Jonathan Kozol’s Journey

The author of Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope would probably frown upon any notion that the book is about him, but Jonathan Kozol’s observations at St. Ann’s Church in the Bronx are truly a journey of understanding and discovery, of both hope and tragedy. He builds friendships with poor inner-city children at an after-school program, learning about their experiences, attitudes, values, and beliefs. In a way, Kozol is a John the Baptist type figure, preaching a message that has nothing to do with him but at same time takes him on a journey through the wilderness. If John the Baptist humbled himself by eating wild honey and locusts in the desert, Kozol, a Harvard-educated man, humbles himself by spending his days exploring the destitute conditions of New York’s children. John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Christ. Kozol hopes to pave the way for change.

The children Kozol develops friendships with—Elio, Pinnapple, Tabitha, Lucia, and the others—live in a very rough part of the Bronx called Mott Haven. Their living conditions are grim. “All are very poor; statistics tell us that they are the poorest children in New York. Some know hunger several times a month…some have previously lived in homeless shelters” (Kozol, 2000, p. 4). Poverty is only the beginning of the horrors the children must endure. They are surrounded by drugs and gun violence. Disease is a widespread problem. The author writes that Mott Haven is “the nation’s epicenter for the plague of pediatric and maternal AIDS” (p. 3) and most of the children “have lost a relative or grown-up friend to AIDS” (p. 4). The area, like other inner-cities, remains a breeding ground for asthma due to exposure to harmful chemicals and pollution (p. 3). Kozol describes this problem as particularly painful for the elderly, but takes special pit on asthmatic children:

Asthma is a miserable illness for a child…play is a part of childhood and children cannot play with real abandon when they feel so bad. Even mild asthma weighs their spirits down and makes it hard to smile easily, or read a book with eagerness, or jump into a conversation with spontaneity. They learn somehow to live with these discomforts. Nearly a quarter of the children have to bring their pumps with them to school a church (p. 94-95).

For a time, the neighborhood was plagued by a waste incinerator, the description of which is one of the most terrifying and stomach-churning portions of Kozol’s book. He writes, “It’s a medical incinerator, burning what are known as ‘red-bag products’–hypodermic needles, soiled bedding, amputated limbs, and embryos—which are brought here every day from fourteen hospitals in New York City” (p. 87). The author notes that it took years of protest to get the machine shut down; all the while sick children grew sicker.

However, that one incinerator was just the tip of the iceberg. “In Hunts Point alone, immediately adjacent to Mott Haven, there are forty garbage and recycling facilities, one of them a plant that turns most of the city’s treated sewage into fertilizer. The stench that it gives off is so bad children ‘throw up on their way to school’” (p. 88). Pollution from cars and trucks aggravates the problem. The living standards of these kids astounded me. It is something I could only truly understand if I saw it with my own eyes. Perhaps that mentality explains why Kozol (and his friend Mr. Rogers) has spent so much time in the South Bronx, exploring the darkness in which these kids live. Without seeing, one cannot understand, and without understanding, nothing can change.

After all this, one can hardly expect things to grow darker, but they do. Kozol tells us, “About a quarter of the fathers of the children in the after-school are now in prison or have been in prison, some of them a long way from the Bronx in various state penitentiaries and some nearby at Rikers Island” (p. 31). And what about the children at St. Ann’s whose fathers are long gone, who abandoned them and might as well never have existed? Who are these children who are surrounded by incinerators, drugs, poverty, and only see their fathers during visiting hours?

One answer would be “non-white children.” Jonathan Kozol aims to awaken those who cannot see the current race problem in America, who cannot see how dark the echoes of racism and discrimination have remained. The situation of the Mott Haven children is a testament to race relations of both the past and the present. Kozol says:

It is honest to observe, as well, that the community in which they live is one of the most deeply segregated concentrations of black and Hispanic people in our nation, with less than two tenths of 1 percent of the school enrollment in Mott Haven represented by Caucasian children, and that racial isolation here, as elsewhere in our nation, is accompanied by inequalities in education and high rates of joblessness (p. 4).

Race is a major theme throughout Ordinary Resurrections. Segregation that has persisted despite years of improvements in civil rights is one of the deeply rooted causes of the conditions of Kozol’s young friends. Inequalities in education and high unemployment create poverty. The author makes no bones about the gravity of either segregation-spawned issue. “Unemployment in the South Bronx, over all, remains at over 45 percent, according to the New York Times. It rises in the neighborhood served by St. Ann’s to over 75 percent, according to the pastor of the church and teachers in the local schools” (p. 4). And that was back in 2000. I imagine the economic recession of the past couple years may have made those number rise further. The families that are fortunate enough to have jobs scrape by on $10,000 a year, far below the poverty line (p. 44).

The prisons are deeply segregated. 92% of Rikers Island’s 20,000 prisoners are black or Hispanic and it “is believed to be the most racially consistent penal colony in the entire Western world” (p. 31). While criminals deserve condemnation, Kozol’s journey has allowed him to understand that social and economic injustices are the cause of these startling statistics. Where blacks and Hispanics cannot receive a quality education and then cannot find work, crime begins to look more and more like a viable option for bringing in money. Sometimes, people do not feel they have a choice. It might come down to stealing or starving, joining a gang or starving, or selling drugs or starving.

