The question of when and how to speak up for yourself or let things go recurs throughout Dear Martin. Justyce, for instance, is the captain of the school’s debate team, where his white classmates litigate the relevance of race in front of him. “America’s a pretty colorblind place,” one student claims, only to seemingly imply in the next breath that Justyce got into Yale because of affirmative action. Justyce is irritated by how reductive some of the arguments are, but he doesn’t say much. Elsewhere, too, Stone complicates the notion of the moral high ground: Was it wrong for Justyce to punch his fellow classmate for using the n-word? Was it a sign of restraint when he didn’t confront the student wearing the Klansman costume?
Those considerations become all the more fraught in a law-enforcement context. Stone began writing Dear Martin after the death of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old who was fatally shot in 2012 when a Florida man fired several rounds into a car of teenagers during a dispute over loud rap music. This plays out in almost exactly the same way in her book, when an off-duty police officer pulls up next to Justyce and his friend Manny at a traffic light, starting an argument over the volume of their music that quickly escalates. The tragic end to that encounter (Manny is fatally shot and Justyce is wounded) and the aftermath (the press latches onto a “thug” narrative for Manny, the cop is not convicted of the felony murder charge) reads all too familiarly. Again, Justyce is reminded that both teens’ efforts to “do right” don’t, ultimately, shield them.
Recent headlines also echo through Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which was influenced by the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant, 22, by a police officer in Oakland in 2009. But the book’s protagonist, Starr, shares broader similarities to Justyce, too. For both, the emotional labor of code switching between their “two worlds”—the elite schools where they’re surrounded by privilege and the mostly black neighborhoods where they grew up—looms large in their lives. They also witness friends being killed by the police; the media frames their deceased friends irresponsibly; people in their whiter world refuse to acknowledge racism; they hide white significant others from their parents; and they find it difficult to resist the pull toward the neighborhoods they’ve tried to escape.
The two titles also encompass how different historical ideals about responding to racism and violence—activism, respectability, gang affiliation—remain relevant to the choices youth of color can make. In The Hate U Give, having to testify at a grand-jury trial leads Starr to protest, though it’s not the first she’s learned of alternative modes of activism. Long before she’s swept up in demonstrations, her father “Big Mav,” a former gang member, diligently taught Starr and her siblings about the Black Panthers. As Starr gets more vocal, she becomes less interested in maintaining the appearance of neat boundaries between her two lives. In Dear Martin, meanwhile, Justyce struggles with the respectability politics that his idol sometimes embodied. “In that moment when I thought I was dying, it hit me: Despite how good of a dude Martin was, they still killed him,” Justyce says to a teacher, reflecting on the shooting.