No Surrender : Jonathan Kozol is one of America’s last uncompromising voices. His latest cause: the South Bronx.
Not 12 minutes away on the No. 6 subway line is a land of luxury, limou sines and ladies who lunch. It is not inconceivable that in that section of Manhattan--the Upper East Side ZIP code that was home to Jacqueline Onassis, for just one glamorous example--apartment owners pay annual garage fees in excess of $3,700. Certainly many of the luncheon ladies spend that much at the hairdresser each year.
The figure is pertinent because here in Mott Haven, the poorest part of the poorest congressional district in America, one-quarter of the families subsist ( live is probably too generous a term) on $3,700 per year. One out of three of Mott Haven’s 48,000 residents is a child, and more than 95% of children here are raised in poverty. Two-thirds are Latino; the rest, African American. White people come here only as priests, teachers, police officers or drug purchasers.
One-quarter of the mothers of newborns in this sliver of the South Bronx test positive for HIV. The pediatric AIDS rate is the highest in America. On these streets, asthma and violence are such curious companions that the kid who packs a piece probably also is armed with an asthma inhaler. Before knocking off the neighborhood bodega, or corner store, he might well dodge the rats that roam with fierce impunity.
“This here is a burial ground,” a 9-year-old tells Jonathan Kozol in “Amazing Grace” (Crown, 1995), Kozol’s arresting new examination of the lives of children in this bastion of bleakness. “People walk the streets like they’re already dead.”
Slender and intense, Kozol must have made a conspicuous presence when he began walking these streets two years ago. Outside Mott Haven, Kozol’s credentials as one of America’s last uncompromising voices were long since established, as he championed the plight of children in books that ranged from “Death at an Early Age” (New Ameri-can Library, 1963) to “Savage Inequalities” (Crown, 1991). Kozol fairly dines off the distinction of having been fired from teaching fourth grade in Boston’s largely black Roxbury district 30 years ago for reading the poetry of Langston Hughes in class. At 59, he has made a career out of unrelenting conscience and unrepentant liberalism.
But here, where the aroma of sewage bubbling up from Park Avenue would never be confused with Chanel No. 5, about the only thing Kozol had going for him, as James Roundtree, who runs one of the neighborhood’s 13 homeless shelters, puts it, was that “Jonathan is different from the average white person. He don’t look like no cop.”
Rather, he looks like Woody Allen’s vision of a Harvard intellectual who shares a one-room, 250-year-old farmhouse near the New Hampshire border with a golden retriever named Sweetie Pie. He is non-threatening, yet possessed of a powerful urgency. Positioning himself no more than three inches from a person’s face when he speaks, Kozol brims with such fervor that even when trying to look adorable, it is hard for him to be convincing.
Asked why this defender of America’s young people has no children of his own, he explains that he was divorced 20 years ago. Then he shrugs, appearing more vehement than impish, and adds unpersuasively: “But it’s not too late. There’s still time.”
Kozol happened onto Mott Haven because he heard about a church that was doing “interesting things” in the community. The Brook Avenue subway stop led him to St. Ann’s, where a dog of indeterminate origin presides over the desolate dirt mound that passes for a churchyard. To Kozol’s surprise, the priest at St. Ann’s turned out to be a 45-year-old woman.
Kozol, the Rev. Martha Overall says, became “a facilitator for the voices here--which is good, because otherwise everyone ignores them.” Overall, a onetime lawyer, is thin, blond and fueled by the same fires of righteous indignation that apparently fanned Kozol at birth. She wastes little patience on “the guy from the New York Times,” author Alex Kotlowitz, whose review of “Amazing Grace” suggested that Kozol must be “tired of shouting. . . . He must be wondering, after all these years, whether anyone is listening.”
Overall is just as dismissive of the notion that Kozol might have written the same book in some other equally bleak urban setting.
“There is no other equally bleak urban setting,” she retorts. “This is a Third World country. We have Doctors Without Borders here. The food that they had left over from Desert Storm, they brought it here. It tasted like space food.”
In the six blocks that formed his laboratory for “Amazing Grace,” Kozol remains a distinctive figure, part tour guide and part rock star. Pointing out a crumbling publicly owned staircase--"How long do you think we would tolerate this on Fifth Avenue?” he demands--he is swept up by children’s voices: “Jonathan! Jonathan!” An instant later he has skipped up the perilous staircase and half a dozen kids are embracing him.
