Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » April 2015 » “From the Crossroads of Crack and Rap” by Jason Reynolds

“From the Crossroads of Crack and Rap” by Jason Reynolds

To celebrate the release of our two new Black Sheep titles — Changers Book Two: Oryon by T Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper and The Shark Curtain by Chris Scofield — we’re thrilled to present a guest post from Jason Reynolds, award-winning author of When I Was the Greatest and The Boy in the Black Suit, on the need for diversity in young people’s literature.

From the Crossroads of Crack and Rap
by Jason Reynolds

I was born in 1983, and there are a few things that were guaranteed to be part of my life simply because of that fact — 1983 — coupled with where I was from. The first is the unfortunate inevitability that there would be someone in my family who sold or was addicted to crack cocaine. The drug was everywhere, permeating black existence, stripping it of its substance, petrifying it and making it a fossilized shell of itself. Of ourselves. Our neighborhoods became war zones. Minefields. Traps. Our schools became both sanctuaries and prisons. Our families became unfamiliar.

The second guarantee was actually birthed as a response to the crack epidemic — hip-hop music. The child of the soul and funk of the seventies, hip-hop quickly became the new soundtrack for young black America. Raw storytelling meshed with poetic eloquence, the music served as hymns to the hood, but also as a blaring megaphone, screaming to everyone living with their backs turned and their noses up, pretending that junkies didn’t exist behind picket fences and that violence in the black community was simply a genetic predisposition.

But you all knew this already.

But did you know that during this time — the eighties and most of the nineties — there were very few, if any, pieces of literature written for young people that addressed hip-hop or the crack epidemic? When I was in school, we were forced to read the exact same things young people are still reading today — Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird. Let me be clear: all these are great books, but when you are Piggy, or when you see several Lennys staggering up and down your block, or when Atticus Finch is nowhere to be found and it’s your brother on trial, reading these books almost seems a bit futile. When you feel alone, scared, and angry, all you want to know is that you aren’t the only one who does, and at such an overtly devastating time in our country for so many young people, these books made us feel even more isolated. And if not more isolated, undeniably bored.

Thankfully, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were there. NWA and Wu-Tang Clan were there.  A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were there. Biggie and Tupac were there. These street poets spun the tales of a particular reality that for some reason the literary industry seemed to ignore. And because of this omission, many of us grew up with no relationship with books. We couldn’t find the draw. We couldn’t see the connection. I personally didn’t read an entire novel until I was almost seventeen years old, when someone put Richard Wright’s Black Boy in my hand. And I’m not the only one. Lots of us ran to music to see ourselves because books reflected either a rose-colored cliché or a tale of old — something surely important, but seemingly irrelevant, especially to teenagers.

The other result of the absence of diversity in books during the eighties and nineties, besides literature seeming alien, is that now as adults, those of us born at the crossroads of crack and rap have no literary documentation of our youth. There were no novels written during that time about the feeling a protagonist had after hearing a rap song, and how that feeling changed his or her life. There were no (or very few) stories that nailed down teenage life dealing with family members who were addicted to crack cocaine. We have the music — and, luckily, quite a few movies — and that will have to suffice as our pot of posterity.

But today, we can change that. If we all continue to push for the diversification of books, there’s a better likelihood that young people of all races, cultures, religions, sexual preferences, etc., will develop a relationship with reading much earlier. They will have the opportunity to at least begin with the familiar. They’ll be able open a book and be made aware that they aren’t the only person who knows they exist. That people see them. And besides building readers, we also get to document time — to be archivists. Teenagers today don’t ever have to worry about being thirty or forty and realizing that there’s no literary documentation of their adolescence, in all of its nuance and complexity. Because there will be. There are and will continue to be books that discuss the issues of now, that delve into the new social norms like text messaging and social media, contemporary characters that walk, talk, and look like contemporary readers. We can ensure that young folks have the privilege to live with encyclopedias and concordances of their own lives. They get to read them, then read them again, and one day they’ll use them as reference points, held up against filtered Instagram photos and almost inaudible rap songs, as a balanced few of youth in 2015. And they deserve that. We all do.


Jason ReynoldsJason Reynolds is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novels, When I Was the Greatest, which won the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award, and The Boy in the Black Suit. Besides those two books, Reynolds co-authored the young adult, poetry/art book, My Name is Jason. Mine Too, and is slated to release a middle grade novel, Brave As You, as well as the first book of a series, entitled Track, in 2016.

Reynolds’ work shines light on the raw, yet beautifully sincere stories of underrepresented communities, and he works diligently to reach his readers in real life, traveling to schools, libraries, community centers and detention centers. Wherever he is, he professes that all stories are valuable and encourages literacy and the usage of storytelling as the ultimate link between us all.

Reynolds has been reviewed and profiled by The Washington Post, NPR, Kirkus, Hornbook, School Library Journal, WNYC, Publisher’s Weekly, Poets & Writers, Gawker, The Guardian, Beyonce.com, mentioned as a standout in the Wall Street Journal, AM New York, Ebony magazine, and was nominated as a top book of the year by the New York Public Library system.

He currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. For more, visit: www.jasonwritesbooks.com

Posted: Apr 8, 2015

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