Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation Summary
by Jonathan Kozol

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Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation Summary

Amazing Grace by Jonathan Kozol is a book about the children who live in the South Bronx in New York City, in the poorest urban neighborhood in the United States, and it describes the conditions they endure and the hardships they suffer. This is a neighborhood where children struggle with drug abuse and sickness, suffer from AIDS or lose their parents to the disease, live in rat-infested homes, and witness pain and violence every day of their lives. Kozol interviews the people who live and work in the South Bronx—the parents, the children, the ministers, the teachers, the drug dealers, and the street people. He talks to people, including children, who suffer from depression and anxiety and feelings of hopelessness every day of their lives. In writing their stories, Kozol highlights the racial discrimination that these people suffer on a systemic basis that keeps them entrenched in poverty. He paints a portrait of children who have become lost in the system, their needs neglected, their spirits broken, and their opportunities nearly nonexistent.

In highlighting the systemic nature of the injustice experienced by the largely black and Latino residents of the Bronx, and in detailing his subjects’ efforts to live better lives amid terrible conditions over which they have little to no control, Kozol fights against dehumanizing stereotypes of low-income Americans as lazy or irresponsible. He points to the Republican government of New York City, including former mayor Rudy Giuliani, as the problem, showing that their policies have ignored this impoverished area of the city and abandoned the needs of the residents, leaving them without adequate medical care, schools, police protection, or housing. Kozol, who is widely known not only for his writing but for his activism, roundly condemns the inhumane policies of these conservative politicians, imploring all Americans to abandon the “bitterly cold” attitude exemplified by a government that unjustly punishes the poor—and a society that allows this injustice to continue.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Jonathan Kozol’s books on children, the poor, and the homeless, beginning with Death at an Early Age (1967) and continuing more recently with Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools(1991) and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, are powerful and personal evocations of the plight of the poor of the United States, and ultimately condemnations of a society and government that would allow these conditions to exist.

Amazing Grace takes readers to the South Bronx, one of the largest and poorest racially segregated areas in the United States in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts. Abysmal living conditions are the norm—a medical waste incinerator, garbage dumps, children’s parks dotted with empty rusted toxic containers. The city has begun relocating more homeless persons into a neighborhood already lacking adequate hospitals, schools, and public services. Here the construction of reform schools and prisons takes precedence over the establishment of needed primary and secondary schools. Drugs and prostitution overrun neighborhoods without adequate police protection. Steady reductions in the numbers of rat and housing inspectors have allowed monstrous rats to overrun entire areas. Ultimately, the lack of jobs condemns many adults to uselessness and poverty.

Through Kozol, readers meet the poor as human beings, individuals whose voices and lives give the lie to the vicious stereotypes that are used to justify policies of blaming the victims and punishing the poor. Alice Washington, survivor of three operations for cancer, lives in oppressive conditions, infected by her former husband with the AIDS virus, severed from welfare by the vagaries of a large, impersonal, capricious system that robs people of self-respect. Yet she possesses a dignity, even a nobility, that is sadly lacking in her wealthy so-called betters, who seem intent on “quarantining”...

(The entire section is 2,121 words.)