Sunday, January 23, 2011

Musings: Fist Stick Knife Gun

"When I first found out that Superman wasn't real, I was about eight.  I was talking to my mother who declared, 'No, no, no.  There's no Superman.'  I started crying because I really thought Superman was coming to rescue us from the chaos, the violence, the danger.  No hero was coming."

If you have seen the film Waiting for Superman, about the disturbing state of America's public school system, then you have seen Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children's Zone.  Canada also wrote an autobiography about growing up in the South Bronx during the 1960s, and here it has been adapted to the comic format by Jamar Nicholas.  The title remains Fist Stick Knife Gun as a representation of the way violence in the inner city has escalated.  What used to be dangerous, but not necessarily deadly, has become far worse with prolific access to guns.

Canada starts his story when he's four.  His older brother's jacket is stolen at the park, and when the brother explains to their mom that it was stolen, instead of consoling her son, she sends him to the park to get his jacket back.  She would not tolerate her boys becoming victims.  Soon, though, Geoff's education is tackled by boys who live on the same block as him.  It's not so much to incite violence, but to keep safe, to give the block credibility so that no one will mess with people from there.  He learns how to fist fight, how to gauge an opponent.  He gets a knife.  He gets a gun.

This book is short and very episodic.  Instead of chapter names, there are pictures, icons representing the theme of that chapter.  I am not sure what the original version of Fist Stick Knife Gun is like, but I imagine it's more thorough and detailed.  Here, we get glimpses into Geoffrey Canada's life- the people who shaped him, the lessons he learned, the laws of the streets.  But that's all, just a glimpse.  I think the full autobiography would be fascinating to read.

The graphic novel gave me a lot of food for thought, too, though.  I don't know why, as it seems silly now, but I guess I never thought about children in violent neighborhoods passing on fighting skills to younger people not to go out and attack people, but to defend themselves in situations that arose more frequently than not.  I am not sure what vague idea I had in my head about inner-city violence, but the teaching method never occurred to me.  That whole system- proving your manhood, showing your friends that you can take a beating, showing no fear- makes up the majority of this book.  Throughout, the same lessons are enforced again and again.  If you can't win a fight, you aren't going to make it.  And so each boy goes from being shy and hating the confrontation to slowing learning by fighting his friends, trash talking people he dislikes, getting into wrestling matches, then boxing with bare knuckles, to finding a knife and learning how to use it and then, finally, getting a gun.  Because what is the ultimate form of self-defense?  If you're facing down someone much bigger and stronger and scarier than you are, how do you even the odds?  You need a weapon to even them for you.

It's a sad, if seemingly inevitable, story to tell.  And it's told in simple, forthright language with no apologies or excuses.  It's shared with the help of pictures that are also pretty simply sketched, in black and white and shades of gray, but that convey the characters and emotions quite deftly.

I enjoyed reading this book, but the ending left me scratching my head.  For example, at the end of the book, Canada describes his change of heart as being caused by his Christian upbringing.  However, never before in the book had he mentioned religion.  (Perhaps this didn't make it into the graphic adaptation?)  He also has an afterword describing his work with the Harlem Children's Zone, advocating non-violence for children growing up in tough neighborhoods.  But when he grew up in a similar neighborhood, he learned how to fight because that was his only option.  In fact, the entire book is about learning how to stand up for yourself, physically, and take a beating to survive.  So the last few pages of giving up the gun and describing his work are great and hopeful, but they don't seem in line with the rest of the book.  And that's why I wonder if I missed something by reading the graphic novel, and not the full-on autobiography.

Books like this often make me think, "Ok, now what?"  Many reviewers have said that they wish they could share this book with their students, or give copies to all teenagers in America. But what will that do?  Show that there is an adult who became a success who knows what they are going through, and writes about it?  I am not sure.  I think these are the sorts of books that reach suburban adults, safe in their homes and on their streets , and make us think, "Oh, thank goodness I didn't grow up there."  And then we go about our merry, oblivious lives.  I'm glad these books are out there to make us think about how the other half, as it were, lives.  And what they are going through.  And maybe try our best to help in our own bumbling, uninformed ways.  I admire Geoffrey Canada.  I think he's done great things and is improving the lives of thousands of kids.  But still, my reaction upon reading this book was, quite honestly... I'm so glad that wasn't me.

Note:  This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.


  1. I would highly recommend "Whatever It Takes" by Paul Tough, which tells Canada's story ANd the story of The Harlem Children's Zone. It would answer many of the questions you posed. (And for an even worse graphic novel on growing up in a bad place, Yummy by G. Neri is just amazing!)

  2. Thank you for such a thorough review, it does sound similar in theme to Yummy, which I just read. I'll add this one to the list... or perhaps the full autobiography

  3. Follow up: I just checked my school library's catalog and we had this book, but someone lost it. So, I'll place an order for it right away, thank you for pointing me in the right direction and getting this book back on our shelves!

