Within the next few pages, I intend to address two issues. First, I will try to give a personal review of what I saw this book to hold. Second, I will try to explain the relevance which this book has to the field of Public Administration.
First, try to picture children in a slum where the squalor in their homes is just as bad as that which is in the streets. Prostitution, thievery, murder, and death are daily occurrences. Crack-cocaine and heroin are sold in corner markets, and the dead eyes of men and women wandering aimlessly in the streets of Mott Haven are all too common. Their bodies are riddled with disease, which seems to control the neighborhood. This is Mott Haven, in New York City’s South Bronx, the outback of this American nation’s poorest congressional district, and the setting of Jonathan Kozol’s disturbing representation of poverty in this country. The stories, captured in Amazing Grace, are told in the simplest terms.
They are told by children who have seen their parents die of AIDS and other diseases, by mothers who complain about teenagers bagging dope and loading guns on fire escapes, by clergy who teach the poor to fight injustice, and by police who are afraid to answer 911 calls. Kozol seems to disparage the situation of the poor in America today, especially when more and more the poor are blamed for being poor. Kozol’s portrait of life in Mott Haven is gentle and passionate. Even though rats may chew through apartment walls in the homes of Mott Haven, the children still say their prayers at night. What seems to bother Kozol is that many people do not even want to look at this picture of America, but in Amazing Grace, he dares us to recognize that it does exist. Kozol spent a year wandering through Mott Haven and its neighboring communities, visiting churches, schools, hospitals, parks, and homes.
Talking with parents and kids, social workers, religious leaders, principals, and teachers, Kozol tries to determine how these children and parents cope with poverty and violence. He strives to understand how their fellow citizens can tolerate, even demand policies that guarantee misery and death for those living a few subway stops north of glitzy midtown Manhattan. Perhaps nothing can halt the tides of social policy where citizens of this nation are allowed to live in such conditions. If, on the other hand, anything can, it may be Kozol’s forecasting visions and the openness and humanity of the remarkable people whose amazing grace” he so vividly shows us.
In his book, Kozol tells the stories of a handful of children who have not yet lost their battle with the perils of life in America’s most hopeless, helpless, and dangerous neighborhoods, thanks to the love and support of their families and dedicated community leaders. Kozol implicitly poses questions about the value of such children to an unsupportive nation. Amazing Grace reveals the difficult lives of the impoverished people of Mott Haven, South Bronx, and has produced, perhaps, the most affecting book in trying to portray the problems faced by poor Americans. Many people would like to believe in the phrase NIMBY” (Not in My Back Yard) when thinking of the poor and destitute in America. I believe that in his book Amazing Grace, Kozol has made the important point that poor children who have no opportunities for an education and the hope it can give them don’t just live in the ghettos of the inner city.
They can be found in every state, in every city, town, and rural area. You don’t have to go to New York to find them. It is just a matter of paying attention to your own backyard. As I read this book, I thought about all of the creative and brilliant ideas that I have been exposed to over the years. I would not have the chance to benefit from them if I were a poor child not given the chance to properly learn and grow, like those of Kozol’s book in Mott Haven. As a country, we don’t seem to understand yet that each person, regardless of who they are or where they came from, has something to teach us. If the children and adults like those Kozol describes had the chance to write, sing, do scientific experiments, start businesses, just imagine what we could gain. I was thoroughly moved by the stories of the people in Amazing Grace.
I can see how it might be possible to see this book as manipulative and only telling one part of the story. It could be argued that this book unfairly blames the government, society, and particularly New York Mayor Giuliani for the problems in the Bronx. There was little discussion about how much of the situation was owned by the people in the story. Regardless, you would still have to feel badly for the people in the book, especially the children. The fact remains that the children in this book defy the stereotypes of urban youth too frequently presented by the media. They are 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, as Anthony did throughout the book.
The book does not romanticize or soften the effects of violence and sickness. Kozol says at one point that one fourth of the child-bearing women in the neighborhoods where these children live test positive for HIV. He also tells us that Pediatric AIDS, life-consuming fires, and gang rivalries take just as high a toll on this society of Mott Haven. Several children, around 23, die during the year in which this narrative takes place. I believe that Kozol has written an amazing piece of work here. Amazing Grace asks questions that are at once political and theological.
What is the value of a child’s life? What do we plan to do with those whom we have defined as economically and humanly disadvantaged? How cold, how cruel, how tough can we be? Why can’t we seem to fix it?