When I say
I was punching
All the walls
They put around me
I was punching
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five illustrates a heart-wrenching portrayal of a Black teen boy trying to find what joy he has left in juvenile hall after being accused of putting a White teen boy into a coma.
Amal is a regular sixteen-year-old Black boy growing up in New York when he finds himself in a courtroom fighting charges that he put a White boy from another neighborhood into a coma. He gets sent to juvie, where he taps his artistic and poetic ability as best as he can, but he’s deterred at every corner. The other boys are volatile and the adults are judgmental. Poetry class is his only outlet, but Amal struggles with the work the instructor wants him to put into his poems. Then his artistry clicks for him, and this leads to him repainting a mural in the common area where the boys meet up with their families. Amal becomes known as “Young Basquiat,” a tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat, until that morsel of happiness is taken away from him, and his life seems to be precariously hanging in the balance again.
The entire story is told in verse. This young adult novel differs from others exploring the racial justice movement since the main character is in actual custody and his freedom depends solely on what a White boy says, only if he wakes up from his coma. How a Black boy’s life depends on a White boy’s testimony shows readers the racial dynamics even kids are dealing with. They had gotten into a fight that went too far. Amal says he didn’t throw the harmful blow that put Jeremy in a coma. The boys don’t know each other because Amal and his friends crossed over the physical boundaries of their neighborhood that separate Black and White families with markers of housing, education, resources, and opportunities.
Mental health is a major theme. One way Amal tries to stay grounded is through his Islamic faith. It’s refreshing to see a Black Muslim teen in a young adult novel because the religion is rarely seen in the genre, and when it is, it seems to belong to a Middle Eastern kid instead. Amal’s faith ties him to his mother, who reminds him to pray five times a day. He knows he stands out as a devout Muslim in juvie, and his faith remains under threat inside those gray walls behind bars. Amal also struggles with his poetry and art in the dreary environment. The story examines the power of art for youth since it represents healthy expression. When art is taken away by adults to cause detriment, a teen’s mental health could deteriorate, especially if they’re in a situation like juvie.
Overall, the novel dives into a serious issue of incarcerated teens and those teens looking for any glimpse of bright light they can capture to strengthen themselves. The co-author Yusef Salaam was one of the five Black and Latino teen boys found guilty in the Central Park jogger rape case in 1989. Salaam and Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise are now considered the Exonerated Five after they were exonerated in 2002 when the real rapist had been located through DNA testing. The novel is based on Salaam using his passion for art during his years behind bars also waiting for the truth to be revealed. That’s the most powerful aspect of this book: how race plays a part in who is trusted with the truth.