African American author Jason Reynolds and white author Brendan Kiely have teamed up to give readers the novel All American Boys, which won the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature and the Coretta Scott King Award.
The novel tells a story of police brutality through the eyes of two teenagers that attend the same high school: African American Rashad and white Quinn, who was always told he was an “all-American.” Rashad is in the JROTC at his father’s request and Quinn is on the basketball team. They know each other from school.
One day Rashad goes into a convenience shop to buy some potato chips and he realizes he has forgotten his phone. He stoops down over his open bag to look for it and a white woman trips over him. The next thing he knows he is accused of stealing, handcuffed, dragged outside and beaten so badly that he ends up in the hospital. Quinn happens to witness the beating but quickly leaves when he realizes the arresting officer is Paul, the man who watched out for him after his father died in Afghanistan. Paul had once beat up a bully who was picking on Quinn.
Video footage of Rashad’s beating quickly makes the news and is all over social media. There is an uproar at school that included spray paint on the sidewalk that read “Rashad is absent again today.” There is even a hashtag that reads the same.
Quinn holds his silence until he starts to talk to Jill, Paul’s cousin. He begins to ask himself, “Well, where was I when Rashad was lying in the street? Where was I the year all these black American boys were lying in the streets? Thinking about scouts? Keeping my head down like Coach said? That was walking away. It was running away for God’s sake.” He quickly realizes that he wants to be his father’s son and do the right thing, not show loyalty to a racist. So he calls the police station and tells Paul’s colleagues that he wants to be a witness.
Just as a protest is being organized, Katie Lansing, the white woman who tripped over Rashad in the convenience store comes to visit him in the hospital to tell him that she will also be coming forward as a witness in his favor.
The most disturbing visit Rashad receives in the hospital is from his own father, who at one point was a police officer also. He tells Rashad a story he had never heard before, one where he accidentally shot and paralyzed an African American teenager who looked like like was armed when he was just reaching for his inhaler. He left the police force shortly after that incident.
The day of the protest it is unclear if Rashad’s father is coming but he eventually joins his family. That day, Jill said very quietly to Quinn, “This is a like a real moment in history…I want to make sure I’m on the right side of it.”
A list of names of unarmed African Americans killed by police was read the day of the protest, marked as “absent.”
Freddie Gray’s name was on that list.