A Path to Manhood : FIST STICK KNIFE GUN: A Personal History of Violence in America, <i> By Geoffrey Canada (Beacon Press: $20; 192 pp.) </i> : WOODHOLME: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone, <i> By DeWayne Wickham (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $20; 276 pp.)</i>
My son is nearly 12, and literally looming large. His brown limbs have lengthened and grown sinewy; his “baby fat” has shape-shifted into dark, lean strips of muscle. Many things about him suggest that he is almost a man: His voice changes without warning from a shrill whisper to a husky drawl. His walk, once hesitant and childish, is now a rhythmic, leonine strut.
Various prohibitions must accompany his transformation. Don’t wander far from the porch, I tell him: Stay out front where I can see you. If your mother sends you to the store, come right back. Don’t under any circumstances wear red outdoors. Because our neighborhood is “Crip” territory, Joseph must conceal his red baseball uniform in his gym bag and dress at the ball park. It’s a minor nuisance, sure enough, but pile up such inconveniences and what you get is a life defined by narrow proscriptions, devoid of the carefree innocence that should be any youngster’s birthright.
The codes of conduct that govern my son’s life exist in some fashion in most urban neighborhoods. Parents design them because they wish to protect their children from violent encounters, but as Geoffrey Canada shows in “Fist Stick Knife Gun,” even the best-intentioned commandments often backfire.
Canada, president of the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a Harlem organization that runs a school around the clock as a safe haven for children, says the danger begins when parents advise their children to counter violence and intimidation by fighting back. Consequently, he writes, “many times children as young as six and seven would bring weapons to school, or pick up bottles, bricks, or whatever was at hand.”
Canada is a Harvard-trained educator, so perhaps it’s not surprising that much of his text is earnest, social scientist sermonizing. However, it’s Canada’s own upbringing that makes his book more than a polemic. He grew up poor and fatherless in the often brutal South Bronx. Interspersing his personal memoir with calls for policy reform gives Canada’s book a patina of “street-cred” that often compensates for his pedestrian language.
According to Canada, the codes of conduct children learn from their parents are supplemented and reinforced by the lessons they learn from their peers. He writes of his own initiation: “The first rules I learned on Union Avenue stayed with me for all of my youth. They were simple and straightforward. Don’t cry. Don’t act afraid. Don’t tell your mother. Take it like a man. Don’t let no one take your manhood.”
Decades of socialized violence, compounded by the boom in drugs and handguns that began in the ‘70s, has led to what even skeptics would call a national crisis. Canada cites statistics tallying nearly 50,000 American children killed by guns between 1979 and 1991--the result, he contends, of a lethal shift from resolving disputes with fists to ending them with guns.
Government policies that direct precious dollars to punitive programs are not the answer, Canada insists. Not surprisingly, he believes it lies more with programs like Rheedlen’s, along with legislation to curb the manufacture and possession of handguns. Despite his eloquence and admirable passion, Canada is unlikely to convert naysayers to his cause. Many of his arguments have been made before, and just as passionately. Conservatives will no doubt scoff at his shamelessly liberal sentiments. His most likely allies are those already in the trenches, men and women who are busy keeping one step ahead of the bullets while cautiously steering their children to adulthood. Unfortunately for them, and for Canada, preaching to the choir seldom results in anything other than a chorus of amens.
Whereas Canada’s memoir seems to have been written to support a specific agenda, DeWayne Wickham’s autobiography lacks a clear purpose. The author appears to have jumped aboard the black-male-memoir bandwagon while the getting is good.
Not that Wickham’s story isn’t a compelling one. When DeWayne Wickham was 8 years old, his father murdered DeWayne’s mother and then killed himself. The double loss understandably traumatized young Wickham, but he somehow rose above the horrifying tragedy to become a syndicated columnist for USA Today.
After his parents’ deaths, Wickham and his four siblings were separated and sent to live with various relatives. While crowded into a small dwelling in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill housing project, Wickham began his slow, often torturous journey to adulthood.
Wickham was clearly blessed with innate good sense. Aside from some irresponsible antics during his high school years, he usually made the right decisions. In desperate need of money, Wickham chose to work while many of his peers simply goofed off. His desire to work led him, at age 14, to Woodholme, a Jewish country club that employed blacks as caddies. “I’d heard about this cash cow called Woodholme from a friend,” Wickham recalls, “and I wanted to milk it for all I could get.”
Wickham’s willingness to work helped him suppress painful questions about his parents’ deaths: “Why did this man who used to cradle me in his arms and slip coffee candy into my fingers shoot my mother? What could she have done to make him so mad? And why did they both have to die?”
After a confrontation with a teacher leads to his expulsion from school, Wickham spends even more time at Woodholme. He describes the place as having a plantation-like hierarchy in which blacks labored at the mercy of the white caddy master. Nonetheless, a black man could make relatively decent wages, and enjoy some semblance of friendship in the caddy shack, where the black workers congregated between jobs.
Wickham’s decision to give school another try attracts the implicit approval of the veteran caddies. “In their own way, a lot of the older guys were glad that I had gone back,” he writes. “It was as though many of them were investing a bit of themselves in my troubled life. Although nobody came right out and said it, they were rooting for me to succeed in a part of life where they all had failed. But what they wanted from me was more than I was ready to give them.”
Wickham finds himself both unwilling and unable to share his emotions. His co-workers, his siblings and his girlfriend all fail to penetrate the wall he built by exiling himself to Woodholme. “For four years it had been my sanctuary, a retreat from all the problems I lacked the courage to face. I went there to get beyond the poverty that entrapped my family, but I stayed there because it served as my emotional hideout, an escape from the painful realities of my life.”
Just at the point when Wickham realizes his need to end his emotional isolationism, he enlists in the Air Force, determined to provide for his newborn daughter. His memoir ends abruptly here, a puzzling development certain to leave many readers feeling cruelly teased.
“Woodholme” is impressive on many counts, from Wickham’s refusal to sensationalize the morbid aspects of his personal history to his ability to avoid excessive navel-gazing: he makes an observation about himself, then quickly moves on.
Still, his decision to end his tale without ever discussing his adult life led me to close this book with too many unanswered questions swirling in my mind. When and how does Wickham reach emotional maturity? At what point did he discover he had the talent to become a writer? Does he ever come to grips with his parents’ deaths? And how was he able to transcend the violence of his family and community, escaping with nary a scratch and no police record?