It’s a major turning point for Quan when he joins the local gang known as the Black Jihad. The gang offers Quan something he hasn’t experienced before: a sense of belonging and the knowledge that, no matter what happens, someone will always be there to come to his rescue. By comparing Quan’s experiences with his biological family and those with his chosen family members in Black Jihad, the book shows how dangerous or unreliable family structures can push kids like Quan to look for safety and a sense of belonging elsewhere, sometimes in the wrong places.
Though Quan loves his biological family, his family fails to be loyal and caring—two things the novel suggests are essential for a child’s development and sense of security. As a young child, Quan gets loyalty and care from Daddy, with whom he spends his weekends. Daddy encourages him to be the best he can be. But during the weeks, Quan lives with Mama. This situation isn’t nearly as positive, as Mama’s boyfriend, Dwight, is physically abusive. To young Quan, it’s obvious that all his family’s problems stem from Dwight—but yet, Mama won’t leave him. While there are certainly a variety of legitimate reasons domestic abuse victims don’t or can’t leave their abusers, in Quan’s mind, it seems simply as though Mama chooses to be loyal to Dwight over Quan. In the years after Daddy gets arrested and Dwight moves in with Mama, Quan feels less and less like his family supports him. It’s devastating when, after earning 98% on an important math test, a substitute teacher falsely accuses Quan of cheating—and Mama believes the substitute’s version of events. This impress upon Quan that no one at home is going to show him loyalty.
Starved for support, Quan latches onto an older boy named Trey and finds the sense of loyalty he’s been missing. In the aftermath of Quan’s first arrest, Mama stops speaking to him and Quan’s younger half-siblings begin to treat him with fear and suspicion. Thus, when Trey approaches Quan at the local park, Quan attaches himself to the older boy who can empathize with his experiences at home and of being arrested. The narration makes it clear that, at this point, Quan is vulnerable—he needs someone to listen to him and see that he’s valuable. And because Trey is the one to step into that role of an empathetic mentor, Quan feels a sense of loyalty to Trey that later leads him into trouble.
Quan’s loyalty to Trey leads directly to his involvement with Black Jihad, a local gang. It’s important to note that Quan doesn’t necessarily support Black Jihad’s aims of dealing weapons. His interest in the gang lies not in its illicit activities, but in the social support it offers him. For instance, Black Jihad’s leader, Martel, is the first person in years to recognize Quan’s aptitude for math. Quan soon finds himself counting money and performing accounting duties, which makes him feel appreciated and proud. Martel also takes it upon himself to have Dwight murdered as soon as he realizes that Quan and Quan’s family are living in an unsafe situation—he tells Quan that “The safety of our members and their families is one of the highest priorities of this organization. Any person or thing threatening that safety will be swiftly taken care of.” But though Quan feels a rush of emotion at being one of “[Martel’s] guys,” he’s also fully aware that Dwight’s murder means that Quan can never leave Black Jihad. If Quan is going to be appropriately loyal to Martel and the gang, he has to repay them for Dwight’s murder with his continued participation and loyalty—something that looks increasingly dangerous the more involved Quan gets.
Ultimately, while the gang does provide Quan with a sense of loyalty and belonging, the novel shows that this is a particularly toxic and dangerous form of loyalty. Indeed, Quan goes to prison for the crime of shooting a police officer, Officer Castillo—a crime that Quan didn’t actually commit. But his loyalty to Black Jihad means that Quan can’t tell the truth. Telling the truth would put the gang member who actually killed Officer Castillo in prison, and this offense would cause the gang to turn against Quan and almost certainly kill him. But even after Justyce is able to prove Quan’s innocence without implicating anyone else, Quan still feels stuck because of his financial debts to Martel and the gang. He knows that he’ll have to pay Martel back for the groceries, gas, and medical appointments that Martel covered for Quan’s family while Quan is in prison. In this sense, Quan sees that Black Jihad has been loyal to him and his family and is therefore perhaps still worthy of some measure of loyalty in return—so even if Quan did want to leave the gang, he sees no way of doing so.
