Race And Self-Protection In America: RJ Young's Memoir On Black Gun Ownership

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This Wednesday, June 29, 2016, photo shows guns on display at a gun store in Miami. (Alan Diaz/AP)
This Wednesday, June 29, 2016, photo shows guns on display at a gun store in Miami. (Alan Diaz/AP)

This show originally aired Oct. 23, 2018.

With Meghna Chakrabarti

African-Americans and gun ownership. In his new memoir, RJ Young writes about what he calls a “literal arms race … ramped up by racialized fear.”


RJ Young, author of "Let It Bang: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey Into Guns." (@RJ_Young)

Tiffany Ware, founder of the Brown Girls Project, which offers makeup workshops and other activities for building self-esteem in young black girls. Organizes firearms training classes for black women.

Douglas Jefferson, vice president of the National African American Gun Association, a network for all African-American firearm owners, gun clubs and outdoor enthusiasts. (@NAAGAGUNS1)

Interview Highlights

On his first time holding a gun

RJ Young: "The first time I held a gun my ex-father-in-law handed it to me. I really didn't have an interest in guns, knew them from TV, watched a lot of movies, listened to a lot of rap music. But they weren't really a part of my childhood and they weren't really a part of my adult life either. But this was the first gun that I held because it was presented to me. It was something that Charles was very proud of, and it was also presented to me in such a way that you might present a plaque or a trophy or an heirloom. I'm a huge football fan, so if I had a football that was autographed by Bob Stoops, Jason White, Sam Bradford, I would present it in much the same way. That's how it came off later, but at the moment, to me, it's still a gun. And I was kind of looking at Lizzie, looking at her mother, Nancy, and I was going, 'Is this regular?' But in that moment, you really don't ask questions. You take it, you look it over and you hand it back before it burns your hands."

On why Young reached the point when he decided he had to own a weapon

RY: "You can only ascertain from reading and from watching, but you will get into conversations, especially when you're approaching political topics or racial topics, about experience. And experience matters a great deal, and we know this. We do not appropriate other people's stories, and we do not speak from a position for which we have not earned. And this was a position that [Charles] had earned, knowing and being extremely knowledgeable and having experience with a firearm. I did not have it. I had not felt the weight of that in my hands, I had not felt it fire, I did not know what it meant to walk around with it on my person or to be in a position where I might have to use it. And that I feel is where a lot of people stop in their education about what gun ownership is."

"You can only ascertain from reading and from watching, but you will get into conversations, especially when you're approaching political topics or racial topics, about experience. And experience matters a great deal."

RJ Young on becoming a gun owner

On the Wanenmacher's Tulsa Arms Show that Charles took him to

RY: "It's not just guns. It's guns and guns-related. ... It is a very, very big deal. It is such a big deal that a parking lot that I had never seen full was not only full, you probably drove around 45 minutes trying to find a parking spot. And then you paid to get into the show. Knowing that this is a two-day event. Everybody's in here, it's packed to the gills. And then to look around and not see a whole lot of people that look like you. That is an experience that I still have a difficult time giving to folks who walk into rooms where they can see people that look like them, and, more often than not, believe what they believe as well. But in this place, I'm a black man — there were some black folks, but I don't recall them. I know that they were there. And I know that if I was not walking with Charles, that I would have been unable to just walk that place by myself."

On his father-in-law buying him a gun at the expo

RY: "Where I'm from, Oklahoma, guns are a way of life, and not always for the reasons that we might think or the reasons that we might read about. They are integral to the way that fathers get to know their sons. And, in some instances, when you're much younger, that father might buy you a .22 rifle so you can go hunt the rabbits, or the squirrels, or what have you. And this was him doing something fatherly for me, which was buying me my first gun.

"Glock 26. Call it a baby glock, fits in your pocket. I was interested in self-defense as much as any other part. Marksmanship came later. At that moment, we're talking about carrying. We're talking about firing a weapon, we're talking about understanding what lethal force is. We're talking about the mechanics of self-defense shooting, of defensive shooting, and we're talking about why some people had begun buying firearms, even as far back as 2011, 2012, and what that meant. Those were many of the conversations that I was having."

"What I come to find out is not only am I not safer, I'm in more danger if I have a gun on my person, if I have a gun within reach."

RJ Young

On learning to shoot

RY: "I got to a point in my journey that I wanted to answer one fundamental question that was presented to me over and over and over again as a truism. The truism was, 'A good guy with a gun is better than a bad guy with a gun.' And I put a question mark at the end of that statement and wanted to find out for myself if that was true. And thus began countless rounds and trips to the gun range to get good — really, really good. Like Master Yoda on Dagobah, this is how you use the force good."

