Jus is a well-drawn character, one of just eight black students at his very white and very competitive prep school and not really comfortable in his skin. He’s so smart he won a scholarship to Braselton Prep and gets accepted into Yale for college, but the class divide between him and the rich kids is almost palpable. At home, the Black Jihad gang that runs in his neighborhood rags on him for being so smart and going to Bras Prep. He doesn’t have a place where he feels he fits, though his mom tells him he’s not supposed to. He’s meant to carve it out himself.
But when a cop sees Justyce trying to help his mixed-race-white-passing ex-girlfriend while she’s drunk, being ridiculously smart doesn’t help him. Just like that, Jus gets to experience police brutality firsthand as Officer Castillo brutalizes him, leaves him in handcuffs for hours, and always keeps his hand on his weapon. It was the first time Jus really feared for his life and he decides to start paying attention to what’s going on around him instead of ignoring it or glossing over it.
That’s how his letters to Martin Luther King Jr. start. He wants to try and practice King’s philosophies in his own life.
Justyce, his best friend Manny, and Manny’s cousin Quan offer a compelling portrait of modern black adolescence. Jus lives below the poverty line and is using his brain to get to better places. Manny was born into money and he puts up with everything his racist white friends do, though he later decides he’s done with them. Quan? He tested into the same Accelerated Learners program as Jus, but his own life experiences with racism and the criminal justice system led him to just give up and join Black Jihad. And then he shoots Officer Castillo dead.
AND THAT’S JUST THE FIRST HALF OF THE BOOK. The second half takes Jus’s emotions and journey up a notch when a white man–a cop and coincidentally Castillo’s partner–shoots him and kills Manny because Manny played his music a little too loudly. Jus nearly does give up and join Black Jihad like Quan did.
Even as a white woman who will never be in Jus’s position by grace of her skin color, reading Dear Martin hurt and I wished it were possible to console him myself. Luckily, he has his debate partner and crush Sarah-Jane, a white Jewish girl who uses her white privilege for good and shuts down arguments like “affirmative action discriminates against the majority” and “all races are equal now”in their Societal Evolution class. The content and transcript format will do plenty to equip readers with the tools they need to refute those arguments themselves.
(It wouldn’t do much good for me because I fail hard at verbally debating anything, BUT ANYWAY.)
But as Jus puts it after being shot by Officer Tison, “despite how good of a dude Martin was, they still killed him, man.” Trying to put MLK’s stuff into practice allows him and the reader to experience how imperfect they were. Though civil rights protestors’ nonviolent opposition did a great deal and moved forward black civil rights, none of that protected MLK. He was still arrested multiple times. He was still killed by James Earl Ray (and the US government was also found liable for MLK’s death).
Similarly, trying to be like MLK didn’t keep Jus from being shot. Kowtowing to white people and being the Good Black Person until literal minutes before his death didn’t keep Manny alive. Officer Tison just saw them as black kids playing their music too loudly. These facts are a large part of Jus’s moral struggle in the aftermath of his friend’s death and his own near-death experience.
Some characters like Jared and Blake, two very racist white boys, almost seem like caricatures, but that thought was nothing but my whiteness reacting to an attack on itself. I shut it right down because I know I’ve met many, many, many Jareds and Blakes and they’re all to real. In fact, one was in my Gender Studies class my sophomore year of college. A gay guy debated her and tried to educate her on how backwards she was on racism (she claimed racism against white people was A Thing), welfare, and a lot of other things. He was so deeply affected by the bigotry she spouted that he dropped the course within the week.
So yes, plenty of guys like them exist, my brother included. Jared is deeply affected by Manny’s death and makes a complete turnaround by the end of the novel, offering a spot of hope in this fairly bleak novel. But it shouldn’t take a black person they know being murdered by a cop to make a white person stop being racist.
Dear Martin is an immersive, real, and important book perfectly paired with The Hate U Give for the teen who wants to understand modern racial tensions, race-related police brutality, and how to be a good human being. If we preserve them properly, future generations will hopefully be able to read these books and understand what was happening. If all our fighting gets us somewhere, the social problems Dear Martin faces head-on may seem entirely foreign to them.
If we’re lucky and can make headway against systemic racism.