What I’m Reading: The Ditchdigger’s Daughters

I’m reading Yvonne S. Thornton’s The Ditchdigger’s Daughters: A Black Family’s Astonishing Success Story. Thornton will be our speaker at New Jersey City University’s Convocation on October 5, so I turned to her story to see how I could use it to prepare my students for the event.

Thornton’s story, written with Jo Coudert, is not the slick or simple tale of uplifting success that the blurbs on the book’s jacket suggest. It may be an inspiring story but it is not adequate to describe it as a “guide to success,” despite the Star Ledger‘s claims. The story of Thornton and her sisters’ journeys from girlhoods in Long Branch, New Jersey to success in medicine (Thornton is a distinguished perinatologist) and in other careers (dentist, educator, nurse, and court stenographer) is uplifting but it is also harrowing. Dangers and obstacles are a constant in Thornton’s journey.

Ditchdigger cover

If there is any key to her success, it is her father’s unvarnished credo: “You’re black and you’re ugly and you’re girls, and the world’s already written you off. You can grow up and be a bag lady. You can be on the streets and the world won’t give a damn whether you live or die. But if you listen to me, we can get out of this” (255). Thornton’s father’s lessons to his daughters about the realities they face are brutal and blunt, even as he pushes them towards success.

I’ve paired an excerpt from Thornton’s text with a recent piece from The Atlantic: “Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color,” by Melinda D. Anderson. Anderson explores research that “traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success show a decline in self-esteem” (emphasis added) and “implode” when they are hit by “problems they can’t control.” Hard work without an understanding of the myths that undergird our American Dream can not only be insufficient in the face of obstacles, it can be counter-productive and damaging.

I’m eager to hear what my students think about these two pieces and what we will learn from Thornton in her address to us on October 5.

Written and posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of EnglishNew Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

What I’m Reading: The Ditchdigger’s Daughters