Guest blogger, Bunmi Ishola, teaches 8th grade ELA at YES Prep Southeast. She has worked at YES Prep for seven years. She obtained her bachelor’s in journalism and English from Texas A&M University, and a masters in journalism from Northwestern University. She’s a proud Nigerian-American, an avid reader, and has been to six of the seven continents (with plans to knock out Antarctica soon)!
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his death. While there is a myriad of special events scheduled to commemorate his life and works, many do not think of Dr. King beyond the long weekend and an obligatory reference to his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Every year since I began teaching, I am shocked by how little my students know about Dr. King. Some think he was the person who freed the slaves and others think he was America’s first black president. The only consistent thing they all know is that “he had a dream.”
However, I realized that I’m not that much different from them. While I may have my facts straight about who he was and the role he played in American history, there is so much more that I do not know about his life, his teachings, and his legacy. So this year for MLK Day, I challenged myself to read a book related to Dr. King’s life and legacy. I found Dear Martin by Nic Stone.
In Dear Martin, we meet Justyce McAllister, a senior in high school who finds himself a victim of racial profiling. He’s a top student at school, Yale-bound, and has never been in trouble. His negative encounter with the police leads him to start a special project: He will look to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. We watch Juystce battle racism from classmates at his predominately white prep school, disdain from his former peers in the rough neighborhood he grew up in, and even doubt from his mom and best friend Marcus (the only other black student in their class). He continues to ask, “What Would Martin Do?” but as things continue to get worse, we find Justyce questioning Martin Luther King and his work. Does it still hold up?
Stone’s narrative includes letters Juystce writes directly to Dr. King (who he calls by his first name with the disclaimer, “please know I mean you no disrespect with the whole “Martin” thing…. it feels most natural to interact with you as a homie.”), as well as dialogue structured like the script to capture the fast-paced conversations within Justyce’s debate class. Stone explores topics like microaggressions, as we watch Justyce’s classmates make jokes at his expense and accuse him of being “too sensitive”; systemic racism, white privilege and white fragility, as some question the reality of racial profiling or the need for affirmative action; and police brutality, as Justyce is forced to constantly relive his negative police encounter, and later watch his best friend have one that does not end as nicely. Stone handles each with fierce honesty, but also with a strong sense of empathy for all sides. She recognizes the complex nuances of racial conflict and debates, and while she does not excuse racism or bad behavior from any group, she offers insight into what members of different groups might be feeling and thinking in the midst of these highly-charged and difficult conversations.
While the main character is a black male, and the goal of this book is primarily to offer a window into the fears many black males face daily, it in no way condemns the police or white people. Each are given a voice in a conversation towards reconciliation.
However, Stone never offers any excerpts of Dr. King’s teachings, and we don’t get any insight into what specifically Justyce is reading or looking through as he reflects on them and tries to apply them to his life. While the project is introduced as a main plot point, it didn’t seem to play much of role in the development of the plot or character, and I often forgot he was doing it until a new “Dear Martin” letter would show up.
Perhaps that small flaw isn’t much of a flaw at all, since it piqued my curiosity. I was motivated to listen to and read more of Dr. King’s teachings to relearn and meditate on what he has to say, especially in the midst of all the racial tension that continues to build in our country today.
I’d recommend Dear Martin to students who are interested in, or struggling to understand, current events such as the Black Lives Matter Movement; or students looking for the vocabulary to speak about their own experiences with social injustice. Teachers could use the novel in class to have students explore and discuss coded language in the media, and how the media can perpetuate and feed stereotypes. It could also be used to have students explore their own prejudices. While the target audiences are students in the 8th-12th grade, I would highly encourage all educators to read the novel to expand their own understanding and to expose themselves to different perspectives—especially if they teach black students.