On Wednesday, April 23, Scuppernong Books hosted New York Times best selling author, Jason Reynolds at the Union Square Auditorium to speak with the community about the books he has written, as well as the life behind them. Reynolds is not only known for his excellent writing, but the way in which he writes – how he provides a space that opens the door to literature for anyone who has never felt a personal place there.
After a brief introduction, applause immediately erupted as Jason Reynolds took the stage to speak to a number of people, young and old alike. Reynolds prefaced his talk with somewhat of a warning, telling the crowd, “whenever people so lovingly describe my book as authentic, I always say to myself, ‘I wonder if they know that when I show up to places, who I am in person is going to be just like that and if they’re prepared for all this authenticity that’s coming your way”.
He then began, “I think it’s important that you know that there’s a real person behind these books, that these books aren’t…birthed from sheer imagination, they’re not even birthed from that much talent to be honest with you…at the end of the day, a lot of this stuff is coming from a really honest place…so I hope you’re not afraid of a little honesty…”
Jason Reynolds described to the audience what life was like for him as a child. He painted a picture of a, “ramen noodle kid, kool aid baby…we were the kids who would walk around the corner to our homeboy’s house and over there, we’d have to eat welfare peanut butter…we were the kids who grew up with block parties, ice cream trucks…slip n’ slides, band aids in the swimming pool, this is what it was”.
While Reynolds initially described a sweet remembrance of his childhood, he also acknowledged the realities of growing up in the time and place that he did. He stated, “there’s also some other things that were happening, this was in the 1980’s in America and [then] there was a good chance your neighborhood was torn up by drugs…this effected generations to come. It’s a very real thing that a lot of us got to see…that our families were affected by. It’s a strange thing to look out the window and see fourteen year old boys in your neighborhood get rich and two weeks later get dead, it’s a strange thing to watch your cousins and family members become zombies…”.
As Reynolds shared pieces of his life with the crowd, it became apparent that his intention was to give anyone from a diverse background the feeling of representation and belonging. He shared that when he was is high school he could never relate to any of the novels his teachers assigned in school and because of that, he never wanted to read books like Moby Dick – he had never seen a whale, not even a boat.
Without being able to recognize anyone in literature who looked like him, lived like him, or was like him at all, Reynolds never felt the desire to read a novel, cover to cover, until he was 17 and a half years old. When he was questioned by his teachers about his refusal to build a relationship with literature, Reynolds replied “What do I look like building a relationship with something that clearly don’t want no relationship with me? According to these people, I am invisible…”.
Reynolds, in large part credits rap music for teaching him how to appreciate reading. Reynolds said, “I’d like to explain to you, that rap music saved my life and not just mine…the [same] way that some of our friends parents talk about the 1960’s and the first time they say the Beatles shifted the way they thought about the world…rap music did that for an entire generation…of black and brown kids growing up in America. It was a real, real thing, because to us, that music was true…”.
The honesty of rap music, how brash it was, made people uncomfortable, but also inspired Jason Reynolds to write his own truth in a way that only he could.
At the end of his speech, it was apparent that by acknowledging the uncomfortable situations that most tried to ignore, Reynolds makes room for those who feel left out and even more so, offers a sense of pride to all those who have previously been told to believe otherwise.
He concluded, “everything that made [other people] mad, made me magic. Here’s the thing, I want you to love my stories, but not nearly as much as I want you to love your own.”