Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977) popularized the song “In the Ghetto” written by Mac Davis in 1969.  The following TikTok video, featuring an artist with whom I am not familiar, is better—in my opinion—than any other rendition I’ve heard.  Such depth!  Such raw passion!  Such strength!  Such vulnerability!

Here are the lyrics:

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto…

And his mama cries
‘Cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
It is another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto…

People, don’t you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me
Are we too blind to see?
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way

Well, the world turns
And a hungry little boy with a runny nose
Plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto…

And his hunger burns
So he starts to roam the streets at night
And he learns how to steal
And he learns how to fight
In the ghetto…

Then one night in desperation
The young man breaks away
He buys a gun, steals a car
Tries to run, but he don’t get far
And his mama cries

As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man
Face down on the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto…

And as her young man dies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
Another little baby child is born
In the ghetto…

And his mama cries…

The setting and action of the song take place in a ghetto, defined as a geographic space populated with a minority group or groups.  The song gives us a peek into a slice of life “in the ghetto”—something I see as springing directly from patriarchy—a social system that manifests itself through hierarchy and domination.

Domination burrows deeply into patriarchy’s core.  Carol Christ (1945 – 2021) defines the term as “…a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.”

Christ’s definition bears repeating regularly and often.  Just calling patriarchy a system of male dominance, she says, “…does not illuminate, but rather obscures the complex set of factors that function together…we need a more complex definition if we are to understand and challenge the patriarchal system in all of its aspects.”

I’m convinced that the circumstances surrounding the birth of a poor baby child on that cold and gray Chicago mornin’ were created and shaped by our patriarchal social system.  Mama cries.  The last thing she needs is another hungry mouth to feed.  Her inability to support her family adequately is (no doubt) a result of several factors: greed, racism, sexism, and violence—all of which inform and shape patriarchy.

The child needs a helping hand.  It takes a village!  I often hear from some of my evangelical and conservative friends, “God helps those who help themselves,” as they ignore and castigate the needy people among us.  “I’m not paying to raise other people’s children.”  These are often the same people who thwart reproductive choice.  “They’ve made their bed. Let them lie in it.”  Denying people reproductive choice is one way to dominate and keep “women in their place”—poor, as well as “barefoot and pregnant.”

Patriarchy helps create both physically absent (multiple jobs) and emotionally absent (dulling their own pain) parents who then stifle and often kill a child’s spirit, thus impoverishing them.  What about school systems (themselves formed out of patriarchy) turning a deaf ear to parental pleas for resources and understanding?  This was my experience of being in the ghetto.  Ignore, gaslight, and silence me while I pled for help for an “unruly” child who colored outside patriarchal lines.

Patriarchy, true to its nature, is willing to sacrifice us all in order to remain at the top of the power heap.  Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump come to mind as poignant examples.  Their ideology and policies create and support the miseries of a “ghetto” child who grows up, buys a gun, steals a car, tries to run, but doesn’t get far.

Like Bob Dylan, singer/songwriter (b. 1941), I also think “the times they are a’changin.”  More and more men, the people that benefit the most from patriarchy, are beginning to see differently. 

Justin Baldoni, actor and movie director, recently appeared on daytime TV.  He wrote this book:

Baldoni’s main theme is that boys/men need to embrace all the parts of themselves that make them human.  Men are raised to believe they must be physically strong while giving the appearance of being in control.  Anything less is “unmanly.”  Strength, he declares, comes from being emotionally vulnerable, confronting parts of ourselves that are scary.

Baldoni unpacks the phrase, “undefining masculinity.”  Question those behavioral expectations that society demands such as don’t show emotion, be in charge, and exude confidence no matter what.  Baldoni wants boys to learn that vulnerability is strength and fathers (especially) should model that quality to their sons.  After all, parents, too, struggle as they make their way in the world.

Another phrase Baldoni clearly explains is “male privilege.”  It’s not that boys/men don’t work hard to achieve their goals.  They do, however, because of their male privilege, they need not navigate many an obstacle that women and other groups traverse in order to reach the same goal.

Wherever patriarchy spreads its oppressive tentacles, ghettos sprout, marginalizing all who obstruct (sometimes just by existing) patriarchy’s goal of domination. “And his mama cries….”

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

8 thoughts on “PATRIARCHY’S OFFSPRING by Esther Nelson”

  1. Hear hear! A great piece spelling out clearly everything we as women have experienced and know to be true.

    All kudos to Justin Baldoni for his much needed book.

    I was a psychotherapist with many a difficult/ failing/ violent boy client from the ghetto. Every single one was like a hurt little child inside and had needed to concrete over that child in a society that perpetuates the cycle of male violence.


  2. So true! A great piece linking how patriarchy ruins the lives of real people. Coincidentally, I’m reading Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book first published in 1961 about really this same subject of the destructive force of “ghettos” but in terms of urban planning. It’s about how the combined forces of government, greedy landlords and developers, racism and other forms of discrimination, and ignorant urban planners created soul-crushing “slums” (her term from 1961) in cities by destroying vibrant neighborhoods where people had looked out for one another and replacing them with huge and inhumane housing projects. She even referred to “patriarchy” though she wrote it long ago because so often the people doing the destroying were men who had no clue how real communities work (or didn’t care if their actions destroyed lives as long as they personally benefitted) because they are off in their corporate or government towers all day. Basically, she was saying, and its still true, building communities where everyone is valued and care about one another is one, though certainly not the only, key to environments that nurture and heal, just as today’s feminist scholars like Heide Goettner-Abendroth who study “matriarchal societies” or “societies of peace” are saying now.


    1. Yes, thanks Carolyn, for your “spot on” comment. Patriarchy, that social system infecting the globe, is deadly to all of us. Compassionate caring is not a value our government embraces. I do see tiny changes happening, though, with younger people. Am all about fanning those flames.


  3. Thank you so much Esther for reminding us of Carol’s definition of patriarchy – all too often I forget the whole focusing on dominance because it’s everywhere polluting everything else…. I appreciate especially the compassion you demonstrate for the ghetto child… we know this is exactly how this system is perpetuated – and FOR OUR SURVIVAL WE MUST SHIFT THE WAY MALES ARE SOCIALIZED.


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