Nic Stone’s poignant YA debut, Dear Martin, addresses the vital issue of police brutality against African American teens. Informative, honest and incredibly important, this novel follows a bright 17-year-old student named Justyce McAllister. After a harrowing experience due to a police officer's racial bias, Justyce tries to process his trauma, anger and confusion by writing a series of letters addressed to the late Civil Rights champion, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I hate being uncomfortable, so when I can avoid it, I do. The temperature inside my house is always set to 74 degrees, and I deliberately live in Georgia, which gets hot but rarely gets cold. (Being cold is infinitely worse than being hot, in my opinion.) I like my tea iced and my coffee steaming; my dresses loose, but my sneakers laced tight. And to sleep, I need my legs in pants, but my feet bare; my duvet warm, but my pillowcase cool.
These are obviously #FirstWorldProblems, but the thing is: I luxuriate in the comforts I do have a measure of control over, because, for the most part, my very existence in the world is pretty uncomfortable.
I’m African American. And while I’ve had people question this because of the placement of my cheekbones and the length and texture of my hair, at no point in my 32 years of existence have I been immune to the systemic racism embedded in the foundations of American society. I exist in this place at this time because my ancestors were taken from their homeland, sold and bought as chattel and made to work, day in and day out, without pay. They were forcefully separated from their families, literally whipped into submission and stripped of their humanity. They were physically, emotionally and psychologically brutalized. And when finally granted freedom, they were treated as second-class and told—through word and deed—that their ancestry and, therefore, the color of their skin made them inferior.
This is my legacy.
It is uncomfortable.
Especially when people—white people specifically—say “all that was a long time ago” and that we, American descendants of African slaves, should “let the slavery thing go” and “get over it.”
For a long time, that was exactly what I tried to do to avoid discomfort. I was often (read: usually) the only African American in the spaces I inhabited, and because my white peers often stated that they “didn’t even see me as black,” I just . . . went with it. I acted like being African American wasn’t a big deal and didn’t make a difference.
While this was also uncomfortable, it wasn’t as bad as the alternative: acknowledging the legacy and its trickle-down effects here in the 21st century.
But then an unarmed 17-year-old African American boy was shot to death by an overzealous neighborhood watch coordinator. Another unarmed 17-year-old African American boy was shot to death over loud music. An unarmed 18-year-old African American boy was shot and killed by a police officer in broad daylight. An unarmed 12-year-old African American was shot to death in a park. An unarmed . . .
You get the point.
Over and over. Death after death.
Hashtag after hashtag.
African American after African American.
I have two little African American boys of my own. They’re 1 and 5 now, but eventually they’ll be 12, 17, 18, like those other boys were. Continuing to act like there isn’t an issue—like the African Americanness didn’t matter . . .
That got uncomfortable.
It also made me realize something: None of us like being uncomfortable. And what seems to make us good ol’ Americans most uncomfortable are questions we can’t answer or problems we can’t fix. We hate those. I didn’t want to acknowledge the existence, let alone pervasiveness, of racism in this country because I didn’t know what the hell I could do about it. It made me feel helpless.
Which made me uncomfortable.
I did it anyway. I dug into my legacy and faced the implications. I plumbed the depths of modern racism and waded through American history in search of its roots. I examined the civil rights movement, the Jim Crow era, Reconstruction, and American chattel slavery. I faced down the unanswerable questions and unsolvable problems.
And I put them in a book.
Because, the thing is, at the bottom of that well of discomfort was stuff I didn’t expect to find: Understanding. Empathy. Compassion. Respect for my fellow man.
And while I can’t fix racism, my discomfort over its existence has made me kinder. More considerate. Less judgmental.
Perhaps it’s time we all get a little uncomfortable.
Nic Stone was born and raised in a suburb of Atlanta, and the only thing she loves more than an adventure is a good story about one. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the U.S. to write full-time. Growing up with a wide range of cultures, religions and backgrounds, Stone strives to bring these diverse voices and stories to her work.
You can find her goofing off and/or fangirling over her husband and sons on most social media platforms as @getnicced.