March 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Jason Reynolds on Building Houses and Affirming Young Lives | SummerTeen 2015

JasonReynolds_600“I want to tell you all a family story—two stories,” Jason Reynolds said in opening his riveting SummerTeen keynote speech on August 13. “As a storyteller, my job is to tell stories and to retain them to keep them alive.”

The author of The Boy in the Black Suit and coauthor of All American Boys (both S. & S., 2015) went on to describe how his family, music, teen years, and the deaths of relatives and teenage friends shaped his outlook and view of himself as a writer.

Calling on others to support the emotional life of all young people, Reynolds emphasized the power of books, poetry, and music to affirm their inner lives. All American Boys, written with Brendan Kiely, describes how a police assault of a black teenager impacts a diverse community and galvanizes young people to action. The Boy in the Black Suit chronicles how a boy’s family life is upended emotionally and financially after his mother dies of breast cancer.

A perfect house’s inner life

“This whole lecture is about houses,” Reynolds said. His first story described how his grandfather built a house in South Carolina with his own hands, when Reynolds was growing up in Washington, DC.

Watch Jason Reynolds’s 2015 SummerTeen keynotes speech. 

The grandson of a former slave, Reynolds’s grandfather inherited 100 acres in South Carolina and decided to move there from Washington, DC, and build the house. “I thought it was the most fascinating thing in the world,” Reynolds said, describing how he and his mother would make the nine-hour car drive south. Over the course of two years, the house came together, from the drywall to the front steps. It was “perfect in every way,” he said. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

After his grandfather passed away, his mother found it too painful to return: it “was like a scar being opened every time.” Finally, some years later, “we packed up and went back down….There it was, pristine, beautiful, just like he left it.” But inside, the ceiling was drooping, the walls were brown, the place was littered with dead bugs and rodents, and there was a “terrible smell.”

“As a 12 year old, I thought, ‘Granddad’s house has been robbed,’” Reynolds said. But his mother told him, “Son…the reason the house looks and smells the way it does is that no one has been living in it.” She added, “Sometimes houses need to have the inside of themselves acknowledged.”

The outside looked perfect—but the inside had come undone. “I’m thinking also that our children are internally dilapidated,” Reynolds told listeners. “Young people who are absolutely fine on the [outside] are drooping, dank, and rotting on the inside, because no human life form is acknowledging the inside.”

“You walk through any neighborhood—a black neighborhood, for instance, [with] all these beautiful young people, $200 sneakers, new haircuts,” he went on. “We never ask them, ‘Baby, what’s the matter? How do you feel?’”

“You go the Upper East Side, and you see them in and out of their fancy cars,” he added. “We never stop to ask, ‘Is everything OK? Does anyone recognize you on the inside?’”

“Books about my life did not exist”

boyinblacksuitReynolds then began to describe his evolution as a writer and how music was his entry point to poetry. While he was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, he says, there was a “weird gap in literature” in which many young people’s reality was not being chronicled. In “poor communities—black [and] brown communities, [there were] three major movements,” he said. “Crack cocaine. Poor communities were torn apart by this drug. The second thing was Hip Hop, a direct response…[that] saved our lives in a very real way.” The third was HIV.

“There were no books delving into those topics” Reynolds said, though he added that Walter Dean Myers explored some of these issues in books set in the 1970s. “In the macro level, kids in Brooklyn, Harlem, Detroit, Port Arthur, Texas, Fayetteville, those stories didn’t exist…There was no acknowledgment of those lives in literature.” But “Fortunately, there was acknowledgment in music,” he said. “Books about my life did not exist….My entry point was hip hop music, specifically, Queen Latifah.” He went on to read the poetry of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks lined up “against Queen Latifah,” the rapper Slick Rick, and others.

Reynolds then mused on the public perception of “broken homes” and how music gave him and others affirmation of their circumstances. “I grew up a kid…in a ‘broken home’—my father had left and gone about his life,” he said. “On the outside, you hear that kids who grow up in broken homes are broken, pitied, have imbalances…Tupac [Shakur] was acknowledging that we were not broken.”

“There are families that are struggling,” but that “does not mean that they cannot get better.” The point of his books, he told listeners, is “so young people like me know they’re not alone. Hopefully, their inner walls are a little less stained, [the] inner ceilings a little less droopy.”

“When it comes to the pain and grief of young people, adults tend to be the most dismissive,” he went on. “We need to help them grieve or cope. Growing up as I did, you start to leave friends early in life and you lose family early too.”

When an uncle passed away, Reynolds wrote a poem. As other relatives began to die, “People asked me, ‘Can you write poems for them?’ I did, because Queen Latifah said I could write this way. Slick Rick said I could write this way. Tupac told me I could write this way. They were printed on the funeral program. I saw that words had power.”

“At 15, unfortunately, I started to lose my peers,” he went on. “Friends of mine started to die—violence in the street, drunk driving, illnesses, suicide, you experience these things. People are struggling.”

With The Boy in the Black Suit, “I wanted to write the story of someone whose home is not broken—someone who had a family dynamic that was spectacular” until the main character’s mother passes away. “What do you do when your life is upended. …you no longer have a mother? The worst thing anyone can say is that ‘Everything will be OK.’ That is not true. Things can never go back to normal; you just have to create a new normal. Time doesn’t heal all wounds….I think it’s OK not to heal.”

“I wrote Boy in the Black Suit to [say], ‘It’s OK for you to learn on your own terms how to manage your grief,’” he said.

“There are also homes that are abusive…there are internal aspects of young people being abused by people outside of them. It’s the equivalent of someone breaking into my grandfather’s and ripping the couch cushions…because that house was there for you to beat on and vandalize.”

Ushering young people into their own power

AllAmericanBoys_600pxDescribing an experience that fueled All American Boys, Reynolds told a story of how he was stopped by the police when he was 15. “I was eight or nine when my mother told me what to do if I was ever approached by the police,” he said. “We were not taught they were bad, we were told this is what to do to avoid confrontation.”

“I was in the back of a car with some buddies. My buddy was 16, and he ran a yellow light,” Reynolds said. “The cop comes to the window. We were told that we ran a yellow light. Remember, we were taught what to do. Before you know it, we were face down…they’re tearing the car apart looking for guns and drugs, and they leave his car and the innards all over the street. We have to clean it up and go about our business.”

“What that does over time is create a sense of fear and a festering anger, and frustration,” he said. “You were put here, it seems, for other people to internally abuse and get away with it. I don’t have to tell you what is happening right now and in the news. This is not just about black kids. This is about every single one of us holding each other accountable. To make it plain, there is police brutality.”

“I am not saying that all police officers are bad,” he emphasized. “I am saying that there is clearly an issue that is not a new issue; it has been going on forever. Cameras and smartphones are exposing what kids like me have known forever.”

“They have to be scared, because they can’t take off their skin,” he said, noting that the internalized message is that “their lives are not valuable enough to save.”

Reynolds hopes All American Boys, written with “my dear friend Brendan Kieley,…will be a tool to talk about these things.”

“It is our jobs as adults to usher [young people] into their own power,” he added.

Reynolds closed with a story his mother told him about an Uncle Brer –“Like Brer Rabbit,” he said, with some disbelief. “He had a drinking problem… and would try to climb out the window. My grandfather would say ‘Hey, it’s OK, use the door.’ What I want to say is that there are books saying that you don’t need to climb through a small window. These books can be an easy doorway. They are the doors, and the door is unlocked. All you have to do is walk through.”

Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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