Punching The Air - Ibi Zoboi + Yusef Salaam Review

by Morgan Cormack, Deputy Reviews Editor

If you’re familiar with the infamous case of The Exonerated Five, formerly known as The Central Park Five, you’ll have heard of Yusef Salaam. Wrongfully convicted at the age of 15 for a crime he did not commit, the stories of Salaam and the other four innocent men rose to prominent fame with the 2019 release of Ava Du Vernay’s When They See Us. Now, Salaam has joined forces with bestselling author Ibi Zoboi for an incredible piece of literature: Punching The Air.

Punching The Air follows the story of Amal Shahid, a young Black boy who has been arrested and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s a reality many of us are familiar with seeing but I was intrigued as to whether this book would just read as a re-telling of Salaam’s story. Spoiler alert: It’s not. With a story as heart-breaking as wrongful incarceration, I approached reading this with genuine intrigue: How would the book develop? How would it end? Would the expected feelings of sadness warp my ability to truly enjoy this book? In the first few pages, you quickly realise that asking those questions proves futile. This isn’t just a book about a teenage boy’s prison experience, it’s a journey in understanding Amal in general – not as the prisoner or delinquent that his white counterparts would rather portray him as, but as the aspiring young artist he wants to be. You’re taken through Amal’s childhood, his growing love of art, excitement of going to a prestigious arts program to then meeting Amal in prison: a fearful, trepidatious boy who is just trying to find his feet in this new path that the American justice system has handed him. In that character arch, we’re able to see just how easy it is for society to frame a teenage Black boy in a completely opposite light.

Punching The Air will be unlike any book you read this year, that’s for certain. It’s a novel in verse so the story is stringed together in a variety of poetic forms. When the form and presentation of a book is done in such a delicate way, it’s almost easy to forget just how harrowing the contents can be. There’s the temptation to lap this book up, gulp down the words and run through the tale to see what’s on the other side: To see what becomes of Amal, to see if the hardships you’re reading about are a small hurdle in his journey to become an artist. Like I said, the temptation is there and as the form provides an easy way to consume this book hastily, it would be easy enough to do but I wouldn’t recommend it. This is a book you sit with, mull over, re-read the most poignant of pages and use as a springboard for research but it shouldn’t be a rushed read.

Whilst Punching The Air is aimed at young adults and teenagers, I would urge everyone to read this. It’s not often that we are presented with a tale of an inherently racist justice system with notes of hope, love and community in tow. It’s a narrative that’s refreshing and needed at a time where similar cases are prevalent in the world. Saying this, this isn’t a book that wavers from reality in favour of rose-tinted glasses. We are given a look into how degrading perceptions of Black boys sets a foundation for their treatment as adults, how the Thirteenth Amendment has meant that Black people in America have never been able to truly escape slavery and how the world seeks to undermine the word of Black people. As a YA book, it depicts how unjust the world is for a Black person irrespective of age. “Blind Justice II” perfectly illustrates this point and the double standard of tolerated behaviour when it comes to white and Black teenagers. It takes us through the notion of right, wrong and the way how one situation is interpreted starkly differently when it comes to the victim’s skin colour.

"Whilst prison may be one of the main backdrops to this novel, Punching The Air is about so much more."

What I enjoyed most about this book is the messaging that can be found in the background. In Part One and Two, the events of the trial and sentencing are juxtaposed with the history of slavery and Amal’s ancestral past. It’s clever and drives home an important idea: that the American prison system is the modern day equivalent to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In “African American”, Amal compares the Door Of No Return to the door leading out of the courtroom. In “Coming To America”, we’re given a glimpse into Amal’s initial fears and wish to be superhuman as a coping mechanism whilst in prison. In “The Entombment”, the idea of prison as a purgatory form of existence is illustrated; somewhere where one is “hanging in the middle, dead to the world”. One of my favourites though is “Middle Passage”. Well known as the portion of the slave trade that transported African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, here Salaam and Zoboi use the harsh reality of the Middle Passage as a poignant illustration of Amal’s journey. Amal describes how he “went from kid to criminal to felon to prisoner to inmate” and as quick and clear as that sentence reads underlines how final his new life path is. As one of the longer pieces in the book, it is also full of other journeys. We’re taken along Amal’s journey to the prison itself, in the bus’s suffocating atmosphere and presented with Amal’s general teenage angst. Most importantly though, we’re given the first insight into Amal’s journey of clarifying the fateful night in question.

This book is written with a nuance that only someone who has been through a situation like this could have written. Salaam’s inspiration for the novel came from his own experience of having hip-hop as the main creative force guiding him through prison. In very similar fashion, Amal leans into his art. Relying on prison guards to provide basic crayons and paper or sneakily hiding pens, Amal comes to use art as more than just a creative outlet. He uses it to connect to inmates, create meaning out of his sentence and also to try and understand just how he got involved in the assault that led to his incarceration.

Whilst prison may be one of the main backdrops to this novel, Punching The Air is about so much more. As a reader, you’re confronted with the fact that prison is not just a shared cell and one hour recreational time but is a system ingrained into society. Salaam and Zonoi are careful to point out the similarities that prison shares with the education system and how, in Amal’s case, it acted as “Prison Prep”. How, in an education system that favours his white peers and deems his behaviour as hostile, he was always seen as a threat to authority. Again, this isn’t a book about prison, it isn’t even a book about the justice system. It’s a book detailing how one Black teen is contending with a system that’s pent on weakening him and just what he does to find himself amongst that noise. You realise Amal’s relationships, notably with Umi (his mother) are integral to Amal’s survival in this situation. You are also confronted with the fact that when someone so young is sent to prison, it affects their entire family and social circle also. However, what I wasn’t expecting of this book was to feel relatively hopeful. This isn’t a book where you follow these tragic events and are left sad at the end of it. In an age where social media is plagued by hashtags of the latest Black person to be killed at the hands of the police, this book disrupts that narrative by offering a small slice of hope in Amal. At the start of the novel, some of the titled poems read “Character Witness”, “Anger Management” and “White Space”. As you near the end, you can sense Amal’s development in poems named “Young Basquiat”, “Hope” and “Brotherhood”.

With Amal meaning “hope” in Arabic, we read about his plight but are also carried by him through this unjust situation. One where he’s met with shock, anger and frustration at a world that can so easily get under one’s skin. It’s almost alien to say but amongst those strong emotions, we’re also met with hope and all of the same instances that would occur in any other YA novel: budding romance, friendships, family, religion and a sense of community. Whilst not every wrongful incarceration story can be full of these semi-positive aspects, Punching The Air is clearly a tale written by someone who has personally experienced such tragedy and survived. Punching The Air is a call to action in a way, a call to young people and those reading that they cannot let stereotypes and labels stop them from highlighting the disparities of the world.

Punching The Air (HarperCollins) is now available to purchase. Many thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.

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Quarterly literary review magazine by Black, Asian, and marginalised community writers.