Telling It like It Is in Today's Urban America

By Jim Bencivenga. Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor. | The Christian Science Monitor, June 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Telling It like It Is in Today's Urban America


Jim Bencivenga. Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor., The Christian Science Monitor


Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America

By Geoffrey Canada

Beacon Press,

179 pp., $20

THIS book is troubling. Compassion is under siege within its pages. It rocks conventional sensibilities. Anger, fear, despair, and confusion step in front of the reader like some young tough hustling on a corner.

"fist stick knife gun," is an urban coming-of-age story. Part memoir, part social reform advocacy, it contrasts the mean streets of the author's South Bronx youth in the 1960s to the drug-and-gun culture afflicting today's urban youth. Geoffrey Canada dissects how poverty, racism, and peer group, "code-of-the-warrior" behavior result in the widespread violence terrorizing inner cities.

At times his voice is heroic in the face of personal loss. At times it echoes a social worker's lament at the dearth of public policy in coping with adolescent violence. But throughout, Canada's refrain is high-voltage pleading for urban youth.

"If you wonder how a fourteen-year-old can shoot another child his own age in the head, or how boys can do 'drive-by shootings' and then go home to dinner, you need to know you don't get there in a day, or week, or month. It takes years of preparation...."

Canada admits he cannot explain this violence to the reader. He knows the reaction to what he says will first be denial that children can do this, then disbelief, then a dawning understanding of how intractable youth violence has become.

The author had a loving mother to help him grow up. Nevertheless, even she felt compelled to instill in him the necessity to stand up for himself and fight if need be in the South Bronx of New York City 25 years ago. Bullies, who grew up and joined rival teenage gangs, were everywhere. Guns weren't. Encouraging a son to take a stand for his rights, his dignity, made sense then to a young mother raising a son without a father.

Canada fights again in this book, dedicated to his mother, but not with the gangs that pounced on and pummeled him (and were pummeled in return). Now, the third degree black-belt fights with words not fists. He karate chops any middle-class sensibility naive enough, or ignorant enough, indifferent enough, to think youth violence in our cities will go away.

Lest anyone forget, 40 percent of young black men between the ages of 17 and 35 in large American cities are in prison, on probation, or on the run from the law. …

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