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AIR-PUNCHING AND EXONERATION by Malia Rulon Herman

Maplewood’s Ibi Zoboi teams up with Yusef Salaam to write a must-read verse novel

Maplewood author Ibi Zoboi’s beautiful yet heartbreaking novel, written entirely in verse, about a Black teenager sent to prison after being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit couldn’t have come at a more relevant time.


With the country embroiled in “Black Lives Matter” protests after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among so many others, it almost seems as though Zoboi had uncanny foresight in the writing of her book.


The core theme – of a 16-year-old, Amal Shahid, who gets into an altercation in a gentrifying neighborhood that leaves a white boy in the hospital and Amal in prison – is not new. Nor are the abuses he endures, and assumptions made about him because of the color of his skin. Neither are the two worlds he describes as his reality.


In fact, Zoboi’s novel, Punching the Air, which debuted in bookstores on September 1 and will be the topic of a discussion at the Maplewood Library’s Ideas Festival on October 15, got its inspiration from an event that happened more than two decades ago in Central Park.


That’s when another Black Muslim teenager, Yusef Salaam, spent a warm April evening in 1989 hanging around with a few friends. Salaam, who was 15 at the time, was arrested along with four others, tried, and convicted of a rape he did not commit.


Zoboi says that the so-called Central Park jogger case was her earliest memory of bearing witness to injustice. But there were more: Yusef Hawkins. Michael Griffith. Amadou Diallo. All of these stories inspired her to become a writer.


Salaam, who co-authored the book with Zoboi, served six years and eight months in juvenile detention before being released in 1997. He and the four other men convicted in the case had their convictions nullified by the state of New York in 2002. In between his release and his exoneration, Salaam attended Hunter College, where he met Zoboi.


Zoboi was editor of the college newspaper and was astonished to discover that Salaam was in one of her classes. “I went chasing after him for an interview,” she says. But Salaam wasn’t ready to share his story.

Zoboi was editor of the newspaper at Hunter College and was astonished to discover that Salaam was in one of her classes. (When she married, she changed her name from Pascale Philantrope to Ibi Zoboi, taking her husband's last name.)

Three years ago, the two ran into each other again. This time, Zoboi was an award-winning author of young adult novels. Her novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, a New York Times best-seller.


“I was shocked that he (Salaam) had not already told his story,” Zoboi says.


But with Ava DeVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us, which chronicles the story of Salaam and the four other Black and brown men involved in the Central Park case (now known as the Exonerated Five) in the works, Zoboi set her sights on telling Salaam’s story from a different perspective.


Zoboi and Salaam collaborated on the novel Punching the Air, and while the events in the book are not Salaam’s story, the main character, Amal, is inspired by him. As an artist and an incarcerated teenager, Salaam, supported by his family, read lots of books and made art as a way to free his mind.


“We wanted to take the version of himself (Salaam) in 1989 and update it for 2020, and that’s how Amal was born,” Zoboi says. She describes her novel as more akin to “having a conversation with society” than a referendum on a failed justice system.


“Young people absolutely needed to understand what had happened to him (Salaam) and to get into the heart of who he was at 16 years old,” she explains. She added, “We didn’t want to say something about the system. That was not my intention going in.”


Zoboi says their goal was to focus on the child – Amal – every step of the way: his range of emotions, making mistakes, and being influenced by his environment.


“What does rage look like for a child? What does regret look like? It’s a study of human emotions through the lens of a 16-year-old boy grappling with injustice,” she says.


For that reason, they decided to write the novel in verse.


“We wanted to tap into the raw emotion of this boy. We both felt that poetry was the best way to do that,” Zoboi says, explaining how she was part of the spoken word movement in the 1990s and had a background in poetry.


The five raps that Amal performs in prison, which are in italic in the novel, were all written by Salaam when he was incarcerated. The novel also features graphics and unique typography that tell the story in other ways, as well as chapters that bring to mind classical art.


But the book also, through verse, delves into serious topics: slavery, rights, liberty and the plight of African American youth.


In one poem, Zoboi draws a stark contrast between Amal and his friends, who are Black, and the white teenagers who they encounter in the park. One group is “a mob, a gang, ghetto, a pack of wolves, animals, thugs, hoodlums, men,” while the other, who are the same age, are described as “kids, having fun, home, loved, supported, protected, full of potential, boys.”

Maplewood resident, Ibi Zoboi is an award-winning author of young adult novels. Her novel American Street was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. She is also the author of Pride and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a message that she repeats time and again, as she seeks to give Amal – and other young, Black boys – a voice, a name, and a face behind their skin color.


“There are different systems for different people in this country. There is a double standard,” says Zoboi, who was born in Haiti before moving to New York City, where she grew up.


“There is such a disparity [in] who is criminalized, [in] who is seen as a criminal at such a young age,” she adds. “One group is seen as boys – ‘boys will be boys’ – but that sort of horsing around has different ramifications for different demographics. White boys can get away with a lot. They are allowed to be children. We see that in sports, we see that on college campuses, we see that with the ‘Me Too’ movement. All of these things affect Black boys and white boys differently.”

Ibi Zoboi coauthored Punching the Air with Yusef Salaam.

So how can her novel help shape the national debate over racial injustice?


“It’s art,” she says. “You have to constantly put art out there.” There are other books, movies, TV shows and articles that deal with the same topic in other ways, she explains.


“Hopefully, we inundate the media with these types of conversations,” she says. “We are not all coming from the same perspective, but we all have the same goal.”


Malia Rulon Herman is an education writer who lives in Maplewood.


Get to Know Ibi Zoboi


Ibi Zoboi lives in Maplewood with her husband and three children, two daughters and a son.


Regarding raising a Black son, she says, “I don’t fear for his safety. I’m here in Maplewood. I want to believe that he can walk to his friend’s house with all the Black Lives Matter signs around town. So, there is caution, but there isn’t fear.”


But could Amal’s story happen here? Her book talks of skate parks and basketball courts, of this side of town and the other side of town.


“It could be any town,” Zoboi says. But she adds that, yes, it could absolutely happen here in Maplewood.


“Maplewood is a little more segregated than I expected,” she admits, describing her experience with AP honors courses at Columbia High School, and upper middle class families interacting with families who come from Irvington.


“The gaps are much wider than a school in a gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn,” she says.


To Find Out More


READ Punching the Air, by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five, available from your local bookstore.


LISTEN to Punching the Air, read by actor Herisse, who played a young Yusef Salaam in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series, When They See Us.


WATCH the extraordinary, four-part series When They See Us, available on Netflix.


JOIN Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam for their presentation at the Maplewood Ideas Festival on Thursday, October 15 at 7 p.m. Check the Maplewood Ideas Festival website (maplewoodlibrary.org/ideas-festival) for updates and links.