Vol. 31, No. 2
As an author and educator, I ask myself: How do I create space for young people to practice empathy, to think about worlds other than their own? How can young readers experience literature as a bridge, a map, a window, a mirror? How can young adult novels be used in the classroom to ignite conversations about social issues? Now, more than ever, these questions are weighing on me, given the divide in our nation over the 2016 presidential election.
At a recent social justice workshop for educators, one teacher asked me, “How do I get my students to care?” Another asked, “How do I begin the conversation?” An administrator wanted resources for dealing with her own assumptions and stereotypes.
One book I recommend over and over is All American Boys. Authors Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds were on a book tour with fellow Simon & Schuster authors when a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin. The two authors realized they had more in common than writing for teens—they were both frustrated, angry, confused, and saddened about the ongoing killing of unarmed Black men and women. In August 2014, when police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, another Black, unarmed teen, Brendan wanted to do more than talk about it. He wanted to write about it. He asked Jason to collaborate with him. Jason is Black, Brendan is white; they wanted the book to reflect the difficult conversations necessary to overcome the chasms created by racism.
Together, they wrote All American Boys, a young adult novel told in alternate chapters by high school classmates Rashad, who is Black, and Quinn, who is white. Rashad is wrongfully accused of shoplifting and is assaulted by a police officer—he is beaten so badly he is hospitalized. One eye is swollen shut and he has a broken nose and broken ribs. Quinn not only witnesses the assault, he knows the police officer personally. When a video of the attack goes viral, their classmates take sides and Rashad and Quinn are forced to think and talk about race in ways they hadn’t before.
I read the book in one night.
After reading All American Boys, I wanted to get it into the hands of the young people I know and every educator, too. I believe this book can be a vehicle to help young people and educators openly discuss racism, white privilege, and stereotypes. It’s more than a book about police brutality. It’s a book about two teen boys finding out who they are, what they believe, and how sometimes that conflicts with the lessons they’ve learned from their parents and their communities. It’s about taking risks and moving past being a silent bystander or a passive ally to being an active agent of change.
Talking about why he writes, Junot Díaz says: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? at the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?’”
I am thankful for writers like Kiely and Reynolds, who are writing stories that are not only mirrors for individual readers, but for society as a whole. Our society could become a monstrous place without a reflection of itself. I am honored to share this interview.
Renée Watson: What do you say to teachers who are hesitant to use All American Boys out of concern that police brutality is too controversial for the classroom or who think the novel is anti-police?
Jason Reynolds: I say:
Brendan Kiely: Jason and I have traveled the country and spoken to thousands of students in very diverse educational environments, from wealthy, predominantly white private schools to underserved public schools in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods, and all types of schools in between. In every school we visit, we ask students if they are aware of the cultural conversation surrounding police brutality, and nearly 100 percent of the students raise their hands. As a teacher, I can’t pretend this isn’t on their minds. It is. And more importantly, most of these students want to know more about the context, why it is happening, and how they can better understand it all. We wrote All American Boys to provide students, teachers, librarians, and all communities with a tool to help grapple with these tough conversations—engaging in the hard realities that a classic text like To Kill a Mockingbird addresses, but within a contemporary and more relatable context. The book isn’t anti-police at all—it is a story of how to better see the deeper humanity (in all its beauty and ugliness) in everyone involved in moments like these.
RW: Police brutality cases are often talked about in terms of right/wrong, villain/victim. The characters in your book are layered, and there are no simple boxes they fit into. How did you balance authentic cultural identity while avoiding stereotypes? Why was this important to you?
JR: For me, it was hard. So, so hard. Because there was nothing I wanted more than to use this book to honor the victims of police brutality with complete abandon. To further distill the conversation to a Black and white, anger-filled narrative, because quite frankly, that’s how I feel emotionally most of the time. Angry. Frustrated. But my emotions, while true to me, most times exist in a vacuum, potentially keeping me from further exploring fact. Does that mean racism and brutality are figments of my emotional imagination? Of course not. It’s real. It’s all real. But it gets more complicated and messy when the layers get pulled back. So, I told myself, “If I’m going to be honest about the emotional backdraft, I have to also be honest about everything else.”
BK: The reality is clear and unequivocal: Too many unarmed young people of color have been brutalized or killed by police officers. Many of the individuals who perpetrate this violence, however, may not consciously recognize the injustice they perpetuate. Life, as in All American Boys, is messy, and often people who think they have the best intentions act with devastating unconscious bias. If Officer Galluzzo considered himself a white nationalist or consciously brutalized Rashad because Rashad is Black, the story wouldn’t address our country’s deeper problems of systemic racism, which exist in law enforcement, healthcare, education, and many other institutions. Galluzzo’s unconscious bias mirrors the unconscious bias that fuels the systemic racism in our country.
