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NewsFeb 24, 2021

Working through racism and writing

As Black History Month featured speaker, bestselling young-adult author Jason Reynolds discusses the necessity of reaching kids and staying true to one’s authentic self

By Georgia Sparling

Bestselling young-adult fiction author Jason Reynolds never wanted to write his most recent book, “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You,” despite being personally selected by National Book Award-winner Dr. Ibram X. Kendi to do so.

Kendi, whose research for his own “Stamped from the Beginning” would serve as the source material for a text tailor-made for middle- and high-school readers, asked Reynolds three times before the MFA in Creative Writing faculty member and author of numerous award-winning books agreed.

“My momma taught me it’s best to leave well enough alone, and that book was well enough,” Reynolds said on Tuesday, speaking of Kendi’s acclaimed and controversial work. “I don’t have the answers,” he added about his adaptation, but the book is designed to get classrooms talking seriously and helpfully about racism.

“I love children,” he said. “I got into this because I really want to make a difference in the lives of children.”

Reynolds’s virtual lecture for Black History Month, “The R-Word: How Racism Spread across the Nation,” touched on various aspects of racism, from identity to the canard of “proper” English, to our own individual limitations.

“I operate at a single speed, which is the speed of truth and authenticity,” Reynolds said at the outset. “Just know that this is what love looks like.”

Reynolds’s book — which he stresses in its pages “is not a history book” but, rather, “an appetizer” — categorizes people as Segregationists (“racism classic”), Assimilationists (accepting minorities who “contort themselves” to white culture) and Antiracists (“You breathin’, you deserve.”)

Zoom screenshot of Jason Reynolds with Merlyn Mayhew and Angela Crawford Ervin
Merlyn Mayhew and Angela Crawford Ervin field questions for Jason Reynolds.

However, Reynolds empathizes with Black people, including his own mother and, at times, himself, who live at least part of their lives as Assimilationists.

“It’s an interesting sort of gray area,” Reynolds said. “I can’t be mad at a woman who did what she had to do to survive.”

In the early days of his career, working in a corporate environment, he made sure to wear long sleeves to cover the tattoos on his arms and to keep his hair short, as white culture might blanch at his more authentic, dreadlocked appearance. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, Reynolds is keenly aware “I’m expected to make myself small” in white society.

Reynolds, whose easy laugh and gentle, occasionally self-deprecating manner conceal the seriousness of his subject matter, suggested a number of ways people can push back against assimilation and respect their authentic selves.

Book cover of "Stamped"
Reynolds said he went through two failed drafts before realizing he wasn't writing "Stamped" in his own voice and style.

When studying Shakespeare, students can translate a sonnet from Elizabethan English to contemporary American English to “neighborhood English,” thereby making the content of the poems easier to understand, but also underscoring that the idea of “proper English” is a myth.

In addition, he advised, depart from the dominance of the novel when you’ve got reluctant readers in the classroom.

Reynolds suggested “decolonizing the curriculum,” adding, “Short stories are your friend. Poetry is your friend,” and don’t underestimate the (literal) illustrative power of graphic novels and the narrative nature of rap lyrics.

“Literacy is what’s going to save these kids’ life,” he said.  “Narrative is everywhere. Let’s not try to be so elitist.”