  4. I think you are right in your reaction to this book. I can imagine reading it and being so glad that I didn't have that kind of childhood. I don't know if this book would necessarily effect any type of change on me, or on others who would read this, but it does sound like an interesting story nonetheless. Thanks for your perceptive thoughts on this book Aarti!

  5. This sounds very interesting. I had such a different, non-violent upbringing, and I'm glad for that. But it's important to understand all experiences.

  6. Jill- Ooh, I'll try to find both of those. Helen just reviewed Yummy, so how serendipitous you mention that one, too- especially as that one is in Chicago.

    Helen- Well, I'm glad you have been of service! Maybe someone liked the book so much they kept it :-)

    Zibilee- Yes, I feel the same. I don't know if anyone really changes their behavior based on books like this...

    Anna- Absolutely. My experience was a polar opposite of this.

  7. I agree with you about the disconnect between the rest of the book and the end message.

    I grew up in a neighbourhood which wasn't nearly as extreme as the one depicted back in the seventies, but with the increase in drug usage in recent years is on it's way to becoming pretty bad - the difference in Britain is that guns still aren't that widespread - knives are much easier to get hold of, easier to conceal, harder to trace.

    And how do you tackle the causes? The biggest cause is poverty, pure poverty and the associated poverty of opportunity and poverty of expectations. And some of the people in those neighbourhoods are bullying thugs who would be bullies wherever they lived, but in a poor environment they thrive, as scum rises to the top, intimidating everyone and perpetuating a culture of fear.

  8. Great review, and I am sure I would think the same thing you did. I am glad it wasn't me.

  9. This sounds like a really powerful book. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for the kids to grow up in times like that. Loved that first line from the book.

  10. Tracy- Yes, the US does has serious gun control issues, I think. Though I can't imagine feeling safe walking through a neighborhood full of hidden knives, either. I agree that poverty is a main driver as is a lack of education (leading to a lack of direction/viable employment).

    Blodeuedd- Same!

    Vivienne- Yes, it's a line he states in the movie, as well, which I think is where the title comes from. It's very sad.

  11. Only tangentially related, but I read a really depressing article about charter schools and the Gates Foundation and Waiting for Superman. It said all this stuff about how unhelpful that whole business is in changing kids' lives. I used to work in a charter schools organization, so I hope that article isn't all true.

  12. That was a depressing article. It sounds like poverty is the root cause and societies ability to ignore the poor.

    I'm glad I didn't grow up in that environment either.

  13. Jenny- Yes, that is a depressing article. Yikes. It is scary, though, how much dependence people place on charter schools rather than public schools...

    Carrie- Yes, you're right. Poverty I think is a main cause which leads to a lot of other things taking the place of school as an important part of a child's life.

  14. Aarti - no, knives are as lethal as guns - and fists can be just as lethal if you punch someone in the right place - it's attitude and motivation that leads to violence - but the easier a weapon is to use and do some damage, the more likely it is that it will be used, by males (mostly) who are testosterone-fuelled and don't think about the consequences.

    I'm not that familiar with the US school system, but schools and teachers can only do so much. The best way out of that impoverished, drug and violence-dominated, broken environment is education, education, education - but peer-pressure says learning isn't cool (but since when has ignorance been cool?) and there aren't the job opportunities to give any incentive.

    The biggest influence in a child's life when they are very young is their parents. As they grow older, the biggest influence is peer pressure. To break that vicious cycle, the 'easiest' way is through influencing new parents. (you want to try changing the direction of peer pressure? Good luck to you!).

    In Britain, a large percentage of men in prison are functionally-illiterate. Why is this, in a country where education is 100% free? Is it that teachers can't teach? Absolutely not.
    There are four main causes of illiteracy:
    i) Dyslexia. A big unrecognised problem in the past, but gets picked up fairly early on now, and children are given extra help.

    ii) Other learning problems - again, in the past was ignored/not recognised. Now gets picked up as 'Special Needs', children are statemented, given extra help etc.

    iii) Lack of parental involvement/encouragement. There is only so much teachers can do, especially when they have a class of 30+ to teach. I used to help out in my kids' Primary School - for six years I used to spend one or two afternoons a week listening to children read, as did several other parents.

    iv) Lack of Positive Adult Male Influence - you really want to try and change attitudes? - get a few fathers to help out in school! If your primary schools are anything like ours, then the majority of teachers will be female.

  15. I think I would have issue with some of the questions that you had and the holes in the story. I am glad Jill knew of the book that offered a more complete telling, but I am glad that people think that it will be helpful to for kids. I second the fabulousness that is Yummy. Great graphic novel.

  16. I'd probably feel the same as you about the book, based on what you've written here. Let's hope the full length book fills in some of the gaps and explains more about his journey. It does seem odd that he would just wake up one day and decide that being a Christian means he should resort to violence.


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