The Man of the Hour: Jason Reynolds


May 16, 2022

The House Magazine


© Tony Powell. The House Magazine May 2022 Jason Reynolds Cover Feature. April 5, 2022

As a journalist, I have to admit it was hard to play it cool when faced with the prospect of interviewing Jason Reynolds. A writer of his caliber, arguably the voice of a generation, who am I to tell even part of his story? New York Times best-selling author, National Book Award Finalist, and NAACP Image Award winner are only a few of the titles of which he can boast. But sitting down to speak with Jason was surprisingly easy; simultaneously like talking to an old friend and watching an elite athlete perform the most difficult feats with a grace and ease found only in the mastery of one’s craft. And Jason’s craft is words, in all forms. Hearing him speak was like listening to a yet unwritten poem. The meter and rhythm to his words, deliberately chosen, as an artist chooses a paint color, carried our conversation to topics I could not have foreseen; topics that we as a society must tackle, though they are heavy. Issues that we cannot solve until we have put language to them. Not only is Jason unafraid to look at the difficult parts of life and society, but he is also brave enough to admit that he does not have a solution to these problems, other than continuing his work. 

Throughout history, we have looked to the great thinkers of our time in order to solve these problems, but Jason, instead of solving these problems for us, sheds light on problems we did not know previously existed, gives voice to those who previously felt voiceless, and meets us where we are at to solve these problems together. As he says, “I hear you, you’re not a voiceless person. There’s no such thing as a voiceless child.” Every one of us has a story to tell, and Jason’s profound ability to put words to not only his own story, but also the story of those around him, and to push them to new limits simply by expressing himself, is unlike any I’ve seen before. 

© Tony Powell. The House Magazine May 2022 Jason Reynolds Cover Feature. April 5, 2022

For those who have gotten this far and asked, “Who’s Jason Reynolds?”: According to the writer himself,  “I’m just a dude from outside Washington, D.C., who, wherever there is language and narrative, I can make it go. I can use this particular skill set to create story, because I truly believe that story is the most human thing that we all have to offer. That’s me in a nutshell.” The variety and breadth of his work is impressive, especially when you consider that, according to Jason, “[he] didn’t read until [he] was 17.” Some may know him from Miles Morales: Spider-Man, All American Boys, or more recently, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You with Ibram X. Kendi. When asked what his favorite style is to write he claimed, “I can’t do that. Only because I think that every piece of writing calls for what it calls for. I don’t really think about it as ‘what do I love the most?’ or ‘what’s my favorite style?’ I think about it like, ‘what’s the story?’ It’s not about the style, it’s just about my obsession with storytelling. That’s really my jam.” The most important thing to Jason is not the writing style but that he “not write boring books,” because “books were symbols of work, symbols of slog, symbols of boredom, they just didn’t represent excitement to me as a child … How do I change the way young people think about what books are? If that means cracking jokes, if that means putting the interesting part at the beginning, whatever that means, I’m willing to do that if it shifts the perception around reading. I’m far more concerned with them being literate than them being ‘well read.’”

Being the first Men’s Issue cover star, it is important, even in this day and age, to understand what manhood and masculinity mean to Jason. “It changes by the day. I ask myself this all the time and the truth is, I’m not even quite sure that I care much about masculinity as it pertains to what I think about it for myself, as opposed to what I think about it in the world. I don’t really think about masculinity on a day-to-day basis mainly because I’m not sure I understand what it actually is; I just know how it functions in the greater society.” The self-awareness shown by Reynolds, coupled with his unique lens, brought up a perspective we do not often look at in society: “I think it is incumbent on me to be cognizant of my blind spots. To move through the world recognizing that my body can assault the space, especially if that space is shared by my woman counterpart. And to know deep, deep down inside, no matter how much I want to believe that I am a good person and a ‘good man,’ that the society that I was raised in has made it okay for me, even intrinsically, to be misogynistic. Even if I don’t believe I am. I think it’s dangerous to assume that misogyny does not live in my body. I don’t know if it’s possible, living and growing up in this particular country, for that to be the case. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to not have it in me. So, I have to be cognizant of that and be honest about that, no matter how painful it is to admit it, so that I can perhaps nip it and sort of deconstruct it before it becomes a harmful thing.” 

© Tony Powell. The House Magazine May 2022 Jason Reynolds Cover Feature. April 5, 2022

Speaking with Jason about his role in society, he clearly has an understanding of the complexities of masculinity and the effect it can have on others when asserted inaptly, and in the resulting debate of “toxic masculinity” versus “fragile masculinity,” he is able to put language to the most difficult question: How did we get here? How did we get to the point where we feel like men do not need the “softer skills” like vulnerability or empathy? “I don’t think that there is a singular thing. I think we’re looking for a catchall but I’m not sure there is one. I think that there’s lots of different context to consider. For instance, I think the one thing that we rarely talk about is the relationship between the triangulation of race, class, and gender. We talk about it in a certain way, we talk about the connection between race and class. We talk about the relationship between race and gender, but primarily as it pertains to black women. Black women are this underrepresented yet over-achieving group in certain ways. We talk about it that way, but we rarely talk about the relationship between race and gender as it pertains specifically to black men, and then contextualizing that around black men in America historically.” 

