The Lives of Children and the Conscious of a Nation
About Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace is Jonathan Kozol’s classic book on life and death in the South Bronx—the poorest urban neighborhood of the United States. He brings us into overcrowded schools, dysfunctional hospitals, and rat-infested homes where families have been ravaged by depression and anxiety, drug-related violence, and the spread of AIDS. But he also introduces us to devoted and unselfish teachers, dedicated ministers, and—at the heart and center of the book—courageous and delightful children. The children we come to meet through the friendships they have formed with Jonathan 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. Amidst all of the despair, it is the very young whose luminous capacity for love and transcendent sense of faith in human decency give reason for hope.
Praise for Amazing Grace
“Gripping, informative, deeply moral, and profoundly disturbing.”
Washington Post Book World
“A powerful book . . . as good as a blessing.”
Los Angeles Times
“Heartrending . . . This volume has the tone and power of elegy.”
“Amazing Grace is good in the old-fashioned sense: beautiful and morally worthy . . . I thank you for the language of this book, its refusal to patronize, to exoticize these children, and its insistence upon taking what they say, feel, and think seriously.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Amazing! A marvelous achievement.”
Anita Manning, USA Today
“At a time when Americans are struggling to see through the political, racial, and economic walls that separate them, Jonathan Kozol comes along with a window. Like an Old Testament patriarch, he rages at what he calls the greed and ‘theological evil’ of our time.”
Lisa Shea, Elle
“An often stirring and shocking . . . portrait of the dire poverty of these young inner-city lives. A labor of love by a deeply humane man.”
Lewis Beale, New York Daily News
“It is powerful stuff: uplifting with its tales of those who survive amid the destruction; depressing because of the many lives that poverty kills, almost literally from the womb.”
Philadelphia Daily News
“Surely deserving of a Pulitzer.”
Susan Campbell, Hartford Courant
“In this stunningly simple and eloquent book, Jonathan Kozol continues to be our voice in the wilderness of America’s childhood.”
June Arney, Virginian-Pilot
“Kozol wants you to step away from the comfortable. He wants you to see the children’s magic and to be so shaken by their lives that you demand change . . . A well-reported and -crafted book that asks tough questions and hurts you to read.”
Kai Erikson, The Nation
“There must be something special about Kozol—a warmth, a gentleness, a kind of mournful decency—that brings out the extraordinary in others. He knows how to ask questions, to listen patiently, and to treat the answers he gets with a respect that borders on courtliness . . . Kozol is an important writer, but he is also an important presence.”
“Jonathan’s struggle is noble, his appeal urgent. What he says must be heard. His outcry must shake our nation out of its guilty indifference.”
Rabbi David Saperstein
“A superb book. I was alternately moved to tears and outrage.”
“A profound book about New York, painting a portrait of where we really are in our municipal life and reminding all of us, but particularly those of us in government, of how much work we must do if we have any claim to having a moral center.”
Ruth Messinger, former Manhattan Borough President
“Awesome and important.”
Robert Coles, author of The Moral Life of Children
“Jonathan Kozol has been for a generation now a dedicated emissary who dares leave the comfortable world to which he was born and in which he was educated for those ‘other’ neighborhoods that so many of us, these days, try to put out of our minds. His ‘grace,’ then, is also ‘amazing’—his tenacious insistence that he himself not forget what is morally at stake for all of us in the South Bronx and places like it across the land.”
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch
“Kozol reminds us that with each casualty, part of the beauty of the world is extinguished, because these are children of intelligence and humor, of poetic insight and luminous faith. Amazing Grace is written in a gentle and measured tone, but you will wonder at the end, with Kozol, why the God of love does not return to earth with his avenging sword in hand.”
Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed
“A beautiful and passionate book about the lives of the people in the South Bronx. By capturing the moral courage, eloquence, and spiritual resilience of his subjects, Jonathan Kozol has created a moving and critical narrative written in the spirit of the gospels, infused with love and steeped in the principles of justice.”
Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children’s Defense Fund
“Very powerful—it may turn out to be one of the books of our times. . . . This is a remarkable book; I encourage all Americans to buy it and read it.”
Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, Episcopal Bishop of New York
“The extraordinary thing about Mr. Kozol’s writing is that God’s presence in poor children comes through as light in the darkness. I believe Amazing Grace to be the finest book of its kind.”
David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Bearing the Cross
“A compelling and powerful portrait of the tragic harm so many children suffer in urban America. As always, Jonathan Kozol’s work is taut and elegiac, memorable and haunting.”
