Monday, March 14, 2005

Powerlessness and crisis in faith via Jonathan Kozol

I've just finished reading Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace for the third time. The first time was for myself, and the most recent two times were for literature circles for my students. I want my privileged kids to see what life is like in Mott Haven, New York. My kids, thanks in good part to Kozol's incredible writing, seem to get it. They see what's going on, and there's sadness in them for their fellow human beings, as well as a sense of their own privilege. Last time I assigned the book, one kid understood the discrepancy between his life and the lives he was reading about, poking sarcastic fun at himself: "I read the book over spring break, on my parents' boat, reaching for lemonade. I thought...geez, this is the life." Disarmingly funny, and terribly discomforting. His humor indicated he understood Kozol.

For whatever reason, my own reaction to the book has been far more intense on this reading than it was on the first two. It may be because I am starting to settle into a fairly comfortable life. My fiancee and I aren't rich, but with two incomes and no kids, we're doing fairly well. We're putting together a wedding that, while not extravagant, is expensive. I'm about to take my annual baseball trip...I consistently hop on planes two or three times a year for vacations. I have a car payment and a condo payment--neither of which existed the last time I read this book. So I guess I see myself as a little more of a participant in the injustices Kozol describes now than I did last time.

Two quotes stand out for me. Here's the first. Kozol says:

Many of my white friends[...] would insist that they are personally imposing nothing on the people we have met within this book. They might say they have simply come to New York City, found a job, and found a home, and settled in to lead their lives within the city as it is. That is the great luxury of long-existing and accepted segregation[...]Nothing needs to be imposed on anyone. the evil is already set in stone. We just move in.

Later, Kozol quotes a woman he calls Alice Washington, an AIDS-suffering single mother who he befriends. She says:

I don't think [white people] wish that we would die. I think they wish that we were never born. Now that we're here, I think they don't know what they ought to do[...] I'm not talkin' about all of the white people. Some of them feel this way. Some of them don't. Some of them don't feel nothin'. Some are nice people but they can't get nothin' done and so they put it out of their mind.

These quotes hit me where I live. Poverty is evil, yes. So is a deadly natural disaster like last year's tsunami; so were the 9/11 attacks. I remember writing checks in response to the latter two events. I felt like, with some help and some time and effort, we, as a human family, could get through the tough times caused by those tragedies. I do not feel the same way about poverty. I don't know how to fix it. Neither does Kozol: unlike in Savage Inequalities, which contains specific policy suggestions to ease the scourge of inequitable public education, he doesn't present any suggestions, ending the book with a blunt "I don't know what can change this." Neither do I, Jonathan. And I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. If I write a check, it won't end poverty, it'll just provide a false respite from my guilt. If I don't write a check, I'm callous, cruel, and giving myself permission and justifications to perpetuate the evil status quo (I didn't do it: I just moved in).

So what do I do? Not much. I read this book, ask that students read it, and invite friends like you to read it. I feel bad at the end of Kozol's descriptions, and am indeed near tears at times. I throw up my hands and say "well, I'm trying...I'm teaching, which can help effect change even if I'm teaching the privileged, and I'm voting my conscience and even contacting my representatives every now and again. I'm doing my best." But then, I hear a voice telling me that my best sucks. I hear Alice Washington's voice telling me that I'm a nice person, but I can't get nothin' done, so I just put it out of my mind. I even hear Jesus' voice--his demand--that I give up all of my possessions and give them to the poor. I recognize Jesus will forgive me for being unable to do that, but damn, when you come right down to it, what the hell am I doing for the South Bronx, South Chicago, or South Seattle?

How does my intense desire to help end poverty coexist with my knowledge that, even if I followed Jesus' teachings literally--first, gave up every vacation, then every possession, cancelled the wedding and eloped, then continued to give all I could afford to give and more--that poverty would still be as ugly as ever?

I hate writing this. Saying I feel powerless after reading about the South Bronx is a privileged white cliche. But it's my cliche. I might as well own it.


Joe said...

I don't know either, TRP, but I will say this. There's an ocean of difference between speaking truth to power and giving corporal works of mercy. We study and discuss and write our government and get in the streets if we have to, because we're called to work for structural change. And we write checks or serve soup or donate old clothes because somewhere, there's some one person who needs a bed, a roof, a vaccination, a meal.

We're called to do both. And there's not a lot of overlap in their effectiveness. But we have to do both, because we have to think about the individuals and the whole, at the same time if we can.

I don't know if that answers Kozol. It's what I got.

TeacherRefPoet said...


Are we called to do everything we can in order to eliminate poverty--which I don't see as possible? I suppose we are. We are called to throw ourselves against a brick wall until our bones are broken; and to do it in both ways you recommend. I guess that's where faith comes in. "A way out of no way," as the spiritual says.

Joe said...

Well, yes. We're called to give all. But that's really easy to walk away from. So here's a scarier idea. What is a small thing which you could do and just don't quite get around to?

And how would your world be different for a succession of those acts actually happening? No, it wouldn't fix the South bronx. But how would the effects of that life ripple out?

The little psychic guy in my iTunes just reminded me... "such a long long time to be gone / and a short time to be there."

Swankette said...

From my personal experience I tend to think it's the little things that will do more to implement the change needed than the big things. I bet that at least one student who has read the book for school has taken a bit different perspective towards those in poverty and might do some good deeds.

In dealing with my brothers' trials and tribulations the individuals with a heart have done a HELL of a lot more to help him get to where he is today than the big charities out there have. Not that they don't their purpose, just haven't been helpful in that respect.

Changing attitudes and mindets of others will go a long way to helping the cause.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful post, TRP. As someone who spends most of his waking hours trying to eliminate poverty, I felt really challenged.

I think there are all the elements of a powerful conversion moment for you in this post, and by turns, a challenge for all of us to undergo some conversion as well.

What are those elements? An honest reading of the signs of the times and a profound discomfort with one's own role in a current reality. Change doesn't happen unless people are willing to acknowledge what's really happening, and it doesn't happen unless people are profoundly uncomfortable with what's happening.

I think this call to conversion takes all of us to different places. For those giving money, maybe it means giving time and talent as well. For those doing direct service, maybe it leads us to working for more systemic change. For those doing legislative advocacy, maybe it means getting more directly involved in trying to get good candidates who care about issue like poverty elected.

I have a phrase taped to my computer that I find useful: "It's a big damn struggle. What each of us should give to it, seems to me, is whatever we do best."

You're a great teacher. Your teaching matters. And you're smart and articulate. Your advocacy with elected officials matters. So keep doing those things.

And if you feel called, do more. One suggestion I would have is this: see about getting involved in the local Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

CCHD provides grants to organizations run by people in poverty who want to address the root causes of the conditions they face. Each Catholic diocese has a CCHD board that you can join. The board promotes an annual collection, then interacts with organizations that apply for money. In effect, you'd be helping to build multiple organizations that fight the conditions you read about in Kozol's book. In fact, there's a CCHD funded group in the South Bronx that's done some remarkable work on housing, for instance. Don't know that it shows up in Kozol's work, but my understanding, from friends in NYC, is that it's made a huge difference in that neighborhood.

I'll shut up for now.