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Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

This is one of the most important young adult books I have read in my short, but well-read life. As a huge admirer of When They See Us and knowing the impact the show had on me when I saw this title on the HarperCollins AU kids list, I knew I had to read it. A thought provoking, insightful—and as expected—quite a harrowing look into the systemically skewed justice system in the United States, the focus of this novel.

I watched When They See Us at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement when anger and upset was reignited by the murder of George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020. Admittedly, I had avoided the series for a while as I was not ready to confront the harsh realities and I wanted to protect myself from the hurt I knew I would face. But as #BLM was hitting our screens with rightful rage once more, I decided I had to be a big girl and face the truth. If people of colour have to live in fear for their lives in the streets every day I can watch a miniseries that is only going to illicit a fraction of the pain POC suffer through every single day (I also read and watched The Hate U Give, and 13th in the same weekend—more tears but more self education). I still think about When They See Us. I sobbed for Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam (the Exonerated Five who were falsely accused of the assault of a jogger in New York City’s Central Park). But going forward I can only try to do better, to read better, so this is what led me to Punching The Air.

This is one of the most important young adult novels of this generation because not only does it touch on racial injustice but it is written completely in verse. Despite the wave of modern poetry that has recently taken the world by storm it is still a completely underappreciated art form amongst young people. In my personal experience learning poetry in school was a complete drag. I didn’t understand it, I could never derive meaning from the words on the page. It was infuriating to me because I knew there was so much value but I just couldn’t understand its code and secrets. Once my teachers explained these poems to me, I was enthralled with their meaning and contextual value. Poetry for young people is only now becoming a thing of great value but poems about feeling like a drooping flower or whatever aren’t exactly of educational or cultural importance—Punching The Air is. Salaam and Zoboi saturate this story with literary techniques with a strong contextual backing. This is a book kids will want to keep reading, it is not something they will be forced to begrudgingly read.

I know it may seem odd for me to instantly jump to an educational setting when discussing the value of a book for young readers but before I even knew what book stores were or had my own money to recklessly spend on books I found things at my school library. Not only is it a channel for kids to access this book when they otherwise might not, stories like this need to be taught in schools. An important way to foster change is through education and in order for it to be successful it needs to be systematic and institutionalized. A statement needs to be made and changes need to be implemented in order to undo the systematic racism that exists globally, let's be real. This most recent wave of the BLM movement sparked a fierce chapter here in Australia, too. It brought to light a lot of information I didn’t know about and this reiterates that systematic racism is an ongoing global issue by which the foundations must be dismantled in order to see change—the people who are going to be able to do that are the generations to come. Between 1991 and June 2020 there have been 437 Aboriginal deaths in custody. As of 2019, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders represented 28% of the adult prison population despite the fact that they only represent 3.3% of the total Australian population. Indigenous youths are 26 times more likely to be placed into detention facilities. These numbers are incredibly jarring when compared to total population numbers, it is clear there are skewed rates of incarceration between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Punching The Air offered a fresh new perspective on the wrongful convictions of Black people. We know Alam is not guilty of the brutal attack on young white boy Jeremy Mathis, however it is hinted that he was there and did do something. Salaam and Zoboi explore the way the justice system is intrinsically broken but also how in this case our main character has played a minor role in the fight—he is guilty of something, but not to the degree by which he is punished. This perspective challenges readers because despite the fact that Alam played a minor role, he was punished at the highest level as a direct result of his race. Punching The Air gives us scenes that remind us of the racial disparities that exist within society and how they are inherently unfair.

“Maybe these are the / same chains that bind me / to my ancestors”
“Amal Shahid to the left Jeremy Mathis to the right / perfectly imbalance / because where I come from / jail or death / were the two options she handed to us / because where he comes from / the American Dream / was the one option she handed to them”
“Maybe jail / is America”

Zoboi and Salaam consolidate the idea that the “but” shouldn’t (read: doesn’t) matter. People can always find a way to somehow rationalize the violence and injustice that is inflicted upon people of colour; ‘but he was a criminal... but he was being aggressive...but he was talking back’. Whether these statements are true or made up, it should not play a role in the rationalization of being systematically treated differently because of their race, if the shoe was on the other foot the situation would play out vastly differently. This characterization of Amal is really powerful because it highlights the cage people of colour are put in by society. Black people are not allowed to experience human emotion the same way anyone else would simply because broader society deems it threatening. This is a simple freedom people of colour are stripped of, and something that is ingrained into young people from an early age (taking some liberties from The Hate U Give here). Salaam and Zoboi highlight the vast difference of how people of colour are allowed to exist and the unfair and harsh persecution that is faced if the standards set by an institutionally white society aren’t met. You only have to take a look at the harrowingly light sentencing of Brock Turner to understand white privilege, but that’s a whole different deck of cards my friends.

Punching The Air centres the conversation of racially charged injustice in a completely accessible way for younger readers and older readers alike. Zoboi and Salaam are broadening the narrative around the treatment of people of colour and how it is not only in the US but globally. Punching The Air firmly asserts that one wrong step, or rather one display of natural human emotion, does not justify a life of punishment. This book is beautiful, heart wrenching, and ultimately important. If I could place it into the hands of all young readers I would, but I can’t. So I urge you, Reader, to pick up this book and read it then pass it down to the younger generation. We need to keep them educated and keep them angry and ensure we can create a world that will never allow injustices like Alam’s and that of the Exonerated Five to ever happen again.

Punching the Air

By Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam

406 pages. 2020.


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