“You have to go to the place of pain and look in the eyes of the people … the nation has cheated for so long,” author and activist Jonathan Kozol declared to a rapt audience at an afternoon tea at Roosevelt University.
In brief autobiographical remarks, the trim and brown-haired Kozol, now in his early 70s, bobbed from side to side as he shared the origins of his now 45-year commitment to social justice.
It is a journey that began drenched in privilege.
Holding a silver watch in his right hand, Kozol, who wore a dark blue suit with a red pen peeking out of the pocket, a pair of blue sneakers and his trademark John Lennon-style glasses, explained that his father urged him to attend Harvard University rather than Princeton.
The dean of admissions was a classmate of Kozol’s father, and he made a persuasive case. “Talk about affirmative action,” he said as the audience chuckled approvingly.
His next stop was Oxford, where he began, but did not finish, the work he had set out to do as a Rhodes Scholar. Feeling constrained with the venerable institution’s definition of English literature as ending in 1832-Kozol had wanted to write about W.H. Auden-he set off for Paris.
Within the first week, he had bumped physically into Richard Wright. Shortly after, he met William Styron and James “Jimmy” Baldwin.
Upon returning to Boston, he went to Roxbury and got hired to teach fourth grade-an experience that served as the basis for his National Book Award-winning debut, A Death At An Early Age.
Toward the end of year, offended by the use of a saccharine poem by Gwendolyn Brooks to stand for black literature, Kozol introduced his students to Langston Hughes’ From Mother to Child and Dream Deferred.
He was fired the next day for “curricular deviation,” and then hired the following week by the federal government to work on curriculum development.
Kozol will be giving a public presentation later today about The Shame of the Nation, his most recent book, at an event sponsored by Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute. Kozol’s thesis is that, 50 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, America has restored its system of educational apartheid, but with the insidious twist of commemorating the nation’s commitment to integration and equality.
“See all the progress we’ve made in 40 years,” he asked wryly after saying he had heard about a proposal to raise CPS class sizes to 37 students. “It’s as bad under Obama as it was under LBJ.”
He hastened to add that he “had worked for Obama, of course.”
Before Kozol’s speech, my brother Jon and his friend and colleague Carlos Ortiz will also present a video they have made about youth violence in Chicago.
Jon and Carlos collaborated earlier on “Violent Realities,” a photographic show hosted at the Gage Gallery that featured Jon’s color work from Guatemala and Carlos’ black-and-white images from Chicago’s South and West Sides.
I’ve seen a trailer for the video, and can say confidently that it’s powerful stuff. People who attend the event are in for a treat, if a heavy one, from three talented and dedicated artists and spirits.