publication date: 2014
How It Went Down, a topical recent book by NAACP-award nominee Kekla Magoon, examines what happens to a black community when a young person is shot by a white man.
How It Went Down began with sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson, recently shot, bleeding on the sidewalk. His shooter, Jack Franklin, was soon apprehended but was released on a theory of self-defense. The facts surrounding the shooting quickly became muddled and contested. Was Tariq causing trouble? Was he carrying a gun? Was he a good kid trying to make his way through the neighborhood, or was he a colors-flying, drug-selling gang member? Does it really matter?
The book explored the shooting and its aftermath from many different, and sometimes conflicting, points of view. By presenting varying narrators, Magoon showed that we probably can never know exactly what happened in incidents that were a lightning rod for a community.
Magoon sprinkled the book with poetic and intriguing descriptions of the lives of her characters. An example is this passage by Tariq’s mother, Redeema:
Cops got a special way of knocking at the door. With the meat of the fist. Sets the whole wall a-shaking.
Next thing that comes – it ain’t never good news.
I also liked this description by Jennica, a server at a local diner, who changed her nametag to read Jen because:
People always wanted to strike up conversation about it. Oh, that’s pretty, and so forth. Especially some of the jerks who come in and think I’m into them because I smile and bring them food. Like they don’t even get that it’s my job; they think I’m doing it for fun or something, like I’m doing something special just for them.
Because the main action in the book, Tariq’s fatal shooting, happened before the book even began, Magoon spent time establishing side characters and their lives and peculiarities. She introduced love stories, night wanderings, and gang politics. Most of these were soggy and uninteresting. They were also scattered and random, which meant I didn’t really care about what was happening to them. Relatedly, none of the characters were fully-developed or deep enough, except maybe the one character the reader didn’t get to hear from, Tariq.
In How It Went Down, Magoon presented a need examination of her devastating topic, but it wasn’t as powerful or compelling as it might have been in more capable hands.
4/6: worth reading