At this moment of renewed attention to Black Lives Matter in response to the police killing of George Floyd, our thoughts have turned to the story line of Kekla Magoon’s book “How It Went Down,” a 2014 young-adult novel about a white man killing a young Black boy. We had read it together in a class last fall and had appreciated how the multiple voices in the book fostered understanding of the many different people touched by the shooting and of how a community could come together.
Such fiction is part of what many of us need now, not least young adults, whether seeking out voices that are affirming or informing us. While there is no way for white Americans to truly understand the Black experience in our country, the ongoing protests and calls for racial justice highlight the many ways in which Black Americans are denied equal treatment. There is a sincere and genuine interest among many young white Americans to educate themselves to become allies and to gain a better sense of black reality.
For many, the responsibility would seem to fall on the shoulders of Black Americans to educate others, a responsibility many Black Americans are no longer willing to accept out of frustration from being ignored time and again. Instead, perhaps it is time to turn to young-adult literature by African Americans.
In recent years, there has been a surge in young-adult fiction addressing racism, prejudice, profiling and Black Lives Matter, books that come at a time when it is often difficult to discuss such topics in school for fear of giving offense or speaking from a place of perceived ignorance — or in this moment when remote learning can make it hard to address recent events in a classroom setting.
A plethora of young-adult novels — like Magoon’s “How It Went Down” — take on this responsibility by exploring different versions of the modern Black American experience and sharing them with readers of all backgrounds. These titles, often available as eBooks through public libraries even when the libraries are otherwise closed, also include Angie Thomas’s account of a police shooting, “The Hate U Give.” It’s a frequent choice for community-read programs from Santa Monica to Bristol Community College, a book popular with both young adults and adults.
Indeed, most purchasers of young-adult literature are over 18, as Michael Cart notes in “Young Adult Literature,” as well they might be. These books are worthwhile for young and old, and they offer insights and can promote meaningful discussions about race among Americans of all ages.
The titles likewise include Jewell Parker Rhodes’ “Ghost Boys,” told largely from the perspective of a young Black boy shot and killed by the police; Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s “All American Boys,” which offers both white and Black perspectives on police violence; and Tony Medina’s “I Am Alfonso Jones,” a graphic novel. Finally, there’s Magoon’s sequel, “Light It Up,” about the shooting of a young Black girl.
Books like these can simultaneously hold up a mirror to the worst aspects of our society and provide a window that helps readers understand reality when the pattern of Black American voices being ignored has resulted in an absence of honest conversation. Perhaps, then, in the absence of explanations and conversations, it is time to start listening to the words of minorities scrawled across a page in black and white.
After all, as Magoon writes, “Most of the time words are all we have.”
And words matter.
Olivia James is a rising senior at Wheaton College. Beverly Lyon Clark lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is a professor of English and Women’s & Gender Studies at Wheaton.
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