Telling It Like It Is In Today's Urban America

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America

By Geoffrey Canada

Beacon Press,

179 pp., $20

THIS book is troubling. Compassion is under siege within its pages. It rocks conventional sensibilities. Anger, fear, despair, and confusion step in front of the reader like some young tough hustling on a corner.

"fist stick knife gun," is an urban coming-of-age story. Part memoir, part social reform advocacy, it contrasts the mean streets of the author's South Bronx youth in the 1960s to the drug-and-gun culture afflicting today's urban youth. Geoffrey Canada dissects how poverty, racism, and peer group, "code-of-the-warrior" behavior result in the widespread violence terrorizing inner cities.

At times his voice is heroic in the face of personal loss. At times it echoes a social worker's lament at the dearth of public policy in coping with adolescent violence. But throughout, Canada's refrain is high-voltage pleading for urban youth.

"If you wonder how a fourteen-year-old can shoot another child his own age in the head, or how boys can do 'drive-by shootings' and then go home to dinner, you need to know you don't get there in a day, or week, or month. It takes years of preparation...."

Canada admits he cannot explain this violence to the reader. He knows the reaction to what he says will first be denial that children can do this, then disbelief, then a dawning understanding of how intractable youth violence has become.

The author had a loving mother to help him grow up. Nevertheless, even she felt compelled to instill in him the necessity to stand up for himself and fight if need be in the South Bronx of New York City 25 years ago. Bullies, who grew up and joined rival teenage gangs, were everywhere. Guns weren't. Encouraging a son to take a stand for his rights, his dignity, made sense then to a young mother raising a son without a father.

Canada fights again in this book, dedicated to his mother, but not with the gangs that pounced on and pummeled him (and were pummeled in return). Now, the third degree black-belt fights with words not fists. He karate chops any middle-class sensibility naive enough, or ignorant enough, indifferent enough, to think youth violence in our cities will go away.

Lest anyone forget, 40 percent of young black men between the ages of 17 and 35 in large American cities are in prison, on probation, or on the run from the law.

Canada affords glimpses into the narrow, powerless world, where groups of children raise each other; where the "wisdom of the ages" is compressed into the limited life-experience of a peer two years older. Street instruction starts at age 5. "Dues" - physical beatings and intimidation - serve as life's mentors and escalate with age into the use of weapons. They are payed in full for not measuring up to a physical standard of courage; even if you know you will lose a fight, do so with "heart," or the next one will be worse.

Children cannot raise children. Canada shares a vignette from his 8th- grade school days. He and a friend tried to avoid a fight and play by "adult" rather than "street" rules. They sought help from the principal but were bitterly disappointed by a complete lack of understanding of their situation. The boys were left to their own wits in resolving a potentially violent situation. Canada says: "...that day I swore to myself that I would never again trust another teacher or school official when it came to violence.... We were on our own to survive the best way we knew how."

Though not nearly as well written as Claude Brown's "Manchild in the Promised Land," (MacMillan) it falls in the same category. "Manchild" is the 1960s classic, the literary fountainhead which established a genre for urban writers, a genre which gives autobiographical voice to fatherless African-American boys left to their own wits on the mean streets of our inner cities.

Unfortunately, Canada omits a frontal attack on the issue of paternity, universally acknowledged as essential to any answer for an entire generation of neglected children. The felt-absence of fathers in the lives of these children gnaws at the moral imagination of the reader. Canada does not offer a unified social theory of what government should do, but he makes specific calls for action.

Military historians reading about World War I and the tragedy of wave after wave of soldiers marching into direct machine-gun fire incredulously ask, "Why didn't they just stop? Why didn't somebody do something? How could senior officers let it go on for so long?" Canada's book challenges each of us with the same question - only he isn't writing about history. It's happening to our children now.

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