Race, Racism, Privilege & the Weight of Mistakes

In All American Boys, “the talk” is referenced a number of times throughout the book. As instructions relayed from parents to their sons, it’s not the sex talk (a staple of so many other YA novels) that weighs on the young men in Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s coauthored work. Instead, “the talk” turns out to be guidelines for how young black men are told to respond when confronted by a cop.1 Yet, despite following the instructions his parents laid out for him, Rashad, who narrates half of All American Boys, becomes the victim of police brutality.

YA literature is often described as gateway texts that offer younger readers an entrance to critical engagement with a written work, yet scholarship in this field rarely takes advantage of the opportunities they have so conveniently identified.2 Commentary by the authors of these YA novels, however, often provide the first vital steps into this discussion.

Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s co-authored text serves as an excellent mode of entry into this idea. Its collaborative writing provides an introduction to grasping ideas of positionality, privilege, race, and racism.

Reynolds and Kiely alternate writing chapters from the perspectives of two young narrators: Rashad (a junior in high school, a young man of color, an artist, and the victim of police brutality) and Quinn (a senior on the basketball team, a white bystander who witnesses the assault on Rashad, and a family friend of the officer responsible for the crime).

As both of these characters grapple to respond to the events that happened, they confront insights that complicate their understandings of their own identities. Rashad and Quinn both wrestle with the weight of mistakes—whether their own or others’. While Quinn recognizes his mistake in trying to ignore the situation, Rashad questions whether or not he’s made one (listening to the voices of the media, his mistake seems to be his choice of attire; listening to his brother, his mistake is deeper, spread across the color of his skin). Both men are then left to consider the mistakes of others, namely those of the police officer who assaulted Rashad.

In many ways, this novel acts as a continuation of the themes explored by earlier YA writers like Walter Dean Myers. In Monster, Myers introduces Steve (a black high schooler with a creative streak) who narrates his trial in the form of a screenplay after being arrested on a charge of felony murder.

Commenting on the book, Myers identified that the weight of mistakes was a central theme to this work:

When you’re young, you make mistakes. The big thing that’s different now is that when I was a kid, you could survive your mistakes. […] The same kids that would have been in trouble and gotten a stern talking-to are now going to fail for fifteen or twenty years. Instead of bloody noses there are bodies lying in the street with chalk outlines around them. The values are basically the same, but it’s easier to mess up.3

While the question of how to respond to others’ mistakes and our own is a central theme woven throughout these novels, notions of race, racism, and privilege continually warp and complicate not only the errors that are made, but the conclusions one might come to.

Unfortunately, works like these don’t require much positioning in order to construct a place for them in the public sphere—Reynolds and Kiely had just begun a national tour of their book when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges related to Trayvon Martin’s death.4 However, I offer the following example as a deviation that nevertheless provides insights to the questions raised above.

SZA (the stage name of singer Solána Rowe) highlights the many dynamics at work in these discussions in her latest single titled “Drew Barrymore” after the singer’s favorite actress.

Image Source: giphy.com

In a recent interview, Rowe referred to Barrymore as a role model, citing the actress as an honest and relatable celebrity whose childhood in the spotlight left her a reputation as a wild child. “She was all dark and she had her hair over her eyes, she was […] being weird, but she really just wanted to be loved.”5 Resisting the media’s drive to flatten her identity and her reputation, however, Barrymore emerged into adulthood—aware of her past mistakes but refusing to be tethered to them. This narrative is embedded in SZA’s lyrics through which a rounded character takes shape; tongue-in-cheek, she states “I’m sorry I’m not more attractive / I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike / I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night,” before vulnerably asking “Is it warm enough for ya inside me, me, me, me?”6

Rowe’s take on Barrymore gains context when connected to recent backlash the singer received after tweets from 2011 resurfaced that framed Rowe as homophobic. While Rowe has apologized for these tweets and assured her fans that they came from a place of ignorance, many seem unwilling to look past these earlier comments.

Rowe’s lyrics and tweets raise questions regarding how race plays a role in the public’s response to Drew Barrymore (a white actress) and SZA (a black singer) and the mistakes each has made.

In thinking about the complex ways these issues interact with one another, Myers, Reynolds, and Kiely are among the many voices in YA literature that aim to ignite productive conversations. In her article “Teaching Social Justice through Young Adult Literature,” Jacqueline N. Glasgow states that “[a] good book can help to break down […] barriers,” and that is certainly what YA novels like Monster and All-American Boys do—pushing questions about race, racism, and privilege into the minds of their young readers (54).

  1. Reynolds, Jason, and Brendan Kiely. All American Boys. New York, 2015. p.  289.
  2. For more, see Glasgow, Jacqueline N. “Teaching Social Justice through Young Adult Literature.” The English Journal, vol. 90, no. 6, 2001, pp. 54–61. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/822056.
  3. Myers, Walter Dean. “Why Write for Young Adults?” Monster, HarperTeen, 1999, pp. 15–17.
  4. Mehreteab, Mussie, “All American Boys By Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 27 Jun 2016. Web. 6 Sep 2017.
  5. Frank, Priscilla. “In Praise Of ‘Drew Barrymore,’ The SZA Song And The Woman Who Inspired It.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 13 July 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/drew-barrymore-love-letter_us_595536d2e4b0da2c7321f615. Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.
  6. SZA. “Drew Barrymore.” TDE Red Room.

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