Ibi Zoboi, author of the award-winning novel American Street returns with a new novel, Punching the Air, with Yusef Salaam, member of the Exonerated Five and public speaker that follows a story written in verse about Amal Shahid, a sixteen-year-old boy wrongfully incarcerated of beating up a white boy from a rival neighbourhood that leaves him in a coma. Many of the novel’s aspects draw directly from Salaam’s life as an incarcerated teen and his experiences as growing up Black and Muslim.
The novel begins with Amal’s trial as he is being convicted and sent to serve his sentence in a juvenile jail. From the beginning, the reader is situated in Amal’s psyche and we get introduced to him as someone who is a normal kid from a lower-middle-class upbringing – a kid who loves to draw, paint, and dream about exploring his art at a prestigious college.
The prose of the novel is so poignant that it effortlessly flows with Amal’s emotions as his situation worsens. I felt like I was the one being put on trial and battling emotions of anger and confusion. Zoboi and Salaam illustrate in the simplest of passages the ways in which Blackness is demonized from an early age, and how Black people are treated like criminals simply because of the colour of their skin.
Early in the novel, Amal recites an experience when as a child he receives a three-day suspension from school for an innocent fight over a girl in the fifth grade, whilst his white peers are given the benefit of the doubt when they act up in class. Punching the Air unveils both the subtle and unsubtle ways that Black children are never given second chances nor the freedom by society to be children and to make mistakes. One of my favourite poems in the novel that powerfully summarizes this idea is:
So I am ink
He is paper
I am pencil
He is notebook
I am text
he is screen
I am paint
He is canvas
I am man
He is boy
I am criminal
He is victim
I am alive
He is almost dead
I am black
He is white.
The strongest aspect of the book, and one that rarely gets portrayed in Young Adult fiction or fiction in general, is the representation of faith in Black Muslim life. The novel depicts Amal’s close relationship with his mother as she reminds him of the power of his faith throughout his journey in jail. We are given many glimpses into Amal’s strength in his faith that not only grounds him but re-connects him to his family and his core values.
Having watched Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us, which intimately follows Salaam’s real-life experience with the injustice system in America, it becomes evident that Amal’s family life closely resembles that of Salaam’s relationship with his real-life mother and sisters, reflecting the theme of the importance of familial relationships in the novel.
Zoboi and Salaam take us on a young black boy’s journey in trying to defend his character against all odds whilst still holding onto his dreams and imagination through his art. In a short time, Amal goes from being a naïve boy trying to impress his crush at school, to a convicted teenage felon overcoming the challenges of prison politics. The authors effectively capture a moment in Black life that rarely exists in isolation.
Punching the Air is a glimpse into the black experience as it stands today and reveals much of the nuances of mass incarceration and a society that fails the young Black and brown children and tells them that making one mistake could cost them their youth. It is a wonderfully crafted story about the power of healing through art, truth, and resiliency that anyone, adult or child, alike should add to their essential reading list.