Words That Sustain Me: Punching the Air

“They can’t kill you in here but they will try, Umi says from across the round table. That’s the point — locking you up isn’t enough for them they will try to crush your spirit until you’re nothing but, “DUST,” we both say together.

And what does dust do Amal? What did Maya Angelou say? Umi asks.

It rises I whisper.”

The book that we feature for the month of December is ” Punching The Air ” by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam. This book is a story written in verse about a sixteen year old boy named Amal who was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sent to prison. Amal is a talented poet and artist and this never should have been his story. But can he change it?

The author Yusef Salaam experienced a version of this story in real life when he was convicted with four other boys in the “Central Park jogger” cases. In 2002, after years in prison, the boys had their cases overturned and are now known as the Exonerated Five.

I picked this book because I can personally identify with the experience of being convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. I’ve spent a total of twenty five years in solitary confinement on Texas death row and so much of Amal’s experiences resonate with me.

Whether you’re in juvenile prison, adult prison or death row: black and brown people are the overwhelming majority here. Incarceration is so much about the people who run the justice system, who are white, controlling those who are not. Amal realizes this in the beginning of the book when he says that the grey suit he wears in the court room doesn’t make him any less black. Nor does his white lawyer. I remember when I was in the court room, I wore a dark blue suit and it didn’t make me any less brown. In fact I was the only person who was not white in the room. Looking back, there’s something wrong with that picture.

Amal’s Grandma calls him Master Amal because she says he’s the master of his own destiny, of his own fate. The master of his body, mind and spirit. This absolute truth resonated within my soul and if only I could have understood what this really meant when I was sixteen. Now that I’ve spent half my life in a cage I understand what this means. Through the decisions we make our lives we determine what our experience will be. Having paid for this wisdom in years of my life, I’m desperate to share it with my family and friends so that they can benefit from this lesson. If I can save someone from experiencing grief and heartache, then mine will not have been in vain. I will have salvaged this much from my journey.

While in juvenile prison Amal earns the privilege of attending poetry and art class through good behavior that’s taught by Imani Dawson, poet, educator and activist. Imani asks her students, who are you? What is your truth? She tells the boys in her class it’s okay to be stumped by that question, you have time to think about it.

Who are you? What is your truth? Do you know? Have you ever given this any thought? I believe these are crucial questions that we all should have the answer to and having discovered these truths within us, allow them to guide us to our destiny.

Imani also has her students to make a list of MISTAKES and MISGIVINGS. Mistakes are the things we should not have done and misgivings are when we know something wasn’t right about a situation. Those whispers we hear in the back of out minds but ignored before our mistakes happen.

I think of all the mistakes I’ve made in life and the misgivings I’ve ignored and those lists make me weep! If only I could have understood the message my intuition was trying to give me.

I really enjoyed Punching The Air. It’s a great book that gives the reader a realistic glimpse into life in prison. It a powerful book that will stay with you long after you’ve read it making it worthy of our bookclub!