In the summer of 2020, amid an unending news cycle of fear and death, millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest the murders of not only George Floyd but also many other Black people by police officers. In Ain’t Burned All the Bright, award-winning author Jason Reynolds and artist Jason Griffin portray this claustrophobic spiral from the perspective of a young boy.
The book begins in medias res: “And I’m sitting here wondering why / my mother won’t change the channel,” the narrator says, “and why the news won’t / change the story.” In sections titled “Breath One,” “Breath Two” and “Breath Three,” the narrator’s seemingly mundane desire to change the channel transforms into fearful imaginings of his family being consumed by smoke, water or illness.
Reynolds’ words are spare, scattered in brief lines or, occasionally, single words filling an entire page in thick, powerful letters. The narrator shifts between the minutiae of everyday life, as when his “sister talks to her homegirl / through the screen of her phone,” and the things that complicate it: “and they talking about a protest.” On the opposite page appears the most carefully rendered image in the whole book, a detailed portrait of George Floyd.
Griffin’s diaristic collage art is the linchpin of the book. Dynamic and visceral, it is composed with paint, pencil and notebook paper, as well as with Reynolds’ text itself, which Griffin has printed and cut out in small strips of short phrases and placed into each spread. Griffin incorporates Reynolds’ stark but carefully chosen words into larger scenes of fires, floods, houses and skies, creating a surreal experience across the book’s more than 300 pages. He skillfully juxtaposes vast spaces of black and white with color and texture; canvas tape and speckled paint make images feel urgently three dimensional, while the blank spaces feel expansive. Many of the illustrations recall the densely saturated colors and silhouette figures of artist Kerry James Marshall.
In the book’s final pages, Griffin depicts a large leaf growing out of a pot, its delicate green reaching the top of the page. The image calls to mind a poem written by Ross Gay in the year after Eric Garner’s death. In “A Small Needful Fact,” Gay writes that Garner, whose final words were “I can’t breathe,” worked in horticulture for New York City’s Parks and Recreation Department, where he might have planted seedlings, which “continue / to do what such plants do . . . like making it easier / for us to breathe.” As it ends, Ain’t Burned All the Bright doesn’t offer any platitudes, and the narrator still wants to change the channel. But he does, despite everything, remember to breathe.