Dear Justyce follows an African American teenager named Quan, charting his trajectory from a gifted student to a gang member and a criminal who’s incarcerated for shooting a police officer. The novel mostly takes the form of flashbacks charting how Quan ended up in this place, interspersed with letters that Quan writes to his friend Justyce. The two friends had similar upbringings as Black boys in a poor Atlanta neighborhood, but while Quan is now in prison, Justyce is a prelaw student at Yale. The book suggests that Justyce’s life trajectory is the exception, not the rule, for Black kids in America. It’s far more likely, the book bleakly suggests, that Black kids who battle poverty, violence, and systemic racism in childhood will end up on a similar life path as the incarcerated Quan. So while many of Quan’s caseworkers and counselors hold that it was Quan’s poor choices that led him here, the book suggests that for Quan and many poor Black kids like him, criminality doesn’t feel like a choice.
Throughout his childhood, Quan feels powerless and like he can’t make his own choices. An example of this is the first time Quan steals. Mama’s abusive and domineering boyfriend, Dwight, took away Mama’s EBT card (food stamps) and left the house—leaving Mama, Quan, and Dwight and Mama’s two small children, Dasia and Gabe, with no money and almost nothing to eat. When Quan stole a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter from the local convenience store, it seemed like the only option to feed his family. Bad or illegal choices, in this sense, sometimes don’t seem like choices at all to someone in Quan’s situation—they’re just what are necessary for survival. This sense of powerlessness is also what leads Quan to join the gang Black Jihad as a teenager. When the other gang members are the only ones in Quan’s life who show him respect, care, and compassion, it doesn’t feel like a choice to join up. It’s what Quan must do in order to keep himself safe and feel a sense of purpose and belonging.
Many people in Quan’s life, though, treat actions like stealing as choices. Before his arrest when Quan was 11, Quan’s Daddy was a successful drug dealer who always said that he knew exactly what he was doing. From Daddy’s perspective, dealing was a choice he consciously made, and he always knew he might have to “take responsibility” for it at some point—and indeed, Daddy receives 25 years in prison for dealing. Daddy’s outlook, though, makes it seem to Quan as though choosing a job that “wasn’t exactly ‘statutory’” was a thought-out choice Daddy made after looking at “statutory” (legal) alternatives. Thus, even though Quan feels as though the fact that he lands in a juvenile detention center at various points throughout his teenage years isn’t exactly fair (he notices that Black kids like him receive harsher sentences for minor crimes like the theft of small items), he nevertheless feels like he has no right to make excuses. Like Daddy, Quan thinks he has to take responsibility for what he did—even if what he did to end up in juvie was to steal a cellphone so his siblings could have shoes.
Ultimately, though, Dear Justyce shows that Quan really didn’t have a choice when it came to committing crime; his circumstances made it hard to choose anything but what he did. Quan articulates this succinctly in a letter to Justyce, where he writes about reading the novel Native Son. Quan describes the plot as follows: “Dude had all these obstacles he couldn’t seem to get past no matter how hard he tried, and it was almost as though falling into the life of crime everybody expected of him was (sorta) unavoidable[.]” For Quan, this is relatable—he goes on to write that similarly, he “can’t really see where [he] could’ve just ‘made different choices,’” even if he tried. In other words, Quan doesn’t see how he was supposed to alleviate his family’s crushing poverty and Dwight’s financial manipulation without turning to crime.
This, of course, raises the question of where Quan and Justyce differ, given that they came from such similar backgrounds. When the boys are 9 and 10, they first meet inside the rocket ship structure at the playground. It’s nighttime, and each ran away from home to escape a violent and frightening father figure. But this isn’t all the boys have in common—while Justyce is winning academic prizes in the humanities, Quan has a gift for math. At this young age, they’re both doing well at school despite less than ideal circumstances at home. But in terms of academics, this is where the similarities stop. After Quan’s most supportive teacher (Ms. Mays) goes on maternity leave, a substitute wrongly accuses Quan of cheating on a math test and Quan’s Mama believes the substitute. Without support at school or at home, Quan feels like there’s no point in trying at school anymore. Justyce, on the other hand, has support from his mom, so he continues to succeed academically and even receives a scholarship to study at a prestigious prep high school. This allows him to earn admission to Yale after graduating. Overwhelmingly, Dear Justyce suggests that Justyce’s success was a matter of luck—while Quan’s trajectory is perhaps unsurprising, given his struggles with poverty, racism, and violence. With this, Dear Justyce suggests that Quan didn’t really have a choice as to whether or not he ended up incarcerated. Rather, he’s the product of a system that made crime his only option. And while the novel doesn’t go as far as to detail the far-reaching structural changes that would be necessary to help kids who grow up in situations like Quan’s achieve stability and success, it nevertheless insists that it’s unfair to characterize incarcerated youth as troubled attention-seekers who choose to commit crimes for fun—criminality may seem like their only option for getting by.
