More than Just a Novel: Nic Stone’s Dear Martin

By Sabrina Völz

It’s been near­ly 52 years since Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. was assas­si­nat­ed on April 4, 1968. With­out a doubt, he con­tin­ues to inspire new gen­er­a­tions and serve as a role mod­el for non-vio­lent protest and change. In hon­or of Black His­to­ry Month in Feb­ru­ary, I’d like to review a young adult nov­el that brings the con­ver­sa­tion on racism and grow­ing up Black in the Unit­ed States to a new lev­el. It inves­ti­gates whether King’s teach­ings are still rel­e­vant today and whether they can help Jys­tice, a 17-year-old, promis­ing high school stu­dent. His life is turned upside down when he tries to help his intox­i­cat­ed ex-girl­friend get home safe­ly one night. In a con­fronta­tion with two police offi­cers, Jys­tice ends up on the ground in hand­cuffs – an all-too-famil­iar sight. The prob­lem: She’s White and he’s Black. As a result of the assault, Jys­tice will nev­er be the per­son he once was.

Nic Stone’s debut nov­el, Dear Mar­tin (2017), inter­weaves the top­ics of racial pro­fil­ing, police bru­tal­i­ty, black­face, col­or­blind racism, micro-aggres­sions, and act­ing ‘White’ with ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, friend­ship, and inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships. With that list, you might just ask your­self how the author still man­ages to tell a good sto­ry with­out get­ting too dis­tract­ed and preachy. Well, she does. But before explor­ing the top­ic fur­ther, I’ll let Nic Stone intro­duce the book in her own words.

Yes, it’s always advan­ta­geous if a nov­el is inspired by real events. With­out a doubt, Dear Mar­tin deals with real ques­tions that real peo­ple are ask­ing: How can it be that a per­son is killed over loud music? How can it be that grow­ing up Black makes you a threat to soci­ety? What effects does racism in all of its many forms have on indi­vid­u­als? Will Jys­tice get jus­tice? For some, Dear Mar­tin might be a rev­e­la­tion that allows Black expe­ri­ences to be seen and their silenced voic­es to be heard – per­haps for the first time. For oth­ers, the nov­el offers a poten­tial new per­spec­tive and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get a real con­ver­sa­tion going.

In the begin­ning, read­ers encounter a tal­ent­ed young man who grew up on the ‘wrong’ side of town, but whose deter­mi­na­tion and hard work put him on a col­lege prep track to Yale Uni­ver­si­ty. Stone shows how frag­ile that bright future is, how in a blink of an eye, one trau­ma­tiz­ing act of racism sets a chain of actions and reac­tions in motion that affect the vic­tim’s life. Shock leads to con­fu­sion; con­fu­sion leads to pain, suf­fer­ing, and vio­lence. And yet, not all is lost. The cost is high and the bur­den heavy, but don’t count out Jys­tice just yet.

Both, the novel’s plot and its con­struc­tion of the char­ac­ters, are unique­ly lay­ered. Dear Mar­tin gives read­ers a glimpse of what it might feel like to be exposed to racism again and again. Jour­nal entries addressed to MLK – hence the title of the nov­el – com­plete some chap­ters, allow­ing read­ers to view the unfold­ing events through the protagonist’s eyes with­out the inter­ven­tion of a nar­ra­tor. Oth­er chap­ters include new reports that cir­cu­late about events that have just occurred. The infu­ri­at­ing spin put on the ‘truth’ points a crit­i­cal fin­ger at the fuel both the media and the judi­cial sys­tem add to the fire. While some young adult nov­el­ists take a sledge­ham­mer to their mes­sage, Stone trusts read­ers to fig­ure it out by them­selves. And this mes­sage may just be a bit dif­fer­ent for each of us. And that, my dear blog read­ers, is a sign of excellence.

Dear Mar­tin is a bril­liant work of art that’s all about fos­ter­ing empa­thy. It’s already used in some Ger­man low­er-sec­ondary schools in trans­la­tion, but the book’s inter­na­tion­al jour­ney has only just begun. Dear Mar­tin needs to get into the hands of teens every­where. And it wouldn’t hurt adults to read it either.

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