Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Guest Blogger: Brendan Kiely

Reading While White is pleased to offer occasional guest bloggers who offer their own perspectives on race and books for children and teens.

Special thanks to Lisa Nowlain for creating the
frame and font for our "Guest Blogger" series.
Learn more about Lisa here.
The White Boy in the Third Row
by Brendan Kiely

Last week, I was on the stage of an auditorium in a huge Washington DC public school, presenting with Jason Reynolds the novel we co-wrote together, All American Boys. Put simply, the novel is about two boys, one black, one white, who must decide what role they will each play in their community after the black boy is brutalized by a white cop and the white boy witnesses it happen. And while the story is told in alternating chapters from the two boys’ points of view, it is also about the effect the violent interaction has on the families, friends, teachers, and other community members around the two boys.

For the last three weeks, Jason and I have been doing nearly three presentations a day to middle schools, high schools, libraries, bookstores, and non-profit organizations in cities across the country. At each event, we have to be clear, concise, and direct, because everywhere we go, no matter the demographics of the community we’re speaking to, we’re talking about police brutality, racism, institutional racism, and white privilege. We feel committed, and we try to remain as humble and honest as possible, because it is a hard conversation to have, but we have been invited to these places to have it, so we’re going for it.

As I sat on the stage in DC, and looked out over the crowd of 300 students in the auditorium, I was reminded of the courage and honesty of the kids who deal with all of these issues in a real way everyday. They asked tough questions: “Why are more people of color the victims of police brutality?” “Why does it feel like my neighborhood is under Marshall law?” “Do you think Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter, and why?”

We’ve been answering these questions everyday, and by being forced to speak about it all so often and so publicly, I’ve grown used to answering these questions as quickly and directly as possible, while still trying to be thoughtful and conscious of context and impact—but I know I need to try much harder to be more thoughtful of both.

This particular DC school’s population was very diverse (in the true sense of the word), and while I do not have the actual statistics of the demographics, a scan of the crowd gave me the impression that there was a broad mix of black, white, Asian, and Latino students—and we were conscious to try to answer questions from kids of all backgrounds. We always carve out a substantial portion of our presentation for questions, because no matter where we are kids always have tons of questions. And at this event, I saw a white boy in the third row with his hand up for nearly the entire time. Before we left, I thought I should call on him. When I did he asked, “Do you think you will turn away white readers from your book by having a white cop beat a black boy in the first chapter? Are you afraid that by writing a book like this, you will turn away white readers from your book, or even turn away more white people from the whole Black Lives Matters movement?”

I was stunned. I’d thought about people not liking the book. I’d thought about the danger of someone hearing about the book and dismissing it before reading it—not realizing the complexities and nuances Jason and I tried very hard to add to all the characters’ lives in the novel, cops included. But I’d never thought that the book might do danger to the very people I claimed to be working with in the Black Lives Matters movement. I had to take a breath. I’m so glad I did, because if I’d just answered straight from the gut, I’d have said something dumb, no matter how factually correct, and I would have done exactly what he was warning me about.

After the breath, I gave him the short, most honest answer I could after he made me reflect on it. “Yes,” I said. “But I’d like to explain.”

I don’t know where the question was coming from. He could have been the one kid in class arguing that All Lives Matter. He might have had a police officer in the family. He might have been arguing that by talking about race, we make it all much worse. But he also might have been genuinely worried—maybe he was struggling with how to talk to other white people about all these difficult topics, too?

I wanted to address his question honestly, but not in a defensive way, not in a condescending way—I was talking to another white person, someone I hoped, if he read Quinn’s narrative in the novel, might feel inspired to further educate himself about the tentacle-like effects of white privilege as they reach out in all directions around him, even if he is in a very diverse community.

As a white man, I don’t believe I should take an “us” versus “them” approach to other white people. How can I? Because I’ve begun to think and feel more critically about my own white privilege than I used to, have I somehow abandoned my whiteness?

No. The white boy in the third row is also me. How do I sit in his shoes, shoes that I can most easily slip into, and dialogue with the man on stage imploring everyone to recognize why the Black Lives Matter movement shouldn’t be seen as a threat to our community and country, but instead is simply another step in the long march for social justice and equity?

I took a little longer than usual answering his question. I explained that we tried to recognize the humanity of all the characters in the book, including the police officers, and we tried to be as crystal clear and honest about the fears all these characters have, what each of them wants to protect, and how the recognition of those fears and the decision to confront them shape the narrative arc of the book. In a sense, we hoped that we could write a book that didn’t push anyone away, but rather recognized and honored the nuances and complexities in the fictional community in the novel, as a way to recognize those same nuances and complexities that exist in the real world. I don’t think there are many people in the world who wake up in the morning, twist their moustaches and contemplate their evil, villainous plans for the day. But there are, without a doubt, many of us who wake up with good intentions, but as we proceed with our day, impact others in devastating and destructive ways—and it is the impact, not the intention, that lasts. Therefore it is the road from those intentions to those impacts that we need to be critical of, that we need to better understand, that we need help deconstructing so we can lessen, avoid, or even stop, each other from delivering those harmful impacts.

I believe, at the end of the day, there are more of us who want to lessen that harmful impact, and we all need help (especially those of us who are white) holding each other accountable. I’m grateful for my wife, my friends, and my family, who all help me in this, and I’m grateful too to all the people I’m meeting while out on the road talking about All American Boys.

