While Nic Stone criticizes the school and justice systems in Dear Justyce, she also makes the case that it’s not just the school, prison, and legal systems that are to blame for Quan’s failure to succeed by doing well in school, attending college, and landing a job. Rather, these systems exacerbate existing issues that Quan faces, such as growing up in poverty and being surrounded by domestic violence. With this, the novel proposes that growing up surrounded by violence and poverty necessarily makes survival a child’s primary concern, leaving them with little time or energy to focus on school or work.
For much of his childhood, Quan doesn’t have a safe place to live. Quan’s parents separated some time before the novel begins and by the time Quan is nine, he spends weekends with Daddy in the suburbs and weekdays with Mama. Mama’s boyfriend Dwight (and the father of Quan’s younger half-siblings, Dasia and Gabe) doesn’t live with the family full-time, but when he’s around he’s violent and unpredictable—to the point that Quan hides his younger siblings in his closet to protect them from physical harm every time Dwight goes on one of his rampages. Because of this, Quan lives in fear. He never knows when Dwight will appear, or how damage he’ll do when he does show up. Following Daddy’s arrest for drug-dealing, Dwight moves in with Mama and the kids full-time, making the situation at home even more dangerous for the family. In addition to his domineering physical violence, Dwight also takes control of the family’s finances. He starts charging family members—even the kids—money for minor transgressions (such as Quan stepping on the squeaky spot on the floor) and steals Mama’s EBT card (food stamps). His beatings also make it impossible for Mama to hold down a job, since he often hurts her badly enough to render her unable to work or unwilling to be seen covered in bruises. In this way, Dwight renders the parental figures in Quan’s life unreliable and unsafe, forcing Quan to look elsewhere for safety and support.
The result of this fear, violence, and poverty is that Quan turns to crime to support his family. Quan quickly realizes that stealing is the only way to keep his family afloat in light of Dwight’s manipulation. Stealing food doesn’t require cash or the EBT card, while stealing items to sell—like cell phones—provides Quan with cash that he can keep hidden from Dwight. When it seems like there are no other options for Quan, crime starts to look necessary. But ultimately, these thefts land Quan in juvenile detention, where it’s impossible for him to support his family. And worst of all, after Quan’s first arrest, Mama begins to treat Quan coldly and as though he’s dangerous. With this, Mama makes Quan feel increasingly alone and as though it’s impossible to help his family—his efforts will only get him in trouble, either with Mama and her lack of appreciation or with the law.
Survival is only possible, the novel suggests, in the absence of fear, violence, and poverty. It’s possible to take issue with the novel’s neat ending (Quan is acquitted and Mama moves the family to the suburbs, several years after members of Black Jihad murdered Dwight), but it nevertheless shows what’s possible when money and fear of violence are no longer pressing issues. With Dwight murdered and therefore not in the picture, Mama is able to recover fully from her injuries and hold down a job that allows her to support two kids in the suburbs. With the high school diploma he earned in prison and his new job working for Doc’s tutoring service, Quan is able to help support the family financially too. The novel implies that this happy outcome is rare. But Quan’s relaxed, hopeful, and joyful demeanor at the end of the novel nevertheless makes it clear that his run-ins with the law were only symptoms of the deeper issues in his life. Instead, it was poverty and a dangerous home life that made it impossible to get ahead.
Survival, Poverty, and Violence ThemeTracker
Survival, Poverty, and Violence 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.
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.
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.
He locked eyes with the cop, and the Bad (Dad) Night washed over him, and his chest
the way it had when kid-snatcher cop had Quan’s scrawny eleven-year-old torso wrapped in that death grip.
Wasn’t the best time for it either. Swole Cop took Quan’s inability to answer questions—
We got a problem here, son?
You hear me talkin’ to you?
So you’re a tough guy then?
Not gonna answer my questions?
—as an act of defiance.
Quan found air the moment Swole Cop’s ham-ish hand locked around Quan’s (still scrawny) upper arm in a death grip.
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.”
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.
“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.