This might be open to interpretation, but it could be seen as Wideman’s implicit reference to the systematic oppression of white people against the minorities, given that he is an African American writer whose works often explore racial issues.
Just like many other great literary works, the theme of “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies” still rings true to this day. Today’s US ranks among countries with the greatest gap of wealth, and, impacted by factors such as globalization and the development of artificial intelligence, the chasm would only proceed to widen. Behind the glistening skyscrapers of metropolises are countless communities similar to the newborn girl’s birthplace, where youngsters opt to join city gangs and make a living by committing crimes. As long as the wealth disparity does not cease to grow, so won’t the oppression from the rich against the poor. We must take the heart-wrenching fate of the newborn as a reminder that, instead of turning a blind eye to the harsh truths about economic inequality or even adopting a Social Darwinist narrative, we shall face the issue and be aware that we and our government have the political power and obligation to lift these impoverished communities out of the spiral of poverty, so that no more newborns would be subject to the same tragic fate.
CharlieBo313. “NEW YORK CITY WORST HOODS AT NIGHT” Youtube, uploaded by CharlieBo313, 12 Jan, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT07xgreMfs&t=316s
Jurrivh. “Never Be Alone” Youtube, uploaded by Jurrivh, 28 Sep, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR1civ5i_hQ
Luketic Robert. “My Favorite Scene from Movie 21: Blackjack” YouTube, uploaded by
Anoxys AEM, 7 Jun. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLqm2qkAUuE
Wideman, John Edgar. “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies.” Sakai, ENGL105.079.FA2020. Posted by Paul Blom, 31 July 2020. Originally published in The Stories of John Edgar Wideman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992, pp. 120-28.
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Google Images “for free and fair reuse.”