For example, elsewhere on the tour, at another festival, a middle aged white man walked up to me and Jason and told us that he was the father of two black boys he and his white wife had adopted.  He told us that he was reading All American Boys with his sons and, in effect, he explained that it was just one more small piece in his on-going process of trying to better understand his own life in comparison and contrast to his sons’ lives. “When I heard my sons talking to me about their lives, I had to listen,” he said. “So I’ve been listening and learning and after years of doing this I feel a little more like a whole man.”

Those words nearly broke my heart. I could have sobbed in the convention hall. Instead, I swallowed them as a reminder that I need to do a better job, too. That I’ll always need to do a better job. That there is no arrival point. I’ll never arrive at some point where I’m outside the system of systemic racism—I’ll always be in it, and because I am, I have to do the best job possible calling people into the conversation that recognizes it, in order to do the work to try to deconstruct it. I’ll always need to do a better job “calling people in” rather than “calling people out.”

So, thank you white boy in the third row. Thank you for calling me back in.

Brendan Kiely received an MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York. His debut novel, The Gospel of Winter, has been published in eight languages, was selected as one of American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults 2015, and was a Kirkus Reviews selection for best of 2014. He is the co-author, with Jason Reynolds, of the novel All American Boys (S&S). Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in Greenwich Village.

Find Brendan on Facebook.

© Brendan Kiely


Nina Lindsay said...

Brendan, thank you for reminding me how to take the time we need to in responding to each other as individuals, and to consider intention and impact as separate but intertwined.

Jenn said...

Thank you Brendan for these reflections in this post.

Allie Jane Bruce said...

Brendan, thank you so much for this beautiful reflection. I especially like this: "it is the road from those intentions to those impacts that we need to be critical of, that we need to better understand, that we need help deconstructing so we can lessen, avoid, or even stop, each other from delivering those harmful impacts." YES. That's our job as white people. To really examine how we get from our noble intentions to our harmful impacts. Then, hopefully, we can finally learn how to stop ourselves.

Sam Bloom said...

Love the questions you ask in the middle of your post, Brendan. This particular paragraph really resonates with me:

As a white man, I don’t believe I should take an “us” versus “them” approach to other white people. How can I? Because I’ve begun to think and feel more critically about my own white privilege than I used to, have I somehow abandoned my whiteness?

Thanks for this reminder, and for your wonderful post.

Unknown said...

Calling people in instead of calling people out. Yes. thank you.

徐幼鳳 said...

I think it is crucial in the current internet/blog/twitter "piling on" culture, to heed Brendan's advice, "I’ll always need to do a better job “calling people in” rather than “calling people out.” -- be it discussing some elements in a book for children, in a movie for the general public, or in a new policy governing an organization or the society at large. In a way, it is about the internal intentions and feelings: are we trying to change each other for the better or are we just trying to express our frustration and do not care whether we hurt the others or the cause for a better world.

Jason Low said...

Great post Brendan. Can't wait to read your book.

K T Horning said...

I just read your book yesterday, Brendan, and it is amazing. I think you did a remarkable job of humanizing the police officer by showing us his family and the way in which he had been a father figure to Quinn. I found Paul and his actions repellent in Chapter One but by about 3/4 through the book, I began to feel a little empathy -- not so much for him but for his family.

I think the sorts of struggles the white boy in the third row was having were, in a way, Quinn's struggles. How do we reconcile our feelings about people we know and perhaps even love with what we know to be true about them? What pieces of ourselves do we see in them?

I was really glad Quinn had Jill to help him work through his feelings. I hope the white boy in the third row has someone like Jill, too.

I have a question for you if you are still reading the responses to your post: how did you avoid having Quinn fall into the white savior trope? Was that something you were conscious of as you were writing?

Unknown said...

I really appreciate the feedback and the thoughts of all those above who commented on the piece. Thank you! And I'd love to take a minute to address K T Horning's questions above, because I think they are especially important questions.

It was, in fact, one of our explicit intentions from the very beginning of the project: We can't have a white-savior-hero--that will not be Quinn's narrative. On one level, that just makes the most narrative sense. What the heck could he really, believably, do to "save" the situation? But on a deeper level, Quinn's narrative mirrors my own interest in co-writing the novel. As a white writer, I want to be a better partner in the process of telling American (read: multi-racial) stories. As a white writer writing a book so directly discussing racism, I want to be a better partner when tackling that story. And Quinn, as a white boy in the story, has to learn how to begin to become a better partner, too. Jason and I spoke about this. What if the whole narrative arc is about how the boys don't really see each other in Chapter 1, or can't see the person, but at the end, they are present together and "see" each other for the first time. In a sense, Quinn has to begin to deconstruct the blinders of white privilege in order to "see" the person and personhood of Rashad. Nothing and nobody is saved or fixed. It's simply a step toward something more honest and authentic--a fuller recognition of the self in order to have a fuller recognition of the person in the street beside him.

Quinn can't save anybody or anything, but he can strive to live more authentically--an effort that doesn't have an ending, it's a life-long process. I can't save anybody or anything when I try to write about racism--I just want to commit myself to trying to speak about it all more authentically when I write any story because racism (especially systemic racism) permeates any story that is realistic contemporary American fiction. It will be a life-long process for me, too. I'll need my Jills and I'll try my best to find the courage, patience, and love of a Jill to be one for others too.

Thanks, again, for that question. I appreciate the space to chat about all of this.


St. Mary's, Tokyo, Japan said...

I enjoyed reading your comment. Especially where you made the conscious decision not to have Quinn be, as you say, the "White Savior". That would be unrealistic. We each need to do our part in treating people well, no matter who they are. Thanks for writing this book. My students are taking part in the Global Read Aloud and it is so nice of you to comment on the Twitter feed as well.

Janelle Odate
Tokyo, Japan