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“Dear Martin” is a first-person perspective about what it means to be a young African American in today’s era. Specifically, Stone explores topics such as microaggression as we watch Justyce’s classmates make racial jokes and accuse him of being “too sensitive”; white privilege, systemic racism, and white fragility all while racial profiling and the need for affirmative action are questioned by everyone. Stone wastes no time plunging into the meat of “Dear Martin”; in the first chapter, Justyce is arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and the readers are quickly shown the injustices of the law. He has a fresh set of eyes for the world around him, and he begins to notice the way his classmates treat people of color. None of them are openly racist, but it is clear that something systemic is at work that impacts their actions. While Stone is creating a novel that encompasses the injustices of a young black man, this book also covers timely and relatable topics that refer to several popular cases happening recently in America.
I will argue that this book creates conversations that span from affirmative action to racial profiling and even what it’s like for people not being able to “take a joke.” Nic Stone crafts complex character to serve her heavy dialogue, and Justyce McAllister serves as an astonishing young black male; he is at the top of his primarily white class and recently was accepted into Yale University. His entire life he strived to beat the odds, ignoring his race and avoiding gang associations such as his cousin and neighbors, focusing on his academic career. Justyce responds to a 3 a.m. call that his ex-girlfriend Melo needs help. When he finds Melo, she is in a parking lot spitting hostility and extremely intoxicated. Throughout her hurtful slurs, Justyce still finds her half-Norwegian, half-black beauty magnificent. He considers just calling her parents, but she is too vulnerable and unconscious, so he lifts her into the backseat and seconds later is slammed into the ground by a police officer accusing him of hurting her. Justyce tries to explain the misunderstanding; but, the officer hits him across the face and calls him a “son of.”
Struggling to adapt to this new worldview that racism is still alive and well, Justyce begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These letters describe similarities between 2017 America and MLK’s era. Lyrical and poetic, Justyce begins a series with these letters trying to understand why equality doesn’t seem to be a reality and how he can continue to move forward when he lives within a system trying to push him back. Justyce is compelled by King’s definition of integration, if true integration by King’s own definition is “inter-group and interpersonal living,” why don’t more people in his class look like him? These letters started to help him endure guys like Jared, who was in Justyce’s debate class. From top to bottom, Jared was racist, hiding behind fake equality in his pathetic arguments and complaints about reverse discrimination, saying he only got into Yale because they needed to “fill the quota”. He tries to meet the situations he faces with the same patience and non-violence, until his world explodes at the end of a gun, shattering his beliefs in MLK’s philosophy. Often when we talk about social injustices, we concentrate on the fatal consequences, and Justyce’s experience with the police resonates on that level. He is beginning to see how little society values him and being inside the head of a 17-year-old black kid, we realize awkwardness is far from the only thing he has to overcome.
A question that recurs throughout “Dear Martin” is how and when to speak up for yourself. For instance, with Justyce being the captain of the school’s debate team, his classmates contest the relevance of race right in front of him, saying “America’s a pretty colorblind place.” Justyce is irritated by how belittling some of the arguments are, but he never speaks up. Stone begins to complicate the notion of the moral high ground, was Justyce in the wrong for punching his classmate for using the n-word? What about his restraint when he didn’t confront the kid wearing a KKK costume? Justyce is thrown into a sticky situation when his friend Manny was blasting rap music driving down the road when an odd duty police officer started an argument at a traffic light. A seemingly irrelevant argument about loud music escalates quickly and tragically ends with Manny being fatally shot and Justyce wounded. The aftermath was nonetheless tragic as Manny is painted as a “thug” and Justyce is reminded that those efforts of “doing right” don’t, ultimately, protect them. Stone at this point has effectively undone the idea that any amount of personal success can protect someone from racism. We meet another character, Manny’s cousin Quan, who didn’t have any of the same opportunities or elite education, and I began to wonder why the novel fails to talk about how King’s lessons hold up for kids like Quan. Quan begins to dismantle the idealism that Justyce carries throughout the novel, “Where I come from, resistance is existence, homie,” Quan says. Justyce at first doesn’t buy into it, until Quan says “Last I checked, your way got you capped and Manny killed.” Stone wraps up Justyce’s route with him making it into Yale, but in his final letter to MLK, he admits how uncomfortable he is in an Ivy-League setting and can’t remember what these letters were supposed to help him with personally.
While we can see the writer Stone is optimistic, “Dear Martin” acknowledges that the challenges of racial profiling even to a student who seems to have such a bright future is unending, and how you deal with those challenges depends a lot on who you are at the time. The idea of “take a joke” may not be as ignorable as we once thought possible. In a time where many young people are turning to activism and trying to find their voices, authors such as Stone are proving society has an appetite for a loud voice, and with a book like “Dear Martin” readers are forced to think about the evolution of the struggle with civil rights and collectively questioning whether affirmative action is the right way to attain equality at all.
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