While history textbooks mark the American civil rights movement with dates from half a century ago, all it takes is a glance at today’s headlines to know that race relations in today’s society are still rife with tension and uncertainty. Giving voice to a story set against this decade’s struggle with institutionalized racism and police violence is Nic Stone’s Dear Martin.
All it takes is one night of being wrongfully incarcerated for Justyce McAllister’s worldview to be shaken. Though he’s smart, well-mannered, and even Ivy League-bound, none of that seem to matter to the cop who arrests him, and he can’t help but think how differently things would have gone if he weren’t black. After his release (with no apologies), Justyce begins a personal project of writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way of making sense of the civil injustices he can’t seem to escape. Still, no amount of reflection can prepare him for the tragedy that is yet to come.
Justyce’s story—and the moving picture that he paints of the people around him—is laden with raw emotion. Here is a young man with a lot of questions, and as a reader of color, I have to admit that I’ve asked the same questions, too. One of the things I admire about Dear Martin is its ability to unpack debates on social profiling, affirmative action, and privilege in such a sparse and straightforward way that you might just find an echo of your thoughts here. Justyce’s friends and classmates Manny, SJ, and Jared are well-fleshed out that as the novel rises to its climax, a sensitive reader will feel the impact on their characters.
The heavier stakes of Justyce’s journey of identity and equality is balanced with a budding relationship with his friend SJ (for Sarah-Jane, not social justice, but she gets points for being a warrior). Stone does an excellent job of crafting a romance that is as sensitive and realistic as the circumstances that surround it. There is a levity to the page whenever Justyce and SJ are together, and the romance does an excellent job of adding more layers to the story this way.
The novel tries to cover a lot of ground, and whether it does this well is up to the reader. But just as any powerful book would open up avenues for self-reflection and empathy, Dear Martin made me think about my place in society as a person of color. I may not have walked in Justyce’s shoes, but there were plenty of moments when I found myself nodding in agreement (and even twice, close to tears) just because his words spoke my truths back at me. This may be a social issue, but Nic Stone reminds us that it a deeply personal one as well.