There’s an American Express commercial you may have seen last year, spotlighting the Harlem Children’s Zone, an organization that follows children from birth to college, ensuring that they have the tools to succeed academically. The man featured in that commercial is Geoffrey Canada, the organization’s president and chief executive officer. You may have also seen him on The Colbert Report or in the documentary film Waiting for Superman. He’s the author of the memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, which was just adapted into a graphic novel by Jamar Nicholas and published by Beacon Press.
The graphic novel presents a series of 10 short vignettes, short stories each illustrating a “lesson” learned growing up on the streets of the South Bronx in the ’50s and ’60s. The stories are for the most part unconnected from one another, sharing little but their protagonists and setting, with the occasional recurring cast. This makes it a fairly easy read, something that can be picked up and put down as the reader feels comfortable, and also ideal for using this book as a teaching tool in class. The downside is that it lacks a sense of urgency, lacking the build up promised by the title. Though there is a moment where Mr. Canada definitively turns his back from a violent solution, it’s disconnected from the previous chapters and functions more as an epilogue than as a integral piece of the working story, which mostly takes place on Union Avenue.
Though I did not grow up in the South Bronx, nor was my childhood as violently fraught as Mr. Canada’s, it did get me thinking back to my own experiences with what most people would term “bullying.” I remember how frightening it could be sometimes, and the shame that comes when you don’t fight back. While I was able to simply disengage myself from my bullies, avoiding those who made my life hell, not everyone has that luxury, and when you have to live like that all the time, it’s no wonder things get so screwed up. Reading the book was admittedly depressing, because it comes from a very harsh place, where even the bits of kindness come from a need for communal protection. It gives meaning to the phrase “cruel to be kind” when he explains that the other kids forced him to fight so he could hold his own again outsiders, or even in the very first story, when his mother chews his brothers out for letting another kid take one of their jackets.
A lot of the heavy lifting in this graphic novel is done by the words and not the illustrations; what the adaptation did was condense the memoir down to a more digestible form. The art is very heavy on faces and figures displayed on blank backgrounds, using some establishing shots and sparse lines to suggest the setting but for the most part relying on the text to give you a sense of place. The figure work isn’t exceptionally fluid; it’s the jagged nature of it that suggests movement and violence.
Ultimately, the subject matter is an excellent choice for a graphic novel adaptation, and the book itself makes for a quick, enlightening read. Few outside that world will ever know exactly what goes on in there, but this graphic novel does a good job of helping us understand.
Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence: A True Story in Black and White
adapted by Jamar Nicholas
from the memoir by Geoffrey Canada
published by Beacon Press (Boston, 2010)
A complimentary copy of the book was provided to me via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.