Monday, October 19, 2009


Review: A real bildungsroman in Harlem

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When someone points a gun in your direction but doesn’t want to shoot you in particular you should
A. run into the nearest building.
B. yell and scream while you run away.
C. stand still.
D. hit the ground.

A couple of months ago, I listened to This American Life on NPR which repeated a segment about Baby College, a place where parents learn about ways of not threatening their children with violence in New York City. One of the forerunners behind this programme is Geoffrey Canada, whose work at the Harlem Children’s Zone seems like nothing short of a miracle come true: their idea is to get the community involved in self-improvement, starting at the home, by not using violence as a threat to motivate children. A workshop for parents is held, and participants learn about alternatives to the toxic behaviour of the ‘streets’.

On that note I tracked down Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, based on a friend’s recommendation. And what a thrilling and telling read it was. Canada details how he was raised in Harlem, how he learned violence – its effects and its ‘need’ – in the neighbourhood, and how he developed a programme that would attempt to eliminate said ‘need’. The descriptions of gunfights (which have basically replaced fist- or knife-fights of yesteryear) and of torture that schoolchildren inflict upon one another are as powerful and as frightening as Raskilnokov’s horsebeating dream, which still makes me sick thinking about it.

Canada had a knife which he tended to like a pet: ‘The knife was my passport. As I approached a group, my hand would slide in to my right pocket to position my knife so that it could be immediately opened, then I would set my eyes straight ahead and wait for a challenge,’ Canada writes; this knife accidentally later disfigures one of his fingers, a problem he still has today. But this is how he learned to live, where there was pride in violence.

This book goes into theories of how to eliminate the need for this way of handling issues, even discusses failed programmes like Nelson Rockefeller increasing the penalty for drug dealers, which then created a new problem of children taking the dealers’ places – worsening the situation for all. He discusses how police forces in poorer neighbourhoods tend to be slightly racist, which doesn’t help the fact that residents don’t see the police as helpful but harmful. Canada even has suggestions at the back of the book which discuss sociopolitical ways that violence in schools and in cities can be ameliorated, ideas that make sense on paper and, based on his success in Harlem, in real-life.
I found this a enthralling and fascinating read, one that I was unable to put down once I started. The author is articulate and his ideas in this book resonate today even after the tragedies of Columbine and Virginia Tech, especially since the book was written back in 1995. Very impressive all around.


3 comments:

J.T. Oldfield said…

So, what's the answer? I'd like to think I'd choose C, but I'd probably do B.

Kari said…

Ah, gun-fights just lack the musical choreographic potential of knife-fights.

Salvatore said…

haha! True. You can't dance to that. Jerome Robbins would be at a loss…

The answer apparently is D. The question is/was asked to many inner city school kids – and still may be – as Canada was conducting research and working in the school districts of New York.