Today, a book I was eager to read but ended up disappointed with.
The children in this book defy the stereotypes of urban youth too frequently presented by the media. Tender, generous and often religiously devout, they speak with eloquence and honesty about the poverty and racial isolation that have wounded but not hardened them. The book does not romanticize or soften the effects of violence and sickness. One fourth of the child-bearing women in the neighborhoods where these children live test positive for HIV. Pediatric AIDs, life-consuming fires and gang rivalries take a high toll. Several children die during the year in which this narrative takes place.
A gently written work, “Amazing Grace” asks questions that are at once political and theological. What is the value of a child’s life? What exactly do we plan to do with those whom we appear to have defined as economically and humanly superfluous? How cold — how cruel, how tough — do we dare be?
My take: I expected to get a lot more out of Amazing Grace than I did. For one thing, what GoodReads called “gently written” was a quality that to me made it seem like Kozol was disorganized in his writing. I had trouble tracking it, but maybe that was part of the point.
I gave Amazing Grace two stars on GoodReads, because it’s hopeless; it’s a collection of anecdotes that don’t try hard enough to make a point, but rather show that it’s everyone else’s fault, and surprisingly enough, since you can’t control others’ behavior, there are no solutions. But as Mrs. Washington says in the book, “People also simply change their minds.” Times and illnesses and people change, and politics and the AIDS crisis have a different face now than they did twenty years ago. And so I am looking forward to reading Kozol’s follow-up book published more recently, Fire in the Ashes, on my reading list for 2015.
As a retired teacher, who attended New York’s PS 65 and volunteered there at the time of the writing, preaches to these children and to us, “You can’t control what you were born as, but if you can control yourself, our life will be more peaceful.” As for me, let me encourage all of us to remember that we can control ourselves, and our compassion, and our spending, even at Christmas. If you read the book Radical: Taking your Life Back from the American Dream, and choose to “radical”ize your Christmas shopping (and maybe your life?), perhaps we’ll make a real difference in the gross injustice in our country and our world. Some very different Christmas catalogs to start with: Compassion, Gospel for Asia, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision. Or you could give someone a much more meaningful gift card, like one I got from an encouraging reader, from Kiva.org.
Back to the book, my major issue was that while Kozol ends the book recognizing that there are no easy answers (that is the truth here: there are no easy answers), as he walks among these children and destitute people in the midst of the AIDS crisis in New York’s poorest neighborhoods, he -and they- succumb to the very strong temptation to imagine there are easy answers, namely, if only we threw more money at the problem, everything would be fine.
For example, Kozol mentions a money manager who had earned more than $1B in a year:
An extra 20 percent tax on his earnings, if redistributed in the South Bronx, would have lifted 48,000 human beings–every child and every parent in every family of Mott Haven–out of poverty, with enough left over, I imagine to buy many safe new elevator doors and hire several good physicians for the public schools that serve the neighborhood.
So, there you have it. After story after story about the government accidentally canceling people’s welfare or cutting their check or losing their records, Kozol buys into the belief that this same government would suddenly become effective at ending poverty… drug use… lack of education… work ethic problems… unemployment… if it could simply take more money from the rich, and give it away. And give it away as efficiently as it does everything else, of course.
I try to sympathize but I know that I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be a child in these neighborhoods. I don’t live an ostentatious life in my own estimation. I live in a 1250-sq-ft house with one bathroom, no garage or basement or playroom or swimming pool. My girls share a small bedroom and their clothes share a dresser, which is in their brother’s even-smaller bedroom. But we have heat and air, food in our refrigerator and pantry, and when our roof leaked and shower tiles fell off we were able to fix them nicely. We have a lovely Christmas tree and “O Holy Night” playing over ad-free Pandora radio. It’s a blessed life that makes it so that I (and probably you too) can only try to work hard to show empathy and compassion to families who suffer in true poverty. But on the other hand, I’m pretty sure a blank check alone never solved anyone’s drug addiction.
David, a boy whose mom was dying of AIDS:
God…is not powerful enough to stop the evil on the earth, to change the hearts of people…. [Evil is] what the rich have done to the poor people in this city… Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people–that is my idea of evil.
A woman, on the subject of what if the children went and stole everything in FAO Schwarz:
You have to ask if they could ever steal back half as much as has been stolen from them.
If you moved these families into a nice suburb, nine tenths of this feeling of constriction, I’m convinced, would be relieved.
But the obvious questions are left out, as they usually are: Who is the “you”? Who is going to move them to a “nice suburb”? What defines a “nice suburb”? Where is it? What if they don’t want to go there? Who’s going to pay for the house when they get there? Who’s going to teach them to maintain that new life you wanted to give them?
David’s mom and her journey toward death break my heart, but she can be very judgmental and nonspecific in her opinion that if only the rich gave more money to the poor, everyone would be okay:
“Women who pay money like that for a brassiere must think their chest is made of gold. Are you goin’ to tell me that these people are too poor to pay their share?”
