All American Boys
By: Jason Reynolds and Brenden Kiely
Atheneum, 2015
ISBN: 978-4814-6333-1

All American Boys follows Rashad and Quinn, both boys, one white and one black who attend the same high school in a racially mixed Northeastern City. When Rashad, an average JROTC kid, is severely beaten by a policeman for shoplifting a bag of chips (he did not steal a bag of chips) a video of his wrongful arrest goes viral. Quinn sees it all, the vicious punches, blood and the face of the arresting officer, a guy he could easily count as his brother. Both boys considered themselves pretty normal before all of this began, but neither will be normal again. Questions of race, privilege and complicity all boil to the surface and out into the community.

Written from dual perspectives this book is the perfect story to illustrate the ridiculousness of respectability politics. If you don’t know that is the notion that if you’re law abiding and polite and dress well and wear your hair a certain way then you’ll be safe from the remnants of white supremacy, brutality, discrimination. If you follow a model of perfect assimilation you can save yourself and be successful. It’s a nice thought, but it just isn’t true. The opening pages illustrate this beautifully in Rashad’s beating. A simple misunderstanding ballooned into something that could have been fatal for him at no fault of his own.

If the book had just been from Rashad’s perspective it would lose some of its appeal and effectiveness. Racism and privilege aren’t one-sided. They include all people, and that includes those who believe themselves to be innocent bystanders like Quinn. It includes the woman who slipped in the store and said nothing as Rashad was being arrested. It includes the store owner who was so upset about being robbed multiple times that he focused his anger and mistrust at the very customers who make his business possible.

Written in clear language, the book is accessible to everyone and I would deem it required reading for at least the next few years. Every middle and high school library should have it on their shelves and it would be even better to start small reading groups. It is that good.

This book is perfect for:

  • Anyone trying to make sense of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men and boys across the country
  • Those who like contemporary stories with realistic themes and characters
  • Everyone else

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was there anything Rashad could have done to prevent his beating?
  2. What effect did the painting of “Rashad is absent again today” have on the school? What do you think was the intended effect?
  3. Rashad’s father is very concerned with how he presents himself. Discuss what you think his fears may be.
  4. Quinn is a witness. Should he have come forward?
  5. Is Quinn complicit in the violence inflicted on his behalf?
  6. Discuss the ways in which Quinn is safe from the threats of violence and harassment that Rashad and his friends have to deal with.
  7. Speculate as to what happened after the protest at the police station.

If you like this then read:
This should definitely be read in companion to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Written as a letter to his son this long form essay gives insight to what it is to be a black boy in America and grow to be a man.

To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. With beautiful language that is contemporary and very Black (with a capital “B”) this album is the perfect foil for this novel. It is dense though, so listen in small bites and digest thoroughly.

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