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

Jonathan Kozol


(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 poor and greedily increasing their own excessive wealth. Her son David, prematurely aged by worry and caring for his mother, still finishes high school with grades that earn for him a scholarship to college. A survivor, David is filled with a wisdom born of religious faith and keen observation that leads him to conclude that evil is what the rich have done to the poor in New York.

The children, the focus of all of Jonathan Kozol’s work, are essentially defenseless youth who pay for the sins of American society. They are not thugs and prostitutes, but children who seek to lead normal lives and develop normal aspirations. They feel buried, condemned, hidden, powerless, afraid. They and their parents resent the vicious and dehumanizing stereotypes of the poor promulgated by mean-spirited talk-show hosts and privileged govermnent officials.

Through the program directors of Covenant House and the clergy who minister to this abandoned constituency—the unselfish few who are driven by a sense of justice and a true understanding of Christianity—and the administrators of dangerous housing complexes and of segregated, inadequate schools, Kozol relates the prevalence of asthma, depression, traumatization, discouragement, and hunger among these children. Many die random, needless deaths, not simply from the gunfire of an unpoliced realm left to the mercy of drug dealers, but also in elevator accidents resulting from deficient inspection and upkeep and in the apartment fires that are common in the dead of winter in poorly heated tenements.

These children are quarantined like a social plague, more than a generation after the United States supposedly set out to end segregation, a fact that depresses Kozol. The desolation of the “physically offensive places” that are labeled schools, the evidence of human ruin at the secondary level as these institutions crush students’ self-esteem, stands in stark contrast to the selective high schools of New York City, where too few students from deprived areas succeed in gaining entrance.

Kozol shows how the class warfare of which Republicans accuse Democrats when the latter seek to ensure that the wealthy pay their share of the nation’s tax burden is a political fiction. The real class war in America is a one-sided assault led by the representatives of the wealthy on a defenseless and mercilessly stereotyped poor, who are victims of a changing economy and technology over which they...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)