On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In Washington, D.C. and other American cities, people are protesting police violence against people of color. The protesters, and many others too, are upset that black people in particular continue to die in encounters with police.
Best-selling YA author Jason Reynolds has grappled with racism personally and in his writing. The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature also recently co-authored a book for young people on fighting racism: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.
We’ve asked Jason Reynolds to join Kojo For Kids to help us understand what has led to the tensions we’ve seen over the last week, and to talk about why racism persists and what we can do to build a less racist society.
This show is part of the “Kojo For Kids” series, a Kojo Nnamdi Show segment featuring guests of special interest to young listeners. Though Kojo has been on WAMU 88.5 for 20 years, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to reach out to an audience of kids, most of whom until recently had been in school during our live broadcast. We’re excited to hear from our youngest listeners! Join us!
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Jason Reynolds Author, "Ghost"; Co-author, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You"; @JasonReynolds83
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Today, we're talking about a serious subject, racism, with a writer who has thought and written a lot about this subject. Jason Reynolds is here for a conversation with kids about why people all over the country are protesting the way police often treat people of color, especially black people, and what we can all do to be antiracist. His books, including "Ghost" and "Miles Morales: Spider-Man," have sold millions of copies and won him millions of fans. So many that, earlier this year, the Library of Congress made him its National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.
KOJO NNAMDIIn that job, he says he not only wants to talk to kids but to listen to them. And that's what we're going to do today. He's currently serving as the seventh National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Jason, thank you so much for joining us.
JASON REYNOLDSAlways good to talk to you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlways good to hear you, too, Jason. Let's try to put this in context. You recently wrote that book with American University professor Ibram X. Kendi, "Racism, Antiracism and You." What is it about, and why did you write it?
REYNOLDSSo, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You" is a book that chronicles the history of racist ideas from the 1400s to contemporary times, but it's written with young people in mind. So, this is the first, basically, quote-unquote, "history" book written with the young people in mind, so their voices and their tone and their rhythm to engage them and inform them and teach them a new kind of language to talk about race.
NNAMDIYou also say that writing this book was the hardest thing you've ever done. Why?
REYNOLDS(laugh) Well, first of all, because Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is one of the most brilliant minds we have in the country around the conversation of race. And I didn't want to ruin all the research that he'd done. But, secondly, because I think it's always complicated to take such massive ideas and to whittle them into something bite-size without pandering or condescending to children. I don't think you have to condescend in order to give them that which is true. It can be sophisticated and nuanced, and still be for them.
NNAMDIA few years ago you wrote a novel with Brendan Kiely about a black teenager who gets beaten up by police and a white teenager who saw it happen. What made you want to write “All American Boys”? And was it important to you to have a white coauthor?
REYNOLDSSo, five years ago, I mean 2000 -- five or six, I mean, 2014, we were dealing with the very thing that we're dealing with now. And Brendan Kiely and I were on the road together, and we decided that it was best to make this book, because no one was talking to young people about brutality. Police violence was happening all over the country. And on the news there would be sort of talking heads in suits and politicians and everyone arguing about who's right and who's wrong. And no one stopped to think, well, these kids are being killed, and no one is talking to kids about it. And so we decided to do it.
REYNOLDSDo I think it was important to write it with a white man? I think it was important to write it with Brendan, because we chronicled the lives of two young men, one of whom is white. And we had yet to find a book for young people about what it means to have white privilege.
NNAMDIThat said, providing context, this has been a tough weekend, with people across the country and right here in Washington, D.C., your hometown now, protesting in the streets. They're angry about the death of George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis last month, but black people have died in encounters with police before. Why is this man's death fueling, in your view, such massive protests?
REYNOLDSYou know, I think that it's -- I think his death -- it's not just his death. I think it's the fact that we could all see it, right, which is what happens. We can see it now. And the way that he died, the utter disregard and dismissal of his pain. The reasons for his arrest -- not that that makes a difference, right, but even just thinking about the arbitrary and minute reasons that could put one in a situation to have a knee upon one's neck, even hearing him call out for his mother, right.
