Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, Geoffrey Canada’s first published book, is the story of his childhood and youth in the South Bronx. As the subtitle indicates, the book also offers his perspective on the issues that have made life in U.S. inner cities increasingly dangerous for children. Ghetto life was brutal enough while Canada grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as he recalls in countless painful vignettes. That violence, though, was at least governed by a code of street honor: Any show of fear would be cruelly punished, but youths were to fight fairly, and weapons were generally limited to fists, sticks, and knives—the first three words of the book’s title. A turning point came later, when guns became increasingly common on inner-city streets.

As an adult, Canada has worked to help low-income urban children escape from the cycle of poverty and indiscriminate gun violence that, since the 1970’s, has defined life for many denizens of the nation’s inner cities. He was born in 1952, the third of four brothers raised by their mother. The children’s father left the family early on. Geoffrey’s first lesson in street fighting comes when a boy steals his brother’s jacket and Mrs. Canada orders her two oldest sons to retrieve it. Mastering their fear of a possible beating from the thief, they soon return triumphantly with the jacket. For the young Canada, the primary lesson of the episode is that...

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Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bencivenga, Jim. “Telling It Like It Is.” Review of Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun, by Geoffrey Canada. Christian Science Monitor 87, no. 132 (June 5, 1995): 13. Emphasizes Canada’s perception—unusual for its time—that the absence of fathers has a negative effect on the development of boys in urban ghettoes.

Canada, Geoffrey. Review of Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors, by Marian Wright Edelman. Black Issues Book Review 2, no. 1 (January/February, 2000): 27. In reviewing a work by one of his important mentors, Canada sheds light on the development of his own thinking. By noting Edelman’s work with Malcolm X and Medgar Evers—two martyrs of the Civil Rights movement—he underscores the perils involved.

Cohen, Leah Hager. “Mean Streets.” The New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, 17. Provides an update on the street situation that makes Canada’s call for action so urgent. Acknowledges the danger involved in working with children on the streets but describes it as a path of hope.

Lee, Felicia R. “For Harlem’s Children, a Catcher in the Rye.” The New York Times, January 9, 2000, section 14, p. 1. Offers a perspective on Canada’s life, his work as head of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families in New York City, his broader efforts to help struggling children, and the long-term outlook for his projects.