The author points out that “the racial make-up of the prison population and that of the population of Mott Haven are essentially the same. “The racial mix, such as it is, among the children of Mott Haven is represented by the presence of some 26 white children in a nonwhite population of 11,000 students in the elementary schools” (p. 31). A school and a prison, hopelessly interconnected, the conditions that affect the first inevitably feeding the other. Rikers becomes the next home for some after Mott Haven. At times, it comes sooner rather than later.To summarize the tragedy of the area’s 99.8% segregation rate: “two tenths of one percentage point [serves] as the distinction between legally enforced apartheid in the South of 50 years ago and socially and economically enforced apartheid in this New York neighborhood today” (p. 31). In decades, very little has changed in the South Bronx.

That is the “what” of the problem. The “why” is simpler to explain. While reading Ordinary Resurrections, one will inevitably wonder why things are the way they are for these families and St. Ann’s children. The current issue is an echo of a time of racial tension and hatred. The author explains:

In the vast expanses of the South Bronx, in which residential segregation was encouraged and accelerated by the conscious policies of realtors, banks, and city planners starting in the 1950s, and where federal housing subsidies in recent decades have been used to underwrite a set of policies and practices that deepened pre-existing racial isolation, tens of thousands of black and Hispanic children never see white children in their schools…they don’t know white children (p. 32).

For the horrid problems in this area of New York, we have to thank realtors of the past,who would not show black families homes in white neighborhoods. Some whites when moving from their homes would make it a condition that the house could not be sold to an African-American. Banks refused to loan money to blacks. City planners carefully designed neighborhoods to keep whites and blacks as separate as possible. This is why there are few white kids at St. Ann’s or in Mott Haven’s school, P.S. 30. Racist whites of decades ago made an extra effort to keep blacks and other minorities away from their children. Here Kozol prompts moral reflection. The sins of the last generation are still present in our own. Does that not make us as guilty as our parents? True change has not come close to glimmering in Mott Haven.

In some ways, prejudice continues among the powerful elite in New York. Mott Haven was not the first place in New York that the city attempted to install the medical incinerator. “It had been forced upon Mott Haven, very much against their will, by powerful financial interests after attempting to build a comparable burner on the East Side of Manhattan had been stopped by people there, who rightly feared the damage it would do to their children’s health” (p. 87). The pleas of Mott Haven parents fell on deaf ears. The incinerator was built and maintained for six years. Kozol notes that Mother Martha of St. Ann’s claims “the financiers…had close ties to City Hall” and “contrived instead to put it in the South Bronx not far from St. Ann’s, where asthma rates already were among the highest in the nation” (p. 87). Is it a coincidence that a heavily polluted section of the city, a petri dish for disease, was chosen as the spot for an unsafe incinerator? Is it a coincidence that the location is almost 100% black and Hispanic? How can one part of New York protest and win before such a machine is even built, and another can protest but see the machine erected and cause child illness for over half a decade before anything is done?

Moreover, why does the city spend $12,000 a year on students in northern New York, and only $5,000 on students in Mott Haven schools (p. 45)? Teachers are paid $20,000 more in northern suburbs (p. 45). The inequalities in resources, funds, and salaries are huge. In a unified school district such as New York’s, those at the top are making the conscious decision to treat schools in the South Bronx worse than schools in other areas. Kozol says, “No matter how these differences may be obscured or understated or complexified by civilized equivocation, they do tell us something about how we value Pineapple and Elio as human beings, both in their present status as small children who rely upon our decency and in their future destinies as adult citizens” (p. 45). While he does not spend a wealth of time writing on those who perpetuate the current problem, Kozol is clearly placing as much blame on current leaders as on the leaders of the 1950s. St. Ann’s children have not seen the decency they deserve.

Upon reading this essay thus far, one might think the injustices in New York are all Kozol writes about. This is far from the truth. He weaves these facts into a tapestry of his innocent conversations with the children of St. Ann’s after-school. He wants to shine a light on this dark corner of the country, but he also knows that inner-city children are widely misunderstood. Most of this book focuses on revealing who these children really are and depicting their vibrant spirits. It is a celebration of their courage, fortitude, faith, and positive attitudes, as indicated by Kozol’s subtitle, Children in the Years of Hope.

He aims to combat the labels placed on inner-city kids. For too long, poor children have been looked upon as different from other kids, as part of a “culture of poverty” that makes them“quasi-children” or “morally disabled children” (p. 116-117). As if the kids at St. Ann’s are simply criminals-to-be or “premature adults” (p. 116). This prompts teachers to use “a peculiar arsenal of reconstructive strategies and stick-and-carrot ideologies that would wouldn’t be accepted for one hour by the parents or teachers of the upper middle class” (p. 117). Poor kids are looked upon differently, and are treated accordingly. However, as the multitude of conversations between Kozol and the children reveal, there is little difference between inner-city minority kids and white kids who come from wealthy backgrounds. If anything, Kozol explains they are more sensitive to the anxieties of others (p. 115) because of the world in which they live. They are in the world, not of the world. They are stronger than other children.

