Novel interrogates the school to prison pipeline

Author Ibi Zoboi and Exonerated Five Member Yusef Salaam (ABOVE) paired up to write ‘Punching the Air,’ a fictional account of the Black youth experience in America. // Photo courtesy of Staci Nurse

Our Take: Five Stars

“Punching the Air” is a masterfully written story of a boy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A collaboration between award-winning author Ibi Zoboi (“American Street”) and Exonerated Five (formerly the Central Park Five) member Yusef Salaam, the novel emphasizes an essential message about racial injustice and dehumanization.

The story is told from the perspective of Amal, a sixteen-year-old artist who is a victim of gentrification. His wrongful incarceration, paired with his aspirations as an artist, make for a heart-wrenching tale about the disenfranchisement of black men within the prison system.

Recounted through first-person verse narration, Amal’s raw anger, fear and hope are evident in the poetic and lyrical nature of the work. The story is saturated with metaphors and sensory language that establish both the hopelessness of Amal’s situation and his resilience.

Despite being trapped in a system meant to strip him of his individuality, Amal maintains his humanity by finding refuge in his art.

He turns to poetry, painting and any form of creativity that allows him to escape the confines that the world tries to put him in. By using his art as an outlet for his struggle, he fights back against the creativity of racism.

The contrast between the freedom of art and the confinement of incarceration is a significant message in the novel because it illustrates how maintaining one’s freedom and individualism requires that one never give up on their hopes and dreams.

In laying bare his truths through art, readers connect with Amal on a deeper level and understand the terror he feels within the prison system’s hands. Despite his powerlessness, Amal’s hope for a brighter future leaves readers with a subtle sense of optimism. This hope is one derived from anger and knowledge of injustice, and one that promises change.

The novel is based on the experiences of co-author Salaam, who, as a member of the Exonerated Five, experienced the hardships of the prison system for six years after being wrongfully convicted in the Central Park Jogger case.

While the story is not a memoir, Amal’s character and situation is heavily based on Salaam’s personal struggle as an incarcerated yet artistically-gifted teen. The fact that some of the poetry in “Punching the Air” was written by Salaam while in prison solidifies the truth of the story as a reflection of society today.

The sobering message of the novel highlights the pervasiveness of institutional racism and the continued mass incarceration of black men.

“Punching the Air” ensures that readers understand that the American prison system is simply a new form of enslavement for black Americans and should be understood as such.

Amal’s promising future is thrown away the minute he throws a punch. The novel discusses the butterfly effect as a way of clarifying that Amal’s situation is a result of decades of institutional racism and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The novel provokes readers to understand that the world we live in is unjust, and that Amal’s experience is not isolated, but rather a tiny fraction of the institutional racism that has remained in our country since its creation.

“Punching the Air” explores what it means to be angry, to be loved and, most significantly, to be black in America.

Readers are put in the shoes of Amal, who is representative of every young black man who is sent to prison.

The work is a vivid recreation of the life of a black American in the prison system. Ultimately, “Punching the Air” peels back the desensitization that shrouds the American prison system and reveals the truth about what it means to be stripped of one’s humanity, making readers question the justice system of America itself.