We cannot be what we cannot see. – Jason Reynolds, New York Times best-selling author

What would be your first purchase if you signed a major book deal at 21 years old? New York Times best-selling author Jason Reynolds remembers spending his first check for When I Was the Greatest on every pair of Jordans in a size 12, treating his closest friends to Red Lobster dinners, and paying all of his mom’s bills—only to discover he had exhausted a check in 2 weeks that was supposed to last him 2 years. Working every odd job to make ends meet (including hustling his own book) and even losing his home, Reynolds continued to find redemption in writing, stating, to the juveniles of Free Minds DC Jail Book Club, “the most expensive and valuable thing you own is your story.”

On Tuesday, August 14, Free Minds had the pleasure of hosting author Jason Reynolds at the DC Jail to meet, speak with, and inspire the juveniles of the Jail Book Club. The Jail Book Club is just one of Free Minds’ three programs uniquely tailored to empower boys and young men of color who are critically disadvantaged from the effects of mass incarceration, racial-economic disparity, and racism. Visiting the DC jail on a weekly basis, Free Minds actively engages the 16- and 17-year-old members, all charged as adults, in reading, book club discussions, creative writing exercises, and author visits. Having already read Reynolds’s Long Way Down and When I Was the Greatest, members highly anticipated his visit. 

Jason Reynolds stands outside the DC jail holding copies of his books Long Way Down and When I Was the Greatest

Jason Reynolds outside the DC Jail

Gathered in a tight circle, in the center of the Correctional Treatment Facility’s chapel, sat the young members of the Free Minds Jail Book Club, Free Minds staff, and special guest author Jason Reynolds. The young men were eager to welcome Jason Reynolds and discuss his books and his career.

Reynolds reminisced about his childhood as a Southeast DC native having to mentally unravel the poverty, HIV/AIDS breakouts, and crack epidemic infiltrating and tearing DC apart during the 80’s and 90’s, noting “what’s going on now [in DC] went on back then.” Completely captivated by his story, everyone listened as Reynolds explained how he had a late start to reading. Vividly describing a book assigned to him in grade school about a whale and boat (Moby Dick), he remembered feeling a strong disconnect: “Often, we say books are ‘boring’ because we have no connection to them. How can you assign books about whales and boats, when I have never seen either? I wanted to read books on Space Jams, the carryout, ice cream trucks, and go-go bands.” Space Jams, the carryout, and go-go bands—the heartbeat of DC culture—yet no books reflected them or the lifestyles he and his peers lived.

For Reynolds, his love for writing emerged out of the evolution of rap/hip hop and listening to legends like Queen Latifah, Nas, and Rakim who were sound voices of urban neighborhoods and the black struggle. A self-proclaimed “mediocre student,” Reynolds saw rap as his “way out,” especially when he began writing poems. “The first 10 things I ever wrote were poems to be read at the funerals of family members who had just passed. Then, I realized, there is power in the word; and there is power in language. I was hooked. It was game over.” Jason admits he did not read a book all the way through until he was nearly 18 years old after his college professor recommended reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy due to Reynolds repeatedly failing an English course.

Posed with the question “I want to write a book and share my story; how do I get started?” by Free Minds member Javon, Jason described traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, and finding success as a writer. Reiterating the importance of representation and telling your story, Reynolds explained to the group that there are other ways to make an honest living besides sports or music: “We cannot be what we cannot see.”

Reynolds also shared that Long Way Down, a story about 15-year-old Will who is haunted by the “ghosts of gun violence” after wanting to seek revenge on his brother Shawn’s murderer, is his favorite book that he has written. “I wrote this book speaking to my 16- and 17-year-old self. The code of the street is ‘don’t snitch, don’t cry, and seek revenge,’ but that’s killing us. Why are we angry? Why violence? No one ever tells us what to do with the pain.”

At the end of the session, Free Minds member Javon declared that he wants to be a writer, and asked for a new notebook so he can begin writing his novel. We cannot wait to see what else our members have in store.

Thank you so much, Jason. Your words and insightfulness were so profound. It was so moving to witness these young men engage and become wholly inspired to share their stories!

Thank you as well to the DC Department of Corrections for making this possible.

Jason Reynolds with Free Minds staff

Jason Reynolds (fourth from left) with Free Minds staff outside the DC Jail

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