Rashad and Quinn share the narrative. Jason Reynolds, who is black, writes the chapters told by sixteen-year-old Rashad, while Brendan Kiely, who is white, writes those contributed by Quinn, a senior at the same high school as Rashad. Reynolds and Kiely are educators as well as writers; Kiely is an experienced high school English teacher, while Reynolds is currently a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the States. Following publication in 2015 in the US, All American Boys made a considerable impact, winning the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award; the writers visited many schools, listening and talking to students who had read the book, fulfilling their hope that it would ‘start conversations’. In publishing the novel six years after its initial appearance, Faber presumably decided the UK was also ready to talk.
Within a few pages, Rashad is in Jerry’s Corner Mart, taking time selecting chips (aka crisps) to buy before he heads off to a Friday night party. He’s glad to be out of school, and out of military uniform, since Fridays include ROTC drill (Reserve Officer Training Corps), and he has to wear full kit all day. He loathes the Corps – he joined only to satisfy his ex-soldier, ex-cop father, who sees the army as the way forward for a young black American male. A woman is also scanning Jerry’s shelves – until she stumbles and trips over Rashad, just behind her. He offers his help. After shouts and accusations – and no time for answers – the cop on duty in the store, watching out for shoplifters, grabs Rashad, slams him down outside on the sidewalk, cuffs and beats him, ‘a fist in the kidney, a knee in the back’. Each blow is an earthquake to Rashad. All this is witnessed by Quinn, standing twenty feet away. To his horror, he realises he knows this cop – it’s Paul Galluzzo, older brother of his closest friend. Paul has been a trusted mentor to Quinn since the death of Quinn’s father, blown up by an IED in Afghanistan and now revered throughout the town.
That’s how it all kicks off. Rashad’s hospitalised, with a broken nose and fractured ribs, facing police charges; and also facing his father, who assumes his son’s guilt, while Rashad’s activist older brother Spoony never doubts his innocence. Quinn keeps his head down. He’s made it onto the school basketball team, tipped for State honours; soon there will be visits from scouts from universities with lucrative sports scholarships to be won.
The two plots, driven by the incident, follow separate paths through Rashad’s recovery in hospital with numerous visitors and Quinn’s life at home, in basketball training, in lunchtime cafeteria arguments, dialogues in and out of lessons and at parties and barbeques. Video evidence of the arrest explodes onto social media, attracting national news channels. The whole town takes sides. Everything culminates in a mass demo organised by the students. All those conversations lay things out for Quinn – and readers – to consider. This is not a simplistic anti police story, but it is anti police brutality and racism. Quinn sees that he cannot hide for ever – he has to work out where he stands.
There may be some blind spots for UK readers. The values, language and dynamics of the basketball squad and their dictatorial coach – and those of the ROTC – may well seem alien. Likewise the bad-ass banter of the overwhelmingly male cast, in contrast to the occasional voices of reasoned protest of just two significant young women. Readers might not recognise the names and stories of real world victims of police shootings such as Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, which are read out at that final demo; but the web offers instant information. However, they will surely realise the book was written before the restraint and death of George Floyd and the subsequent impact through Black Lives Matter. They might also think Rashad’s experience was not so different from the frequently reported instances of Stop & Search on the streets of South London and elsewhere.