So while she blames the rich for being judgmental of the poor, she gets to determine what “their share” is, and what they’re allowed to spend their money on, and that they obviously didn’t work hard to get it, and that there must be enough to spread around to people indiscriminately so they can get what they need with some of them working for it and others not.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. I think a reality check and a heavy dose of personal responsibility and empathy would go a long way for the rich and the middle class, too – and for the poor and addicted. There’s a lot of material in this book that will make you stop and think about how to address problems in our society that should concern every single one of us. Some quotes that made me pause:
If you weave enough bad things into the fibers of a person’s life–sickness and filth, old mattresses and other junk thrown in the streets and other ugly ruined things, and ruined people, a prison here, sewage there, drug dealers here, the homeless people over there, then give us the very sorst schools anyone could think of, hospitals that keep you waiting for ten hours, police that don’t show up when someone’s dying, take the train that’s underneath the street in the good neighborhoods and put it up above where it shuts out the sun, you can guess that life will not be very nice and children will not have much sense of being glad of who they are. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been buried six feet under their perceptions. This is what I feel they have accomplished.
This familiar detail, something that belongs to the everyday world, something I would buy at my store too, seems reassuring, safe, and normal. It shuts out the sense of peril for a while.
A poet, when a child asked if he would teach him to write:
It was in my mind that I should not encourage him in a career with so much disappointment.
Columnist Annie Roiphe:
[Cruelty is] “the fuel that powers the palace” of our satisfactions.
David, the same boy whose mother was dying of AIDS:
It isn’t bad to sound like children. Children sometimes understand things that most grown-ups do not see.
Services like those for orphans of AIDS, welfare offices, soup kitchens, and so on,
are needed–all these and hundreds more–if our society intends to keep on placing those it sees as unclean in the unclean places.
Quoting Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, A.D. 251 about an epidemic:
It is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good.
Kozol’s comment on Cyprian:
Consolations of this nature, however, have not always been persuasive to the victims of a plague.
At a prison:
I knew, even before I asked, how many must have been the former students of some of the schools I’ve visited, which in an awful sense, have come to be their preparation for life on this island and in many ways resemble prison buildings, although the facilities on Rikers Island are, in general, in better shape than most school buildings in New York.
Semantic somersaults are often undertaken to avoid the use of clear words on a matter in which clarity is badly needed.
A teacher in NY about screening black kids to put in private schools by scholarship:
In one sense, it simply makes things worse in public schools by pulling out the children that a teacher counts on to keep class discussions going and to spur the others to succeed… A dream does not die on its own. A dream is vanquished by the choices ordinary people make about real things in their own lives.
The big question Kozol made me ask: what decisions am I making that are vanquishing someone’s dream? And to put some personal responsibility on it, what choices are they making about real things?
About schools like Stuyvesant,
The question that no one wants to ask is: What do other kids deserve and how is the whole idea of a “deserving” or an “undeserving” person used to mask some of the cumulative consequences of injustice?
About holding up examples of kids who succeed, to make everyone feel better:
The trouble with miracles, however, is that they don’t happen for most children – without making clear how rare these situations are, we may seem to be condemning those who don’t have opportunities like these or, if they do, cannot respond to them.
[We] inflate exceptionality into a myth of progress that is not based in reality.
As Kozol asks, “How does a nation deal with those whom it has cursed?”
“Down south,” says Mrs. Flowers, who has relatives in Alabama, “people let you know exactly where you stand. Here in New York they smile and smile and pat you on the head and then they send you back where you belong.
Less than 13 percent of the doctors practicing primary care in the Mot Haven area are certified by medical boards to practice.
[A pastor:] If New York were a Judeo-Christian city, “I think that we’d be asking questions all the time. ‘Where does my money come from? Who pays a price for all the fun I have? Who is left out? Do I need this bottle of expensive perfume more than a child needs a doctor or a decent school?'”
Seeing these women in the street, you feel almost ashamed of your good health and worry that, no matter how you speak of them, it may sound patronizing… Maybe we simply ask forgiveness for not being born where these poor women have been born, knowing that if we had lived here too, our fate might well have been the same.
It’s hard to think that any city that has love for children would allow them to grow up in such a place.
The killer is the street in which we live like rats.
It strikes me how much Kozol has to hedge sometimes to make the point he wants to make (like any researcher, I suppose; emphasis mine):
White American physicians, numerous studies seem to indicate, often evince a strong aversion to providing heath care in such neighborhoods.
Elizabeth, about finding a man,
I’d rather have a peaceful little life just with my kids than live with somebody who knows that he’s a failure. Men like that make everyone feel rotten.
To end, some quotes, sad and/or poignant and/or resonant, about God, good, and evil:
…devout black women, in whom Cornel West has rightly said one often finds a spiritual strength unknown to most other Americans…
The evil is already set in stone. We just move in.
“I pray. I talk to God. I tell Him, ‘Lord, it is your work. Put me to my rest at night and wake me in the morning.’ ”
“Do your children have the same believe in God that you do?”
“Yes,” she says, nodding at her daughter and her son-in-law. “They do. This family talks to God.”
“If you don’t believe in God and don’t believe in family or society and don’t believe you’ll ever have a job, what do you have?”
People in every era, as we know, want desperately to find a visible explanation for their suffering.
“People who don’t have no hope are dangerous.”
[The poet:] “Children long for this-a voice, a way of being heard- but many sense that there is no one in the world to hear their words, so they are drawn to ways of malice. If they cannot sing, they scream.”