“Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.” — James Baldwin
Growing up in the ’90s, writer Jason Reynolds didn’t have books that reflected his experience as a young Black boy. “And so reading just wasn’t my jam,” he says. Today, he’s the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and has published over a dozen works for young adult readers, including a recent collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.
Reynolds writes for young people like him, who found the books around them boring or difficult to connect with. As he says on his website, “If you are reading this, and you happen to be one of these boys, first of all, you're reading this so my master plan is already working (muahahahahahaha) and second of all, know that I feel you. I REALLY do. Because even though I'm a writer, I hate reading boring books too.”
As he shares in this week’s On Being, his writing is ultimately about accompaniment and empowerment. “For as long as I am on this plane and as long as I am doing this work, my role will always be to figure out how to create fortitude in the minds and bodies and spirits of young people,” he says.
In their conversation, Krista asks him: What is our work to accompany young people toward fortitude, “so they can grow into the fullness of their imaginations and their power?” I loved this question and all the wisdom Reynolds offered in response:
Listen to young people, even if you don’t understand their culture. “A world where young people are not irreverent is not a world for me, because it is a world that is not growing,” Reynolds says. While older people sometimes think their job is simply to step out of the way, he says it’s more helpful to listen and learn. “We say that young people are so entitled, yet I don’t know a group of people more entitled than adults and older people. We really believe that we deserve their respect, simply because we have years on them, and the truth is that respect must be earned. And I think what they’re saying is, ‘Please, make a seat for me at the table. You can’t talk about my life and not include me.’”
When things get difficult, offer your presence and perspective. Reynolds is attentive to when a young person in his life is feeling hurt or broken. “It’s my job to step in and say, ‘Let’s process what has happened. Let’s figure out where the failure is. Let’s figure out how to grow from it, how to get strong, and then we need to get back out into the street.’ That’s the role of the elders right now, not ‘Follow me,’ not ‘This is the way I did it,’ not ‘You guys are doing it wrong,’ ... That doesn’t work.”
Value the empathy Gen Z and millennials bring. As Reynolds says, younger generations are often criticized for being too empathetic, as if that’s a bad thing. “All of us who tease them and ridicule them — because they have somehow made our lives a bit more complicated and uncomfortable, because now we have to watch what we say, we have to be careful of — think about that. We have to be careful about making other people feel small, and we’re upset about it. We will have egg on our faces 20 years from now, because what they’re saying is, ‘We are trying to make an equitable world. We want to make a world where everyone feels safe and free.’ And we ridicule them for it. So strange.”
What questions are you holding for other generations? We’d love to hear about your experiences with intergenerational friendship at [email protected].
Editor, The On Being Project
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The writer on the “libraries” inside our bodies; “breathlaughter”; and why racism is the greatest hoax ever played on humans.
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Recommended Listening and Reading
Watch | Jason Reynolds reads an excerpt from “Long Way Down”
This week’s guest shares the opening of his 2017 book about a 15 year-old boy.
Read | “Two Rules for My Daughter’s Library” by Mia Birdsong
A mother on the books that are helping her to raise a Black daughter who “believe[s] herself beautiful, capable, and deserving.”
Listen | “How can we help young people feel like they have a voice in the world?”
In a Living the Questions episode, Krista muses on nurturing the voice and agency of young citizens — and the importance of fostering intergenerational friendships.
Listen | “The Evolutionary Power of Children and Teenagers” with Alison Gopnik
The cognitive scientist on how children and teenagers shape the growth and creativity of societies.
Aspen Ideas Festival
July 2, 2020
In conversation with Lulu Miller
Krista will be speaking with a friend of the podcast, Lulu Miller. She’s the co-founder of the NPR program Invisibilia and author of the new book Why Fish Don’t Exist.