Monday, February 4, 2019

This Isn't Your Fight: Jason Reynolds' and Brendan Kiely's All American Boys

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Thoughts on Jason Reynolds' and Brendan Kiely's novel All American Boys...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature. 

{SPOILERS]

Towards the end of Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely's All American Boys, after Quinn, the white basketball player and witness to the crime at the center of this novel, has decided that he can, should, and will stand up to the injustices he's realized, his mother pleads with him not to attend the protest that will culminate the novel. "Just step out of the way," she says, "Even if it's ugly at school, this isn't your fight. Why are you jumping into the middle of it?" (264). That is indeed an age-old conundrum. The older generation pleading for the younger to let it be.

I wrote, on a yellow Post-It note I stuck on that very page, in big letters, IT IS!! It is his fight. It is all of ours. And so goes my initial reaction to this novel. I was most drawn to it in its insistence that injustices be fought at any and all cost. That the stakes are relatively low for Quinn, who, I, as a white man living in a very white place, connected to the most, is part and parcel to the message this novel intends for its readers to hear: That even the youngest of people can change things. Teenagers and college students have been voices for change dating all the way back to the 1960s and the beginning of YA Lit as we know it. That they are the ones who HAVE TO be that voice is one of the great tragedies of the American experiment. But it makes great fodder for young people to find a place in a society that is more and more divided as the days pass.

The Rashad side of the story contains all the devastation and pain. He is the one unfairly and savagely beaten by the police officer, Paul Galuzzo. Hospitalized, confined to a recovery room, Rashad's change is internal, borne out of encounters with the lady from the gift shop with ties to the historic march in Selma, and the kind nurse, who sees Rashad's side and supports his artistic endeavors. But the heavy lifting, from my view of the novel's message, falls on the Quinn side, the white side. This novel asks white youth to wake up, to not do what we (myself certainly included) do and bury our heads in the sand. I like that about this story.

All American Boys isn't perfect. The early over-indulgence in the indulgences of teenagers, the drinking and f-bombing, feels a bit worn out at this point. I always prefer grittier takes on that. Like, take me to the party instead of have characters talk about it. But this novel isn't concerned with that and maybe just felt like it had to go there. I like the way this novel just jumps right into the horrific act of police brutality, though I didn't find myself completely engaging with it until about the mid-point, when the media element came into play, the talk of protest and the connection to the "woke" culture of today hooked into me. That's what this novel is good for. It shows us what is important about standing up and it demands we listen.

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As the novel relates to DuBois' Double-Consciousness, Power Struggles and Entwicklungsroman

Just yesterday, I got into a discussion with my afternoon class, a true mixture of middle school personalities and certainly my most diverse class in a school in a town that is not very. They saw I'm reading The Hate U Give, many of them having seen the movie, and we got to talking about some of the concepts we've been working with in class, one being "The Value of Human Life." We got to talking about the way we, especially in middle school, have to put on fronts and faces to seem one way for this group and one way for that.

We talked about family and how we can be one person with Mom and one person with Dad (a child of divorce gave me that one). One of my black (biracial actually) students raised her hand and talked about how different she has to be when she's with the black side of her family vs. the white side. I talked to them about the idea of "double-consciousness," and the hard fact, stemming from the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, that the American society has made black people into split identities, having to both reckon with the cultures and traditions of black culture on one end and white culture on the other. During this discussion, I looked over at a white kid in my class, a boy as country and white as they come. He looked like he'd just had his mind blown, for understanding this as a privileged white kid for the first time, for me this moment was my senior year in college, is life-altering. And should be. We've all been hiding from these truths, whether we realize and act like it or not.

Quinn is that white kid, the key character in a true narrative of growth. There's a moment in the middle of All American Boys that speaks to a realization like this. Quinn, at basketball workouts, is running through the white side of a police brutality argument with Rashad's best friend and star basketball player, English. The conversation ends with an offended English and a congratulatory Guzzo. Quinn rejects Guzzo, runs to English and tells him, "I'm sorry, man. I sounded like an idiot...I'm just trying to figure this all out. Rashad's your friend" (176-7). This is where the two sides collide and the learning and growing starts to happen for Quinn, the tenets of Entwicklungsroman firmly in motion for a confused young man dealing with two sides of his identity, the one who is white and privileged and carefree and the one who is still white but awake, or woke, and ready to put his true beliefs into action. When you have to walk away from a close friend for it, you know it's real. In this scene, it's as if Quinn is the guy at the front of the "privilege walk," looking back to realize how tragically unfair this society is and how he has unwittingly played a role in that unfairness.

The thing about Rashad is that his growth narrative started long before the events of this novel, at times when his Dad, the former police officer who shot a young black man once himself, schooled him on how to behave around the police (something that also came up in my class yesterday as part of a side conversation between me and a black young man), things like "Never talk back. Keep your hands up. Keep your mouth shut...Were your pants sagging?" (49-50). Rashad's story carries all the hard painful truths about what young black men have to go through, despite the positivity in his identity, that he is a good student in the ROTC with good parents and a bright future. This is isn't some thing he comes to learn about and grow and develop into over the course of this novel. He's already grown enough to know how to be and who, if he doesn't know himself, society, white people, the police, thinks he is. His Entwicklungsroman happened years ago, as a kid becoming a teenager, probably way back in middle school or even earlier. And that is perhaps the saddest part of this story. As Trite writes in DTU, "...in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are" (3). The structure of that sentence says it all...social forces make us who we are...all of us.

The best of All American Boys is in the last half and the beginning of what this Reading Group Guide Question gets answered, the idea of "evidence that there is work to be done" in the ways of protesting for human rights. Yeah...now more than ever, I'd say. I'm reminded of Charlottesville and the range of emotions I felt that week. I think of Spike Lee's latest masterwork, BlackKklansman, now nominated for several Oscars, runs that moment in history through a not-so-distant past history and how we, essentially, have a president using the same rhetoric as David Duke. Once the media storm around Rashad's beating opens up, in steps the idea of protest, of speaking truth to power, one of the vital necessities and freedoms bestowed upon Americans. It comes in the form of Berry, the girlfriend of Rashad's brother, Spoony. She pleads with Rashad's mother, "We have a right to voice how we feel, and isn't that better than just doing nothing?" (200). Yes. It is. And this is what Quinn learns. Rashad, his mother and father, Spoony, Berry, English and the other of Rashad's crew. They all really already know this. It is Quinn that has to learn it. It is Quinn that puts this into action for the stunned white kid finding out some hard truths. We look at what Quinn's mother tells him..."This isn't your fight." And we snap into action. We choose to "disturb the universe" no matter how painful it is (Trite 2). We know this is our fight. We plead, "I'm hoping you'll have my back" (264). Will you?

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