Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

“All American Boys” Authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely Discuss Racism, White Privilege, and Censorship in Today’s Civic Landscape, a guest post by Lisa Krok

In the midst of a week full of national dissent and tension, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely took to the stage to get real with a live audience. The Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights, Ohio was the perfect venue for an intimate discussion on serious subjects. Reynolds and Kiely first became friends a few years back while touring for their debut books, When I Was the Greatest and The Gospel of Winter, respectively. The Trayvon Martin tragedy had occurred already, and after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the two friends had some candid discussions about racism and police brutality. This prompted them to begin writing All American Boys together. Told in alternating perspectives of Reynold’s black teen, Rashad Butler, and Kiely’s white teen, Quinn Collins, the story opens with Rashad being beaten by a police officer while Quinn witnesses from down the street. As the plot unfolds, family, friends, and the community have different takes as to the officer’s culpability. When protests begin with kids at school, Quinn has mixed feelings about what to do next.

aab1

Aside from the Martin and Brown situations, the authors had their own anecdotes from their teenage years that sparked their interest in collaborating on the book.  Reynolds’ terrifying   run-in with D.C. police at age 16 while in a car with friends couldn’t be more opposite of Kiely’s tale of being pulled over while driving his mom’s minivan in Boston. While Reynolds and his black friends were presumed to be criminals, Kiely and his white friends were let off and told to go home and be safe. Why? Racism and white privilege. Both were polite and respectful to police, but nonetheless, biases prevailed. The biggest difference, according to Kiely, was that he was nervous, but didn’t have anything to fear other than being caught. “I think about the fear I never had to experience, the accountability I never had…it is a tug to remind me what it means to have white privilege in America.”

all american

All of this dovetails into censorship and book banning of both All American Boys and another book depicting police brutality, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Both have been challenged and/or banned in some areas, most recently in Charleston, South Carolina. When the Wando High School summer reading list included the two titles above, Charleston area police protested the books, stating that they promoted negativity and distrust of police. The three authors responded in a joint statement:

“Our books are not anti-police, they are anti-police brutality. We’re proud of the teachers at Wando HS who are using literature that reflects the lives of so many young people across this country. To deny these books from reading lists would deny too many young people the reflections of the reality they know and experience.”

-Jason Reynolds, Brendan Kiely, and Angie Thomas

Reynolds expounded upon this on stage, revealing he and Kiely have police officers in their families, and they value and respect the job police officers do. He reiterated that they are just anti-police brutality, and would love it if police were anti-police brutality, too. “We just hope that for us as a community, in order for things to shift, we gotta be able to engage and lean into these discussions…this book hopefully will serve as a platform and a framework for us to have these discussions, these uncomfortable discussions, in healthy and safe ways…It’s okay for you to disagree, just not okay for you to disengage.”

See Jason Reynolds’ impassioned remarks here:

Kiely emphasized that censorship especially impacts marginalized people. “When you are censoring over and over and over again stories that feature characters who live marginalized experiences, you are censoring the people whose lives their stories reflect. You’re censoring their life existence in your community. That to me is part of the injustice. That’s part of the real cruelty to people who live in our own communities.”  When thinking about a whole variety of marginalized experiences, it worries him when people use things like language as an excuse to censor, or use things like “well but there are choices characters make in this book,” or “we can’t have people knowing that they can make this choice and still survive.” “Censorship, in my opinion, is one of the most unethical things we can do when it comes to literature,” Kiely continues. “I think about the places where our book has been banned and think about how so many students in those communities who have experiences like Rashad and his family and his church community and the whole book and all the white kids who then don’t get an opportunity to reflect in ways that they haven’t been asked to reflect on before. That censorship is robbing them of part of their own humanity as well.”

Reynolds brought up a strong point about how people don’t get worked up about censoring video games that simulate war. “Why books?” he pondered. “Nothing else gets this kind of flak. Most cartoons are worse than the books we write, and nobody seems to care.  Ask your kids what the words in their favorite rap song are.  Ask them to rap it out for you. Nobody seems to mind as long as they’re doing the dance”.  He expressed concerns about kids who can’t afford to buy a book, and the book is taken out of their schools. Reynolds credits fellow author Laurie Halse Anderson as noting “It is the insecurity of adults that gets in the way of children.” He continues, “Everybody in this room has to make a decision to be more loyal to their futures than to their fears.”

Kiely says people don’t want to process the racism. “People use a number of excuses to talk about why the book shouldn’t come into communities. They would say well it might incite a riot.’”  It is hard for Kiely understand how this is possible. Those who have read the book know that “the book is anti-violence and it exposes the harm violence really causes families, communities. I struggle with those excuses, but I think they are all codes for ‘we don’t talk about the stuff that would make us have to shift the power dynamics that currently exist in our community.’”

Many thanks to Heights Libraries for sponsoring this event!

Books related to the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically regarding police brutality:

tyler johnsonTyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon

alfonso

I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes

dear martinDear Martin by Nic Stone

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

For more information, see the following resources:

https://www.postandcourier.com/news/charleston-area-police-protest-the-hate-u-give-school-assignment/article_facc8330-7df9-11e8-8a0a-8331f0a41cbe.html

https://www.oif.ala.org/oif/?p=15093

https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=sc-police-union-challenges-summer-reading-list-hate-u-give-american-boys

https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=brendan-kielys-and-jason-reynoldss-csk-author-honor-speeches-for-all-american-boys

https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=making-the-personal-political-angie-thomas-on-the-hate-u-give

http://oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/childrens-services/talking-kids-about-race-and-racism

http://sfusd.libguides.com/blacklivesmatter

https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/what-do-if-youre-stopped-police-immigration-agents-or-fbi

lisakrok

-Lisa Krok is branch manager of Cleveland Public Library’s Harvard-Lee branch, a member of the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers team, and a Ravenclaw. She can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

Sunday Reflections: Seven Words

Diversity

Entitlement

Vulnerable

Fetus

Transgender

Evidence-Based

Science-Based

bannedbooks

****

When The Teen was four years old, she became inexplicably sick. I will never forget when on the fifth or sixth day in a row we saw a new doctor and he said to my, “I think I know what she has. I need you to put her in the car and take her straight to Children’s hospital. Do not even stop to go home and get clothes. But first, we have to do a test on her heart to make sure she will be okay to transport.”

