Afraid to Live


The patrons of memoir and the players of politics seldom hang out at the same urban street corner, but they certainly do in the cases of a stunning new book by Cindy Brown Austin and the election of Donald Trump. To fully appreciate this intersection, and the potential power of eloquent words in a time of national crisis, come back with me twenty-five years.

In 1991, Cindy wrote an essay about about growing up and living in Hartford’s disheartening and often violent projects. She had married early, at 17, and by 19 had to put her infant daughter, her third child, to sleep in the top dresser drawer after brushing away the cockroaches. Then she looked out of the window and said, “Oh, Lord, is there no place on earth for me?”

At the time, I was the editor of Northeast magazine, and I published the piece under the title “Streets of Poison,” gratified to have, at last, an intimate portrait from neighborhoods in distress as opposed to reportage that, though earnest, never dug deep enough to reveal the humanity at risk. Cindy’s piece was as beautifully written as it was raw and rare in its authority. Afterwards, however, she took heat from neighbors and activists who accused her of airing very dirty laundry for suburbanites to see from afar, even though it showed the underclass in an an empathetic way. She persisted, and over the years wrote many pieces, some of them republished in Readers Digest.

But though she has reached a certain level of writing success — even published an novel with a Scribner subsidiary — the living circumstances for David and Cindy Austin never improved much. For one, they eventually had a fourth daughter, and sent send three to college. They also spent much of their time as ministers of their church, tending the needs of others. They managed to move out of the city to a close suburb, but have had trouble making ends meet.

In recent years, since leaving my job as editor, I have remained in touch, and urged Cindy to write a memoir about her life. In 2013, I took her to see the eminent writing teacher and author William Zinsser at his summer house in Niantic, Connecticut. At the time, he was 90 years old, and had gone blind from a profound case of glaucoma, but in the most important sense he saw Cindy perfectly. After listening to her talk about life and writing, he took her hand, and told her how important it was for her experiences and message to get out to the larger world. Three years later, “Cinders: Stories of Inner City Survival,” was finally published.

Here’s the terrible irony. Though her book is filled with scenes that illustrate the grave difficulties of life in hard neighborhoods, she says that now, for the first time in her life, she is physically afraid. The Trump phenomenon has brought champions of white supremacy out into the open, and they have been responsible for hundreds of race-driven incidents around the country. She experienced this first hand when a group of white youths hurled insults at her as she walked around them. Her husband David, driving the same route as he has for twenty years to work, was stopped and had his car searched for drugs simply because he was guilty of driving while black. Cindy, David, and their four grown daughters fear that what they once knew as a limited society of bigotry has now been licensed nationwide. “I don’t scare easily,” she told me. “But I’m scared now.”

Trump campaigned as the savior of African-American neighborhoods. In the view of people who know these neighborhoods best, this was a terrible ruse, and brought danger with it.

That’s why Cindy’s book is so important now. It is the anti-Trump view, the view of real people. It reveals what’s truly at stake far from Trump Tower. Buy it, read it, send copies to your friends.

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