“In debates about the death penalty, I had started arguing that we would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill, in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity, the way that raping or abusing someone would.” -Bryan Stevenson Just Mercy
Bryan Stevenson is my most prominent living hero. I’ve had Just Mercy for a while but I haven’t had the energy to open it up. I knew it would be a beautiful and moving memoir, but also challenging and heartbreaking to get through. This week I finally worked up the courage to read it, and it delivered on its promise to be nothing short of everything.
I grew up wanting teachers in my life but never really got them. I’ve sat in the classes of authoritarians who thought the only way to teach pupils was to denigrate them when they struggled; break them at their weakest. Human beings so damaged by their own limitations that they seemingly sought to trap vulnerable targets in their insecurities. Curmudgeons who demanded respect not knowing what it meant to offer it in equal measure. Women who would encourage the demoralisation of other women. Men who endorsed gender inequality. I remember on several occasions trying to get my parents to switch me to a home school in high school because I did not want to become a sheep; complacently digesting what was being fed to me- barring all curiosity for what character I might birth with silent acquiescence. I feared I would lose my capacity to form independent thoughts and dismiss acts of impunity because I was told to simply not worry about it.
Unfortunately, my parents rejected the idea of home school, displeased with my inability to confront growing pains more pragmatically. So instead, I think I started to read non-fiction to learn from the teachers I wish I’d had. People who commit themselves to the very purpose for which they were born and have the audacity show up on time. This is where books are my closest companions- lessons from real teachers. The ones who do not give out homework assignments, but force us to acknowledge our inherited duties to someone or something on this earth that we owe our best efforts. The ones who are patient enough to listen to the voices of children when they cry out, and speak to them from a place of true consideration. Bryan Stevenson is my ultimate teacher.
In Just Mercy he talks passionately about his remarkable work, while driving a narrative of lamentation for what indiscretions the American judicial system ought to remedy. Be it the release of the wrongfully convicted, a reduced sentence for a lifer or the abolition of inhumane legislation (including capital punishment)- his words are not choked by despondency but rather inspired by resilience. It is a tragedy that none of my living heroes are men or women I know, but such a relief that the written word has allowed me to find educators in script.
We may not be able to touch the hands of those that inspire us, but what a gift it is to know of their work, and thus know their hearts.
I don’t believe in a lot of things/people anymore.
But I believe in Bryan Stevenson.
On many days, that’s really all I need.
People of color in particular please read Just Mercy.