AAMBC Award Nominee: Jason Reynolds, on Tupac, Langston Hughes, and Being Unapologetically Black

Jason Reynolds keeps readers captivated with stories that capture the African American experience. He does it with a subtle elegance that has taken the literary community by storm.

Along with an entertaining humor and wisdom that readers crave, his novels are bursting with love for his characters and his community.

Jason’s talent for storytelling has earned him honors from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, the NAACP Image Award, and the Edgar Award. Jason has been a National Book Award finalist and he is nominated for two AAMBC Literary Awards. Journalist, J.D. Myall talks to Jason about his love of hip hop, the black community, and what it means to be recognized.

You have compared Tupac to Langston Hughes. How are they similar?

Langston Hughes told a lot of stories about people in bars. {During the era that Hughes lived in} that was thug life. He loved his people and his community like Tupac did. Langston wrote Mother to Son. That mother was basically saying, ‘Son life has been hard but we are here and it’s okay’. Tupac wrote Dear Mama. It was almost like a generational response to that poem. Tupac is basically saying, ‘Life has not been easy but we are here… and I’m happy and I love you. I’m proud that you carried me up a staircase that wasn’t crystal.’ Art is a continuum. It’s generational and traditional. You can see those ties with other hip hop artist, too. Take the Sick Rick song, Hey Young World. If you look through Langston Hues poems there are tons of poems that basically tell young people that the world… despite its hatred for you… is yours. There is something about that we should pay attention to. We are all walking and working in tradition even when we don’t know it.

If you were teaching a class that taught hip hop as poetry name four rappers whose lyrics would be required reading.

Rakim, Slick Rick, Lauren Hill and Kendrick Lamar

If you were the subject of a comparative literature class who would you like to be compared to?

Maybe students could compare my work to Langston Hughes. Also, {they could compare} me and August Wilson’s plays like Fences. All I am trying to do is what they did and give you a slice of life. To take the concept and the idea of Black humanity and write stories of Black humanity. I think Langston did it, August did it, and I think tons of people have done it. I want to show us beautiful, ugly, and fully human. I just want to continue to humanize us as they did.

You have said that hip hop saved you. Explain the significance that hip hop had on your life as a child.

The music and the people were representatives like avatars of myself. They were imposed figures of my own psyche. It was dope to be able to see people who looked like me and talked like me. Their stories were more connected to my own stories and my own family. It was the same thing that soul music did for the seventies and the sixties. Representational music. This is our truth and that truth is valuable. It made me feel comfortable in my skin. It made me feel like who I was and the way my family was… was okay. How I spoke was okay, more than okay. It’s rooted in a historic tradition. I think we are fortified and hip hop music reminds me of that fortification.

You have been nominated for two AAMBC Literary Awards, what do these awards and accolades mean to you?

None of it is a jolt to my ego. When I get an award like this, or the Coretta Scott King awards… and other awards coming from Black people it ain’t a pat on the back. To me it’s like they are saying, “Okay young man, we see you and what you did… now you have a responsibility to uphold this. We want to see what you’re gonna give us next.” To me it’s like they acknowledge what you’re doing… and let you know to stay on your game because there is more work to be done. What would I look like winning an award given to me by Black people and then disappearing? They give you awards to put more eyes on you and more visibility on your work. They want you to carry the torch and continue, not snuff the torch out with your ego. That’s the way I look at all the awards.

The AAMBC Awards was started to honor black authors and creatives. Why do you think platforms like this are still necessary?

I think that the literary industry, the entertainment industry, and all arts industries on a whole are grossly white. So, the beauty of black and brown coding can be misconstrued or undervalued. We could be making beautiful things but if you don’t know what our beauty looks like you may not be able to tell. Like Picasso makes these paintings… and years later gives credit to the artist he ripped off in Africa. But if an African artist made those paintings they would have been called crude. We have been making dope stuff for a long, long time but it doesn’t always translate to the white ear. If you don’t know how to calibrate the art… If you don’t how to judge it within the framework it is given, how would black artists not slip through the cracks when your entire judging panel is white?

Does acknowledgment from your own community feel different than acknowledgement from the mainstream?

Yes, it feels different. I won’t say better or worse. When I am acknowledged by my Mama, for example, it feels like it’s coming from a place of pure love. I know that my Mama is harder on me than anyone else and her expectations are higher. She is like you earned this, but if it was whack we won’t celebrate it. Mama will hold my feet to the fire, lovingly, and push me to be my best. It’s like a hug. When I get acknowledged by the mainstream it feels like a pat on the back. There is a big difference between a hug and a pat on the back, but both are welcomed.

No one lives forever. When your time on earth has passed what do you hope will be your legacy and how would you like to be remembered?

I want to be remembered as someone who was unapologetically Black. Someone who loved his family, his people and his community. From the jump I want it known that he worked very hard to push them to the front in this medium… so the world could take note that his family and the children in his community were human beings. That he laid it all on the line. He worked his butt off to create a new frontier for literature… for the new frontier of childhood. I want them to think the way he did it made it feel like magic… made it seem easy… even when it was a lot of hard work.

How can people connect with you?

On my website http://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/ or on twitter @JasonReynolds83

Thanks, Jason. You’re carrying the torch well and building a legacy of excellence. Keep winning awards and writing your way into history.

Buy Jason’s Books on Amazon or at your local Barnes & Nobel.

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J.D. Myall

J.D. Myall

Author, Writer’s Digest & Huffington Post Contributor, Literary Lunatic, Pop Culture Fan-girl. Lover of all things chocolate or sparkly. jdmyall@gmail.com