On his takeaways from the journey into gun culture

RY: "A gun ain't gonna help me, man. ... If I have a 9 mm Glock 17 on my hip, that ain't going to be the kind of thing that makes people at home and at ease. And that has a lot to do with the way that I'm dressed and it also has a lot to do with my skin color, believe it or not. I know people don't necessarily want to believe that, but I still encounter rooms where I am not welcome. So I don't get to go around as if that doesn't matter, but I also don't get to go around as if a gun in a room is not bigger than any elephant you can walk in there. You're not going to have an open and honest conversation with someone if you know that they have a firearm because that is the threat of hurting you because they don't like what you have to say. And that's not correct and that's not right, but it's true. It is a fear. So, in the course of getting really good with a firearm, I'm also a journalist. And I'm asking questions, and I'm looking at data, and I'm looking at statistics, and I'm taking account of my own experience. And what I come to find out is not only am I not safer, I'm in more danger if I have a gun on my person, if I have a gun within reach."

From The Reading List

Excerpt from "Let It Bang" by RJ Young

When I first met Charles Stafford, it was simply in passing. I was at his house on a hill, one he could afford to have fenced, because my boss at the time, Mary, had invited me there to her son’s high school graduation party. Mary’s son had been a lifelong friend to Charles’s son. The two were graduating together and throwing a party to celebrate in a place called Coweta.

Coweta is a town in Wagoner County, Oklahoma. It’s the kind of place where the owner of a used-car lot thought he’d show his wit and charm by calling his business Shade Tree Cars and Trucks. It’s the kind of town where a Shade Tree mechanic will pull over to find out why your car is broken down, fix the problem, and send you on your way, asking nothing more in return than a well-placed handshake. In Coweta, the word shit has four syllables, and you can still get popped in the mouth for saying it. It’s also the kind of town where it’s perfectly normal not to invite a single black person to a party.

I drove from my apartment in Tulsa out into the sticks, into God’s Country, as I’ve heard it called, because Mary’s secretary had instructed me that it was “a big deal” to be invited to one of Mary’s family-related events. At the time, I was an intern for Mary at the University of Tulsa’s Collins Fitness Center. To decline would not have been a good look, and could’ve led to a piss-poor work environment. So, because I had to, I found the place, pulled up, and stepped out of my piece-of-shit Oldsmobile Alero.

I stayed just long enough for my first-ever encounter with Charles’s daughter, Lizzie. I could not avert my eyes from her. Lizzie wore a flowing lavender dress. Her hair was pulled back into a long, curly blonde ponytail that forced me to confront the ferocity and beauty of her features. She looked at me with the kind of contempt usually reserved for someone about to smash a puppy’s head in with a brick. It took me a few seconds to realize I was in her fucking seat. I moved. She smiled then, and sat down.

I tried to mingle among the faces that looked nothing like mine, but I couldn’t handle it. I found the nearest exit and left the place, which felt foreign and uncomfortable.

My story with Charles and Lizzie would’ve ended here if I had not egregiously failed an elective, a class called Philosophy of Art. That was the first falling domino that led me to Lizzie. As a student at the University of Tulsa, I worked as a mechanic at Pep Boys part-time and as a personal trainer when I could get clients. I ran the sixty meters, two hundred meters, and four hundred meters ​— ​all really fucking slowly ​— ​for the track team, and was a member of the co-ed cheerleading squad. You might find it funny that the little scholarship money I did receive came from cheerleading. Or, as I was fond of saying, throwing white girls in the air.

I’d signed up for the philosophy class to fulfill a requirement for my degree in exercise and sports science, but signing up was pretty much all I did. The loud thud of the F, when it landed on my up-till-then pretty damn good GPA, meant I was in danger of being placed on academic probation, while being still three hours short of the 124 hours I needed to finish my degree. And I had no money for summer school.

Yes, I’d slipped when I failed Philosophy of Art. I was tired and not much interested in what dead white men like Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel had to say about anything, let alone the meaning of life. And it had been only six months since a member of the financial aid department at TU looked me square in the eye while saying, “If you can’t afford to be here, then you shouldn’t be here.” This after carrying loans that surely will be hanging over my head long after global warming has become global scorched earth. So, I was overjoyed when Mary offered me a paying job at the fitness center through the summer.

Taking the job with Mary came with one caveat. She’d asked that I consent to work as a trainer with her friend’s daughter.

“Can I meet her first?” I said.

“You’ve met her.”

“I have? Who is she?”

“She’ll be here tomorrow. I expect you to be here too.”

When I showed up at work the next day, I saw Mary standing beside the woman who had told me with nothing more than a furrowed brow and a twitch of the nose that I was in her fucking seat. She was looking back at me.

