Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America

Mar 13, 2009

Keynote lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Leon Dash (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)

Professor Dash teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  A former reporter for the Washington Post, he is the author of Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America (1996) which grew out of an eight-part Washington Post series for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. His other publications include When Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis in Teenage Childbearing (1989).
In cooperation with the Humanities Council of Washington DC.

Event Report

On Friday, March 13, 2009, the GHI hosted a public lecture by Leon Dash, Swanlund Professor of Journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dash, a former reporter for the Washington Post, discussed and read from Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America (1996), a work of immersive journalism based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning series articles in the Washington Post. In his lecture, Leon Dash outlined his long-term research on the lives of 'underclass' families in Washington DC in the 1980s and 1990s, both in Rosa Lee and in When Children Want Children (1989), his book on adolescent childbearing. Dash described his personal and professional relationship with Rosa Lee Cunningham, her children, and grandchildren. By reading a chapter from Rosa Lee that chronicles his protagonist's childhood in rural North Carolina and Washington, Dash set the focus of his lecture on the central issue of education. Read in the context of larger questions on poverty and social exclusion, Dash presented his work on the Cunningham family as a case study of individual and collective access to education in the American city. Chronicling the lives and careers of Rosa Lee Cunningham's children, he showed how individual teachers and random events had a significant impact on their opportunities and life choices. In response to audience questions following his lecture, Dash discussed the social and cultural changes of the past decade, both nationwide and in the city of Washington DC, yet nonetheless demonstrated the contemporary relevance of his study – for instance, by sketching the lives of his protagonist's grandchildren and the persistence of poverty in the contemporary United States.

Christoph Ribbat (University of Paderborn)