ANTI-RACIST READS

24-anti-racism

Reading. Learning. Growing.

There was a tweet making the rounds back when the BLM protests first started up, mocking the history books North American and colonized students have been indoctrinated with since time immemorial. It went: “Slavery was bad but then Lincoln fixed it! Then, segregation was also bad but Malcolm X didn’t need to be so mean about it. But MLK went on a big walk and fixed racism! The last racist left killed him but then he went to jail the end.”

Which is to say I probably learned more about BIPOC history and race relations from these two books (both of which are aimed at younger audiences) than I ever did in any history or social studies class. Which is only slightly wild, to say the least.

Stamped is a book I’ve been looking forward to since it was first announced. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s original tome is on my wishlist, and I will get around to it someday, but I confess to being more than a little bit intimidated by it. Heavy books about heavy subjects! There’s certain mental preparation I have to do before I am able to tackle them. But I was familiar with Jason Reynolds’ work enough to be certain that his own adaption for younger readers— or remix, as they call it — would be perhaps a bit more approachable, full of language that is as playful as it is thoughtful; as lyrical as it is meaningful. Which is essentially Jason Reynolds’ trademark style. And that is what we get here: an imminently readable, fiercely empathetic, endlessly illuminating history lesson. A handful of passages even made my eyes well up. Don’t pass up on this book.

On July 2, 1826, Jefferson seemed to be fighting to stay alive. The eighty-three-year-old awoke before dawn on July 4 and called out for his house servants. The enslaved Black faces gathered around his bed. They were probably his final sight, and he gave them his final words. He had been a segregationist at times, an assimilationist at other times—usually both in the same act—but he never quite made it to being antiracist. He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. He knew the freedom to live was fair, but not the freedom to live in America. The America built on their backs. He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is that now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Thomas Jefferson lay there dying—death being the ultimate equalizer—in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt.


Whereas Stamped is concerned with the past and how it shaped our present, Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist is more interested with how our current reality can shape our immediate future. And while Anti-Racist briefly talks about past events that led us to now, it is a thoroughly modern book. The amount of timely, relevant topics Jewell manages to cover in such a short amount of space (this book is less than 200 pages long) is truly staggering: activism (both true and performative); the internet’s influence on social discourse; internalized and institutionalized racism; prejudice and bias; identity and class. Jewell does more with these topics than a dozen hot take articles put together, and does so with grace, patience, and righteous outrage. Do not pass up on this book, either.

We have been conditioned to the bias of whiteness. We can undo this. People play a big role in keeping racism going. If we do not work to recognize our prejudices, we remain a part of the problem. When we become aware of our biases and our role in racism, then we can begin to understand how we are a part of a system that is much bigger than us.

My own education growing up may have been lacking, but I’m just glad that kids these days have access to books of this caliber, that discuss issues so often suppressed or actively ignored. Books that tell them — us — how things were, and how they are, and how they could be. Books that remind them — us — to keep growing, and learning, and reading.

BOOKMAIL

Today’s book mail ain’t no junk mail.⠀

Ordered this immediately after finishing Ghost. Because obviously. ⠀

I remember listening to a talk Reynolds gave where one of the kids in the audience asked which of the books he had written was his favorite. Jason, like any other writer, couldn’t decide, of course, so he just asked the kid which was his favorite. “Patina!” came the immediate reply. And Reynolds beamed. “Y’all don’t know what a big deal that is,” literally patting himself on the back, “that a boy’s favorite book is Patina.” He didn’t elaborate, but he was referring to the fact that this was a book about a young woman, dealing with things that young men don’t necessarily — usually — go through. And it was this boy’s favorite. Which means that he saw a piece of himself reflected within the pages of this story.⠀

And that is what a Jason Reynolds book does: it lets us see, and be seen. ⠀

Excited to dig into this one soon.

GHOST by Jason Reynolds

ghostCastle Crenshaw — who goes by Ghost — has been running for most of his life. At least ever since his father’s gun went off. It was pointed in the general direction of Ghost and his mother, and, like in all track races, the shot was a signal to start running. His father went to jail for it. They went back to a home that stopped feeling like home (they sleep in the living room, near the front door, just in case something else happens and they need to run again). And Ghost feels as if he never stopped. Only this restlessness he has felt inside has no real outlet, and it bubbles up, bursting outwards at times of stress and conflict. He lashes out, and gets in trouble for it often.⠀

And then one day, taking the usual long way back to his house, he stops to watch a group of kids his age during a track meet. He scoffs at the notion that people have to work at running, which comes so naturally to him. So he decides to show them up by beating their most promising and arrogant stars in an impromptu race. The coach is impressed and asks him to join, which Ghost, with some reluctance, eventually does.⠀

The feeling of running, Reynolds has said, is of your body going through trauma, as it fights against exhaustion and suffocation. Running is about feeling like you are about to die, and getting used to that sensation. And running is about breaking through, and overcoming that feeling.⠀

