Reading guide for Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi

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Punching the Air

by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi

Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi X
Punching the Air by Yusef Salaam, Ibi Zoboi
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    Sep 2020, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
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Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

  1. Amal observes that authorities at school, in the justice system, and the public at large, do not see him, but rather construct a self they assign to him, "shaping me into / the monster / they want me to be" (p. 16). Where does that monster image come from, and why is it so easy to assign it to Amal?
  2. Amal expresses a feeling of inevitability about his fate in the system (p. 8), and the shaping of his life by outside forces, like the prosecutor writing the "script" and directing the "scene" (p. 22), and in the poem "Blind Justice" (p. 44). To what extent do you think he and the other inmates, and the privileged boys, created their own life outcomes, and to what extent are their outcomes results of societal forces?
  3. When he is sentenced, Amal compares his life before this moment to Africa and says, "maybe jail / is America" (p. 61). In "DNA," he connects the shackles he wears leaving the court to the shackles his ancestors wore (pp. 80–81). Discuss the connections between his experience as a black youth in contemporary America and the experiences of early Africans arriving in the Americas. What has changed, and where do we see echoes of the past?
  4. Throughout his time in juvenile detention, Amal is told in various ways that he and the other boys have "already become everything we're supposed to be" (p. 346). Ms. Buford says "I know your type," and encourages him to just "do what you need to do" (pp. 327–328). Stanford responds to his concern about Kadon by saying, "There's nothing you can do, Shahid" (p. 324). But Imani works for prison abolition. What do you think Amal's perspective toward his situation should be? Should he stay angry? Give in? Protest? Have hope? What are his options, and what would be the outcome of any of his choices?
  5. On page 133, Amal says of Ms. Rinaldi, "She failed me." On the surface, he is referring to his grade in her art class, but how can this line be interpreted as a double entendre? In what other ways did Ms. Rinaldi fail Amal? What should she have done differently? Was her treatment of him entirely her fault, or was she also at the mercy of a system? Why did she see his art as separate from him? Why did she think she could "save" him (p. 192)?
  6. Amal's description of gentrification goes beyond a simple residential pattern, to an attitude of ownership. Reread the passage from "The Persistence of Memory," starting from "They were from where the big houses are" (p. 196) to "we were like get the fuck out!" (p. 197). How does gentrification create antagonism between races and socioeconomic classes? How do you see other societal forces pushing groups of people to fight one another?
  7. Compare the description of the black boys to the description of the white boys on page 202. Have you noticed these terms being used in the news and elsewhere? How do you think these ideas and images—whether conscious or subconscious—affect our culture? What about the criminal justice system? If these ideas are present in the minds of individuals at every level—from schools to the public to the police force to the courts and prisons—what will it take to transform the way black youth are viewed and treated?
  8. Uncle Rashon says that "school teaches you what to think / not how to think" (p. 206)? In what ways does this ring true in your experience? Amal says that the detention center looks something like school (p. 105), and he calls his middle school "Prison Prep" (p. 127). What do you see as the role school plays in preparing youth for society? Do you think schools should change? In what ways do different kinds of schools serve different purposes? How does this disadvantage some youth more than others?
  9. In the poem "Brotherhood," Kadon's friends claim Amal, telling him, "You one of us now. / You one of us" (p. 213). What do they mean? Why is it important to them that he identify as one of them? Why does he come to accept it? What are the benefits and drawbacks of joining a group in this environment? Compare the social dynamics and the violence inside the detention center to what Amal experienced on the outside.
  10. Why does Amal refuse to comply with Imani's poetry exercise about Mistakes and Misgivings (p. 221)? How would you react to it in his situation? How does it end up affecting him when he returns to it later?
  11. In the poem "Harmony" (p. 274), the inmates tell the stories of how they landed in prison. How are their stories similar, and how do they differ? How important are the details of innocence and guilt? How do their stories deepen Amal's story about all of the forces that usher black youth into the criminal justice system? At the end of "Family Portrait III" (p. 249), Amal and his umi quote a song by Nas and Lauryn Hill. How do the boys' stories bring new meaning to the song lyric, "If I ruled the world / I'd free all my sons"?
  12. Discuss the role of reading and books in Amal's life. What does he mean when he writes, "The bookshelves here / are not walls / They're closed windows / and all I have to do / is pull out one book / to make these windows / wide open" (p. 244). Why do Clyde and others assume he doesn't read much? Why do his mother and uncle lay out so many books for him to read? How does reading help him? Have you read works by any of the authors he mentions on page 372? How do they shed light on his struggle?
  13. On page 225, Amal describes a conversation with "the guys on the block" about butterfly wings and change. The butterfly image is carried and transformed throughout the rest of the story. Discuss the original metaphor and the ways in which Amal's thoughts about butterflies and wings inform his views on individual actions and causation in the world.
  14. Amal repeatedly refers to "a stone in my throat" and "a brick on my chest" (p. 142), which sometimes become a "mountain" and a "building" (p. 143). How do his physical sensations shed light on the relationship between racism, stress, and physical health? Police killings of unarmed black people have led to early deaths of victims' family members due to health issues. How are the social, psychological, and physical intertwined?
  15. Discuss Stanford's character. How does his treatment of Amal change from their first encounter to the end of the story? Why do you think he treats Amal the way he does, and why and how does he judge the inmates in general? What did he try to teach Amal? If you were Amal, would you listen to him? Would you trust him?
  16. The poetry class is reserved for inmates who show "good behavior." What is the rationale for this restriction? How might those who are behaving "badly" benefit from opportunities for self-expression, art therapy, and getting in touch with their truths?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Balzer + Bray. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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