As Quan embarks on his letter-writing project to Justyce, he becomes increasingly interested in questioning his personal identity. With prodding from Justyce, his counselor Tay, and his tutor Doc, Quan—who’s in prison after shooting a cop—begins to grapple with whether or not he’s a killer and a bad person, or whether he’s a victim of a racist system that guarantees his failure. Overwhelmingly, the book suggests that for a young person like Quan to be able to successfully tackle these questions surrounding their identity, it’s necessary to have a network of people to act as sounding boards and provide guidance. Figuring out one’s identity, in other words, isn’t a solo project; it’s one that takes community and support.
For much of his life, Quan doesn’t feel like he has the power to dictate who he is or how others see him. After Quan’s Daddy is arrested when Quan is 11, things begin to go downhill. Since Daddy always encouraged Quan to do well in school, it’s hurtful when Daddy seems to never return Quan’s letters and continue to offer support after he’s incarcerated (much later, Quan discovers that Daddy was writing regularly, but Mama’s controlling boyfriend, Dwight, hid the letters). Quan feels alone and unmoored, especially when his favorite teacher, Ms. Mays, goes on maternity leave. Without support and encouragement from Daddy and Ms. Mays, Quan stops seeing the point in trying at school. To him, it isn’t worth it if no one is going to support or believe in him. To make things worse, Dwight starts calling Quan “Delinquent Junior” when Quan is very young, baselessly branding Quan as a dangerous troublemaker. Then, once Quan is arrested at age 13, Quan experiences an identity crisis. He wonders, “Was that who he really was for real,” and “Could he really be anyone different than who he was? Who even was he?” In Quan’s mind, it seems impossible that he grow up to be anything other than the “delinquent” Dwight insists he is. And all of this sets the stage for Quan to feel helpless to do anything but continue with his life of crime until eventually, when he’s 16, he’s arrested for shooting and killing a white police officer.
In prison, Quan begins to rethink his identity with the help of his new mentors. One of the most important people Quan meets in prison is Doc, a Black teachers who teaches at the prep school Justyce attended. Doc takes over as Quan’s tutor at the beginning of the novel and is different from any tutor Quan has ever had. In his letters to Justyce, Quan describes how Doc asks him tough questions about his identity—and most importantly, during a discussion of the novel Native Son (which is about a Black man who commits murder), Doc asks if Quan is a “killer” like the protagonist. Doc uses this question to pry into Quan’s intent, wanting to find out if Quan purposefully shot Officer Castillo or if he was forced into making a bad decision. Initially, the question helps Quan see that he’s a victim of a racist system and isn’t evil—but later, when it’s revealed that Quan didn’t fire the shot that killed Officer Castillo, Doc’s question takes on new meaning. Up until this point, everyone around Quan believes he is a murderer and, to some degree, even Quan seems to buy into this narrative. Voicing that he didn’t commit the crime is the first time that Quan attempts to take control of his identity and dictate who he is: a boy who has made mistakes, but one who’s innocent of the most egregious one.
In the aftermath of the revelation that Quan didn’t murder Officer Castillo, the support of Quan’s newfound community helps him transition from thinking of himself as a criminal to thinking of himself as an innocent young man. After reading Quan’s admission that he didn’t kill Officer Castillo, Justyce pulls together a team dedicated to proving Quan’s innocence. This is no simple task: Quan confessed to the murder in part because the truth might implicate Quan’s fellow members of the Black Jihad gang, which might then result in Quan’s being murdered in retaliation. At first, Quan is angry that Justyce shared information that was supposed to be kept secret. But what bothers and frightens Quan even more is that if Justyce successfully proves Quan’s innocence, Quan will have to completely rethink his identity. By this point, Quan has spent almost two years in prison, being told that he’s a bad person who needs to prepare to be in prison for the next decade.
But ultimately, thanks to the support of his community, Quan is acquitted and released from prison, while both Justyce and Doc remain important friends and allies. By the end of the novel, Quan seems well adjusted to his new life. By this point, he understands how imperative to have a robust, caring community to support him—he ended up in prison because he felt alone, and now he has people who will hold him accountable and expect good behavior.
Even though Quan gets a happy ending, Stone makes it clear in her author’s note that the support system she portrays is the most unrealistic part of the entire book. In Georgia, where the novel takes place, inmates are limited to sending two postcards per week, so Quan wouldn’t have been able to send Justyce the lengthy private letters that he does in the novel. Further, she notes that it’s unlikely in real life that Quan would’ve had the quality caseworker, attorney, counselor, and teacher he does in the novel—and since inmates’ visitors are limited to legal counsel and family, a real-life Quan wouldn’t have been able to see someone like Justyce in person at all. With this, the book makes the case that a strong and unified support system is essential for people to figure out who they are and be the best person they can be—but unfortunately for incarcerated young people like Quan, this becomes an almost impossible task.
Identity, Support, and Community ThemeTracker
Identity, Support, and Community Quotes in Dear Justyce
The minute that van drove away with him in it, I felt...doomed.
It’s why I stopped talking to you. Everybody else too, but especially you. I woulda never admitted this (honestly don’t know why I’m admitting it now...) but I kinda looked up to you. Yeah, you were only a year older and you were dorky as hell, but you had your shit together in a way I wanted mine to be.
I knew if I could just be like you, my dad would be proud of me.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
“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.”