REYNOLDSI think it's one of these things that, it's visceral in a different way, and it's one thing on top of another on top of another, because we have to also contextualize this by saying we're coming off of Ahmaud Aubery. We're coming off of the Amy Cooper situation. We're coming off of Breonna Taylor, right. It isn't just one thing, but I think this was the one thing that sort of lit the match.
NNAMDIAnd, you know, I was thinking about your age. When you were about five years old, maybe back in 1991, we were coming off the beating of Rodney King, and that was almost 30 years ago, which sparked similar demonstrations. So, I'm glad you were able to talk about the ones you have experienced in more recent times. How are these protests making you feel, Jason? Are you hopeful that so many people care about black lives? Do you worry that people are going to get hurt?
REYNOLDSI feel all the ways. I think that protest is a human impulse. And I think, with protests, come all the things that humanity comes with, right. So, I feel all the human things. Do I feel hope? Yes, I do. I'm a person who lives in this space, I hope, because I engage with young people every day of my life. So, yes, I do still feel hope. Do I feel pain and anger and sadness? Yes. All those things exist, too. Do I feel fear? Absolutely.
REYNOLDSEverything sort of is living in my body, which, by the way, Kojo, I should say, is another thing that racism does when it comes to damaging the lives or complicating the lives of black people when it comes to their health. I'm living with these feelings and these emotions in my body. And I have to figure out how to deal with my life and the things happening around me and somehow alleviate the stress and the pressure that I'm feeling emotionally and mentally.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to kids who are feeling scared right now, say, about police violence, about the coronavirus?
REYNOLDSFirst of all, I would say that their fear is warranted. They have every right to be afraid, every right to feel afraid, that they should not be ashamed of fear. They shouldn't be ashamed of having feelings of fear, right. We have every reason to be afraid. Number two, I would say that education is a very important thing, right. And when I say education, I mean specifically informing oneself around the history of race. And I know so many parents think this is too big of a topic for their children, but therein lies the issue, as well.
REYNOLDSYoung people are ready and they're willing and they're prepared to take on this discussion, if we as adults figure out how to have it with them. And I think some of the fear has to do with not giving them the history and the context around why all the things are happening in the first place. This isn't about individual people. This is about a system that exists within this country that makes our lives seemingly a bit more expendable to the eyes of people in authoritative power who happen, most times, to be white.
NNAMDIFirst, let's hear the thoughts of eight-year-old Benjamin in Washington, D.C. Benjamin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENJAMINI'm scared of being a black person. What should I do?
REYNOLDSYou're scared of being a black person. What should you do? Well, Benjamin, that's a good question. I think, first of all, I'm going to tell you something that maybe I shouldn't say, because it's going to feel like a cheap answer. But the first thing I'm going to tell you, Benjamin, is that first of all it's okay for you to be afraid. But also know that being a black person comes with a lot of amazing things, right.
REYNOLDSAnd so what we never talk about is, you hear the bad stuff, so you hear about the police, you hear about what's happening in the street right now. But the history of black people in America is one that is full of victory, one that is full of pride, one that is full of strength and courage. We've always been courageous. We've always been innovative. We've made things. We've created musical platforms.
REYNOLDSAnd we've invented all sorts of things that we use every day. We helped to invent the video game. We helped to invent the water gun, all these things that bring joy to people's lives. And so, Benjamin, your fear's okay, but just make sure that if you want to tamp it down, look up all the wonderful things and think about who we are every single day when we're not afraid, and you'll realize that we actually have more to celebrate than to fear.
NNAMDIBenjamin, thank you very much for your call and good luck to you. Here's 17-year-old Cameron in Washington, D.C. Cameron, your turn.
CAMERONHi. First of all, I'd like to thank you for that answer. That was a wonderful answer. I appreciated that. But I wanted to ask about the media's influence on this whole issue right now, because I've been observing from, I guess, a secondary perspective right now. I'm a white male in D.C., and I've been watching the news. And the news makes all the protests look very violent. It's very, I feel like, a destructive perspective on everything that's happening right now.
