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by Louise Cooper
A review of Jonathan Kozol's Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years among the Poorest Children in America. Crown, 2012, 339 pages.
Working with poor children and their families for over forty-five years takes a toll on anyone’s soul, and Jonathan Kozol is no exception. Fire in the Ashes is his thirteenth book of real-life tales of poor Black and Hispanic families in New York and Boston. His first, Death at an Early Age (1967), told stories of his first teaching job and won the National Book Award. Others of his best-known works are Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America (1988); Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991), and Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (1995). His newest portrays the journeys into young adulthood of several of the children of his earlier books.
Fire in the Ashes follows them making their way past the myriad barriers set up by our nation to their obtaining a decent education and a safe neighborhood in which to live. Many of their stories start at the Martinique Hotel, an infamous welfare hotel in New York that housed hundreds of families and thousands of children, exposing them to sexual exploitation, drug dealing, violence, and despair. The Martinique no longer exists as housing for the poor, but many of Kozol’s friends are treated no better today, shunted from place to place, housed in grossly inadequate places, and unable to send their children to school with any consistency.
As indignities pile up, so too does the cost for people exposed to them. The biggest toll seems to be paid by young boys as they come of age and are unable to take care of themselves, help their families, or develop a sense of self-worth. In the chapter “Eric and His Sister,” a Black family that gets the opportunity to move to Montana in 1996, with full-out support from a white church community that has been moved to action by Kozol’s Amazing Grace, is nevertheless unable to survive intact. The young man indulges in petty and not-so-petty crime and eventually kills himself — with shattering impact on his mother. Only Lisette, the daughter/sister, is able to take advantage of her life-changing circumstances to climb towards a middle-class life.
Some of Kozol’s young friends do well in school in spite of the educational system’s deficiencies, and are able to make good use of the support and encouragement of adults who reach out them. Reading about these irrepressible young people makes you want to cheer for them all to be able to overcome the daunting problems they face every day. Kozol’s great gift is for humanizing people whom most of his readers rarely, if ever, get to know deeply — and making those readers aware, without ever pointing his finger, of their own biases about the so-called “underclass.” “Unhealthy and self-destructive inclinations are not the ‘special illnesses’ of young men and women who grow up in inner-city neighborhoods,” he reminds us. “I recall, from my father’s sixty years of practicing psychiatry, that he treated many affluent people who seemed ‘hell-bent,’ as he put it, ‘on finding any way they can to ruin their own lives . . .’” The “cheap and facile language about ‘parental failings’” and “the rhetoric of ‘personal responsibility,’” Kozol concludes, “. . . is the last resort of scoundrels in the civil and political arena who will, it seems, go to any length to exculpate America for its sins against our poorest people.”
It is estimated that one in five American children live in poverty today. In narrating some of their stories, Kozol is unveiling the failures of our educational, social services, health care, and housing systems, all of which contribute to the continuing tragedy that affects us all. It is hard to believe that anyone could have the failure of compassion and imagination required to ignore these problems and the people whose lives are blighted by them. Americans are horrified to read about the poor houses of 19th-century England, or the death by starvation of millions in 19th-century Ireland — yet we permit ourselves to be oblivious to similar outrages in 21st-century America.
Fire in the Ashes makes clear the scope of what is needed to enable the children and families of Kozol’s book, and forty-six million more like them, to survive and thrive. They need resources and support: emotional, financial, social, and psychological. Nothing changes overnight, or even in a single year. It takes years of work and commitment by many people to overcome the effects of harsh poverty and enable families to lead self-supporting, happy, healthy and productive lives.
I have been a social worker and teacher for the past forty-five years in the inner-city neighborhoods of the South Bronx, Alphabet City, and Harlem, and I have witnessed every outrage that Kozol mentions perpetrated on children. Fire in the Ashes offers admiration and praise to “the many very good and innovative teachers who have a deep commitment to the children” of the South Bronx, and to other good-hearted professionals whose lives, like his, are bound up with the children and families with whom they work. I have also seen many teachers and social workers learning the cardinal rule of their work, however: Avoid getting emotionally involved. Kozol has broken this rule consistently, at high cost to himself. He was fired from his first teaching job for using a poem by Langston Hughes that was not authorized by the curriculum. Today, he is still doing what he’s not supposed to do: He’s available to these families and has a relationship with them based on equality. They do as much for him as he does for them; these are friendships, not “cases.” Kozol’s need to reach out, and his desire for others to do the same, is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.
There are, in fact, lots of rules that need breaking if families are to escape poverty, if schools are to improve, and if educational and social-service resources are to be more than barely adequate. Property-tax-based funding of schools, for example, is an unfair policy, uniquely American among the developed countries. It leads to enormous inequities in school funding, with wealthy neighborhoods having twice as much to spend per child as poor neighborhoods. We are long overdue for the federal or state governments to equalize school funding, so that each child has similar access to resources, computers, the best teachers, and the care and concern that go along with having adequate school environments.
There also needs to be adequate housing in safe neighborhoods. There needs to be funding for long-term interventions, more options and programs of uplift. Programs that prey on the poor — such as the technical training institutes that lead to few job opportunities, and landlords who exploit families by providing them with substandard housing — all need to be shut down.
Again and again, Kozol asks how we can provide a more level playing field, for “charity and chance and narrow selectivity,” as he writes, “are not the way to educate the children of a genuine democracy.” Kozol has for years maintained a small charitable foundation, The Education Action Fund, that permits him to have some discretionary funds for timely interventions in the lives of his friends, and he offers readers regular updates on his educational activism by writing to EdActInx.
Nevertheless, the passionate indignation that was his primary tone for years has been dampened here. After decades of difficult, unremitting, and deeply personal commitment to poor children, Kozol is obviously fatigued. Still, his hope seems to remain that enough people, perhaps after reading his books, will rise up to demand that our country have a more equitable distribution of resources. Without such a redistribution, we will continue to lose our children to early deaths —and with each death we will lose art, music, novels, science breakthroughs, good neighborliness, community activism. Think of what we are all missing from these losses!
Louise Cooper spent the first ten years of her social work career working with runaways and gangs in New York. She then started a New York therapy practice working with people in the arts. Her company, Copwood, does training in creativity and innovation and the use of humor for both private and public companies.