I hate that I started reading Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun, left it for a bit, then read The Zabime Sisters, and then returned to it. Both tell stories of young black people struggling with, while simultaneously embracing, cultures of violence. Having both books in my mind took me to some pretty dark places, but when I reminded myself that the texts had other things in common besides black-skinned people fighting for status, I felt more connected to the texts, but still equalling disgusted with myself and much of the social order of my fellow man.
Canada's novel is based on his actual upbringing, while the other is a work of fiction, and not a good one at that, but both do reveal, to me, anyway, that cultures of violence are very often associated with cultures of poverty, regardless of race. Certainly my own life is case-in-point. By the time I was 20, I had encounters with knives and guns, and I'd felt and delivered punches.
It's this connection, the one between poverty and violence, the one stemming from insecurity and the overwhelming stresses of not knowing when or how or for how long one's basic needs will be met, that Canada explores. He tells his own story, but helps us to recognize we need to multiply his own tensions by that of entire neighborhoods.
That being said, Canada strikes a sympathetic tone but not one of acquiescence. While explaining that the phenomenon is what it is, he does not accept that it has to be as it is or always will be.
As he grows from a small boy low on the pecking order until he proves he can fight to a young man seeing his Christian values wrestle with his need for safety on the streets while deciding to make the existential choice to carry a gun or not, Canada learns that some decisions are more powerful than others and that self-awareness often keys those decisions.
He says, "I knew that if I continued to carry the gun I would eventually pull the trigger." I've said similar things myself regarding my sometimes-intense anger: "The only reason I haven't shot anyone is because I don't have a gun." But how many people so focused on basic issues of safety and security have the time or inclination for self-reflection? An empty stomach, an anxious heart, and a always-already "fight or flight" consciousness does not make for an abundance of pacifist philosophers.
The graphic novel portion of the text ends with a call to action, symbolized by the teen Canada throwing away his gun, and in the prose pages that follow, Canada suggests that he remembers a time when there was no violence in his life, when he had to learn it.
I'm not sure I remain as optimistic as he does, though knowing his experience has been much tougher than my own but he remains more positive does give me cause to think better of the human condition. He asks us to take on poverty and to invest in poor neighborhoods. His thesis suggests that only when the anxieties of a life of poverty are removed will the perceived need for violence in poor neighborhood abate. In the meantime, while we do nothing to change the phenomenon, we should not expect the phenomenon to change. That, even if Canada might be seen as a dreamer, seems pretty sound logic to me.
** Fist Stick Knife Gun is a graphic novel version of a print novel by the same name. Jamar Nicholas adapted the story in the comics format, and Random House's catalogue "Language Arts and Social Studoes 2011" features commentary that teachers may find useful when integrating this text into the classroom, where it can certainly have some impact, especially if paired with a text like Yummy, which shows a young person in similar living situations making choices leading him to very different conclusions.
Labels: Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Childrens Zone, Jamar Nicholas, New York, violence, Yummy