CAMERONBut on other media, such as, like, TikTok and Instagram and Twitter, it's been a very different point of view of people celebrating what's happening. And I just wanted to ask, like, what are your thoughts on how the media's taking a role in this. Because the news is probably the number one source of a lot of people's information but, in my opinion, that seems very skewed right now.
REYNOLDSI think that that's an astute thing to sort of pay attention to. Listen, I am always careful about believing the first thing I see, right, or at least taking the first thing I see and turning it into an entire narrative. The truth of the matter is, there are multiple narratives that could be told. Certain outlets of the news are choosing to tell a specific one, right, because there's old news saying, if it bleeds it leads, right. So, like, this is the thing to talk about, because there's an explosion. And I guess it's not newsworthy to see peaceful protesting -- quote-unquote "peaceful protesting," right.
REYNOLDSBut the truth is that you and I and hopefully more people your age know that the narrative gets slivered and splintered out. And you can see different versions and POVs, like, depending upon which media that you partake in. So we can get the news media and that's going to give you one sense of it. And that's not an incorrect sense of it. It's just not a full -- it's not a complete sense of it.
REYNOLDSAnd then you can look at TikTok and Instagram and all the other sort of platforms that we have in our hands to see what -- I can put all these things together, and then I can get a full view, or at least a more full view of actually what's happening on the ground. And I think it is imperative for people your age to make sure that you do the extra work to make that happen. If not, then the media has -- you know, they have the opportunity to spin it into whatever they want.
REYNOLDSIt's easy to become distracted when you say, oh, there's violence here or, oh, there's a fire here. But what they aren't showing is all the people in Milwaukee cleaning up the streets. What they aren't showing are the people in New Jersey doing the Cupid Shuffle in the midst of a protest, celebrating blackness even in the midst of such pain, right. Like, you're not seeing that stuff but you get to see it, because you understand how it works. And it's important that you tell young men, it's important that you tell the people around you to do the same.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Cameron. And, Jason, I know that you said you are not watching the news 24/7 about the coronavirus pandemic.
REYNOLDSNo, I can't, man.
REYNOLDSI can't -- listen, I'm a young person who struggles with anxiety, and that's just bad for me. So, no, I don't do that. (laugh)
NNAMDIHere is nine-year-old Leo in Washington. Leo, your turn.
LEOHello. My name is Leo Martinez. I'm nine years old. And I wanted to ask Jason on why he chose to put racism in "Miles Morales." Chamberlain was racist to Miles.
REYNOLDSOh, Leo, that's a good question. Why did I choose to put racism in the "Miles Morales: Spider-Man" book? You know, when I was asked to do the book, I told them I would only do it if I got to talk about it -- you know, if I got to write the thing I wanted to write. And the one thing I wanted to talk about that we haven't quite seen in, like, the superhero world is this thing that we call the school-to-prison pipeline.
REYNOLDSNow, Leo, let me explain what this is. This is a basic principle that says that, sometimes, young black people, people your age, are treated differently in schools. And because they're treated differently -- and by treated differently, I mean they're been disciplined differently. They're being suspended at higher rates, expelled at higher rates for things that they should not be suspended or expelled for. And because they are, oftentimes, they don't go back to school or they go to alternative schools, or all the things that happen that get in the way of them having sort of a direct educational experience can sometimes put them in situations later on to lead them into the prison system.
REYNOLDSNow, that's a very complicated thing that I'm talking about, but I wanted to show how, in "Miles Morales," he was being treated unfairly in his classroom because he was a black kid in an all-white school, and he was being punished for something he shouldn't have been being punished for. And you see that moment where there's, like, the pipeline under the school that goes directly to the prison.
REYNOLDSAnd so that's just this whole -- there's a history to that, right. And I wanted to put that in the book, because I think why not have -- I mean, a real superhero is a superhero who can fight racism, to me, right. Like, there are lots of monsters, Leo, lots of monsters we can fight. We can fight the monster of sexism, the monster of poverty. There are lots of real monsters in our world, but the monster right now that has to be fought is the monster of racism. And I wanted to make Spider Man fight it. Why not have black Spider Man fight racism, right? To me, that was the coolest thing in the world. (laugh)
NNAMDISounds like a plan to me. (laugh) Thank you very much for your call, Leo. Here is eight-year-old Darien in Arlington, Virginia. Darien, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DARIENSo, why do people still, like, hurt black people?
