From the back cover: A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?
There were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.
I was nervous picking this book up—would I want to run away from what I found? I didn’t.
Would it be preachy? It’s not.
The book is like a basketball game, the ball moving from boy to boy and world to world, but always staying on the same court. Both Rashad and Quinn are surrounded by teammates and coaches in the form of friends, family, neighbors, pastors, and teachers.
The alternating narrators in All American Boys work like a dialogue. The first and last narrative chapters are Rashad’s. This is fitting, given that his character—and his worth—are attacked. Even Rashad’s father initially believes the police report. He wants to know why his son shoplifted…dressed the wrong way…resisted…and why Rashad foolishly ignored all the advice he’d heard, over and over again, about how to behave when dealing with the police. But Rashad did everything right, and he still ended up in the hospital.
Quinn’s attempts to understand what happened come slowly and awkwardly. When he broaches the subject with his teammate, Rashad’s friend English—claiming Paul was just doing his job—English doesn’t smile or make it easy. He calls Quinn out on his assumptions and the naivety that comes with being white. Up to this point Quinn has taken advantage of the fact that nobody saw him. To his credit, he doesn’t dismiss English’s criticism, but lets it in and gives it serious weight as he decides what to do. Make an official statement? Attend the protest? Stand by Paul? Keep his head down until it’s all over?
Rashad must find a way to process his ordeal even though he’s stuck in the hospital. Just as he couldn’t escape the beating, neither can he escape the video of himself getting pounded into the pavement—it’s all over the news, every day. So he mutes the TV and watches it over and over again. He talks with a woman who lived through the civil rights movement, his nurse, his brother and friends, and eventually his father. He turns to his sketchpad. Gradually, Rashad pieces together what he thinks, how he feels, and what he wants to do—because his friends are helping plan the protest.
Did All American Boys make me uncomfortable? Definitely. And it should, because this story plays out over and over again right here in the United States. Racism and police brutality are true and serious problems, and too many of us don’t want to admit that, let alone speak out or act.
Did it make me cry? Several times. I cried in frustration, in fear, and sometimes in relief.
For April 5: mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine