Comparing Narratives of White-Administered Police Brutality Against Black Adolescent Males in Contemporary American Young Adult Fiction

RTB DISSERTATION SUMMARY BY ASHLEY Fontaine

Introduction

In an analysis of the current state of literature in The News & Observer, Susie Wilde asserts that in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, the literary world has faced a “‘wake-up call’” (Wilde 2019), and this statement is particularly true of contemporary American young adult (YA) fiction. Following the recent surge in media coverage of White-administered police brutality against Black people in the United States – the injustice that sparked the aforementioned socio-political hashtag-turned-movement, many young adult novelists have turned to fiction as a form of activism; using literature to raise awareness of the epidemic amongst America’s younger generation.

Commenting on the harsh reality of this state-sanctioned, racially-motivated violence in a conference titled “Policing the Black Man”, Angela J. Davis states that Black adolescent males are the primary victims: Black boys are particularly subject to excessively brutal over-policing by White officers: they are “more likely to be referred to the criminal, to
the juvenile ‘justice’ system than any other children” in America (Open Society Foundations 2017). This statistic served as the main inspiration behind my dissertation’s focus on the effects of over-policing on the Black American teenage boy – specifically that which is depicted in contemporary American YA fiction. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (2015) is
known for starting the conversation; the debut novel discusses the White-administered police killing of a young Black man from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old Black girl.

However, as I argued in my dissertation, the especially pioneering texts are All American Boys (2015), Dear Martin (2017) and Tyler Johnson Was Here (2018), as their narratives all explore White-administered police brutality, racial profiling and social injustice from the perspective of the Black adolescent male victims themselves. These works are, therefore, significant as they enable the victims to have a voice. In spite of this common point of view, I posited that the most striking aspect of these novels is the differences between their narratives and the multiplicity that this creates; each one possesses their own distinct qualities, making them individual stories in their own right despite their shared themes.

In accordance with Deborah Stevenson in a review of Tyler Johnson Was Here and its two like-minded predecessors, these texts are ultimately “a saddening reminder that [the narrative of White-administered police brutality against Black American adolescent males] is far more than a single story” (Stevenson 2018). This concept formed the crux of my dissertation, which aimed to highlight the fact that there is not a single universal tale of White-administered police brutality against Black American adolescent males.

Structure of the Dissertation

In Part One: The Main Event: An Incident of Excessive, Physical White(police officer)-on-Black(adolescent male)-Violence, I examined and compared how each text explores their main event – i.e. an incident of excessive, physical White(police officer)-on-Black(adolescent male) violence, in which I paid particular attention to their distinctive narrative styles and imagery of physical abuse and pain.

In Part Two: The Backstory: “To be (seen) or not to be (seen)”: The White Gaze and the Metaphor of Black Invisibility, I compared and contrasted how each text explores the metaphor of Black male invisibility and the complexities of identity this introduces. Ralph Ellison’s seminal work Invisible Man (2011) – namely the opening of the Prologue – acted as a key framework for this exploration, as all three texts essentially signify upon it in their own, unique way.

Context

Socio-political sources were used to support my dissertation’s analysis and overall argument, as the three texts are essentially “where fiction and reality collide” (Alter 2017). According to the authors, each novel was written in response to a real-life U.S.-based incident of White-administered police brutality against a Black adolescent male. In this case,
I argued that the trio of works can be seen to fit into the social realist (YA) fiction genre. Although a complex category to define due to a long-standing debate about how far “realistic” fictional literature really represents “reality”, my dissertation followed a definition that is inspired by a discussion Karen Coats has in a chapter on “Social Realist
Fiction” in The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature: social realist fiction can be defined as those stories where the plotlines and issues explored are all possible; stories that depict “characters and situations that strike us […] as imitative of the world we see around us every day” (Coats 2018).

My Conclusion

Each novel depicts both the violent and, just as grave, non-violent effects of White-administered over-policing on Black adolescent males, but they do so in a distinctly different light, and it is this which makes each text’s narrative of excessive and racially motivated police brutality distinct; the three novel’s present a collection of varied, individual stories in their own right. In collectively highlighting these dissimilarities, All American Boys, Dear Martin and Tyler Johnson Was Here importantly acknowledge, rather than erase, the individuality of these experiences and stories of injustice.

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