Ibi Zoboi Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Ibi Zoboi

Ibi Zoboi

An interview with Ibi Zoboi

Ibi Zoboi discusses what drew her to collaborate on Punching the Air, which focuses on crime, race and redemption.

I was in the sixth grade when our teacher left a newspaper on his desk. The front page story had images of five teenage boys and the word Wilding was written across the top in bold, black letters. This news story caught my attention because the boys, who were accused of doing something terrible, looked just like the boys in my class, with their high-top fades and windbreakers. They seemed to be the same boys who would beatbox to the latest hip-hop songs and show off their dance moves in class, the same boys I was starting to develop crushes on.

Growing up in New York City, I watched a lot of news about crime and violence, and the faces of Black and Latinx boys were all over the TV screens and newspapers as both the victims and perpetrators. This had a huge impact on me as a teen. As the daughter of an immigrant, my social life centered around whatever my mother's fears were, and since she unfortunately believed the messages in the media— that Black and Latinx boys were menacing and prone to criminal behavior—dating was forbidden. But I and so many others my age, knew the truth: that these boys were so much more than how they were being portrayed in the media, that there is a long history of oppression in this country that disproportionately affects these boys' life choices and the environments they are raised in. Those same circumstances and environments affected me and other Black and Latinx girls as well. It was all part of being a teenager in New York City.

All throughout my high school and college years, there were more violent acts committed against Black men and boys, including Yusef Hawkins, who at sixteen was fatally shot in a predominantly white neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, who was shot forty-one times by cops just as he was entering his Harlem apartment. All these stories were why I wanted to become a journalist.

So when I met Yusef Salaam, I wanted to be one of the few college reporters to investigate the truth about the "Central Park jogger" case because so many of us believed those five teens were innocent. By sharing this story, I had hoped to expose the ongoing disparities in the criminal justice system and how the media continually portrays an imbalanced view of Black children.

Many years later, as a published author, not much has changed, including my need to tell these stories. After meeting Yusef in 1999, we were reunited while I was touring for my debut novel, American Street. Yusef expressed his interest in speaking to more teens because his tragedy happened to him as a teen boy. He'd been mostly addressing law students and social justice and community organizations. A few days later, I approached him with the idea of telling his story in the form of a young adult book. We knew that young people needed to hear this story.

While Yusef and I are not telling his story as a member of the Exonerated Five, we are pulling from his experiences for Punching the Air to feature Amal, a sixteen-year-old artist and poet whose life is completely upended after one fateful night. At the center of Amal's story is the cycle of racial violence that continues to plague this country.

But this is not just a story about a crime or race. Punching the Air is about the power of art, faith, and transcendence in the most debilitating circumstances. It's our hope that all readers will relate to the journey of a boy who, in a heated moment, makes one wrong move that threatens his whole future, and how he uses art to express his truth—the truth.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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