Today's post is from Jamar Nicholas, a Philadelphia-based cartoonist, illustrator and educator. He is currently working on a graphic adaptation of Geoffrey Canada's bestselling memoir, Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, a book in which "Canada describes the rituals and codes of violence that governed life for children like him, growing up in the inner city in the 50's and 60's." Nicholas has created several popular comics, most notably web-comic Detective Boogaloo: Hip Hop Cop, and he teaches at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
That's not entirely true. I did smile when necessary - I worked up what we called a "Kool-Aid" smile whenever I had been ordered to do so for the camera. I didn't really smile under my own recognizance. The reason being was that I hated childhood.
You'd think that what should follow is some hard-scrabble story of an anguished upbringing in a troubled home, but it didn't exactly go down like that. Most of my painful memories came from leaving the house every day to go out into the world—to school or, maybe, down the block to the corner store/bodega/mom & pop to get the Sunday paper, walking home, on the bus—just being outside was the worst thing in the world when I was a kid.
Wait, though—kids LOVE going outside, right? Yes, but… that's where the other kids are. The ones from "around the corner" who you hoped weren't there to harass you when you walked home. The kids on your block who demanded you prove yourself. You couldn't be a "punk" or "soft" in front of these kids. These were the kids you had to fight for your bicycle every month, or fight to keep that brand new Philadelphia '76ers jacket you got for your birthday. I hated the fact that every time I left the house, the real threat of violence in some manner was always just a crooked glance away at all times.
My mother is an artist. When I was in sixth grade, she went back to art school, and took several photography classes. She shot lots of pictures of me when I either wasn't looking, or I was pretending like I didn't notice. I remember someone who saw some negatives once asked my mother, "Why does Jamar always look so sad?"
A picture doesn't lie, and as an adult, when I tell friends who aren't from Big Cities or Ghettos or 'Hoods or Whatevers about my childhood, they always gasp in amazement at what a young city kid has to carry on his shoulders just to survive. But all things considered, I had it easy, and a lot of kids who I knew or knew of aren't around anymore to tell you why they couldn't smile in those days even if they had wanted to.
I am an artist now. When Beacon Press approached me with the opportunity to do a graphic adaptation of Geoffrey Canada's memoir Fist Stick Knife Gun:A Personal History of Violence in America, I read his book and saw myself in its pages. I knew exactly what a young Geoff went through, growing up in an unforgiving South Bronx neighborhood in the 1960s. Never mind that his story took place 15 years before I was born, I felt instantly connected. This same story is repeated every day in every inner city in the country but with higher, deadlier stakes at earlier ages. The only difference is that I didn't worry about getting shot when I was a kid–that's not the case, nowadays.
When this project is complete, I hope that I can hand this book to a kid who may start to see the power to make his or her own choices. I want this kid to know that the world is a huge place that goes beyond the six block radius of his neighborhood, and that, if you just hold on and work really hard, you'll eventually get to the good stuff.
Geoff's story of growing up in violence and then becoming an anti-violence activist has been a new inspiration to me, and it is my hope that this new book willl bring his story to a whole new generation of readers who need to hear it.
For further reading, check out Beacon's teachers' guide for Fist Stick Knife Gun and Paul Tough's biography of Geoffrey Canada, Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America. You might also be interested in Canada's appearances on 60 Minutes and Fresh Air. See more work by Jamar Nicholas at http://www.jamarnicholas.blogspot.com/.