Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Amazing Grace

Jonathan Kozol talks with people who live in the most depressed and extreme circumstances, in neighborhoods in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace he tells the stories of people he gets to know in the early 90s. At the end of a subsequent book, he points to some improvements in some of the neighborhoods since then, but makes note of much that remains the same. In particular, some neighborhoods in the South Bronx remain the poorest places in the country; in these neighborhoods, public education has not made any improvements and continues to exponentially fail most of its students; and although he doesn’t mention this in the more recent book, HIV infection has actually grown worse of late. In Amazing Grace, he tells the stories of the numbers of people who know numbers of people who have been infected and died of AIDS. These rates seem to be in line with other places where there has been little access to health education, prevention, and medication/treatment. How the rates of HIV can be on the rise now in these neighborhoods in NY (or anywhere in the world for that matter), when cases have been decreasing across the country for some time now, is incomprehensible. 

Among other amazing and incomprehensible details, in Amazing Grace, he takes a moment to show the fatigue that is omnipresent among people living in poverty who are beat down, and then beat down again, through every endeavor: from simply walking up the stairs to their 10th floor apartments when the elevator is broken and being beaten or robbed, to spending hours and days in  government offices reapplying for benefits and aid regularly cancelled and rearranged within inefficient and discriminatory bureaucratic systems. The benefits and aid were originally intended to help people get on their feet so they could catch up and move on. Now, there is never a way to catch up, nothing to move on to: there is no accessible, real education for the kids, there are few jobs for the adults, there are no resources available to help anyone develop skills or encounter opportunities so they can break out of the circle of poverty. The details, in the words of the people Kozol gets to know over many years, are more striking, personal, and distressing than any cursory summary can really acknowledge. The passage that addresses this kind of fatigue, this pushing the boulder uphill and going backwards, says a lot to show a story about the poor that is not the evening Fox News version of “the takers.” Here are some selections from that:

“…when I think about m y conversation with the woman who cooks for the children and the homeless people in the kitchen of St. Ann’s and her reaction to the way she was turned down when she had asked for medical treatment at Mount Sinai, it is the aching weariness within her voice that stays the longest in my mind. Some of this weariness, I imagine, must reflect the cumulative effect of many years of difficult encounters like the one she has described; and some may be the consequence of many other pressures and humiliations in her life. But weariness among the adults in Mott Haven does not always call for complicated explanations. A lot of it is simply the sheer physical result of going for long periods of time with very little sleep because of the anxiety that seems so common, nearly chronic, among many people here.

“There is a great deal of discussion in the papers and on television panels about “apathy” and “listlessness” and lack of good “decision-making kills” among the mothers of poor children… I rarely hear the people on these TV panels talk about such ordinary things as never getting a night of good deep sleep because you’re scared of bullets coming through the window from the street. In this respect and many others, the discussion of poor women and their children is divorced from any realistic context that includes the actual conditions of their lives. 

“The statement … that embattled neighborhoods like the South Bronx have undergone a “breakdown of the family” upsets many women that I know, not because they think it is not true, but because those who repeat this phrase, often in an unkind and censorious way, do so with no reference to the absolute collapse of almost every other form of life-affirming institution in the same communities. “Nothin’ works here in my neighborhood,” Elizabeth says. “Keepin’ a man is not the biggest problem. Keepin’ from being’ killed is bigger. Keepin’ your kids alive is bigger. If nothin’ else works, why should a marriage work?

“”Of course the family structure breaks down in a place like the South Bronx!” says a white minister who works in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. “Everything breaks down in a place like this. The pipes break down. The phone breaks down. The electricity and heat break down. The immune agents of the heart break down. Why wouldn’t the family break down also?

““If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part of the same human family to which we belong, we’d never put them in such places to begin with. But we do not think of them that way. That is one area of ‘family breakdown’ that the experts and newspapers seldom speak of. They speak about the failures of the mothers we have exiled to do well within their place of exile.””

Most of us cannot imagine the conditions for survival in these most neglected places. But disenfranchising people is a continuing trend, and the practice is moving up the economic ladder: more lower paying jobs, less accessibility to quality education and resources for self and professional improvement, more attacks on organizations that help people to have job stability and pay (like labor unions), and more people in the middle classes failing to find stability and falling into the minimum wage work force and into poverty. The South Bronx is the extreme example, in a system of stratification, that seems to be growing worse. The stratification a result, maybe among other things, of a continued systematic racism that pushes people to the edges of society, refuses to offer any means of escape (and actively sabotages any real possibilities that come along), and them blames them for failing and dying. Those who transcend always have some story of serious and constant intervention from some outside force or a miraculous internal motivation and accompanied access to opportunities, or a combination of those. The majority, though, don’t turn into the exceptional examples that society then uses to blame the majority for failing to succeed, even though the narratives of the exceptional ignore the actual details that show what made success possible. 

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

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