MTYT: All American Boys

By Marilyn Carpenter, Professor Emeritus, Eastern Washington University, Spokane, WA, Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, and Jean Schroeder, The IDEA School, Tucson, AZ

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is a story that focuses on the relationship between Quinn, a white boy, and Rashad, an African American boy who is violently beaten by a white police officer. This week, we discuss the racial issues of this book and how they relate to society today. We will also discuss how bullying in this book compares to what we observed in The Hate U Give and Wolf Hollow.

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MARILYN: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely focuses on an incident where an African American boy, Rashad, is violently beaten by a white policeman. Like The Hate U Give, this novel focuses on police brutality. Unlike The Hate U Give, All American Boys is told from the point of view of two different boys who attend the same high school. Each author tells one boys’ side: Reynolds tells the story of Rashad and Kiely tells the story of Quinn. Quinn’s father was a soldier killed in Afghanistan, and since then, Paul (the officer who beats Rashad) has been like a big brother to Quinn. Quinn witnesses the beating and afterwards, he can’t stop thinking about what he’s seen. “…I couldn’t shake that look of rage I’d seen on the face of a man I knew and thought of as family.”

The authors get inside the heads and struggles of Rashad and Quinn by telling their stories in alternating chapters. Having the two narrators for the story was an excellent decision, since the reader gets a front seat to observe the struggles of each boy and their contrasting perspectives.

After the beating, Rashad is in the hospital healing and is in police custody. He is stuck in a hospital bed, recovering and trying to understand how an innocent accident ended this way. Reynolds skillfully describes Rashad’s confusion about why he is in custody and how painful his wounds are, both physically and psychologically. Kiely shows Quinn trying to reconcile what he has witnessed and his loyalty to Paul. The reader watches how each boy tries to figure out what happened and what to do about it. Quinn has an easier time, but he must come to terms with having white privilege and becoming a witness to what he saw.

At the end of the novel, when he becomes part of a protest march to support Rashad, Quinn listens as the names are read of unarmed black men and women who had been killed in the last year by police. He then asks himself, “Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?”

This novel will help readers grapple with the issues it so powerfully describes. My hope is that it will be read and discussed in high school classrooms. It would be an excellent idea to also have teens read The Hate U Give. Giving teens the opportunity to read and discuss such powerful novels will be a valuable part of their learning experiences. The authors of these books give educators a powerful opportunity to guide their students. Holly and Jean, how do you see these books being read and discussed in the classroom?

HOLLY: It is interesting to me how closely aligned All American Boys and The Hate U Give are. They could easily be read as a pair. I found the relationship to Wolf Hollow a bit more interesting, because they do not seem as similar. But, when you look at how pain becomes meanness that then becomes violence, you can see how Wolf Hollow and All American Boys connect. There is also the damage of war–the ultimate violence inflicted upon individuals, families, and societies.

Paul takes his anger out on Rashad. The way that white society has historically treated African Americans allows Paul to take his anger out on a young African American male. There is an element of “not whiteness,” that seems to come together in Paul’s mind. He gets to take his rage out on “the Other.”

In Wolf Hollow, Betty takes her pain out on Annabelle and all others. She targets the kind, which she may perceive as weak. It makes me think of an interesting saying from Al Capone: “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.” Others have added to that, with one statement saying, “Don’t mistake my silence for ignorance, my calmness for acceptance, my kindness for weakness.” These attributes were all part of Wolf Hollow.

What is also of interest is that these three books show that violence is not a male attribute, but a human attribute that our “better selves” must hold in check. I think about restraint because everyone feels pain, anger and perhaps rage that is born out of grief or other emotions. I think that we have not taught our young people how to effectively find ways of working through grief and anger without hurting others–and we have not learned to deal with these powerful emotions as adults. Another topic for discussion, I think, could be how we balance restraint and release in ways that do not hurt others.

JEAN: One of the things that strikes me about this book is how deeply rooted our own beliefs are and how much we struggle when something disrupts them. As I read about Paul voicing his belief that he was “saving the lady” I wondered what he wasn’t voicing. His language and defensiveness seemed to indicate that he had some doubts about his actions, though he could not–would not–ever admit to such feelings. His younger brother, who went to school with Rashad, never wavered in his belief in Paul. Nothing was going to change his thinking. I think of the expression that everything is black and white, with no gray areas in between.

The characters of Guzzo and Paul are a nice contrast to those of Rashad and Quinn, who are trying to work through not only the particular incident, but also what it means in their lives. One set of characters deals in the black and white while the protagonists are trying to understand the gray.

One of the things I loved about this book was the conversations the main characters have with themselves. They really show the confusion involved in sorting this out in a way they can live with, not to mention the time it takes for all the perspectives and facts to percolate into a stance. Another piece of this belief system is the influence of others. The conversations Quinn and Rashad have with peers, friends and family give the boys the support they need to take their own thinking to a deeper level.

I like, too, that the authors recognize and honor the work of women. Often, their role is underplayed or dismissed. In All American Boys, the female characters are strong and have influence over the direction the boys take. This brings me to another point about Wolf Hollow. Betty is described as “dark-hearted” and is both violent and cruel with seemingly no empathy. I do not believe that Paul is dark-hearted, nor is the policeman who shot Kahlil in The Hate You Give. But, observing where their anger or fear comes from and how it manifests calls for a deep search of one’s beliefs.

MARILYN: One of the strongest parts of both American Boys and The Hate U Give is how the young people decide to protest the police brutality in their communities. Our next book, The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! by Carmen Agra Deedy, with illustrations by Eugene Yeltsin, is a picture book that also demonstrates the power of resistance.

Title: All American Boys
Authors: Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
ISBN: 9781481463348
Date Published: September 29 2015

This is the third installment of October 2017’s My Take/Your Take. To follow these continuing conversations, check back every Wednesday.

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