REYNOLDSOh, man. Why do people still hurt black people? You know, I ask myself this question every day. I think there are a few things that happen. I think, number one, the same way that we watch TV and we see sort of explosions or bad things happening, there are a lot of people who seem to be afraid of black people for absolutely no reason except for this thing that they've made up in their minds about who we are.
REYNOLDSThere are a lot of people who believe that black people are the monsters under the bed, right. Now, we know the monster under the bed's not really there, right. We know it's not there. We know it's all in our imagination. But because we believe the monster's under the bed, we're willing to swing under the bed, we're willing to jump on the bed to crush the monster, even though it's not actually there.
REYNOLDSAnd I think for a lot of people in this country, specifically white people, (word?) white people, I think that they still see black people as that monster under the bed, though we've never been monsters. We've never been monsters. We've also never been under the bed. (laugh) And I think that's the thing that drives the fear.
REYNOLDSAnd also power. And there's also this idea of power, you know. I think that people are afraid to give up a little power. Sometimes -- look, at your age, you remember what it was like the first time you learned that sharing was a good thing, right, and that sometimes you have to give up something in order for everybody to be able to have a piece of, like a food, right.
REYNOLDSIf it's a slice of pizza, everybody gets to take one slice. If you take two slices, well, that's not fair, because somebody's not going to eat. And that's not because they don't deserve to eat. It's because you cheated. And so you've got to give up one slice so that we all can have a bite. And, sometimes, people don't want to give up their slice because they don't believe that we deserve to eat too, right. And so it's a complicated thing but, trust me, man, I'm working on it every day just like you, thinking about it every day just like you. (laugh)
NNAMDIYeah. Darien, thank you for your call. We got an email from nine-year-old Luke: Why do police officers think they have the right to kill people who are black, but not people who are white?
REYNOLDSWell, the truth of the matter is -- that's a good question. And it's not about the police officers, right. So, the question about why police officers think that they have the right to kill black people and not kill white people, first of all, I don't want police officers to kill anybody. I don't want them to kill black people or white people, unless they absolutely have to, which means that their lives have to be in danger, right. But that's a stretch. I don't want them to kill. I don't want anybody to die.
REYNOLDSBut the sort of -- the issue that we're talking about has nothing really -- we're talking about police, but we're only talking about police because that's what's happening right now. But, really, we could talk about why is that some -- in black communities, the schools don't seem to be as good as they are in white communities, right? We could say, how come in lower-income black communities, the grocery stores don't seem to be as good as they are in white communities?
REYNOLDSSo, we're talking about racism in every single layer of our lives and in our country, right. Now, this doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with black people. And I want to make that very, very clear. Nothing -- this means nothing is wrong with black people, just so we're clear, nothing. Nothing is wrong with us. Where there is something wrong is with the sort of system that America was built on that has ended up in a way that affords privileges to white people in a way that it hasn't afforded privileges to black people. And that comes from the very beginning of the country a long, long, long, long, long, long time ago.
REYNOLDSSo, the question -- so to answer your question very succinctly about, like, why do they have the right or feel like they have the right to kill black people more than they kill white people, it's because the country itself looks at black people -- historically has looked at black people as less than white people or has valued black people less than -- as humans, less than white people. Even though we know that we are equally -- we should be equally valued.
NNAMDIOn now to Yeselin. Ten-year-old Yeselin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
YESELINOkay. What inspired you to write "Stamped"?
REYNOLDSWhat inspired me to write "Stamped"? You know what? So, Dr. Kendi who wrote the original version of "Stamped," he called me and he wanted me to figure out a way to create a book like "Stamped" for you. And the reason why that was important is because everything happening in our world, everything going on right this minute is covered in "Stamped." And it's written in a way that will engage you and pull you in and make you want to learn what's happening, so that you can kind of like move around the world, in a way, fully informed.
