Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey Into Guns
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
RJ, a young black man, falls in love with Lizzie, a white woman he's training at the Oklahoma gym where he works. The first time RJ meets Lizzie's family as her boyfriend, he's hardly walked in the door when her father, Charles, hands him a revolver. RJ has never handled a gun and finds them terrifying. Lizzie grew up in a household where they were like furniture. There's a shotgun leaning by the door, and a pistol lying on the kitchen table. Come Christmastime, Charles plays Santa and buys himself an AR-15.
RJ is freaked out—but he's in love. Plus, he's estranged from his own parents and hungry for family connection. He wants to understand his prospective father-in-law, and this, it is clear, means he'll have to understand guns. He throws himself into the project, reading up on the history of gun ownership and gun rights advocacy in America, buying a gun of his own (multiple guns, eventually), and even training so extensively in their use that he becomes an National Rifle Association-certified pistol instructor.
If RJ Young's Let It Bang were a novel or a film, this set-up would almost certainly be too cheesy, an overly tidy parable of our tangled attitudes about guns, race, masculinity, and interracial sexual intimacy. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner ... at the Shooting Range. But Young, an Oklahoma journalist who writes mostly about sports, didn't imagine this story. He lived it. His new memoir grapples with what his gun odyssey meant, in relation to both his own life and our national conversation about deadly firepower. Between chapters of his personal saga, he includes historical and journalistic interludes meant to complement his journey. In one, he gives a potted backstory of the Glock (the first gun he buys); in another, he explores the 2015 creation of the National African-American Gun Association.
We need more books like this: personal, emotional meditations on gun ownership from all walks of American life. The last two decades have seen a bumper crop of important scholarship challenging old orthodoxies about guns and race. Among historians, it is well established that gun rights advocacy, for all its talk of shared constitutional rights, is historically linked to the interests and anxieties of white, male Americans above all others. Relatedly, it is widely understood that non-white gun owners are often written out of history, most glaringly the history of the 20th-century civil rights movement, in which guns played several vital roles. But only so many people read the latest scholarship. Personal stories aimed at a general audience stand a greater chance of filling in our cultural blind spots, showing us all the ways in which guns take on meaning for people, and what happens when those meanings collide.
When Young decides he's ready for his own pistol, Charles takes him to—where else?—a gun show. Once they arrive, the older man is excited to see what's new in the wide world of firearms. Young is, quite understandably, more than a little preoccupied: By the German SS trinkets for sale; by the crowd of white people clamoring for an up-close look at an authentic Nazi uniform; by the gun seller who, when Charles hands over his driver's license for a background check, waves it off, reassuring him that "Obama ain't gonna know."
At first, Young's bad with guns. His failures embarrass him—all the more so when Charles is watching. He resolves to improve, watching YouTube videos, logging hours at the shooting range, taking classes. Along the way, he repeatedly encounters white anxiety, sometimes masked as humor ("Ain't you supposed to be shooting a basketball?"), other times more explicit. "I know what you're doing," a white police officer says. "You're gonna teach them to shoot back."
Over time, Young gets better at shooting. He acquaints himself with the world of black gun owners who don't feel at home in the NRA. He and Lizzie get married. What is most effective about Let It Bang is the way these two strands—guns and love, ammo and family—intertwine. For Young, learning to shoot means entering into a tradition of deep importance to the family he's joining. He's pushing himself to perform on their terms, and daring them to welcome a black man into their weaponized fold.
It doesn't work out. First, Young just can't bring himself to embrace the idea that guns make people safe. On the contrary: As a black man, he feels that having a gun makes the police more likely to view him as a threat, and to respond with preemptive violence. Second, his marriage with Lizzie collapses. We don't hear much about why, but it's clear that Donald Trump's campaign for the presidency plays a role, opening subterranean fissures in the marriage. "I hate white people!" Young bellows one night. "But I'm white!" his wife reminds him, tears streaming down her face. It's a haunting, explosive moment, but it's almost all we get. The entire divorce—the dissolution of the project that drew Young into the world of guns in the first place—unfolds in just a few fast-moving pages. The only thing we learn about Charles' response is that he's mad enough to steal Young's change jar while helping Lizzie move out of the couple's apartment.
Given the idiosyncratic pace of book publishing, it's possible that Young had only a few months after the divorce to write about it. Or maybe he had plenty of time, and made the conscious decision to leave out the messy details. Whatever the explanation, the result is a book palpably marked by pain—a pain that is deeply relevant to its central theme, but that Young never examines fully.
This sense of incompleteness is oddly apt. So much of the American conversation about guns is about repression: about powerful emotions and ideologies that, instead of being articulated directly, are channeled into relationships with deadly machines. This is one reason, in addition to the NRA's relentless political effectiveness, that solutions to gun violence have proven so elusive. Talking honestly about guns means talking about the deep divisions structuring our shared national life and history. It's not easy. "You have to step into the fire with me," Young writes, explicitly addressing his white readers and encouraging them to think seriously about race, "...to feel that distress and pain and anguish."
A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest.