On the Tuesday morning following the “incident,” students found the following graffiti painted on the sidewalk in front of Springfield Central High School: Rashad is absent again today. In itself, not an earth-shattering message. Until you understand why he is absent. That message starts a tidal wave of protest and rebellion in the face of prejudice and brutality.
The Friday night previous, on the way to a local house party high school junior Rashad stopped at a store to pick up some chips and gum. When he knelt on the floor to get his money and phone out his bag, a woman backed into him, falling, starting a horrifying series of events that ended up with him face down on the pavement and a cop accusing him of stealing and pummelling him right into the hospital.
The thing is, Rashad didn’t steal. And he wouldn’t. A good kid, he was looking at a bright future with his ROTC training and his art. And his dad (a former cop himself) had always said, if you are questioned by a cop, don’t argue, don’t talk back, do whatever the cop asks. But the cop saw what he saw. A black kid. In baggy clothes. Reaching into a duffel bag. So he let Rashad have it, first in the store, then on the sidewalk outside.
16-year-old Quinn saw it. Well, he didn’t see what started it, but he saw the result. He saw his best friend’s older brother, Paul, a man he had worshipped and looked upon as a surrogate father, beating the hell out a kid. He kept his mouth shut. At first. And then he saw the message, first on the school grounds, then spray-painted around town.
Told from the alternating perspectives Rashad and Quinn, one the black teen that suffered the beating, and one the white teen that witnessed it, the story covers the week following the assault. They are good kids, artist and basketball player, both wondering about their future. The way they each have to approach their futures differently brings home the divide in their community and their realities.
Interestingly, the story is written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, a white man and a black man. But Reynolds writes the part of Rashad, and Kiely that of Quinn. Together, they look at police brutality, racial profiling, family tensions, loyalty, and give voice to the struggle teens face every day of trying to figure out what is right and what they can do to stand up for it, wanting change but not knowing how to bring it about, all in the face of family and societal pressures.
I also liked that both Rashad and Quinn’s struggle are highlighted. Rashad’s decision to protest was not an easy one, but the pressure he felt was different. He is the symbolic face of the demonstration, even as he fights to recover from the beating that injured him both physically and psychologically. The urge to walk away and try to get on with his life is overwhelming. Quinn has to make a choice that could forever estrange him from friends and family, even as he knows deep down it is the right one.
If I am going to offer criticism, it is that I would have liked to see the good side of the police officer, the side Quinn grew up with, before we saw the bad. It might have added depth to Quinn’s struggle, made it a bit more relatable; as it was, the first time we meet Paul in the novel he is an uncontrollable monster, and after, under investigation, he is self-righteously defending his actions, trying to save himself. The reader never sees any good in Paul, which makes it harder to understand how Quinn could ever be conflicted over the right path to take. Although, maybe it also means that there was no good in the man in the first place.
This is an important book, a book that can start conversations. Sometimes it is difficult to see clearly past our own experiences. I think that as a YA novel, All American Boys has the rare opportunity to show both the experiences of the victim and the witness to a group of young people who will hopefully be the ones who can fix this mess.
All American Boys was published September 29th, 2015 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.