Canada, Geoffrey, Illus. Jamar Nicholas. Fist Stick Knife Gun. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
Continuing a personal quest through contemporary graphic novels exploring anti-heroic themes, I picked up this graphic memoir about social activist Geoffrey Canada’s growing up in the streets of the South Bronx during the late 1950s and 1960s. In 119 dynamically drawn pages, illustrator Jamar Nicholas skillfully renders the pain, fear, disappointment, and hope of Canada’s chilling, but hopeful, childhood story.
In the book’s opening scene, Canada, at age four, first becomes aware of violence. This first lesson comes when Canada’s mother orders his two older brothers to retrieve a jacket stolen from one of them at the playground, despite the thief’s threat of violence. While the occasion left young Geoff with many questions about how to act in the world, this proved the first of many lessons to come about showing no fear and escaping victimization.
The story follows Geoff and his brothers as they earn the right to sit on, much less walk down, their neighborhood block and learn the unspoken social rules of the street. And the first rule every boy and girl learns is that everyone fights. No one escapes the elaborate rituals involved in establishing a place in an ever shifting pecking order determined by age, fighting ability, and show of heart. From the block, to public school, and beyond, young children and adults engage in and model expectations for maintaining social order, often through various and increasingly violent means. At the beginning of the book, Canada learns to fight with his fists; by the early 1970s, more widespread gun ownership, alongside the spread of crack cocaine, began a greater escalation of violence and further deterioration of community life many poor urban communities continue to fight today.
As the president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit, community-based organization dedicated to rendering various services, from education and prevention programs, to children and adults in poor neighborhoods, Canada’s main message rings loud and clear. Through the authority of experience and without beating the reader over the heads with it, he insists that individuals do not inherit violence. People do not carry violent genes or naturally gravitate toward violent acts. Canada speaks to these arguments in a moving epilogue, asserting,
I remember clearly the time in my life when I knew nothing of violence and how hard I worked later to learn to become capable of it.
Violence, he contends, happens through a series of hard lessons about how to act in a hostile world. Violent situations cannot be changed through blame or incarceration or looking the other way. The hope of preventing and, perhaps, eliminating violence, can only be reached by taking an integrated approach to looking at the complex social forces which create threatening, unequal, and unsafe situations for certain individuals and groups of people.
As I said earlier, I would recommend this to any teacher trying to stock up on graphic reading materials that might be of especial interest to young men. My current interest also lies in collecting materials (for literature circles, maybe?) to present in a kind of anti-hero unit consisting about persecuted, misunderstood, or vilified groups or people or individuals (a Night unit and associated themes?). I think this book, exploring difficult and very contemporary issues, could easily fit right in.