As the conversation around the American institution of policing reaches a head, young people are increasingly turning to media to understand the perspectives of those harmed by the existing system. The story of the Exonerated Five – five Black and Latino teenagers falsely convicted for the rape, assault and robbery of a white female jogger in Central Park – remains prominent in discussions about the criminal justice system, as it exemplifies how some lose significant portions of their lives to incarceration. One of the five, Yusef Salaam, has partnered with author Ibi Zoboi to write Punching the Air, a hybrid novel that tells the story of Amal Shahid, a 16-year-old Black Muslim who is absorbed into the school-to-prison pipeline.
According to Salaam, the novel “reflects not only [his] story, but the stories of millions of young boys and girls of color who face the injustice of mass incarceration and the criminal justice system.”
The first part of the novel progresses through Amal’s court case, while the second and third detail his experience while incarcerated and life after release. Readers learn about Amal’s life, from his experiences with rage to his contentious relationship with school. We are introduced to his poetry teacher Imani, a prison abolitionist who assures Amal that he was never meant to be a slave. Salaam and Zoboi give such depth to each and every one of the characters in Amal’s story, and it’s easy to become invested in his growth over the course of the novel.
The novel is written primarily in verse, and each piece blends a conversational voice with strong imagery. Each poem tells its own story while weaving itself into the greater narrative; for instance, “White Space” depicts Amal’s art teacher, Miss Rinaldi, explaining the use of negative space in visual arts. “White Space II” delves into the idea of a physical “white space”, which has been defined by scholars as a place that people of color (particularly Black people) are required to navigate even as their thoughts and needs are subjugated to those of the more privileged group.
Later, “Blank Page” has Amal deeming his defense attorney as “part of the white space / on my page / where the charcoal and ink / only graze the edges of his world”. Although they are meant to be part of the same space, the same team in the courtroom where Amal stands trial, they are ultimately of two different worlds.
One proverb included in the novel stands out – the idea that English requires two mouths to speak and four ears to listen.
“Clyde spoke with two mouths,” Amal says, “one for me and one for the court”. These lines represent the literal discrepancy in how Clyde talks to Amal and how marginalized people often have to modify the way they act to avoid scrutiny. The latter especially rings true in Punching the Air – Amal laments being pushed into a specific narrative without any feedback from the people who know him best.
This book is a must-read for young people, not only because of its subject matter but also because of the engrossing writing and accompanying visuals.
“This novel is a continuation of my work to shine a light on the reality of our criminal justice system and inspire young people to advocate for change,” Salaam said.
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Punching the Air was released September 1, 2020. You can purchase it through Bookshop, IndieBound, and other book retailers.
HarperCollins is partnering with various non-profit organizations across the country to deliver copies of Punching the Air to incarcerated youth. If you would like to send books to incarcerated people, consider Liberation Library, which serves youth in Illinois, or any of the organizations on this list.
Featured image via HarperCollins