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  • Writer's pictureMennonite Women USA

Celebrate: 'Punching the Air'

For Women’s History Month, I’d like to celebrate not just womanhood but how we women brave our way forward despite all the twists and turns life puts before us.

I am inspired by the young adult novel Punching the Air, by IBI Zoboi and Yusef Salaam—a book I am using to lead discussions with middle schoolers. Written entirely in verse, the novel is about Amal, a young black boy who goes to jail for a fight in which a young white boy is seriously injured. After the fight, Amal is caught up in a system that doesn’t see him as human, a system that finds him guilty at birth, that’s designed to punish.

Punching the Air is a hard read, but it is brilliant, fascinating, and worthwhile. It is so good that it takes me back to a time and place I wish I could forget. More than 15 years ago, I was pushed into a place I never asked for or deserved. Like the main character, I was forced to keep moving and work to make sense of my new reality.

I think of being in courtrooms with my sons, watching their lives at the hands of people who could care less about them. Designed for show and power, delivering neither justice nor reconciliation, those courtrooms were a long way from redemption. My young black boys were never really seen by those determining their future.

I think of being in courtrooms with men in my community as they were tried for violence, murder, child support, financial obligations, or misunderstandings. Those courtrooms, too, had no resemblance to the tenets giving them reason to exist.

I was a mother on the sidelines, powerless before my loved one’s circumstances. I remember my heart pounding and thinking I would die of a heart attack or stroke. It was as if my entire being was splitting apart and fragmenting. I felt limp, as if my muscles and skeleton had detached. I must have shed 50% of my body’s water in tears.

My boys are doing well now. They are out of the system and thriving as black fathers, husbands, and community leaders. They have become the men that I thought I was raising them to be from the beginning. But Punching the Air reminds me what earlier experience has already taught me: that everything can change in a blink of an eye with just one bad choice, one wrong turn, one courtroom.

I am reading this novel with young boys and girls to get them to see that their choices can change their entire life path. I urge them to think critically about what is being asked of them, who is asking for what, and where different choices may lead. These critical thinking skills are a matter of survival for them. Our children must learn to discern the spirits around them as they hear concern and urgency in their family and friends’ voices. They must learn to slow down and think. Punching the Air is helping me show young people how to slow down and take control of their own lives.­­

Rev. Cyneatha Millsaps

Executive Director + Midwest Regional Representative

Mennonite Women USA

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