Molly warned me. I picked up Jonathan Kozol’s “Amazing Grace” at a used book sale at the University of Scranton a year or so ago. When she saw it in my hands she said, “It’s going to be depressing.”
That’s an understatement.
It’s also an amazing read.
Kozol’s book, first published in 1995, takes a look at the lives of children in 1990’s New York City, under newly elected mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Kozol’s writings have long been a staple of liberal arts educations, particularly those going into teaching, social studies or public policy.
The interesting thing with Kozol is that he’s almost writing an oral history. It’s not quite the classic approach done by the likes of Studs Terkel, in which a person is introduced and then tells their story (with a few clarifications by the author). Kozol will introduce a person then give a long quote from them. However, he breaks up the quotes by describing what the person is doing and offering some incite into what they’re saying. The length of the quotes, though, can still run as long as a page. He really lets the people in his book tell their story.
And what a story this is.
In “Amazing Grace,” Kozol allows the readers to be taken on a tour of the South Bronx by children. For most of the book, the reader sees the region through their eyes. It could be a child’s fantastical belief that a new local incinerator is regularly filled with bodies. Or it could be a child showing you a park that they often play in that is regularly filled with drug dealers and prostitutes.
The children are often more wise than one expects of a kid that age. There’s a fascinating part where Kozol learns about a mural on the side of a wall that depicts an empty building as being full of families. At first he thinks nothing of it, then he listens to an educators’ lament about the insults of painting such an anodyne image.
“To me, it’s just outrageous. The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh Lord! Well, what a dirty thing to do.’ Really, it is far beyond racism. It’s just ‘In your face! Take that! We don’t clean up your neighborhood, fix your schools, or give you decent hospitals or banks. Instead, we paint the back sides of the buildings so that people in the suburbs will have something nice to look at.’
He next looks at the issue of segregation in 1990s schools by talking to kids in the educators’ room.
“How many white students – Anglo whites – do you have in your class?” I ask.
“In my class,” she answers. “There is none.”
The other children answer, “None,” except for one girl who says, “One.”
“I used to have a white boy in my class,” says Robert. “He was Irish.”
“Did you like him,”
“He was my best friend.”
“Since 1960,” says a 12-year-old named Jeremiah, “White people started moving away from black people and Spanish people in New York.”
The specificity of the date intrigues me. “Where do you think white people went?” I ask.
“I think – to the country,” says another boy.
“It isn’t where people live. It’s how they live,” says Jeremiah.
“It’s how they live,” he says again. “There are different economies in different places.”
When I ask him to explain this, he refers to Riverdale, a mostly white and middle class community in the northwest section of The Bronx. “Life in Riverdale is opened up. Where we live, it’s locked down.”
“In what way?” I ask.
“We can’t go out and play.”
“You go in the park to play,” he answers sharply. “You’ll see why.”
The book is full of gut-punches like that. It’s interesting to see the beginnings of Guiliani’s term through this lens. We often hear about what he did to stop crime. But here, you see the affects of the cutbacks of medical assistance to the grandparents of children. You see how some communities that pay for their own trash are kept cleaner than those that rely on the city. I ask you, what is a city government for if it isn’t going to remove everyone’s trash? It’s absurd to think that a city wouldn’t provide that service to the poorest of the poor. It’s not only essential service, it’s an uncomplicated one.
One of the most heartbreaking conversations comes with a nun who works with inmates.
“Some women from New York’s poor neighborhoods, however, may get better care in prison than they can obtain on the outside. If they are pregnant, they receive prenatal and perinatal care, parenting classes, and addiction therapy, in addition to the services of nurseries. A woman from the South Bronx, says a nun who works with female inmates, “Begged us not to take her out of prison … until her baby was delivered, because ther was a four-month waiting list for prenatal care at Lincoln hospital.”
“The nun wonders, “Is that what we do? Incarcerate people so they can get the services they need?”
Her words suggest the possibility that, at some future time, a state or federal government under control of a tough-minded politician of the kind now in ascendance in the U.S. Congress and in some of the state capitals may decide that it is logical to extend this strategy to women who have not committed crimes but who are simply seen as unfit parents because of their addictions or lifestyles pose a danger to their unborn babies. Standing in the nursery at Rosie’s Place, a visitor may wonder whether he is looking at a vision of the future.
Well, it’s been 23 years since the book was published. What do you think?
While depressing, Kozol’s book is a fantastic read. More importantly, it’s an even more necessary read today.
Sarah Vowell’s “Lafayette and the Somewhat United States.”