Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Visual Art

After Rashad’s mother brings him his art supplies in the hospital, drawing not only provides him with a sense of peace, but his sketch also sparks a discussion between Rashad and his nurse. It is surely Rashad’s keen artistic eye that allows him to immediately recognize the graffiti tag “#RashadIsAbsentAgainToday” as the work of his friend Carlos, and when it crops up all over the city, the power of the simple visual leads it to trend on social media and increase awareness about Rashad’s trauma.

Quinn is no artist, but he uses a magic marker to write on his shirt the words that he cannot say aloud. This moving billboard says everything he needs for it to say about his opinions on racial justice, and it resonates among his peers even as it highlights the divisions among them. His straightforward, black-and-white image highlights the black-and-white, right-versus-wrong nature of the issue at hand. There is no literal or figurative grey area to Quinn.


The adults in the book constantly attempt to silence both public opinion and private conversation. Rashad’s father and Quinn’s mother silence their sons because they simply cannot believe a reality that differs so greatly from their own. Coach Carney and the school administration attempt to avoid conflict altogether by forbidding discussion among teammates and forbidding teachers from teaching lessons that might spark uneasy discussion.

Rashad silences the TV by pulling its cord from the wall, and someone presses the mute button on the TV at the Galluzzos’ cookout before guests can talk about what they’ve seen. There is power in the silence at the protest, however, when people stop chanting, lie down, and listen only to the sound of the names of those who have died at the hands of police brutality.


While the adults in the book have different ideas about what constitutes responsibility, they expect the young people in their lives to bear it without complaint. Due to pressure from his father, Rashad is the only one of his friends in ROTC, a responsibility that he never discusses in terms of the pleasure it brings him. Quinn’s mother expects Quinn to succeed in basketball and care for his younger brother, both by helping her with various tasks associated with his care and by setting a good example for him.

In addition to the duties that Rashad and Quinn’s families give them, there are the unspoken responsibilities for which they hold them accountable. Rashad’s father expects Rashad to bear the responsibility for his own appearance and how others perceive it. Quinn’s entire community compares the man he will be to the man his late father was, without considering how Quinn defines his father’s legacy. Both Rashad and Quinn spend the majority of the novel grappling with the tension between their adolescence and the difficult realities that beckon to them from the adult world.