Life at the Margins: On “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope”

May 11, 2021   •   By Adolf Alzuphar

Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

HOW DOES A TIGHTROPE relate to this society’s many ills? Let the great thinkers explain. “Man is a rope,” writes Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “He is a bridge.” Wittgenstein writes: “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.”

In Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn — the married modern pair of great thinkers — advocate for a new United States, one without misery, poverty, or dread; this one, they say, has gone astray. Too many Americans walk a perilous tightrope, in danger of falling into the abyss.

Their book — also a free online exhibit at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center through May 31 — argues that it “is more politically sustainable to provide work for the needy than to mail benefit checks.” These jobs, to Kristof and WuDunn, would be a source of self-worth and identity. The exhibit includes a video explaining Kristof and WuDunn’s project and Lynsey Addario’s photographs, which are also featured in the book. Addario’s images amplify the book’s advocacy through portraits of dignity and missed opportunity, humans caught in the spirals of American poverty, loss, intervention, and despair.

With the book and exhibit, Kristof, WuDunn, and Addario offer us a bridge that “is possible to walk on,” to quote Wittgenstein — a bridge to compassion and, importantly, a plan for change in this country.

There are names: Clayton Green; Drew Goff; Emmanuel Laster; Annette Dove; Dave and April Peper; Eathan Green; Ian Manuel; Debbie Baigrie; Marquita Abbott; Mike Stepp; Megan Reed; Rebecca and Chloe Hale; Tanitoluwa Adewumi; Steve Olson; Geneva Cooley; Daniel McDowell; Mary Mayor; and Gary, Dee, Nathan, Rogena, Farlan, Keylan, and Zealan Knapp.

Some have died; some are still around.

But they are names you wouldn’t know outside this book and exhibit, names of people who would mostly go unnoticed or, alternatively, stigmatized, even despised. These tightrope walkers are people who surround us and who are us; yet many of us would not stop to hear their stories if not for a book or an exhibit, to which Kristof and WuDunn’s own names are attached.

Early on, the writers tell us that “this book is born of hope,” and that they, themselves, are “the fruits of America’s progress, the beneficiaries of its opportunities.” Kristof and WuDunn make it clear that this is what separates their names from the names listed above. One can certainly attribute their writing — which is elegant and accessible as they delve effortlessly into theory, analysis, and politics — to American progressivism. Their book is a shining example of empathy through storytelling. Theirs is a language that is austere, and strictly so. You feel their writing in your intestines, acute and serious.

The pages on American aristocracy (what the authors call “feudalism”) are noteworthy. But there are no pictures of the super-rich or their government abettors. Every picture is of an afflicted United States, poor and pensive, “reaching for hope” despite the depth of hurt.

Dee Knapp, a woman with aged skin like the bark of the trees that surround her, sits firm in one image, stands tall in another, despite “unimaginable calamity.” In a separate picture, her granddaughter Amber — having endured alcoholism, prison, and her father’s drug addiction — sheds a tear, the setting sun orange behind her obscured by a forested landscape.

Geneva Cooley, sentenced to life without parole, stands in a cell with lavender walls. She does not let her family visit because she does not want to watch them leave. In a later picture, we see her at the Alabama State Fair, released after 17 years, looking hesitant, or is it determined?

Addario’s images are full of things: trees, walls, kitchen appliances, police officers, people, statues, knives, lights, bloody objects — as if to bring these places to life. There is one exception: a picture of Mike Stepp, an unhoused man, once Kristof’s “closest neighbor growing up,” now living in the streets, unable to give up alcohol and drugs in order to live in a shelter. It’s a close-up of a timid and weathered blue-eyed face, the face of one United States gone astray, whose white citizens fueled the rise of Donald Trump, according to Kristof and WuDunn.

Annette Dove, whose face represents a different United States, lives in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which the authors call the country’s “most dangerous little town.” There she founded Targeting Our People’s Priorities with Service, which provides services to at-risk youth. In the images of Dove and Pine Bluffs, she is surrounded by joy despite her depressed town and the United States that created its woes, a testament to the efficacy of hope and initiative, as Kristof and WuDunn advocate for.

A picture of Eathan Green shows him in a camouflage shirt, smoke wafting from his gun. Despite his show of machismo, his surroundings are not as inspiring as Dove’s; he has struggled with addiction, and his children have been taken away from him. The tightrope is real, and machismo is not the solution.

What’s revealed in these images and stories is a country plagued by addiction and desperation. Would we have known these intimate stories without Kristof and WuDunn’s book? And are these the lived stories that Stepp, Dove, and Green would have chosen to tell?

Kristof and WuDunn call for “principled capitalism” to end the misery born of failed policy. There’s a reason we value few popular poems or songs praising corporatism or the realities of capitalism (though deceitful illusions of drug dealing and consumerist bling are popular): it’s not what we want; it’s what we have. William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower” could not be replaced with “Ah! Capitalism.” Nostalgia for the New Deal misses the point: pragmatism is not ideal. Idealism is walking on air. The tightrope must lead to solid ground.

Kristof and WuDunn make great use of their storytelling. The tightrope walker in Thus Spoke Zarathustra — as my partner, Ivy, pointed out to me — dies. Wise from his time in the mountains, Zarathustra chooses to honor the life of the tightrope walker. There is no inherent glory or success to Kristof and WuDunn’s proposed tightrope to hope. It’s a path of empathy and courage. The laurels that they continue to receive for their proposal are deserved.


Adolf Alzuphar is a human rights activist.