I sat there stunned and terrified.

Our child had Kawasaki Disease. We went immediately to Children’s Hospital where they hooked her up to a machine that spent the next 24 hours cleaning her blood. We spent the next year having periodic EKG’s to make sure the disease didn’t damage her heart.

Today she is a living and thriving 15-year-old thanks to evidence-based science. She is my love, my light, my joy, and I have science to thank for it.

****

CDC gets list of forbidden words

According to recent reports, in the past few days the President of the United States of America told the CDC that they could not use any of the 7 words I mention at the beginning of this post. The words were banned by the executive branch of our government.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC is a scientific organization whose job it is to help keep the citizens of the United States healthy and thriving. They study diseases. They compile data. The use that information to help guide research, influence policy, and maintain the health and well being of the citizens of the United States of America. It is an organization that is steeped in the world of science, and the President of the United States has just banned them from using the terms evidence-based and science-based. HE WANTS TO PREVENT A SCIENCE-BASED PART OF OUR GOVERNMENT FROM USING THE TERM EVIDENCE-BASED AND SCIENCE-BASED.

****

I know, love, value and care for no less than 5 people who are transgender. Some of these are the teens I serve in my library and some of them are beloved children of beloved friends who are regular and welcomed guests into my home. They live with the constant discussion of them as something less than human permeating our cultural conversations. They are growing up with the full knowledge that a large portion of the world sees them as less than human and wants to deny them basic human rights. They understand the threats that they face daily. This weekend their identity was banned from the United States government, their existence was erased and declared vulgar and offensive. The government is trying to erase their very existence. We’ve seen this before and we should not stand for it.

****

A large portion of the community in which I serve is vulnerable. They live in extreme poverty. Their health care is being threatened. They live daily with food insecurity. They don’t have access to the technology and tools they need to support themselves and their families in the ways that many of us take for granted. They are, in every sense of the word, vulnerable. And they depend on so-called entitlements to try and exist. These entitlements are the only means many of them will have to raise themselves out of poverty, if they can manage to maintain a daily existence.

****

In the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, they burn books. The government burns books because they understand that knowledge is power. Those without knowledge have less power and are easier to control and manipulate. That is part of the reason that the ancient Catholic church wanted to keep the Bible in Latin only; they wanted power.

“We have everything we need to be happy but we aren’t happy. Something is missing…
It is not books you need, it’s some of the things that are in books. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

In the novel 1984 by George Orwell the government systematically tries to manipulate thought by controlling the access to information.

“Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.”
George Orwell, 1984

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
George Orwell, 1984

In the YA series The Blood of Eden by Julia Kagawa, it is vampires that rule the land, and they do so by outlawing reading and burning all the books.

“Words define us,’ Mom continued, as I struggled to make my clumsy marks look like her elegant script. ‘We must protect our knowledge and pass it on whenever we can. If we are ever to become a society again, we must teach others how to remain human.”
Julie Kagawa, The Immortal Rules

Every good novelist knows that one of the first steps to a authoritarian government is to control language, thought and knowledge. Knowledge is power. If you want power, you have to control the information. You have to shape it to your will. You have to control the narrative.

In 2017 America, no one would wake up one day and say we’re going to ban all the books. They would have to start slowly and systematically. They would start by constantly demeaning the free press and trying to instill a fear and lack of faith in the press. Then they would try and make protest and free speech illegal. Then they would ban words.

Not all the words, not at first.

But slowly, they would ban the words.

Then they’ll ban the books.

Our government is already trying to ban people.

Now, by all accounts, they are banning words.

As someone who believes in the power of words and recognizes the value of information and access to that information, this news terrifies me in a way I have never before been frightened in the United States. I do not recognize my government. I do not feel served and protected by it. I am afraid. And yes, I know it is a sign of my privilege that I was able to be unafraid in ways that many marginalized groups have never been.

I am no historian and am the first to admit that history has never been my favorite subject. I do not read tons of historical fiction (although I read tons of Dystopians, which is handy in this scenario). I can’t help but think some very dark days of history are starting to repeat themselves and I am afraid.

If you, like me, are afraid of the implications of this 7-word ban, I have some recommended reading lists to share with you. If you don’t understand why I’m afraid, you should definitely read these recommended books. But read them quickly, because time feels like it is running out.

The Steps of Authoritarianism

  • Systematic efforts to intimidate the media
  • Building a government media or network
  • Politicizing the civil service, military, National Guard, or the domestic security agencies
  • Using government surveillance against domestic political opponents
  • Using state power to reward corporate backers and punish opponents
  • Stacking the Supreme Court
  • Enforcing the law for only one side
  • Rigging the system
  • Fearmongering
  • Demonizing the opposition
    •  (source: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/27/top-10-signs-of-creeping-authoritarianism-revisited/)

And if you are a public librarian, like me, now more than ever we must be passionate about our call to protect our patrons, to promote access to authoritative information, and to stand against censorship. The time has always been now, the time will always be now, but the time is most definitely now.

10 Books About Authoritarianism To Educate Yourself On The Political Ideology

Why Americans are reading dystopian classics to understand Trump’s presidency

Uneasy About the Future, Readers Turn to Dystopian Classics