Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America
By Geoffrey Canada
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. …