Now his smile is a mile and a half wide. Kozol can expound on social injustice with a ferocity that makes even the most altruistic, socially conscious listener squirm. But get him around kids and his hard edges vanish. There is no mystery to this, Kozol says: “I just like to be with children.”
In this well of sensational poverty, in particular, there is “a kind of golden moment, an innocence” reflected in the children.
“They are strong in their faith of God, they believe in the decency of others, and they are not yet soiled by the knowledge that this country doesn’t like them.”
This passion for young people dates to 1964, the famous civil rights summer, when Kozol knocked on the door of an African American church in Boston and asked if volunteers were needed. Kozol’s subway trip that day to an all-black neighborhood turned out to be a life-changing journey.
As the son of a Harvard Medical School neurologist, Kozol was raised in affluence. He was one of two Jewish kids at a fashionable Boston-area prep school, and at Harvard, he lived in Eliot House, “where everybody talked as if they were British, even if they grew up in Palo Alto.”
Longing for a secure life for his only son, Kozol’s father urged him toward medicine, law or as a last, desperate measure, a job as an English professor. Instead Kozol began to volunteer as a reading instructor. Soon he was teaching in public school--which led to nine books on the plight of children.
There is poetry in even the most impoverished of circumstances, Kozol contends, although his literary subjects do occasionally speak with almost suspicious eloquence. Kozol rejoins that he does not hold himself out to be a reporter and that his books are not intended as journalism. “Amazing Grace,” Kozol says, is “not a book of interviews or onetime snapshots. It’s a memoir of a journey that took me into a place I had never been and took over two years of my life. I don’t think the people in this book would have said the things to me that they did if they perceived me as a reporter.”
Instead, in what Kozol calls “normal-life situations,” he sat drinking coffee at Alice Washington’s kitchen table until 2 in the morning. Washington contracted AIDS from her husband, then left him when he beat her. She was found to have cancer, and with her two children, was shunted from city shelter to city shelter. Mott Haven was her final stop.
“She’s as close to a modern saint as anyone I know,” Kozol says. “She doesn’t just talk about the consequences of poverty, she talks about its causes. She asked me once why there was this recent hardening of the hearts toward the homeless. I told her the newspapers wrote of something called ‘compassion fatigue.’ She thought that was a sly euphemism. She said, ‘Fatigue? I don’t know what they did to get so tired.’ ”
Or there was 13-year-old Anthony, who likens his life to a story by Edgar Allen Poe. Or Annabelle, 11, who whimsically speculates that in heaven everyone wears white nightgowns, while the dress code in hell is red pajamas. Maria, 16, laments that if she goes downtown to shop, “They look at you sometimes as if your body is disgusting. You can be dressed in your best dress, but you feel you are not welcome.”
More than two dozen children died in Kozol’s six blocks during the two years he worked on “Amazing Grace.” One boy perished in an elevator shaft. Another was incinerated in an apartment that is now bricked shut. A 13-year-old girl was burned to death after she was raped. Her remains were stuffed into a giant-size Pampers box.
“I don’t think the problem is that we have insufficient information or cleverness” to solve the problem of children who are raised in such destitution, Kozol says. “The problem is that we lack the moral and theological will to act on what we know.
“As Mrs. Washington said: You take a place of death, and you add more death. In that sense, we are all killers.”
The pogrom mentality that relocates poverty to a semi-invisible site “is intentional,” Kozol charges. “We don’t want them in mid-town Manhattan because it ruins tourism. The last thing people want to see outside the marquee of ‘Les Miserables’ is the real miserables , the children on the sidewalk, after they leave their $250 tickets. So where are you going to put them? You put them in the sickest, most diseased part of the city.”
Walking with Kozol down Beekman Avenue, where the click of a camera makes residents uneasy because it sounds too much like a gun, one of Kozol’s recurring questions seems particularly poignant. If there is a just God, he asks in “Amazing Grace,” how can children be allowed to live like this?
Shirley Flowers, de facto ambassador of Beekman Avenue, has her own answer: “Without [God], there wouldn’t be any survivors at all.”
She says her goal is to get herself, her children and her grandchildren out of this neighborhood--somehow.
“I don’t want them to grow up here,” she says. “I don’t know what the future holds, except that they have no future.”
That kind of grim clarity is what Kozol hoped to capture in “Amazing Grace.”
“I have always felt my role was to do anything I could to enable the powerless to speak,” he explains. His arms stretched out, as if to encompass the separate country he discovered when he found Mott Haven.
“I want America to hear these voices,” Kozol says, “because they are beautiful voices.”