Living Together in the 21st Century
August 2000 – current
In 1967, during the heart of the civil rights movement, a young white teacher in the poor, black section of Boston was fired for reading a Langston Hughes poem to his fourth grade students. That individual was Jonathan Kozol.
Death At An Early Age, a description of his first year as a teacher, was published in 1967 and received the 1968 National Book Award in Science, Philosophy, and Religion. Now regarded as a classic by educators, it has sold more than two million copies in the United States and Europe.
After being fired from his first job, Jonathan Kozol did a short teaching stint at a suburban school. The shock of going from one of the country’s poorest public schools to one of its richest never left him. From the start, Jonathan Kozol combined teaching with activism. He taught at South Boston High during the city’s desegregation crisis. Working with black and Hispanic parents, he helped set up a storefront learning center that became a model for many others in the U.S. In 1980, the Cleveland Public Library asked him to design a literacy plan for the nation’s large cities. His plan became the model for a major effort sparked by the State Library of California. The book that followed, Illiterate America, was the center of a campaign to spur state, federal, and private action on adult literacy.
A few days before Christmas 1985, Jonathan Kozol spent an evening at a homeless shelter in New York. Nightlong conversations with the mothers and children who befriended him led him to remain there for much of the winter. Out of that experience came Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, a narrative portrayal of the day to day life struggle of some of the poorest people in America. The book was presented to state governors by homeless advocacy groups. Jonathan Kozol gave them his full support and founded The Fund for the Homeless, a non profit organization that provides homeless families with emergency assistance. The book received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for 1989 and The Conscience in Media Award of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
In 1989, Jonathan Kozol revisited America’s schools. He went to rich and poor schools in over 30 communities. This experience led him to write Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (1991), which received The New England Book Award in non fiction.
In 1993, Jonathan Kozol journeyed to the South Bronx. Two years of conversations with the children, clergy, and parents formed the basis for Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation (October 1995). The book explores the lives of some black and Hispanic children whom, although they live in one of the most violent, diseased communities in the developed world, retain a soaring spiritual transcendence. Despite the political conservatism of the 1990s, Amazing Grace became a national best seller within three weeks of publication and received the Anisfield Wolf Book Award in 1996.
In a stirring departure from his earlier work, Jonathan Kozol published Ordinary Resurrections in May 2000. Like Amazing Grace, this work also takes place in the South Bronx; but it is a markedly different book-we see life this time through the eyes of children, not, as the author puts it, from the perspective of a grown up man encumbered with a Harvard education. A work of guarded optimism that avoids polemic and the fevered ideologies of partisan debate, Ordinary Resurrections is about the persistent innocence of children who are still unsoiled by the world and can view their place in it without cynicism or despair.
Kozol’s latest book is The Shame of a Nation, scheduled for publication in September 2005. The Shame of a Nation is a searing look at what Kozol calls the “cognitive decapitation” of black and Hispanic children in our nation’s flagrantly unequal and rapidly resegregating public schools. In a powerful exposé of conditions he found in visiting nearly 60 schools in 11 states during the last five years, the book is a haunting journey through the classrooms in which children of color are contained, concealed and isolated from American society.
A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard and a Rhodes Scholar, today Jonathan Kozol lives in Massachusetts.