Quan is ultimately able to escape the gang thanks to the work of his other friends. Justyce is able to negotiate Quan’s freedom from Black Jihad by promising that Doc will tutor the young gang members, and that Quan will pay back his debts. True to his word, Martel serves Quan with a bill at the end of the novel—and knowing that his life depends on this one expression of loyalty and trust, Quan dutifully sends Martel checks every few weeks. But Martel never cashes the checks. With this, Dear Justyce offers the possibility that Martel himself recognizes the toxicity of gang affiliation. He recognizes, in other words, that he could keep Quan trapped for the rest of his life by taking Quan’s money—but instead, he chooses to show Quan care and support by quietly allowing Quan to not pay up. While Martel might not be able to totally change the way that Black Jihad works, he can make it so that one former member can find a sense of belonging elsewhere after getting out.
Family, Loyalty, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Family, Loyalty, and Belonging Quotes in Dear Justyce
But then his lungs started to burn. Images of Dasia and Gabe popped into his head. He remembered telling Gabe he’d teach him how to play Uno when he got back from Daddy’s house this time. Little dude was four now and ready to learn.
Quan’s head swam.
Dasia would be waiting for Quan to polish her toenails purple. That was the prize he’d promised her if she aced her spelling test. And she did.
Even at twelve, it didn’t escape Quan’s notice that the men in his mama’s life—Daddy included—used money to get her to do what they wanted her to do. It bothered him no end. But he wasn’t sure what he could do about it.
Which became a running theme: not knowing what he could do about anything.
So he stayed focused.
“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.
So he told Mama—who for the first time wasn’t healing from a COAN encounter—that he was going out.
And he headed to his former favorite playground place.
Stepping over the latest evidence of unsavory activity inside his rocket ship (at least there wouldn’t be any babies or diseases?), Quan climbed up to the observation deck. Largely to hide himself from anyone who might take issue with/make fun of an almost-thirteen-year-old hanging out in the grounded space vessel.
But once he got up there, Quan relaxed so much, he fell asleep.
Trey couldn’t have known it (or maybe he could’ve?), but in that moment, Quan didn’t actually want to be alone.
He needed a friend.
Someone who cared.
Because from the moment Mama and Quan had stepped out of the fluorescent-lit law-and-order lair into the crisp Georgia evening, it was crystal clear to Quan that she no longer did.
Quan’s gaze drops. Lands on a word carved into one of the bench’s wooden slats in little-kid lettering:
F U K C
What are kids like Quan supposed to do?
He swipes at his dampening eyes and shifts them back to the black hole where his galactic getaway vehicle used to be.
Dwight is dead.
And Quan is here. Stuck. Grounded.
No getting out.
No flying away.
No lifting off.
Because Dwight’s death wasn’t an accident.
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.
He kept pushin’. Come on, kid. We know you did it. Might as well just say so...shit like that.
When he said You know if we get one of your little buddies in here, we can get ‘em talkin’. You should just save ‘em the trouble, that’s when I broke. Just said
Fine, man. I did it. You happy now?
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.
“Gabe misses you,” his mama says, and she might as well have dropped a bucket of ice water on his head.
He’d get up and walk away if not for the fact that it’s his mama.
And beneath all his fury,
he still wants her to love him.
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.
“You miss [the rocket ship]?”
At first, Quan doesn’t respond. Because he really has to think about it. His eyes roam the always-clean park space. Touch on his mom [...] his sister [...] his brother [...] his best friend right beside him.
Only thing missing is his dad. But they write to each other weekly, and Quan’s been out to visit the old man a few times, so even that’s okay.
He smiles. “You know what, man? I don’t.”
“Nah,” Quan says. “No need to go to outer space.”
“Everything I need is right here.”