In online conversation, authors of ‘All American Boys’ plead for white families to join the conversation on race
They billed it as the “In Conversation” everyone needs to hear. And the thousands who tuned in got a master class in everything from the dangers of coded language to the commitment required from white people to fight racism in America.
The exquisitely-timed May 31 virtual chat between All-American Boys co-authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, organized by The Author Village, came amid days of protests sparked by police killings of black Americans. It encompassed 90 minutes of rich anecdotes, robust observations and earnest prescriptions, and zero easy answers.
In the five years since the publication of All American Boys, Reynolds has written Long Way Down and the Track series, along with numerous other books for children, and been named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Most recently, he published Stamped, the children’s version of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning anti-racist tome Stamped From the Beginning. Yet he started off by intentionally shifting attention to Kiely.
“Conversations around race always tend to be about putting the microphone in the face of the black person, because the black person is dealing with pain, but because the microphone is always in the black person’s face, white people get to run and hide. … If it was true that black people’s pain fixed the problem, the problem would have been fixed a long time ago,” Reynolds said as part of his opener, explaining why he wanted Kiely, who is white, to do much of the talking.
The pair wrote All American Boys from the dual perspectives of a black and a white teen in the aftermath of a police beating. Killings of black teens, including Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, prompted the book Kiely, a former teacher, lamented the lack of books for young people that unpacked white privilege.
“We as white people are too accustomed to thinking about ourselves as individuals versus a collective,” said Kiely, clad in a Black Lives Matter tee. “We continue to fail. This is the same conversation that we had five years ago when we wrote All American Boys.”
But there was little hand-wringing, and a lot of encouragement to do the daily work of combating racism: educating yourself by reading black writers, having difficult conversations with family and co-workers, asking about racial justice at school and community boards, holding yourself accountable to black critics, and supporting black causes. The $10-a-ticket event proceeds benefit Black Visions Collective Minnesota. You can buy a ticket and watch the replay until 12 p.m. ET June 2.
“I think about how listening is so important, but we don’t listen well,” Kiely said. “We don’t want to address and face up to our own accountability. …I want there to be more white people…who have the courage to talk like this in all-white spaces.”
The more than 2,300 attendees included children’s literature luminaries like Speak and Shout author Laurie Halse Anderson, Princess Academy writer Shannon Hale, We Need Diverse Books co-founder Ellen Oh and John Schu, ambassador of school libraries for Scholastic. The crowd chat exploded with glee when Reynolds urged Kiely to write a white family’s version of The Talk that black parents give their children about how to behave in the world.
“The truth is there should be a Talk for white people … and what it actually means and what kind of space they take up and what privilege they have, what power they have,” Reynolds said.
And while conversation centered more on solutions than lamenting the strife erupting in cities around America, there were moments thrown into sharp relief by the ongoing protests.
Reynolds noted that people use language to “illuminate or erase. If you choose a word like ‘thug’ you no longer have to call us children. … It literally erases our humanity.”
“I’m pleading with the white folks here tonight to be vigilant and be committed,” Kiely said. “Now is the time.”