JD Myall sits down with Nic Stone to get to the heart of Stone’s new novel, Dear Martin, and to discuss race in modern America.
Dear Martin has been called raw, mesmerizing, and unapologetically real. More than a YA novel, Dear Martin is an essential read about growing up black in America and the Black Lives Matter movement. Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling coauthor of All American Boys called it, “raw and gripping.” Angie Thomas, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Hate U Give said it’s “a must-read!” Author Jodi Picoult, winner of the New England Bookseller Award for fiction, said, “It is, in my mind, the book we need at this moment. The way we start to dismantle racism is by talking about it, openly and honestly. This is one of those rare wonderful books that starts a conversation.”
Dear Martin tells the story of Justyce McAllister, a 17-year-old African-American boy who is racially profiled one night while trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend get home safely. As a result of that experience, he starts a journal of letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exploring whether Dr. King’s teachings can work in modern America.
JD Myall: Though set in modern America, Dear Martin is structured around this idea of conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why was referencing history so important to you?
Nic Stone: Often times we don’t want to look at history because it makes us uncomfortable. In that discomfort, we find a greater understanding of who we are. We have to pull from the original problem: slavery, segregation, and the way people of color have been perceived in this country since 1776. When you look at US history and the way our people have been treated, it is pretty gutting. Despite the pain, you have to understand the ugly, nasty, painful, uncomfortable things to get a greater understanding of the problems that we have today. It gives you a greater sense of empathy, and it helps you see the thread that links us all.
Myall: Why did you choose to have your main character, Justyce, write to King, specifically? As opposed to other historical figures?
Stone: I felt like some of King’s legacy and what he stood for has been lost. He has been sanitized and washed in respectability politics. He was a man of dignity, and he stood for what he believed in. But he was also anti-status quo, because the status quo wasn’t good for people like him. People should find out who he really is and what he really did. Dr. King supported non-violent protest. However, you have people who now say that Black Lives Matter is wrong to march in the streets, and they say that Dr. King would be against football players kneeling to highlight injustice. Dr. King took the Edmund Pettus Bridge and shut it down in Selma. He marched in the streets. He was logical and a man of faith, but he was also radical when he needed to be. I think if he were alive today, he would be on that field, kneeling with the football players.
Myall: I agree. These protests are about trying to make our country greater, making it live up to the promise of equality for all. The negative backlash that players receive for exercising their constitutional right to protest is eerily similar to the backlash that civil rights heroes got for sitting at whites-only counters in restaurants and diners. If people took time to look at issues like police brutality, mass incarceration, and educational inequality, if they worked on finding solutions to those problems, there would be no need for people of color to be marching or kneeling. Then, heroes like Heather Heyer, and Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t be losing their lives or livelihoods while taking a stand against racism.
Stone: Nonviolent social change is deliberate. Looking at history and seeing what people are willing to put themselves through for the sake of equality is amazing. Bull Connor ordered hoses and dogs to attack children during the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. Still, some people are unaware of racism because it doesn’t affect them. I hope this book gives them that awareness. Others have hate so deeply entrenched in their hearts that it is truly sad. Some of us already know about racism, but all of us need to work on ourselves and work on loving each other more. I am brazenly optimistic, so I think that as long as people start thinking more and talking more, we will get closer to change and reaching true equality.
Myall: You once said that growing up black in this country sets you up with resilience if you grab ahold of it. What were the moments in your past that made you the most resilient?
Stone: There’s a scene in the book where Justyce, the main character, has just been accepted to Yale on early decision. And there’s another character in the book, a white kid, who was deferred. It sparks a discussion on affirmative action in the classroom. The white kid assumes he had better test scores than the black kid. That moment was plucked directly from my life. In high school, I told a white girl my ACT score, and she said, “That’s not possible. There is no way you got a better grade than I did.” She had no idea how racist and tone deaf she sounded. She couldn’t imagine that I could do better than her, because of my race. That was one of the moments that set me on course to say, “Watch me work, and watch me exceed you. See what I am capable of.”
Myall: Some people let situations like that dim their light. For you, that incident made you determined to burn brighter. However, the sad, ugly truth is that there are some statistics behind those assumptions. Minorities often have lower scores on SAT and ACT tests due to educational inequality. Lots of us live in poorer districts where schools are grossly underfunded. Some people even believe the test to be culturally biased. Did your book address these things?
Stone: Yes, that’s a big issue. I think YA fiction has the power to change the world because it reaches young people while their views are still forming. There is a scene, in Dear Martin, where the character SJ (Sarah-Jane) talks about kids in low-income areas, with textbooks that are trash and teachers that are underpaid, fresh out of college, and leave in a year. She speaks about educational inequality. A lot of kids in these failing schools have low self-esteem because they are expected to fail. Their anxiety creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of that affects test scores. But none of it has anything to do with their level of intelligence.
Myall: Exactly. The school-to-prison pipeline in this country is very real. If you’re from a family that is better off economically, odds are you’re in a better school; on top that, your family can afford tutors if you struggle. A child from a single parent home often has their only parent out of the house, working to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Many can’t afford tutoring for their kids. Can you imagine how different our country would look if education was truly equal? It would be a game changer.
Stone: It would be a world changer. Dr. King started Morehouse as a teen, and look what he did with his education. We have to ask ourselves, as parents, educators, librarians, relatives, humans, and friends, “What are we doing to help the children in our lives? Or the children we pass on the streets? As adults, how are we treating the children we encounter?”
Myall: Jodi Picoult said her novel, Small Great Things, would not have been possible without your help. That book dealt with race relations. Picoult also said that Dear Martin starts a conversation. What kinds of racial conversations do you hope to spark by getting these stories into the world?
Stone: I just want them to talk about race. Race is a thing. Lately, we have moved into this post-racial, color-blind thinking. It’s nonsense. People claim they don’t see color. That doesn’t change things. Denying racism and the reality that some people experience doesn’t solve problems. You can’t ignore or deny a very large problem. I have a lot of school visits coming up, and I am glad about that. That is where these conversations need to start. I am glad I wrote a YA novel because adolescence is the time when minds are being set and people can be reached. We have to be okay with being uncomfortable. We have to understand that it is okay if we don’t have all the answers but we should still talk about reality. It builds empathy and understanding.
Myall: I hope that people do read Dear Martin and come away ready for these conversations. Thank you so much for this chat, Nic Stone. Your voice is revolutionary, and I sincerely believe it will spark change.
Contact Nic Stone at: http://www.nicstone.info/ or on Twitter @getnicced