Personal History of Violence in America

Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America.

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The book, Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America, is a memoir told by the American activist Geoffrey Canada who gives his own personal account of what is was like to grow up on the streets of Harlem in the 1950s or 1960s. His account details his perspective of what it was like growing up in this environment where parents, peers, and sometimes even teachers preached the value of being tough. These kids were taught that the ideal response to violence is with more violence. Kids in this neighborhood were taught that they had to be strong and “take it like a man” if they were even confronted on any occasion. This culture of violence can be studied from many different perspectives.

However, the two I found to be the most relevant were the rational choice theory and the sociological positivism theory. Although many people don’t understand the choices that young men have to make in these environments, told from the point-of-view of an actual participant, many of their decisions are entirely rational based on the “rules” of society that they are taught. The sociological positivism theory states that societal factors can also have a big determination on an individual’s predisposition. I also believe this to be the case in the book since the community was plagued by poverty, educational failures, and drug use.


The level of violence that occurs in inner city areas such as Harlem can be almost unfathomable to an outsider. Examples such as (Canada, 2010):

“It was a bad summer, the summer of 1993 in New York City. Late August saw a sixteen-year-old mother accidently shot by a thirteen-year-old boy. He was trying to shoot a sixteen-year-old boy. The young mother was trying to save her baby, who was playing a few yards away. She was climbing a small fence that surrounded the playground. The bullet entered her head, killing her instantly, leaving her draped on the fence. Several days later the police arrested two other boys, both teenagers, who were accused of killing a thirteen-year-old girl. The girl was raped, cut several times with a knife, then as she lay half dead and moaning, one boy stomped on her neck, over and over.”

The graphic depictions of violence such as this and others that are told in the story make it hard to believe that anyone would commit such crimes based on a rational choice. What kind of person would choice to rap, cut, and stomp on a girls throat? Yet at the same time, the kids in these neighborhoods are desensitized to violence and the messages of violence are constantly reinforced. They believe they have to be tough and ruthless to earn the respect of their peers.

Those that are the most ruthless and violent can actually be rewarded with a great deal of respect based on these actions. Therefore, I believe that rational choice theory can be used to explain at least portions of the behaviors that the book outlines. We are still learning how violent cues that happen in our environment can affect our lives. One study examined the effects of “upset losses” in a football game and found that these emotional triggers can lead to a 10% increase in the rate of at-home violence by men against their wives and girlfriends; the rise in violence after an upset loss is concentrated in a narrow time window near the end of the game and is larger for more important games (Card & Dahl, 2011). Therefore, while this type of violence portrayed in book can seem obsessive, it is not out of the realm of rational choice theory to explain.

Also, with the authors depiction of the social environment that he grew up in, it is hard not to believe some of the sociological models can also be used to explain some of the crime that occurs in these types of neighborhoods. There is definitely a social aspect to the problem that includes education, poverty, drug use and other social issues. Some more specific theories that emerge from this approach include the cultural criminology seeks to highlight the interaction between these two elements: the relationship and the interaction between constructions upwards and constructions downwards; its focus is always upon the continuous generation of meaning around interaction; rules created, rules broken, a constant interplay of moral entrepreneurship, moral innovation and transgression (Hayward & Young, 2011).

Although these models sound promising, and there are obviously some social factors at play in crime, they do not seem to be able to account for the role of the individual motivation in the same extent as other theories. For example, though poverty and drugs are rampant though out the entire community, not every individual that lives in these conditions ultimately choses a life of crime. Therefore, it is obvious that such conditions predispose an individual to live in a particular manner in a particular culture, this model does not have the same level of explanatory power as the other models.

Works Cited

Canada, G. (2010). Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. Beacon Press.

Card, D., & Dahl, G. (2011). Family Violence and Football: The Effect of Unexpected Emotional Cues on Violent Behavior. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 103-143.

Hayward, K., & Young, J. (2011). Cultural Criminology: Some Notes on the Script. International Journal Theoretical Criminology, 259-285.

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