RW: In All American Boys, Quinn begins to question and unpack his white privilege. He comes to many revelations throughout the story. One moment that stands out to me is when he is talking about his decision to attend the protest rally. He says: “Because racism was alive and real. . . . It was everywhere and all mixed up in everything, and the only people who said it wasn’t, and the only people who said, ‘Don’t talk about it’ were white. Well, stop lying. That’s what I wanted to tell those people. Stop lying. Stop denying. That’s why I was marching. Nothing was going to change unless we did something about it. We! White people!”
Brendan, why did you include this scene? What is the “something” that white people can do?
BK: Too often when I was growing up, conversations about race and racism were lessons about how hard people of color have it now and have always had it in our country. That is true, and we must continue to talk about and learn more about this reality. But it is only half the story—if some people are being systematically disenfranchised and disproportionally brutalized, other people are being systematically empowered and disproportionally protected.
This less-often discussed side of the story is the story of white privilege. Quinn grapples with it because he wants to better understand the whole story. As he learns more, he realizes that by ignoring the problems of racism in his community he is perpetuating those problems. That it is part of his privilege. He’s not malicious, he’s a sweet teenager who wants the best for everyone, but he comes to realize that unless he stands up against the racism, especially as a white person, he is harming the very people close to him—his friends and teammates and classmates who are people of color.
White people can listen first, hear the truth of experience from people of color; they can speak to other white people about what they hear and ask other white people to listen and learn more; and then they can join the chorus of people who are already doing work to combat injustice in our society and who already have experience in this struggle. This is Quinn’s journey, the story he has to share, particularly with other white people.
RW: What strategies do you recommend for white educators who want to talk about racism in the classroom?
BK: I worked in a high school for 10 years before becoming a full-time writer. I am forever grateful to colleagues and friends who introduced me to workshops and professional development opportunities that helped me think more critically about systemic racism, my own unconscious bias, and strategies for being a more inclusive and better teacher to both white students and students of color—especially as a white man. Organizations like the Anti-Racist Alliance, the CARLE Institute, Border Crossers, and the White Privilege Conference were all instrumental in helping me learn more and network with other teachers who were interested in learning how to talk about race and racism in the classroom. I also spent a lot of time listening to students and faculty of color and not arguing another point or side—just listening. It always amazed me how much more my students would learn from me after I spent time listening to them and their life experiences and needs. And finally, I always like to add that I made and continue to make many mistakes. I wish I didn’t, but I do, and I try hard to learn from my mistakes. We tell our students to try to tackle things they find hard, to try and fail, try again, fail again, and fail better. I think we have to do the same, especially when we are talking about race and racism. There’s too much at stake to be afraid of failure. We must all try, and when we fail, fail better the next time.
RW: Jason, in your School Library Journal’s SummerTeen keynote speech, you said: “When it comes to the pain and grief of young people, adults tend to be the most dismissive. . . . We need to help them grieve or cope. . . . It is our jobs as adults to usher young people into their own power.” How can educators “usher young people into their power?” Can literature play a role?
JR: The first thing adults have to do is listen. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t assume that a young person’s pain isn’t as big, as heavy, as the pain of an adult. If anything, it’s greater, because there’s a good chance that it’s a new pain—an uncharted territory that adults have trampled time and time again. But if we ask a few questions, simple questions like “What’s the matter?” or “How do you feel?” and then allow young people the space to speak freely, that, in and of itself, is powerful. The ability to be unfixed, not OK, the ability to be wholly human in the presence of an “all-knowing” adult creates an underestimated and grossly underrated agency in kids. What literature does is serve as an avatar—text as a human companion, a warm hug, a familiar face with a relatable experience in those moments when adults seem hard to reach.
RW: Art is a big part of the book. From the visceral “Rashad Is Absent Again” graffiti on the school steps to the private art in Rashad’s sketchbook, there’s a sense that art is a way to process injustice, perhaps to stand up against it. Do you see your writing as activism? What artists (music, visual, literary, etc.) do you recommend for teachers who want to explore art as activism?
JR: I’m not sure I view it as activism. I’m a bit reticent to call it that only because of all the “active” activists, who have dedicated their lives (and sometimes bodies) to the fight for justice. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t dedicated my life to the same fight, but when I think about my art, I think of it as . . . art. Art within the Black tradition, a tradition devoid of the luxury of being flowery and masturbatory. But I think we have to be careful about throwing around “activist.” I consider myself aware and intentional.
Art I recommend for teachers who want to explore more of this kind of work: James Baldwin (all of it), TaNehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni; the art of Kara Walker, the photographs of Lorna Simpson; the music of William Grant Still, Bob Dylan, and Tupac; the dance of Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones; and so much more. Frankly, anything made by a person of color is politically bent by default. To me, our lives, our existence in any space in this country, are implicitly political. Just being is a statement. ◼
Reynolds, Jason, and Brendan Kiely. 2015. All American Boys. Simon & Schuster.