In 2005 while studying at a university in Maryland, USA I was in an African-American History class when a black student was talking about her brother who had recently learned to drive. Nothing strange there, but then she told of how her and her mother had talked him through how to act and what to say when he was, inevitably, stopped by the police.
Was this really necessary I thought? Seeing the recent numerous reports of police violence towards black people and the subsequent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement as a counter to the perceived endemic racism in law enforcement has shown that maybe it was.
The treatment of black people in the American justice system is the world that Bryan Stevenson so brilliantly conveys in his book Just Mercy. Stevenson is a lawyer who has worked his entire professional life to defend those who have been unjustly condemned and has written what is at turns an autobiography, a social history, a treatise on the importance of equal justice and a gripping thriller.
“We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.” – Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
It tells a fascinating, infuriating and heart-breaking story of what it means to be poor and black in modern-day USA through the eyes of this lawyer and the lives of those he has fought on behalf of. The story of one prisoner in particular – Walter McMillian, a black man on death row for the murder of a young white woman – drives the narrative, and the entwining of Stevenson’s experiences with the wider story of US history provides a contextual understanding that makes it both engrossing and engaging.
I was absorbed by Stevenson’s story. In his grandmother’s words: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close” and this is what he did so successfully, draw the reader in close to a disturbing reality.
Reading about the physical and emotional relentlessness of his work, from the bureaucracy he had to wade through to fielding innumerable calls asking for his help to the all-night working to get stays of execution, meant that I came away with much admiration for this author as a man and not just a lawyer.Just Mercy was an eye-opening read that highlighted how people and their lives are so much a product of their circumstances, and it left me feeling incredulous at a system that is meant to be an arbiter of justice.
Despite this, humanity and hopefulness are present in the book – after all it is subtitled ‘a story of justice and redemption. Just Mercy is not an easy read but it is an important one. It lived with me long after I had finished reading, which is surely a sign of a great book.
Review by Kathryn Elliott
Kathryn works as a Library & Careers Facilitator in a secondary school, supporting and promoting literacy and reading through library lessons, displays and activities. She is a member of a crime fiction reading group and the Writers’ Centre Norwich Readers’ Circle. Before moving into the world of libraries she worked in autism learning support and cultural and heritage education. She developed and delivered learning resources and activities for a range of arts and heritage organisations, which she continues to do as a museum volunteer.