Beyond the Headlines

In Kekla Magoon’s How It Went Down, a racially charged shooting throws a community into an uproar.

By Kekla Magoon

Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. When I think these names, a flurry of images comes to mind. I think about violence, racism, innocence, prejudice. I think about guns and communities and appearances and judgment. I feel a deep sense of sorrow and a deeper sense of despair.

In the spring of 2012, I found myself engrossed in the media cycles reporting on the controversial shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The coverage lasted months, it seemed, and while this type of painful, tragic incident was not new to our country, the level of attention paid to this particular case seemed to be. It was simultaneously riveting, and difficult to witness, night after night on television, and all day long on social media.

Watching all this coverage, I had one prevailing question that returned to me over and over: where are the youth voices in the conversation? How are young people responding and reflecting upon these incidents? Why do we turn primarily to talk show hosts, political analysts, and African American studies scholars to contextualize them? Why not bring forward other young people like Trayvon and talk about the experience of walking down the street day after day, feeling afraid of what could happen?

I was interested in looking behind the headlines, at how members of a community respond when such a tragedy occurs in their midst. When I sat down to write How It Went Down, I did so in the spirit of wondering what happens off-camera. How does it feel when the boy whose face appears on CNN every night used to sit across from you in chem lab? What if he was your best friend, your brother, or the boy who bullied you? How It Went Down compiles the voices of eighteen different individuals in the fictional community of Underhill, after a controversial shooting occurs there.

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, communities around the country rose up in peaceful protest, calling for “Justice for Trayvon.” When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, we saw a different kind of response: angry and frustrated young people rioting in the streets, demanding that attention finally be paid to an issue that has troubled their lives for far too long. I’ve heard it said that rioting—or violence in general—is the last recourse of the desperate, the unheard. Young people have plenty to say about racism in America, and we need to start listening closer.

I recently visited a high school classroom to talk about How It Went Down. Their teacher asked me to address the issue of social media, and how it seems at times like teens today are not engaged in the real world, but only active online and in their own insular world. Why aren’t our youth more engaged in real-world organizing? Yes, we have an undercurrent of youth activism in this country—we always have—but why don’t we see that reflected in the national media? One student in the class commented specifically on the role of social media in teens’ lives. She said, “A lot of times it feels like no one is listening. But when you update your status or post a picture you know people will see it. You know you will be heard.”

It is my hope that the fictional teens in How It Went Down can help inspire us to start listening more closely to the voices of real teens. Everyone has a perspective on Trayvon, and Ferguson. What’s yours?

Kekla Magoon is the author of five young adult novels: How It Went Down, Camo Girl, 37 Things I Love, Fire in the Streets, and The Rock and the River, for which she has received an ALA Coretta Scott King New Talent Award and three NAACP Image Award nominations. She also writes non-fiction on historical topics. Kekla teaches writing, conducts school and library visits nationwide, and serves on the Writers Council for the National Writing Project. She holds a B.A. in History from Northwestern University and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her online at

You can purchase a copy of How It Went Down here.