A Year of Reading: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
I’m behind on blogging about my reading challenge.
Ok, let’s be honest, I’m behind on blogging in general. Transitions, yo. I’m taking it easy.
Something I’ve enjoyed so far this year has been picking a title each month from the book A Year of Reading, a nifty little guide that provides five options every month based on a theme. The books included are diverse in author and in genre, so I’m challenging myself to read more out of the box. Now, I’m a fairly eclectic reader anyway, but this challenge helps me to read more books by authors of color, and in different formats than I would normally pick up. January’s The Principles of Uncertainty for example, is mostly artwork, such as paintings and photography, with written musings along the way.
Playing catch up, this month’s review features the theme from March: Justice.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.
I’m a big nonfiction reading fan. I love memoirs and biographies, so I was gripped right away by Stevenson’s writing. Threaded throughout the book is Stevenson’s involvement with the Walter McMillian case, meetings they had, court appearances and processes, interviews with family and witnesses, and police involvement. Intertwined amongst this case are stories of many cases Stevenson worked on that portray how he got his start into the battle of death row cases, and how his work would shape his path from then on. The writing kept my attention because you learn more about Stevenson and his work in chunks of casework, but there’s also this ongoing saga of what’s happening with Walter.
Stevenson began his own nonprofit practice that focuses on helping minorities and underage victims of the criminal justice system, specifically those placed on death row. His book is an intimate look at capital punishment law and how many people, guilty or not, end up on death row. He uncovers all kinds of issues within the system, such as tampering with evidence, tampering with jury selection, and larger social issues of racism and economic status.
I was first made aware of racism in the justice system after attending a local talk led by my city’s League of Women Voters chapter. In the talk, we looked at racial disparities in our court system in my own city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, as well as nationally and internationally. Once you see those numbers, it’s kind of hard to ‘unsee’ them. You’ve got to know there’s a problem.
I witnessed it myself during my months working as a public health educator and teaching at the juvenile detention center. For the percentage of minority populations in my city, there’s a disproportionate amount of teens of color (mainly black and biracial teens) being sent to juvie.
As a country, we are largely punishing people of color in more violent manners than we are their white counterparts. Since that eye opening talk several years ago, I’ve been active in starting up a local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), where white folks put in the time and work and energy of educating themselves on the issues, partnering and learning from people of color led organizations, and working to create change.
It’s upsetting to me that so many people are still (color) blind to the issue, or simply unwilling to discuss it. Today, for example, a (white) friend of mine is in court contesting a fine she and her daughter each received for writing messages of inclusivity and peace in SIDEWALK CHALK outside a public space. The city fined her almost $1000 between the original fine and restitution saying they spent seven hours washing off SIDEWALK CHALK that took her less than an hour to write. ???
You can read about her case here, but it’s clear from the way the city alderman addressed the issue, that the problem wasn’t really with the chalk (though that is what they fined her for, however there are chalk messages all around the city now that have not been washed away). The problem was with her messages.
Messages that were written were, “Black Lives Matter,” “You Are Standing On Ho-Chunk Land,” “I Stand For Love,” “Peace Be Unto You: As-Salaam-Alaikum,” “You Are Welcome Here,” “The Time For Racial Justice is Now” and “There is Enough For Everyone.”
I stand with my friend and her messages of inclusivity and diversity as strength. I highly encourage everyone to read more about systemic racism, as we all play a role in it when we don’t actively unlearn and fight against it.
Just Mercy is a phenomenal book that tackles racism in the judicial system. And the most powerful part of the whole read are Stevenson’s thoughts on mercy. Given the many examples of hate we can see every day on the news, or right in our own hometowns, it’s more important than ever to question our own biases. I hope you’ll grab a copy of Stevenson’s work as I found it incredibly thought provoking, emotional, and timely.
A few of my favorite quotes:
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
“I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
Have you read Just Mercy yet? Or perhaps another title about racial justice?
What are your thoughts?
The 2014 To Be Read Challenge
It’s that time of year again! The 5th Annual To Be Read Pile Challenge hosted by Adam @ Roof Beam Reader is happening!
