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Let It Bang

A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey into Guns

by RJ Young

Let It Bang by RJ Young X
Let It Bang by RJ Young
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  • Published:
    Oct 2018, 192 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Valerie Morales
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About this Book



R.J. Young fell in love twice - first with an Oklahoman named Lizzie and then with the guns her family cherished.

Every interracial love story is an exercise in complications. R.J. Young and Lizzie Stafford's love affair was anchored by the Second Amendment, and gun ownership, gun patriotism and racial triggers intersects at the perfect middle in Young's absorbing confessional, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey With Guns. But as a history lesson, the memoir also normalizes an unconventional love.

Only 2% of Oklahoma marriages have black/white couplings. Young, a reflective and searingly honest writer who interprets the world around him with quiet ease, spends little time justifying or defending his interracial choice, almost as if it is a non-sequitur. Given the scope of his confession, it feels awkward that he spends little time on his marriage, particularly as he continually judges himself and the white community he is suddenly surrounded by. But the love story's moral arc is funneled through the man who would become R.J.'s father-in-law, Charles Stafford. Stafford's impact on Young is similar to a hero whose footsteps you wish you could match. The first time Charles and R.J. meet, Charles hands him a revolver. It is a quandry: what R.J. fears lining up a little too closely with what he desires.

I don't think he knew what it meant to hand me, a young black man, a revolver that Dirty Harry would be scared of. Once the feeling of fright dimmed, the absurdity of this hit me. To show me what a down brotha he was, the man wanted me to hold a pistol.

Writing about Lizzie as a fixture in his life and her father as his mentor skews slightly when Young explores his family of origin. His own father, so different from Charles, warned him about the police, to be afraid of them en masse. His grandmother was an activist in Mississippi, a cohort of the admired Fannie Lou Hamer and an executive secretary for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Emotionless, Young weaves the binary tale of blacks and murder. 2,911 African Americans were lynched between 1890 and 1965.

The way R.J. Young writes his own story, which is to say the way he sees himself from a distance, paints him as the acceptable man of color, the exception. He is smart and reflective and has humor. He speaks and behaves in a manner white men don't find offensive, no racialized or angry clichés or hidden meanings. But symptomatic of being black in America, R.J. is angry. It is an anger whose intensity he tries to hide within his newfound gun infatuation. He compartmentalizes his racial trauma while trying to appear conforming and friendly. He is constantly, putting on and then taking off a mask. R.J. is uncomfortable in majority white spaces. He feels like an outsider rather than a surrogate for gun rights. But when he holds the Glock in his hand something in him is redeemed. It's less about guns being an equalizer and more about their seductive power. The Glock has such an umbilical hold, he spends an inordinate amount of time trying to load the bullets. Intuitively, you can almost feel the sweat dripping down his face as he becomes frustrated trying to shoot, not sideways like the stereotypical gangbanger in the late night flick, but shooting straight and hitting the target. It becomes his obsession.

In order to learn how to shoot better, he takes private lessons. Like a faucet dripping water one milliliter at a time, R.J. becomes immersed in gun culture norms. He wants us to know the difference between squeezing the trigger and pulling the trigger. He defines marksmanship and separates it from defensive shooting. He gives a primer for the uninitiated. But, frankly, it still leaves a question as to the why of guns? Why? Almost in a vacuum, R.J. mingles with Oklahomans at gun shows and within the NRA and is sensitized to white fear, not as a vulnerability but as insecurity and a racial fugue. The rhetoric disturbs him in the same way the election of Donald Trump disturbs him, as if he is constantly being asked to explain his line in the sand, which of course, nullifies his own black existence. Whites are afraid of black violence. Blacks are afraid of black violence. But white fear is fetishized and black fear is patronized.

There is a heartbreaking story R.J. recounts of being in a movie theater with his new wife Lizzie and being racially profiled by a sheriff before being allowed to take his seat. It's not particularly grotesque in its aesthetics, just ordinary run of the mill police harassment. But so extraordinary was the humiliation after so much time being in the company of, and, being coveted by, white faces, R.J. couldn't even sit in the theater.

This was not the first time the world had treated me and Lizzie differently. Perhaps if it was just the outside world and not her family too, my marriage would not have ended.

Nearing the end of his intensely personal story, his marriage woes feel like a parable, almost a warning to others who cross racial boundaries and chant the trope that love sees no color. Look, he seems to say. Look at what love does to you. It is reductive, like water erasing rock.Similarly, his affection and then gradual disinterest in the Glock he once adored feels like a cautionary tale. Love slips away. You better catch it before it disappears.

What Young has penned will disappoint many. It is not a partisan story about his own comeuppance in a white world. It is not a book preaching to Democrats or castigating Republicans about their gun porn. It doesn't wave the banner of Black Lives Matter as a matter of conscience. It refuses to drown the 2nd Amendment in moral snobbery nor does it let the liberal gun haters have the last word. It doesn't say much about interracial marriage other than the fact that R.J. had one. Simply, his story is about a negotiation. He loved a woman whose family fetishized and cherished guns. He tried to love guns for her sake and his. For a short time, the love affair with guns and Lizzie took hold of his heart and rendered ecstasy. And then he had to look in the mirror. He was still a black man in America.

Reviewed by Valerie Morales

This review is from the Let It Bang. It first ran in the October 31, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Liberals Love Guns Too

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