Running is also, in Reynolds’ hands, an exceedingly useful metaphor — not only for the particular issues that Ghost faces, but for life in general. Because what is life if not just a series of races you have to break through in order to breathe again? For Ghost, running is initially a means of escape, useful only when he wants to put as much distance between his problems and himself. He doesn’t find the act itself uncomfortable — his life is suffocating enough, after all, what is a little sprinting compared to the day to day? “Running ain’t nothing I ever had to practice,” he boasts at the beginning. “It’s just something I knew how to do.” It’s only after he joins the team and it becomes an increasingly important aspect of his life that he properly begins to feel this suffocation, as he starts to come to terms with the heavy things he’s been carrying inside — this scream, as he calls it — for most of his life.⠀

Ghost is about a lot of things, but it is mainly about dealing and living with trauma. There is a talk Jason Reynolds gave where he told the story about a childhood friend who, decades after the fact, recognized that he had been traumatized at a young age, and that he just went through life as if these feelings were normal, only to later realize that they were not supposed to be, and how surprised he was at this understanding. No one, you see, made him aware of the fact. It’s a particularly cruel problem, and one we can only address by paying attention to the people around us. This is what Reynolds’ work does for his audience — his books are all about being seen. In this novel, seeing one another is what Ghost’s teammates do, as they accept him as one of their own. It’s what his mother does, who, despite demanding job, studies at night in order to give them a better future. It’s what Mr. Charles, the elderly owner of the local store shop does every time Ghost pays his store a visit and they fall into an established, familiar — and familial — routine. And most importantly, it’s what his track coach does, seeing in Ghost some of the same struggles he faced growing up. The kind of struggles that makes you want to disappear, like a ghost, and run away, instead of being present, the burning in your chest a reminder that you are still alive and able to run free. Ghost may not entirely realize the full extent of his trauma, but he is smart enough to know when the people around him care for and want the best for him, which in turn, of course, makes him want to be better for them. “You can’t run away from who you are,” the Coach tells him at one point, “but what you can do is run toward who you want to be.”⠀

The novel ends with a different kind of shot that makes Ghost run. Only this time, instead of running away, you are certain and hopeful that he’s running free, breaking through the struggle, towards a better future.⠀

Jason Reynolds has written yet another lyrical and poetic book chockfull of meaning, and which helps us see these kids in a better and more understanding light. I loved reading it.

LOOK BOTH WAYS by Jason Reynolds

5I only got into Jason Reynolds’ work this year, when I picked up Miles Morales: Spider-Man, a superhero story that has less to do with flashy superpowers and more with the everyday heroism of a brown kid living in Modern America.⠀

I liked it enough to learn more about the guy, looking up speeches and talks. What started out as a bookish crush (Reynolds is an effortless, stylish speaker) quickly turned into a deep admiration as I learned more about the message he is trying to convey with his books, the service he wants to provide with his writing. ⠀

That’s all I think about when I’m writing these books. I’m the lead talker. That’s my job. My responsibility is to look out in the crowd and say, “Where y’all from? What’s your crew? What’s your name?” And to put those names, those neighborhoods, those feelings in a book.⠀

We don’t value how important it is for young people just to see themselves.

Jason Reynolds: 2018 National Book Festival


His stories are all about being seen.⠀

And I think I’ve seen enough of Jason Reynolds to say that he is one of the most empathic writers working today.⠀

It’s a trait that’s on full display in Look Both Ways, his latest release. A collection of ten stories about different groups of kids on their walk home from school, and everything that happens to them during the way. ⠀

That walk, Reynolds believes, is one of the few experiences kids have where they can feel some sense of autonomy over themselves. Where they can tell and shape stories in their own way, on their own terms. ⠀

One of the things I admire about Reynolds is his ability to effortlessly slip into different — often conflicting — points of view. The characters are as compelling as they are numerous, their stories distinct, each carrying their own flavor and texture. They still interconnect, however, as the lives of these kids weave in and out of each other’s in their own chaotic, impactful fashion.⠀

The amount of topics covered in these ten short stories is truly staggering, and could be overwhelming were it not for the fact that Reynolds has one of the most casual, welcoming narrative voices in literature right now. A voice that can talk about boogers and bullying in the same breath and sincerity. But the one theme all the stories ultimately go back to is about being seen.

Every character we meet fits more or less into an archetype: the shy girl, the loner kid, the jock, the nerd, the knuckleheads and the bullies. And Reynolds will tell you their stories. He will tell you why that girl is so shy. He will tell you what that bully’s home life is like. He will tell you how that jock got that black eye. ⠀

He will not tell you everything, though. He won’t fully explain or excuse their actions. But he will tell you just enough for you to be able to look past the label and start seeing them as people.⠀

All he wants to do is make sure somebody else bears witness to his story. That’s all. I can’t do anything for him in that moment. He just wants me to know that this story is his, and that it’s true, and that somebody out of his space can hear it and can take it back into the world.

Shut up and Write with Author Jason Reynolds


Because seeing is important. But it’s only ever the first step towards understanding someone else’s story. To do so you must, of course, look both ways, and then cross the threshold.