The Goal: To finally read 12 books from your “to be read” pile (within 12 months).
Specifics: Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2013 or later (any book published in the year 2012 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile – I WILL be checking publication dates). Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.
Prize: Everyone who successfully completes their 12 books in 12 months will be entered to win a $50 gift card to Amazon.com or The Book Depository!
See Adam’s original post for full details and get started!
Hurry up! Your list must be posted by January 15th!
I must admit, 2013 was a TOTAL FLOP. You know how many books on my list I read? Three. Just three. I kind of got sidetracked reading humor books for research last year. This year, I’ve built some into my list. Here goes!!
My 2014 To Be Read Pile
- How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
- One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
- Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster
- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- Crash Into You by Roni Loren
- She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
- When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
- Bonk by Mary Roach
- The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
1. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
2. The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
What titles are on your TBR list?
Do You Have a Favorite Book?
Another magical book club meeting. Two months ago, I joined up with a coworker of mine and attended her book club. At the end of that meeting, hoping to insight me to return, they asked me what my favorite book was, and I said The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
First, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
Who, you might ask, is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) and why is she the subject of a book? On the surface, this short-lived African American Virginian seems an unlikely candidate for immortality. The most remarkable thing about her, some might argue, is that she had ten children during her thirty-one years on earth. Actually, we all owe Ms. Lacks a great debt and some of us owe her our lives. As Rebecca Skloot tells us in this riveting human story, Henrietta was the involuntary donor of cells from her cancerous tumors that have been cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. These so-called HeLa cells have not only generated billions of dollars for the medical industry; they have helped uncover secrets of cancers, viruses, fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.
Now why on earth would a book about cells and science and medical advancements appeal to a girl who only walked through the science building on campus during winter when it was the shortest route to the English building? It’s because the author, Rebecca Skloot, spent a decade researching the subject and uncovering the family that belonged to Henrietta Lacks.
Sadly, we don’t know a lot about Henrietta’s life when she was alive. She died in her early 30’s and only one photo exists.
What makes Henrietta’s life so incredible is that she’s been living for the last 50+ years and will continue to live on! She lives on through her cells. Now known to have a rare enzyme that causes her cells to rebuild themselves, her cells are the ONLY cells to have survived and replenished themselves in history. Think of a medical advancement in the last 50 years. Polio vaccine? Cells in space? Chemotherapy? They all came as a result of tests done on Henrietta Lack’s cells. HeLa cells, as they are called after her, were taken involuntarily from a tumor in her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s.
Now, 50+ years later, HeLa cells are sold in vials for $500 to $10,000! And up until Rebecca Skloot’s book came around, no one even knew who Henrietta Lacks was.
My book club is made up of women who are all 30 years my senior, and I am in complete awe of their intelligence and eloquence every time I meet them. To read this book with a group that is made up of teachers, professors, psychiatrists, and nurses was about as rich a discussion as you can get on this book!
The story is about more than science, though ultimately that is what started the story in the first place. A doctor taking samples and testing them. Fifty years ago, there wasn’t even a term like “informed consent.” And as you read the book, it becomes difficult to find fault with one party. Who is the real exploiter, is it the doctor who took the sample, the doctor who gave the sample away freely to other research studies and labs, or the journalist who first printed her name?
And what about the family? Their mother’s cells have saved thousands, millions?, of lives, and are being sold on the internet, yet the family can’t afford medical insurance.
As I said before, this book is not ONLY about science. It is a story about a family. A family deeply ignorant of education. A family that was abused in multiple ways, and received little closure or compensation. And the author spent a lot of time earning the trust of this family, teaching them, sharing first experiences with them, and helping them to heal. She didn’t fix things. In many ways, it’s a complicated issue that can’t be solved with a check or even with this book publication. No, she didn’t fix things. But she did tell their story, the story of their mother, Henrietta Lacks, how she changed the world and saved lives, and how through knowing their mother, their own lives could begin to grow again.
The author, Rebecca Skloot, shares her memory of taking Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and her son, Zakariyya, to a lab to see HeLa cells for the first time.
This is my favorite book. What’s yours?