FIRST STICK KNIFE GUN: A Personal History of Violence

By Geoffrey Canada, as drawn by Jamar Nicholas
128 6x9-inch pages, b/w
2010 Beacon Press
paperback, $14


Fist Stick Knife Gun coverWith this book, Canada and Nicholas join an ever-lengthening line of failures at the medium. An African-American, Canada started with a prose treatment of his growing up in the South Bronx; then Nicholas adapted the prose to what they both believe is a graphic novel. But, alas, it isn’t: captions carry the narrative; the pictures contribute nothing. So it’s not a graphic novel: it’s decorated prose. And the book also fails as a polemic, which Canada obviously intends.

Young Geof, like all youth everywhere — not just in the South Bronx — wants to belong, and in his tough neighborhood, belonging means living by the code of the block. He must establish a reputation and then work to maintain it. He begins with his fists, fighting to prove he is tough. Then as he grows older, he takes up other weapons — a stick, a knife, and, finally, a gun. So far, Canada’s tale is insightful and logical. But in the story’s resolution, he fails.

Carrying a gun, Geof realizes that, sooner or later, he would have to point the gun at someone and pull the trigger. “In the end,” he says, “my Christian upbringing proved to be stronger than my fear of the gang or my need for a sense of control over my environment. ... In the end, I realized that I didn’t want to kill anyone.” And so he throws the gun away. And the book ends.

His motive at this turning point in his life is wholly absent from the narrative. His “Christian upbringing” is never mentioned anywhere else in the book. What is there about his Christian upbringing that overwhelms the ethos of the gang that he has so carefully obeyed throughout the book? Canada clearly intends the book as a cautionary tale: don’t do this or you’ll wind up badly; but you can save yourself. He achieves the first part admirably (albeit sometimes tediously); but he fails at the second part. His book doesn’t show how a young kind growing up in a tough neighborhood can save himself.

Geoffrey Canada photo
Canada, who is president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit community-based organization aimed at helping kids, is a passionate advocate for educational reform, and he provides an epilogue that discusses some of his understandings and purposes:

“Schools in America are especially dangerous places. Intimidation, threats and outright fights go on in the classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, and schoolyards. ... When it comes to violence, school is too often the child’s learning ground about the impotence of adult authority. ... The problem cannot be solved from afar. The only way we are going to make a difference is by placing well-trained and caring adults in the middle of what can only be called a free-fire zone in our poorest communities. ... Adults standing side by side with children in the war zones of America is the only way to turn this thing around. ... While nationally we have foolishly invested our precious resources in a criminal justice approach to solving our crime problem — including hiring more police and locking up more people for longer periods of time — we have nothing to show for it except poorer schools, poorer services for youth, and more people on the streets, unemployable because they have a criminal record.”

He concludes: “If we were fighting an outside enemy that was killing thousands of our children every year, we would spare no expense in mounting the effort to subdue that enemy. What happens when the enemy is us? ... Do we still have the will to invest the time and resources in saving their lives? The answer must be yes.”

But that’s Canada’s hope. It’s not his assessment of actuality.

He wrote this book — first in prose, then with accompanying pictures — trying to address the problem. He describes the problem thoroughly. But his solution is deux ex machina, a mechanism that descends into the narrative and magically rescues the protagonist. To be effective, the solution should arise from the narrative, not be imposed upon it from without.

And who does Canada see as the audience for this book? Young people? Presumably, Canada chose the graphic novel form as a way to reach youthful readers, readers caught in the trap he escaped from. But he doesn’t show them how to escape.

Nicholas’ pictures are excellent—boldly outlined, deftly toned in gray. But they add nothing to the narrative carried in captions.




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