The St. Ann’s kids are selfless and sweet and even-tempered. The author describes many as being compassionate toward others and willing to comfort others. It’s as if the children understand what each other have to deal with every day. Seeing their interactions, I would conclude they think about others more than themselves. They are inquisitive, thoughtful, and hopeful. Their words tug at the heart.

One Tuesday afternoon I had an inconclusive conversation on the subject with religion with Pineapple and a girl named Jennifer, who is her cousin. Jennifer said she had a dream that she was visiting God. “There were no stores or restaurants,” she said. “You had to call out to get food, and someone would deliver.” She also said God had brown hair, “dark-brown, like mine,” and that she found out God was married, because, while she visited, “His wife came in and kissed Him.”

A boy who was sitting with us said he had been told that God is “with us in the world” and “not above us in the sky,” but Jennifer said it wasn’t so, that God “stays up in heaven” but “He breathes into the world.”

When I asked her to explain this, she was unable to do so, but Pineapple said, “It’seasy! Look—like this.” She filled her cheeks with air, then pushed them in like a balloon with both her hands and said, “Kapoof!”

Then she laughed and said, “I’m sorry. I was fooling.”

“I knew you were,” I said.

“We’re only children,” said Pineapple, and she handed out grape-flavored sour balls to everyone (p. 237-238).

Only children. With those words, Pineapple sums up the message of Ordinary Resurrections. Despite the segregation and poverty of Mott Haven, despite the injustices of New York’s elite,despite all the horrors of dangerous inner-city life, the children are still children, no different than any others. These kids must simply go through “ordinary resurrections,” or rise above loneliness and fear (p. 108), more often than others.

The above conversation is one of many the author has with the kids at St. Ann’s concerning God and His character. In the beginning of his journey, Kozol was rather uncomfortable with prayer and religion. He writes, “A child would look up and ask me, simply,’Can we pray?’ I would say yes, but I felt strange about this at the start, because I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been especially religious, not in formal ways at least. So I’d be hesitant at first, but I’d agree; and so I’ve ended up saying a lot of prayers without the certainty that I had any right to do this” (p. 7). For the children, “prayer, of course, is a pervasive part of life” and many kids seek the wisdom and spiritual guidance from St. Ann’s pastor (p. 245). Most of the children are firm in their faith, and are very open to discussing serious religious matters to the best of their ability.

Kozol once spoke about God to a little girl named Lucia.

“How powerful is God?” I ask.

“He’s powerful to make hearts,” she replies (p. 71).

Later:

“God needs to make hearts,” she told me firmly one day when I questioned her about this. It had an almost brazenly didactic sound.

Stephanie, who is older than Lucia, also speaks of “God’s heart,” and her own heart…I asked her once what she believed would make the world a better place.

“What would make the world better is God’s heart,” she answered. “I know God’s heart is already in the world. But I would like if He would…push the heart more into it” (p. 72).

It is my opinion that Kozol deeply admires the simple faith of little children. He asks so many questions of them. He is obviously curious, perhaps even jealous of what they have. Kozol has pain and fear in his own life, as his parents grow ill in their old age. He admits, “Perhaps the illness of my parents has enabled me to listen with less awkwardness to children’s prayers, and given me a reason at some moments to pray with them” (p. 7). As his journey of understanding continues, he becomes more comfortable with prayer and religion.

At the end of the book, Kozol joins the children on Easter Sunday for a service (p. 332).His mother’s illness prompts him to write, “Every time I leave her bedside she gives me three kisses, one on my forehead, one on my right cheek, and one on the left, and says, ‘God bless you,’and I say, ‘God bless you,’ in return. We never know which night will be the last one” (p. 336).Without a doubt, Kozol finds comfort through St. Ann’s kids and their faith. I believe that he realized how much strength such faith gave them, and has found the same strength more and more as he opens up to God. In the end, I think he found that certainty he spoke of, the certainty that he did indeed have the right to speak to and petition God.

Kozol believes things will get better in the South Bronx. Despite the darkness and evil there, the hope of the children has become his own hope. He spent seven years learning about who they are and where they come from. He believes the good he has found will wear away at the darkness until, many, many years from now, there will be none left. In the end of Ordinary Resurrections, he describes a present Pineapple gave to him:

It’s a landscape: grass and sky and one tremendous puffy-looking cloud…partly hidden by a hill, a jolly-looking thing with orange rays that look like dragons’ teeth and is supposed to be the sun…friends who see it here cannot decide if it’s supposed to be the end of the day or the beginning. Either way, I think that orange thing with dragons’ teeth is beautiful; and, at the risk of being sentimental about somebody whose sunny disposition brings a lot of joy into a world that has too many cloudy afternoons, I like to think it’s rising (p. 339).

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