East Bay libraries host national award-winning
author Jason Reynolds
By Lou Fancher
People of all ages and every race could benefit from awareness of Jasons and Eddies in the world.
Hearing more life stories like that of writer Jason Reynolds and Olympic Champion-turned-youth-activist Eddie Hart might dispel the “only angry” myths about teenagers or the “mostly less-academic” stereotypes about black men in America. Even more importantly, if there was attention paid to the way in which Brooklyn-Based Reynolds and Pittsburg native Hart attune themselves to young people, why, who knows the gains that could be made in literacy, mental and physical health, community involvement and other good things?
The Pittsburg and Bay Point libraries are hosting a March 7 visit by Reynolds. He’ll bring his improbable real life story as a kid who didn’t read a book until age 17 and went on to become an award-winning author to youth audiences at Contra Costa Juvenile Hall, Concord High School and Pittsburg High School. Reynolds won the 2016 NAACP Image Award. His YA novel, “Ghost,” about an African-American boy who escapes trauma and finds purpose by running on an elite track team was a National Book Award finalist.
Hart, meanwhile, positions himself as a debut author with the May 2017 release of his memoir, “Disqualified” (Kent State University Press), co-written with longtime Bay Area journalist and writer Dave Newhouse. Included in the book is Hart’s story of loss and recovery during and after the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. Favored to sweep the gold in the 100-meter dash, Hart arrived seconds late for a quarterfinal heat and was disqualified due to his coach’s error. But the larger story is of how he set aside ego and tears, competed in the 400-meter team relay (winning the gold medal) and today leads the Eddie Hart All In One Foundation. The nonprofit organization promotes youth education and physical health through clinics, workshops, fundraising events and other programs in the Bay Area.
Hart may join Reynolds at one of the local high school stops, but even if he doesn’t, there’ll be nothing that can stop the 67-year-old’s enthusiasm for working with kids. “I’m running around every day doing fundraisers, setting up fish fries, finding track coaches and uniforms,” he says. Hart still runs four to five miles each day. His busy schedule includes running the foundation and continuing to teach Sunday school at the family’s East Bay church—a post he’s held for 30 years. “I went crazy running yesterday. Ran seven miles. Unfortunately, I can’t get to the track to do starts and sprints, so I can’t compete now. but my long range goal is to compete again when I reach age 70.”
Hart’s determination to excel—repeatedly—he says comes from his parents and uncles. “They taught me the work ethic. I realized at an early age that if I was going to get anything, I was going to work for it.” Along the way to becoming an Olympic athlete, coaches added valuable lessons about diet, training, sleep, endurance, flexibility and all things necessary to be competitive. The nurturing served him well at what he calls his “premiere event,” the race in which he was disqualified.
When people ask him how he was able to resist hating his coach for destroying his dream of winning the 100, Hart says, “There are ways to respond and react to life experiences. I still feel good about the way I responded, forty years later. I didn’t play the blame game. It wouldn’t have benefitted me. I had another race to run and I wasn’t going to let three guys down, crying over spilt milk. Life happens. But I bawled in the shower after. I couldn’t hide or run from it: it was the number one news in the world at the time. The toughest part wasn’t about me: it was seeing the pain in other people’s eyes when I came home.”
Writing his story 40 years later, Hart has affirmed the choice he made to forgive and move on. He says kids in today’s “microwave, put it in for seconds and have it society” have learned not to trust adults through simple observation. “Youth are picking up on adults glamorizing wealth and power; getting as much as you can for as little as you can.”
Reynolds suggests that connecting to kids begins with listening. “What I’m hoping to learn from them is what I’m hoping to learn from every young person: how does the world look through your eyes? What are you thinking about? How do you feel? What do you want? And what do you need from me and adults to help you get there?”
To get kids to read, book jackets have to be cool, stimulating; like the bright yellow cover and black boy running on “Ghost,” or the rainbow-colored gun on “When I Was the Greatest.” Reading options help too: ESPN magazine, hip-hop blogs, rap lyrics, audiobooks. “We have to be more creative, we have to exercise more humility, we have to ask, then listen, then provide options (even if they make us uncomfortable) and then we have to be patient.”
The beauty of literature is it’s vastness, Reynolds says. The same could be said of the influence that a Jason or an Eddie can have on the world.