The toughest part of working out with someone who doesn’t want to work out is finding something to talk about. But with Lizzie there was no talking. Well, there was, but it was decidedly one-sided and repetitive. I would ask a question, and she would either roll her eyes or raise her eyebrows. Rather than attempt an exercise I asked her to try, she would just stare. This went on for a few days, until I asked her if she would rather just walk the track. In response, she simply turned and began walking up the stairs to the second level of the facility, where the track was. Just being with me for an hour, in a place that looked built to torture her physically and emotionally, was horrible for Lizzie. She’d been overweight for most of her life and was somewhat resigned to that. I would try to empathize with her. But nobody wants to hear how the currently fit trainer was once a fat kid. Mary knew this about my background, and it was why she chose to bring Lizzie and me together. Even though it wasn’t working, I continued to try to relate to Lizzie.

This was our routine for about a week. Because after most of my sessions with Lizzie, I also trained Mary, along with Lizzie’s mother, Nancy, they’d ask how things were going with Lizzie, and I was fine with telling them. That is, until the day I lost my temper with Lizzie and, straight to her face, called her “kind of a bitch.” She didn’t speak to me after I said those words to her. She simply gave me the finger and walked away. I knew then that I would be fired.

Except I wasn’t.

Mary and Nancy told me that this white girl’s getting pissed off and flipping me the bird was a good thing. That I had elicited emotion from Lizzie, which was precisely what they’d hoped for when putting the black man who talked too much together with the white woman who talked little to not at all. No, they said, you’re doing a good job. I’ve never thought two white women crazier than I did that day. The next day Lizzie showed up, which was cause enough for celebration. But then she said something.

“It’s that you don’t read,” she said.


She did that furrowed-brow, nose-twitch thing again. “I don’t expect someone like you to read.”

“Someone like me?”

She gestured at my muscle shirt and shorts.

“Ah, I see,” I said. “So you’d be surprised if I said I like Shakespeare.”

She rolled her eyes. “No, you don’t.”

“ ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.’ ”

“Do it again,” she said.

That was the first time I saw her winged smile. The one that quivers and disappears all at once, like the wings of a hummingbird. This is how the formal courtship began ​— ​with talking. We talked throughout all of our sessions after that one. But soon that hour proved to be insufficient. We talked through text messages ​— ​about books, about politics, about each other. Lizzie became the person I wanted to speak with each morning and the person I wanted to speak with before bed that night. She was my best friend, and I was grateful to be hers. And then she’d smile at me, and I no longer wanted to be just her friend. I wanted to be her most intimate friend too ​— ​her husband. I loved her. I never expected that to change, and it hasn’t.

I eventually asked Lizzie to marry me. And she said yes. Because I loved Lizzie, I felt compelled to try to know her family. But by the first time Lizzie took me home to meet her parents, three months after we began dating, I knew just one thing about Charles, her father. The only thing he and I had in common was a mutual admiration for Lizzie.

Charles shook my hand the first time we formally met. Then he promptly left the room. Neither Lizzie nor Nancy found it alarming that he came back in with the biggest goddamn revolver I’d ever seen. They didn’t think it was weird that he would hand it to me either. I felt certain that I had landed in either Wes Craven’s rendition of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or the next film in the Saw franchise. I knew that in a horror movie, the black man usually dies first. I was waiting for one of the three white people in the room to tell me how most people are so ungrateful to be alive, or how they would’ve voted for Obama a third time ​— ​right before performing a lobotomy on me in the family den.

Charles pointed to the gun in my hand. “It’s a Judge.” I didn’t know what that meant, and 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 event hit me. To show me what a down brotha he was, the man wanted me to hold a pistol he could cross-load with .45 Long Colt and .410 shotgun shells?

As I got to know him, I would come to see this gesture as one of the Charles-est things ever. It was truly a display of friendship. But that day all I took in was how important firearms were to the man whose daughter I was dating. It was also my first clue as to how hard it was going to be to fit into his family.

After Charles placed that cartoonish revolver in my hands, I made several other forays into the wilderness of Lizzie’s family. The first came a year into our relationship, when she brought me, her boyfriend, home for Thanks‑

Nancy was smart enough to assume that her daughter and I might be sleeping in the same bed ​— ​which I would neither confirm nor deny. She told Lizzie it would be perfectly fine with both her and Charles if we chose to sleep in Lizzie’s bed. Two feet from her parents’ bedroom. Pass.

I think Nancy knew I would say no because she’d already turned down the bed in the guest room for me, and that’s where I slept that night. The next day I woke, and drove to the gym in town for a lift and a run. I came back to the house to find a set of Round House overalls, gray long johns, white socks, brown gloves, and a heavy brown Carhartt jacket, with a pair of work boots on the floor. I turned to look at Lizzie.