Jason was quick to point out the generational issues at play with regard to masculinity. To be able to step back from one’s own family and fully appreciate their lived experiences is a rare trait. To be able to articulate the story and the impact of those lived experiences is what separates Jason from the rest. “When we talk about my grandfather, unfortunately [he] could not be vulnerable because vulnerability could very well mean the safety of his family. If he were afraid, if he expressed fear, his life was in danger, and his wife and three daughters’ lives could very well be in danger, his land could be in danger. So, what am I to say about a man who unfortunately had to harden himself so that his family had a fair shot, and then he couldn’t turn it off? He couldn’t pull it back, that’s complicated.” 

© Tony Powell. The House Magazine May 2022 Jason Reynolds Cover Feature. April 5, 2022

“They [rap artists] were bucking a particular system and making a new sound, a new thing, with sounds that already existed. We’re talking about people who were using existing records to create a new music – sacrificing the physical integrity of the record to create a new music. Breaking things down in order to rebuild a new thing is something I think about often. It’s a valuable thing to think about for my own work.”

It is when Jason speaks of his family and the legacy they have left, that his tone becomes song-like, reminiscent of the eighties and nineties rap he was so inspired by as a teen. His description of being “a writer that was born of the hip hop generation” is never more apparent than when he’s sharing stories of his family, as his words pick up a rhythm. “I think everything inspired me back then with rap music. I think the rebellious nature of it, first and foremost; that they were pushing back against the status quo. They were bucking a particular system and making a new sound, a new thing, with sounds that already existed. We’re talking about people who were using existing records to create a new music – sacrificing the physical integrity of the record to create a new music. Breaking things down in order to rebuild a new thing is something I think about often. It’s a valuable thing to think about for my own work. The other thing is the dexterity of language. These are people who understood how to bend language, how to make it work in a very different way. They didn’t look at language as the thing that controls them or as being rigid. They saw it as a fluid thing that could be bent the way they wanted it to be. They were storytellers.” 

When Paul Simon said, “I have my books and my poetry to protect me,” he meant for listeners to relate to the sense of protection from loneliness and isolation that books and poetry provided. What’s different between Simon and Garfunkel’s understanding of books and poetry and Jason Reynold’s understanding, is that Jason’s writing provides not only protection but a bridge. “I’m just a dude who’s obsessed with using story as a way to illuminate those of us who don’t get as much light, and hopefully build bridges for those of us who feel like we’re farther apart than we actually are.” 

As Jason and I wrapped up our time together, I told him a short story of my own: that every time I saw a blue jay, it was a symbol from the Universe that I’m loved. We had just been discussing his simple yet profound practice of telling his male friends that he loves them. “I like to look them in the face and just say ‘I love you,’ and then I watch them get uncomfortable … I like to watch them get uncomfortable and show them it’s okay for me to tell you that I love you without adding any qualifiers. There shouldn’t be any discomfort around me expressing my love for my brother. It’s an amazing thing and it’s liberating once you get over it. It’s a liberating thing to be like ‘Nothing’s gonna happen to you, this is not a dangerous thing, this is not dangerous.’” 

Honest and without pretense was how Jason described rap music. It’s also how I’ll choose to describe his storytelling. Jason’s work bears witness to our lives in a way that is as unpretentious as it is relatable. This jack-of-all-writing-styles shows he can be a master of them all. For the man who set out to “not write boring books,” he has certainly hit the mark time and again. Being more concerned with the literacy of children than whether they’re “well read” has opened Reynolds up to exploring the full depth of his creative expression. “I’ve got a new podcast that comes out this summer with me and my mom, which is cool, called My Mother Made Me on Radiotopia. That’s happening in a couple of weeks. I’ve got the second Stuntboy book coming out at the end of the year, another Miles Morales: Spider-Man book comes out next year. There’s an adult novel coming out next year. There’s a picture book coming out later this year. I’ve got a TV show coming out –” “How do you keep it all straight?!” I asked. Jason touched on the importance of taking refuge in a place where he could focus on the work that needed to be done and be in nature. Amid all that important work and travel, Jason stays focused on what’s important, “I’m providing young people with opportunities to feel fortified and whole as they continue to grow into their adult selves … Perhaps they grow up a bit more empathetic. They’ll grow up with a firm grasp of language and creativity and imagination. The kids who are coming from a particular community, especially black and brown kids, would be able to say that they were raised on stories they could see themselves in and therefore, they knew they existed in the world and had a place in the world and that their narratives were not just fodder, but were actually valuable, world-changing things.” Though the awards and accolades will continue, Jason mentioned that his hope was that one day kids will say, “Jason Reynolds came to my school and when we saw him, we realized that he was one of us. He was just like us. He talked to us like human beings, not like half-formed things.” One of us.