Choices vs. Fate ThemeTracker
Choices vs. Fate Quotes in Dear Justyce
“And best believe your father is gonna hear about this. Might even send him the evidence of your indiscretion.” Quan could hear the paper crinkle as she surely held it up in the air. “Cheating. I can’t even believe you—”
And that was all he heard. Because in that moment everything crystallized for Vernell LaQuan Banks Jr.
It didn’t matter what he did.
Staying focused didn’t give Quan any control at all.
Dude had all these obstacles he couldn’t seem to get past no matter how hard he tried, and it was almost as though falling into the life of crime everybody expected from him was (sorta) unavoidable? I know it probably sounds crazy to an upstanding young gentleman such as yourself, but for real: based on the systems in place—the “institutions of oppression,” as my former mentor, Martel, would say—homie’s situation and how he ended up kinda seemed like destiny.
Dwight had been calling him for years.
Was that who he was for real?
There was no denying the impulse to take what wasn’t his. Was the D in his DNA for delinquent? The Jr. shorthand of “Junior” for just repeating?
Maybe Daddy had been wrong. Ms. Mays too.
There was no way out.
No way up.
Maybe a way through...but he had no idea what to.
Could he really be anyone different than who he was?
Who even was he?
“It’s this ceremony where a young Jewish dude becomes ‘accountable for his actions.’” He used air quotes. “So he goes from ‘boy’ to ‘man,’ essentially. Lawyer homie is sitting there all geeked, telling me about it, and I’m thinking to myself: So your son is a grown man by Jewish standards, yet still gets treated like a kid. Meanwhile ain’t no ceremonies for kids like us, but if we get in trouble we get treated like adults.”
“You mad about it?”
This gives Quan pause. It’s a question no one’s ever asked him, case managers included. He meets Martel’s gaze. “Yeah,” he says. “I am.”
“Why? You did the crime, didn’t you?”
Now Quan gulps. Last thing he wants to do is start sounding like some of the dudes in lockup who constantly complained about how “unfair” the system is. “Always take responsibility for your actions, Junior,” Daddy used to say. “I know the potential consequences of what I do, and I choose to do it anyway, so if it comes down on me, I don’t get to complain.”
Doesn’t matter now. I chose my path. Though, real talk—and I promise this isn’t me making an excuse—I don’t really see where there was a different path for a dude like me. Just like there probably wasn’t a different one for a dude like you. Is what it is, right?
I guess I didn’t realize just how big of a difference it could make to have somebody really believe in you. I been thinking a lot about Trey and Mar and Brad and them. We were all looking for the same things, man—support, protection, family, that type of shit. And we found SOME of it in one another, but we couldn’t really give each other no type of encouragement to do nothing GOOD because nobody was really giving US any. Matter fact, we typically got the opposite. People telling us how “bad” we were. Constantly looking at us like they expected only the worst.
How the hell’s a person supposed to give something they ain’t never had?
But then they’d start searching for the gun that did match. Which could lead to trouble for everyone, Martel especially. Quan knew what contraband the guy had in his house. Which surely could lead to searches of Martel’s other properties.
Quan couldn’t let that happen. Especially not after everything Martel and the guys had done for him. He wouldn’t’ve been able to live with himself.
She came in and we talked for a while and she asked me a bunch of questions the other dude never asked. And I’m pretty sure she actually believes everything I told her. Which was even a little bit uncomfortable despite the fact that I was telling the truth.
I just didn’t realize what a difference it would make to be in conversation with someone who genuinely wants to keep me OUT of prison altogether. Shit made me realize that in all my years dealing with the system, I ain’t never had an attorney who wanted to see me totally free.
But he was telling me how growing up, he was this real good kid, until some stuff happened to his family.
So he went looking for a new family. Like a lot of us do. Same story with another dude we call Stacks. He’s constantly talking about “this guy” he knows (aka himself) and how “he was workin’ to become a musician,” but “he was young and ain’t have no guidance”; how “he just wanted a family so he went and found one,” but then “he got in trouble doing family shit.”
And that’s what it comes down to. We find the families we were desperate for and learn different ways of going about things. Ways that sometimes land us in places/positions we don’t really wanna be in.
This is a real-ass Catch-22. I read that shit a couple weeks ago. (HELLA trippy book.) The only way to stay OUT of what I really have no choice but to go back to is to stay IN here. But the longer I’m IN here, the more debt I’ll rack up for when I do get OUT.
Kind of a no-win, ain’t it?
Story of my damn life.
What if it wasn’t me? What if it was a kid
LIKE you? One with your exact history?
Quan had to think then. But not for long. Because that answer was obvious too. “I’d still invest.”
“Time. Energy. Resources...” The next word shocked him as it popped off his tongue; it bounced around the room in an echo-ish way the others hadn’t: “Belief.”
“Yeah. Everyone should have somebody who believes in ‘em. Like no matter what they’ve done. Somebody who won’t give up on them.”
“No strings attached.”
He did get the point then. HE was willing to do for someone else what was being done for him. At no cost and with no strings. It was the right thing to do.