Atlantan Nic Stone — creator, artist, mother, and now newly published author — has highlighted our continuous struggle to define who we are in a world that constantly tries to do so for us. Her debut novel “Dear Martin” chronicles the life of high-school senior Justyce McAllister as he faces many trials of prejudice and blatant racism, all the while performing a self-assigned experiment in which he attempts to address situations the way Martin Luther King, Jr., might have. What Stone achieves through her timeless novel that parallels adverse realities of police brutality, interracial relationships, and self-discovery is the spark of conversation needed about the injustices that define our society, for while the characters may be fictional, the story is anything but.
In December, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stone at VOX Teen Communications alongside Alison Law as a part of Law’s podcast, Literary Atlanta. Picture the scene: A New York Times bestselling author, a literary world podcaster and me, a nerve-wrecked teen sitting among the two as if it wasn’t my first interview of the sort. I promise my hands didn’t begin sweating unceasingly until after the handshakes.
Once we situated ourselves around the mics and small table, what I imagined would be an interview where one may crack under pressure quickly became a casual conversation about topics that matter.
“Dear Martin” addresses societal issues through the perspective of young black Justyce McAllister whose world is not known to many minorities: He attends a prep school with a yearly tuition of $36,000, and friends who live in large mansions and drive Range Rovers to school.
“Victims of police brutality often don’t seem to come from such circumstances,” Stone said about why she had Justyce attend such an unlikely institution.
She went on to relate the real-life tragic story of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old African-American male who was fatally shot when leaving a party with his two brothers and a couple of friends on April 29, 2017, in Balch Springs, Texas, by police officer Roy Oliver. Edwards was a straight-A freshman at Mesquite High School, where he engaged in many extracurricular activities, including the school’s football team. When friends and family of Edwards were interviewed, many expressed what could best be described as disbelief as to why Jordan was the victim, having come from a two-parent home, always keeping a smile on his face, and possessing an abundance of knowledge.
The point Stone was making here in placing her fictional Justyce McAllister in such a “white world” is that, as she stated, “Respectability — it does not protect us the way we think it will.” It is a reminder to minorities that social status, wealth, or location does not guarantee us a life free of discrimination.
Throughout the novel, Justyce learns many things about himself. One of these things would be his sprouting relationship with SJ, a white girl who also attends Braselton Prep. When Justyce does not feel comfortable speaking up on certain race-related matters in classrooms where he is the only black student, SJ does.
“I don’t believe anyone could experience what you experience as a young black male, but I do believe, logically, you can understand,” Stone explained, regarding SJ’s approach to speaking out. “She has learned the power of picking things apart and constructing an argument about something based on evidence.”
SJ is significant to Justyce’s story because of the realism she provides. The hardships Justyce faces as well as the relationships he strengthens, such as the one he builds with SJ, all contribute toward his growth. By the conclusion of the novel, he has found confidence and a better understanding of himself, holding onto the things that make him who he is rather than abandoning them, and he adopts other characteristics to better equip himself for a world that does not favor minorities.
Personally, after reading the novel, I felt a sense of hope. I found solace in Justyce’s adversity, a solace in which I also wished to stay true to who I am as a young black male preparing for the world that discriminates and demonstrates against me pettily because of my skin color.
I asked Stone to give some advice to me and all young minorities as we prepare for a world that both directly and indirectly expresses prejudice against us.
“Expect it,” she told me. “I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true. I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that I don’t have as much control as I wish I did when it comes to the way people perceive me, but I do have control over how I feel about myself —what I take in, what I feel like I can and can’t do — all of those things are up to me. That’s what I would say to you.”
“Dear Martin” derives its title from the letters Justyce writes to the late civil rights leader in which he tries to meet the situations he faces with the same patience and non-violence. Does he achieve this? Sure, he does. However, the conversations he has with Dr. King go beyond wanting to be his better self. It is what that search means to Justyce and readers that is noteworthy. In the novel, Justyce finds himself so conflicted in applying Dr. King’s philosophy to the things he faces, he takes a hiatus from the experiment as he tries to figure things out. The experiment is significant is because of Justyce’s desire to exert patience when met with anything but, allowing him to grow and realize the self-discipline and passion Dr. King had to hold dear in order to succeed in the civil rights movement. And it is this profound movement that takes place within Justyce, aiding him in an awakened life of his own.
When you open Stone’s “Dear Martin,” what grips you is an encounter between police and the young Justyce McAllister that quickly becomes negative due to the officer’s poor judgment. This event sets up the character to experience life as a black male. It is the story every minority in the U.S. lives. The language is real, the situations are real, and the message is needed.
Nic Stone lives in Atlanta with her two young sons and spouse. She plans to continue writing novels that address societal issues, including sequels to “Dear Martin” involving other characters from the book.
Above photo: VOX teen staffer Austin Anderson with “Dear Martin” author Nic Stone.