“I hope they fit,” she said.

I checked the tags and the size of the boots. They did. “But what do I need them for?”

At this Lizzie merely smiled and handed me a wool cap. “He’s waiting on you.”

“Waiting on ​—”

Charles burst into the room. “Come on, RJ. Get changed. We got work to do.”

Before I had the chance to ask what I was getting changed for, Lizzie and Charles left the room and closed the door. This left me with no option except to put on the clothes. Then I walked outside, and the biting wind hit me head on, making a cold day colder than Ice Cube’s No Vaseline. Lizzie’s younger brother, Jimmy, who would be my future brother-in-law, and Charles were waiting for me. They told me it was time to get in the truck. I could see my breath, and yet my hands were beginning to sweat inside the gloves. What on earth was I doing with these white men?

Charles drove up to the gate that separated the five acres his house was built on from the rest of his property. Jimmy stepped out of the truck and unlocked the padlock on the large green metal gate. He swung it wide, and Charles drove through. After Jimmy closed the gate, we drove up and over a hill. On the descent, I could make out what looked like a small orange metal corral connected to a blue metal chute. As we drew closer, another truck pulled up, and out popped two more men. The three of us stepped out of our truck, and I was introduced to Charles’s brother-in-law, Jay, and his son, Mikey, who lived on the hill just across the pasture. Through this introduction and the following conversation, I came to understand just what the hell we were doing out on a biting-cold, gray November day, when even the sun knew better than to come out and play. We were going to vaccinate cows.

But to vaccinate cows, you need cows. And to get the cows you need to round them up. So Mikey and Charles each jumped back into a truck and began herding cattle toward the corral. Soon those animals were milling about in the pen, sounding terrified. I was just standing there, feeling like an idiot. Jimmy held out two long black sticks, indicating I was supposed to pick one up. I noticed their ends looked different.

I cagily took one from his hands. “What’s this?”

“It’s a bull whip.”

“What do you have?”

He hit a button at the top of the stick’s grip, and a fierce wave of lightning flashed.

“An electric cattle prod?”

Jimmy’s face took on an Ain’t it cool? expression, and I started to do the only thing I could think of: use my phone to record what was happening. Outside my comfort zone, all but paralyzed by the absurdity of watching cows with horns being crammed into the pen. Of thinking how the smell of a newly pinched cow turd punishes your nose for simply performing its natural function, while Charles showed how impressed he was with the size of the heifer’s stool.

“Boy, they’re shitting good!”

He said it with ferocious pride, like a newborn’s father cooing through the glass at the hospital nursery. Of course, this is Charles’s livelihood. This is how he feeds his family; to him, cattle are an important commodity. But for me, this was all new. I was trying to survive this initiation into Lizzie’s family.

Mikey ushered each cow individually into the blue chute and into a neck brace. Then Charles and Jay took turns sticking a cow in the neck with a needle filled with a one-stop-shop vaccination. The process looked barbaric to me. But I eventually became sort of enchanted, watching those cows and calves taking offense at being manhandled. I was happy as a voyeur, but that role was not to last. One large cow balked at entering the chute, and I was handed the electric cattle prod.

“Juice him, RJ!”

Which was Charles trying to help me do something useful, rather than fiddling with my phone and playing dress-up. Despite my reservations, I poked the cow. I was frightened to see it rear up on its hind legs and get pissed. Then I realized that it wasn’t a cow at all. It was a bull. I still don’t know how my shorts remained unsoiled.

After about three hours, more than 120 cows had been penned, slammed down the chute, and boosted with vaccinations. Mikey celebrated with a soda and inadvertently spilled a bit on Jay’s truck.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I was only vaguely aware that I didn’t owe Mikey an apology for the fact that he’d spilled his own damn soda. I was basically past logical thought processes by then.

“Forget it,” Mikey said. “It’s a Toyota anyway.”

Excerpted from LET IT BANG: A Young Black Man’s Reluctant Odyssey into Guns by RJ Young. Copyright © 2018 by RJ Young. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

NPR: "The 'Young Black Man' Who Reluctantly Became An NRA-Certified Instructor" — "RJ Young wasn't always into firearms. Quite the opposite.

"'Because I always knew that guns were something that could get me killed,' he says in an interview. 'They weren't really around to help me. They were always, you know, pointed at me or somebody who looked like me.'

"Young is a writer and sports commentator, especially on Oklahoma Sooners football. He's a black man.

"But then he met Lizzie, the white woman from Oklahoma who he would go on to marry. And the way he thought he could win over her father Charles was by doing the thing that he loved: shooting guns. And the more he began to learn about guns, the more he felt that he had to become an expert — that he had to become an NRA-certified pistol instructor."

This program aired on July 2, 2019.



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