Saturday, April 14, 2018

A reader wrote to me to ask about a line in DEAR MARTIN, by Nic Stone

Update on Thursday, April 19, 2018: Nic Stone is working with her editor on that line. AICL thanks the reader who wrote to us, and, Nic Stone, too, for her understanding! 

Have you read Nic Stone's Dear Martin? Published in 2017 by Random House, it got favorable reviews, including a starred review from Booklist.

I haven't read it yet, but last week, I got an email from a Native reader who had started reading it. When she got to page 22, she was struck--not in a good way--by a class discussion the characters in the "Societal Evolution" class are having. The main character is Justyce McAllister, a 17 year old senior. He's a scholarship student at Braselton Preparatory Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. He's one of eight black students at the school.

Chapter three opens with Justyce walking into Societal Evolution class. The teacher ("Doc") writes "all men are created equal" on the digital chalkboard. He asks the class about the origin of those words. Jared says it is from the Declaration of Independence.

Here's the dialog. Earlier, we read that SJ is Sarah-Jane Friedman, who has been Justyce's debate partner since they were sophomores. She's likely to be the valedictorian (page 21-22):
Doc: Now, when we use our twenty-first-century minds to examine the quote within its historical context, something about it isn't right. Can you explain what I mean? 
Everyone: [Crickets]
Doc: Oh, come on, y'all. You don't see anything odd about these guys in particular making a statement about the inherent "equality" of men?
SJ: Well, these were the same guys who killed off the indigenous peoples and owned slaves. 
Doc: Indeed they were.
Jared: But it was different then. Neither slaves nor Indians--
Justyce: Native Americans or American Indians if you can't name the tribe, homie.
Jared: Whatever. Point is, neither were really considered "men."
Doc: That's exactly my point, Mr. Christensen. So here's the question: What does the obvious change in the application of this phrase from 1776 to now tell us about how our society has evolved?
[Extended pause as he adds the question to the digital chalkboard beneath the quote, then the scrape of a chair as he takes his regular seat in the circle.]
Jared: Well, for one, people of African descent are obviously included in the application of the quote now. So are "Native American Indians." 
Justyce: [Clenches jaw.]
It is SJ's comment that the Native reader wrote to me about. Let's look at it:
"Well, these were the same guys who killed off the indigenous peoples and owned slaves."
If you're a regular reader of AICL, you likely know why that line is a problem for a Native reader. Today, too many people think that all of us were "killed off" and that we no longer exist. That line reflects that idea--but it isn't true. We're still here.

As the conversation continues, Justyce corrects Jared's use of "Indians." That's great! Though I haven't read the book yet, it seems to me that Jared is a character who is meant to signify resistance to social change. That's reflected in the author's use of italics to emphasize Jared's use of "Native American Indians" in his reply to Doc.

Several writers have asked their publishers to make small changes to future printings of their books. In particular, those are instances in which an author used "low man on the totem pole" or "spirit animal." Their publishers agreed to their request.

Jared's comment that people of African descent and Native peoples are "obviously" included in "all men are created equal" might be how Stone intended for readers to understand that we're still here, but I don't think it is explicit enough to have readers move away from the vanished Indian idea.

In that conversation, Justyce corrected Jason. In future printings of Dear Martin, I think Stone could use Justyce to correct what SJ said, too. Or, she could modify what SJ says. What do you think? What kind of edits could be made?


3 comments:

katein305 said...

As a feminist, I am bothered by the use of the word men. It is taken differently today than in 1776, or more honestly, women were not even considered in this statement.

Ava Jarvis said...

I agree with you, Debbie. And I think having Justyce add a line with their first admonishment here of, "And they're still here," or similar, would be a succinct way to do it.

I also hope an additional contextualization and discussion of what was going on with the "men" part of the quote exists, or if it doesn't, that it could also be added.

I wish I could take seriously the idea that "All men are created equal" these days really does include all people, White and non-White, of all genders. To me it's pretty obvious that this sentiment doesn't hold across the United States, populace or government, and never actually has (despite what both "liberal" and conservative folks can insist upon).

My last sentiment is a tangent, of course, and books that win awards do not generally make space for such an unpacking across time and changing social norms of that quote. I don't keep my hopes up.

Jenell said...

Instead of "killed off", the author could use the word "massacred". However, keeping the sentence could be a good entry point for their discussion. The teacher could use Socratic questioning to ask them about colonialism and how that affected/affects our country. I guess it depends on the direction the author is taking in that part of the book.