REYNOLDSWhen I was a kid, history books were the most boring things in the world, so I never read them. And because I never read them, I never knew my history. And because I never knew my history, people could take advantage of me and make up things that were not true. And I would go along with it, because I didn't know any better.
REYNOLDSNow, what we want to do with "Stamped" is say, now we're giving you the tools, we're giving you the information, we're giving you the sword and the shield, so that when somebody tells you something is the matter with black people, you can say, absolutely not. When somebody tells you that if you would just act a certain way, then you would be accepted more, you could say, absolutely not. That's assimilationism, and you should be antiracist, right.
REYNOLDSYou'll be able to have the language to actually change the world. The old people, whom I love, right, because we need them for wisdom. But the truth is that I don't have the energy to try to convince them of the things I'm talking about. But for you and your generation, that's where my energy has to go to, that you all can grow up and be better old people than I am, than my momma was, and really push this thing forward.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Here's nine-year-old Ava in Washington, D.C. Ava, hi, there. You're on the air, Ava. Go ahead, please.
AVAThank you for taking my call. I'm nine years old, and I live in Washington, D.C. My question is, I'm scared about what's happening, and I want to know how kids can help bring change in this country, so that we're all treated fairly and it doesn't matter what color your skin is.
NNAMDIYou gave Jason Reynolds his reason for living. (laugh) Jason, go ahead.
REYNOLDSThat's it. Oh, man. You know what? Honestly, Ava, the first thing you can do is make sure that -- the question you just asked me, you've got to ask yourself that question every single day. No matter what I say right now, no matter what the answer is that I give to you, every day, for the rest of your life when you wake up, that's the question you have to ask yourself.
REYNOLDSWhat am I going to do today to make sure that today we're living in a world that feels more equitable, more equal, more peaceful, more fair no matter what the color of anyone's skin is, right. And if you can sort of take that into your body and into your mind right now and use that thing to sort of set your day every single day, then by the time you're 25 years old, the world will be different, right.
REYNOLDSThe biggest issue is that no one is asking themselves that question. No one is looking to their right or to their left and seeing the person who is not the same color as them and saying, that's my brother, that's my sister, right. They deserve the right to live. They deserve freedom. They deserve peace. They deserve -- is there equity in education and employment, right. No one's doing that, right. And I think you have the right idea. You already have the answer, Ava. You're asking me, but the truth is, I should be asking you, right. You already have the answer. So, you remember that every single day.
REYNOLDSAnd as far as the things you're afraid of today -- I know things are a little scary, but I promise you that the fear you feel right now, if you can remember it, that the fear you feel right now, if you don't ever want to feel it again, when you get older, if you want to make sure that you live in a world where you never have to feel this kind of fear again, then you've got to ask yourself that question every day. What can I do every day to make -- it could be one person to make one person's life a little better, a little more equal, a little more just, a little more fair.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time. We only have less than a minute left, Jason. What's helping you to stay healthy and calm when you hear upsetting news?
REYNOLDSMan, I turn the TV off and turn the music on. You know, I turn the music on and dance around the house. I got to get it out of my body, Kojo. I got to shake loose, man. And that's what it is for me, you know.
NNAMDIJason Reynolds, author of "Ghost" and co-author of "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You," currently serving as the seventh National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Jason Reynolds, always a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.
REYNOLDSYou got it. Always a pleasure, Kojo. Take care, man.
NNAMDIOur segment on relations between the Metropolitan Police Department and the District's black community was produced by Richard Cunningham. And Kojo for Kids with Jason Reynolds was produced by Lauren Markoe. A reminder, tomorrow is primary day in D.C. In-person voting will be available at 20 sites across the District from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. And the curfew does not apply if you are at a polling station. As you know, that curfew starts at 7:00 p.m.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, what does it mean to protest during a pandemic? Public Health expert Dr. Leana Wen joins us to talk about staying safe from its crowds, and whether this all may lead to a surge in coronavirus cases. Plus, digital learning has certainly challenged teachers and students, but what about the adult learners currently working on getting their high school diplomas? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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