All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community
is a 1974 anthropological analysis of black community-making in the urban Midwest by Carol B. Stack. For her analysis, Stack uses a predominantly black, lower-class area called the “Flats” in the fictional city of Jackson Harbor. The city is based on a place where Stack conducted actual work on the migration of black communities from the American South to the Midwest, from 1968 to 1971. Stack omits the real name of the research site to drive home her point that most impoverished urban areas have similar basic norms, institutions, and systemic problems. She argues that the systemic oppression of black communities through racism and economic violence has a silver lining: precisely because it is systemic, it is amenable to reusable and far-reaching solutions.
In her book, Stack explains her original reason for studying black migration. It began with her observation that many denizens of urban zones in the Midwest relied on welfare, particularly from a program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Most of these families had only moved to the cities within the past two generations. Stack grew curious about whether something about Midwestern cities incentivized black people who were burdened by long-term poverty to move to them. Broadly, her anthropological study seeks to map out the different varieties of familial relationships through which goods and services tend to move.
Stack’s work builds on the structuralist thinking of sociologists and anthropologists, including Frances Fox Pivin, Charles Valentine, and Richard A. Cloward. The general premise of these thinkers’ work is that American economic structures create the conditions, and even the boundaries of self-awareness, that citizens live within. Stack argues several corollaries of this view, stating that black people’s suffering stems from the undervaluing of basic labor, the impoverished and failing welfare system, and the epidemic of race-based economic violence. Stack argues against certain popular assumptions about poverty. These include the view of sociologist Oscar Lewis, who argued that economic classes were reinforced, and their stresses perpetuated by pathological class behavior. He helped to coin, in turn, the ubiquitous and problematic phrase “cycle of poverty.”
Stack views the behavior of black urban communities in the Midwest as highly adaptive rather than cyclical. She elucidates multiple coping mechanisms that help to reduce the psychological and economic burden of structural inequities, including unemployment, restrictive and predatory government programs, and low income. Her analysis is novel and useful in that it systematically illuminates these communities’ rational and brilliant adaptations. These same communities have suffered unfairly negative representations in virtually every form of media. Another way in which Stack’s work is unique is in her survey methodology. Instead of asking questions to well-known community members, whom one might assume have the strongest and most articulate grasp on the social behavior they see around them, Stack chose to connect informally with two families and immerse herself in their everyday lives. As a result, she obtained much deeper anthropological insight into the community’s adaptive strategies.All Our Kin
urges anthropological science to move beyond the prevailing “cycle of poverty” model that characterized the mid-nineteenth century, and into a more compelling, empirical, and compassionate paradigm. Using her sharp analytical skills and instinctive ability to position her research where it matters, Stack educates her readers about the creative responses low-income families develop to preserve their well-being.