Read an Excerpt:
The Number 6 train from Manhattan to the South Bronx makes nine stops in the 18-minute ride between East 59th Street and Brook Avenue. When you enter the train, you are in the seventh richest congressional district in the nation. When you leave, you are in the poorest.
The 600,000 people who live here and the 450,000 people who live in Washington Heights and Harlem, which are separated from the South Bronx by a narrow river, make up one of the largest racially segregated concentrations of poor people in our nation.
Brook Avenue, which is the tenth stop on the local, lies in the center of Mott Haven, whose 48,000 people are the poorest in the South Bronx. Two thirds are Hispanic, one third black. Thirty-five percent are children. In 1991, the median household income of the area, according to the New York Times, was $7,600.
St. Ann’s Church, on St. Ann’s Avenue, is three blocks from the subway station. The children who come to this small Episcopal church for food and comfort and to play, and the mothers and fathers who come here for prayer, are said to be the poorest people in New York. “More than 95 percent are poor,” the pastor says—”the poorest of the poor, poor by any standard I can think of.”
At the elementary school that serves the neighborhood across the avenue, only seven of 800 children do not qualify for free school lunches. “Five of those seven,” says the principal, “get reduced-price lunches, because they are classified as only ‘poor,’ not ‘destitute.’ ”
In some cities, the public reputation of a ghetto neighborhood bears little connection to the world that you discover when you walk the streets with children and listen to their words. In Mott Haven, this is not the case. By and large, the words of the children in the streets and schools and houses that surround St. Ann’s more than justify the grimness in the words of journalists who have described the area.
Crack-cocaine addiction and the intravenous use of heroin, which children I have met here call “the needle drug,” are woven into the texture of existence in Mott Haven. Nearly 4,000 heroin injectors, many of whom are HIV-infected, live here. Virtually every child at St. Ann’s knows someone, a relative or neighbor, who has died of AIDS, and most children here know many others who are dying now of the disease. One quarter of the women of Mott Haven who are tested in obstetric wards are positive for HIV. Rates of pediatric AIDS, therefore, are high.
Depression is common among children in Mott Haven. Many cry a great deal but cannot explain exactly why.
Fear and anxiety are common. Many cannot sleep.
Asthma is the most common illness among children here. Many have to struggle to take in a good deep breath. Some mothers keep oxygen tanks, which children describe as “breathing machines,” next to their children’s beds.
The houses in which these children live, two thirds of which are owned by the City of New York, are often as squalid as the houses of the poorest children I have visited in rural Mississippi, but there is none of the greenness and the healing sweetness of the Mississippi countryside outside their windows, which are often barred and bolted as protection against thieves.
Some of these houses are freezing in the winter. In dangerously cold weather, the city sometimes distributes electric blankets and space heaters to its tenants. In emergency conditions, if space heaters can’t be used, because substandard wiring is overloaded, the city’s practice, according to Newsday, is to pass out sleeping bags.
“You just cover up … and hope you wake up the next morning,” says a father of four children, one of them an infant one month old, as they prepare to climb into their sleeping bags in hats and coats on a December night.
In humid summer weather, roaches crawl on virtually every surface of the houses in which many of the children live. Rats emerge from holes in bedroom walls, terrorizing infants in their cribs. In the streets outside, the restlessness and anger that are present in all seasons frequently intensify under the stress of heat.
In speaking of rates of homicide in New York City neighborhoods, the Times refers to the streets around St. Ann’s as “the deadliest blocks” in “the deadliest precinct” of the city. If there is a deadlier place in the United States, I don’t know where it is.
In 1991, 84 people, more than half of whom were 21 or younger, were murdered in the precinct. A year later, ten people were shot dead on a street called Beckman Avenue, where many of the children I have come to know reside. On Valentine’s Day of 1993, three more children and three adults were shot dead on the living room floor of an apartment six blocks from the run-down park that serves the area.
In early July of 1993, shortly before the first time that I visited the neighborhood, three more people were shot in 30 minutes in three unrelated murders in the South Bronx, one of them only a block from St. Ann’s Avenue. A week later, a mother was murdered and her baby wounded by a bullet in the stomach while they were standing on a South Bronx corner. Three weeks after that, a minister and elderly parishioner were shot outside the front door of their church, while another South Bronx resident was discovered in his bathtub with his head cut off. In subsequent days, a man was shot in both his eyes and a ten-year-old was critically wounded in the brain.
What is it like for children to grow up here? What do they think the world has done to them? Do they believe that they are being shunned or hidden by society? If so, do they think that they deserve this? What is it that enables some of them to pray? When they pray, what do they say to God?